Rob Lalka, Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Propeller, a social innovation incubator in New Orleans.
In a recent conversation with Rob Lalka, I am reminded of Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who is said to have sparked the flame of the 2010 Arab Revolution. In case you need us to jog your memory on recent world history, Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 after his fruit stand was shut down by government officials who claimed he did not possess a business license. The fruit stand, like many other Tunisians, was Bouazizi’s livelihood. Leading up to that moment that is now synonymous with the Arab Revolution, years of economic turmoil and drastically high rates of unemployment fueled the historic uprising. Eventually, the brazen act of this man, along with a few others, ignited it.
Although that history unfolded oceans apart from New Orleans, Rob Lalka, says that same desperation for survival is a startling parallel to the drastically high rate of African-American men who are currently unemployed in New Orleans. The most recent figures put that rate at 44%, according to city officials. Lalka says this is an ongoing crisis that cannot be ignored.
And while he is now years removed from the work that brought him to the Middle East and the Maghreb for the first time, Lalka still harbors that same spirit for wanting to help fuel change. And that is what he hopes to be a part of here in New Orleans.
Before joining Propeller, Lalka supported the first regional U.S. foreign policy initiative towards the Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) which involved both government and private sectors. Part of his work with the U.S. State Department included creating the executive summit on entrepreneurship, which has since evolved into the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Lalka first made his way to New Orleans in 2006 to volunteer with Americorp during post-Katrina relief efforts. Lalka now serves as the Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Propeller, a social entrepreneurship incubator in New Orleans.
We sat down with Lalka to hear about his experience working with entrepreneurs both abroad and at home. Read why he believes New Orleans has a lot of tough issues to tackle, but is also a playground for entrepreneurial possibilities.
What led to your work here in New Orleans?
When I was visiting New Orleans, I met Andrea Chen here at the kickoff for Propeller, and I had always been a fan of her work and what was happening here. When I was at Vil Cap (Village Capital) in 2015, I started talking with Andrea about being a part of this. It’s been amazing.
To see that folks were focusing on sectors and building for each of the sectors was really exciting to me. At Village Capital, we’d done a similar thing, building great businesses that were high growth and impact.
It’s one thing to say you can bring in everybody and they will all solve problems individually, and be a part of an entrepreneurial wave, but if you actually say, let’s get smart about this and connect the healthcare startups to the larger healthcare companies. If you say let’s bring in all of the ed tech reform folks and the charter school folks with the people who are developing new solutions in those areas. When you see people who are getting much more sophisticated in how they’re solving problems and building that expertise, it really does make a lot of sense and it builds industries. And that’s what I’m excited about.
Can you expand further on what excites you about your current work?
We’re now starting to see clustering and people learning from each other and we’re starting to see industries.
We have four sectors, and in all four sectors I think there are real opportunities. The way I think about this is that it’s not going to be overnight. It’s what Steve Case calls that “ten year, overnight success.”
“We need to be able to look far enough ahead, and say how do we build for something that in a decade from now will look different from what we have today? That is really, really important.”
When people hear about social entrepreneurship, they often think of it being soft. Social sounds like it’s somewhat philanthropic, feel good, but for me, it’s not that at all. It’s that you’re trying to solve a certain type of problem, which happens to be one that society as a whole is facing that is actually a very large market to be solved. And it’s an area, that because it affects everybody (society), you need that collective approach to be able to achieve results.
That excited me for the public-private aspect, and that’s how you attract real investment, if you have that large market. If we become the best place to build a water business because we have major coastal erosion and storm management issues, but yet we have incredible expertise, ideally that’s what New Orleans gets to be known for. Not just a great city for tourism and trade, and oil and gas, but for these other sectors: food access, water management, health, and education.
What are the next challenges that New Orleans needs to tackle?
Inequities. I look at the way we’re building our startup scene and I think about the fact that it’s not for everyone. It’s not for the small businesses that have been here for a long time. I think that we have a lot more work to do that right. And when I hear a statistic like there are 56% of black men are unemployed (according to recent reports published after this interview was conducted, the rate has decreased to 44%), to me that’s something that everyone, every church, small and large business, every foundation should care about. As people who are building the next generation of businesses should care about.
And that means we look at our hiring practices, we look at the way we give back, training opportunities, supporting organizations like Operation Spark.
“One of the phrases that has really stuck with me is if you don’t intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude. And when you’re working in entrepreneurship, part of what you’re doing is helping create jobs and you have to make sure you’re focusing energy and efforts to ensure a diversified workforce.”
“The systemic and historic racism that comes from a being a city that was the largest slave port. All of the deep, entrenched, historic, systemic issues that I feel like we gloss over too often. You have to get deep into them. And that’s something that I think we have a long way to go on.”
I’m glad that you spoke to that. Having grown up here, I find that we love to talk about the diversity of New Orleans, but no one likes to talk about the deeply rooted race issues that exist. And while we love New Orleans for all that it is, we can’t ignore that this exists and it is a real problem.
For me, it comes down to the generation. If you’re building the next generation of businesses, that generation has to look different and hire differently and solve problems with a more diverse set of perspectives than previous generations because the problems have obviously not been solved. And in the same way that I think about my kids, I think about the way that I was raised. I grew up in southern Virginia in the Bible belt, and frankly some of the folks I grew up around were very racist, and for me to be brought up in that environment, I feel like I have a stronger social consciousness because of it. I also ask myself how will I teach them about race and teach my kids about the ongoing systemic force that racism is? That’s going to take a lot of thoughtfulness and energy and effort to do right.
So I want to influence my city to be a place where that conversation is happening. I want my friend groups and my work to reflect that. A child is not born racist. There is nothing predetermined that a child will see the world from a racist perspective.I still feel that we have a lot of work to do, and that’s still recent history in many ways.
With that you see inequities in access to capital. That breaks down along racial lines, and nationally too. Far fewer of the percentage of the population that are getting the loans and equity investment are African American. A far greater proportion of white males are getting loans, and especially equity investments. And that includes gender lines too.
“And when we think about who is an entrepreneur? That’s something that we have to redefine and I think New Orleans can play a leading role in that and be a great example to the nation of what that looks like when you do it right.”
I think it can look very different in New Orleans. It can look like someone who is not white, privileged, of means with an IVY league education, and it’s going to take all of us to make that a reality. And I think we have to make sure that we are encouraging women that come in our doors. That’s going to have to be intentional. When we’re looking at investments, we’re going to have to check our own pattern recognition. It is easy to say I’m going to invest in the next Silicon Valley winning company, it looks like Mark Zuckerberg. It’s harder to say I’m going to find a Vietnamese farmer whose doing great work and building a real business that will help a lot of people and he or she is someone worth investing in. I think that’s going to take a lot of cultural shift and thoughtfulness in dialogue in our community. What entrepreneurs do we want to be successful? I want every entrepreneur to be successful.
Lalka working alongside social entrepreneurs at Propeller.
It feels like a huge, overwhelming problem. How can we take action as individuals to tackle these inequities?
“You start with yourself and that’s always the best place to start. You check your own biases, pattern recognition. You study history. You spend time reflecting on your own understandings of the world and that is not a one time thing. That is an every, single day thing.”
And then you engage in conversations with people and you listen, as opposed to expressing your own opinions – talking. That to me then extends you into your neighborhoods, your communities, your friend groups, and that dialogue leads to something. It leads to a new way of approaching and solving problems.
But that sounds really easy when I describe it, “Like oh, you just think differently, you talk to people differently. “ No. You actually have to change behaviors and that to me in a way means, if I’m looking at my portfolio of companies that have come through Propeller, you take those numbers and you match them up against the demographics of the city and you say, where are these numbers? Not where they need to be and how do we increase pipeline to strive to make them more inclusive. And I think that needs to include gender and ethnicity.
Leadership means changing your own way of thinking in ways that are uncomfortable and ways that will ensure you are leaving the society you’re living in a changed place that is better than you found it because it is imperfect and that’s just the reality.
“I think New Orleans is a place with a very rich culture that we need to honor. But you can’t just sit there and enjoy a Saints game and not talk about the violence.”
Can you tell me about your experience working with entrepreneurs in the Middle East and N. Africa, and what you’ve been able to apply here, because those landscapes are very different?
They are very different but the same spirit of wanting to change things for the better is the same. People remember Mohammad Bouazizi. The Middle East needs 100 million new jobs by 2020 in order to sustain its new population. His struggle to get a job is not dissimilar from people in New Orleans who are trying to do what they can do to make ends meet, and have side hustles.
He just wanted to provide for his family and was doing it through creating a business, whether it’s the mom and pop shop, or the person creating a larger business. There’s a spirit there that life can be better and I’m going to make it so.
And I think what we’re privileged to live in this country. As often as the government does get in the way, it’s far better here than it is there. That is something that is a privilege that we shouldn’t take lightly, especially as we think about the people who are being left out. It’s our duty to give them that leg up to give them the opportunities, because that is what makes this country great. We talk about how there should be opportunity for everybody, but in other countries there generally isn’t opportunities for everybody.
That’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling the world. You see how much we have here and how much easier it is to be entrepreneurial. I’m not saying it’s totally easy to get a business license and do your taxes, but it’s a lot easier than having government officials bribing you.
That’s something my dad, a native of the Middle East, has always drilled down on me – there are no excuses here, and opportunities are endless. He is constantly reminding me to be grateful for that.
Yes, and what that gratitude means to me is being able to see where we’re not living up to that equal opportunity for everybody, and getting out of our comfort zone to make that possible for everybody. We’re very good at that in disasters. You see it happening right now in flood relief, it’s because we’re in the middle of a crisis.
But if you have an ongoing crisis, like 56% of black males unemployed, or the number of murders in this city, people don’t respond with that same outpouring, but to me that’s how you actually cause the systems to change–seeing these challenges as an everyday crisis as a collective. If you can change it, it will be a ten-year overnight miracle. Then people will say, wow, how did New Orleans build these great new sectors in their economy and create jobs for everybody and reduce the violence? Because people were working. All of these things fit together. If you can do it in a way that is not about yourself, but about the community and others, and that’s what we’re positioned to do.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.