University of New Orleans alumna Andrea Chen left the classroom more than a decade ago, but she’s still teaching via Propeller, the nonprofit company she co-founded and leads as its chief executive officer.
Chen, who earned a master’s degree in education, is helping to educate entrepreneurs and giving startups a boost, particularly minority-owned businesses in the metro New Orleans area.
“Our mission is to support and grow entrepreneurs to tackle social and environmental disparities,” Chen said. “We’re all about building an inclusive economy. It’s something that we believe is essential to the long-term sustainability of New Orleans as a city.”
Founded in 2009, Propeller focuses on five key areas: food, water, health, education and community economic development. Those areas were identified as having significant inequities and also having entrepreneurial growth opportunities, Chen said.
“We believe that for us, as a city, to have a truly inclusive economy Black and brown entrepreneurs—and Black native New Orleanians entrepreneurs in particular—really need the opportunities,” Chen said. “We’ve seen that there are a lot of barriers for Black and brown entrepreneurs to get those opportunities, so we’re very committed to issues like procurement, how contracts and business opportunities are awarded and making sure it’s done in a very equitable manner and the same with access to capital.”
Propeller’s support, which is provided at no-cost, comes in a variety of forms, such as providing access to seed money, helping brand and distribute products, and offering office space for entrepreneurs to operate, Chen said.
Chen’s company helped Chef Diva Foods founder Ericka Lassair expand from her food truck to selling her vegan étouffée sauce in grocery stores.
“She came through our accelerator (program) with an idea and we basically helped her conceptualize and get it on the shelves,” Chen said. “You can buy her product now, but when she started in the accelerator, it was just an idea.”
Another collaborative venture Propeller helped support to fruition was the opening of Split Second Fitness, an inclusive fitness center in New Orleans. Entrepreneur Mark Raymond Jr. was behind the idea to create a gym for people with physical disabilities.
Raymond, who was paralyzed after a diving accident, created the center to include research-based exercise programs, Chen said.
Having access to capital to grow and scale their business can be a major barrier starting out, Chen said.
“So that’s a big focus for us,” she said. “We run our own fund.”
The company’s $1 million social venture fund makes loans to social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs from less represented racial and ethnic backgrounds who are headquartered in Orleans Parish.
In 2019, Propeller bought a 10,000 square foot building at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Broad Street in New Orleans that serves as the company’s headquarters and provides co-working space for more than 50 organizations and 100 New Orleans small businesses, nonprofits and community members.
The building was damaged during Hurricane Ida, so Propeller has relocated temporarily to The Beach at UNO, the University’s research and technology park.
“We built it so that our entrepreneur community had a place to work out of,” Chen said. “It’s a very active space and we’re eager to get back to it.”
Chen was a high school English teacher prior to founding Propeller, which started out as a volunteer venture with a group of friends after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We wanted to be a contribution to the community and just support the people who were doing great things after the storm to help the city rebuild,” Chen said. “We ran different programming, but all on a volunteer basis. We had pitch competitions; we had mentorship programs for entrepreneurs.”
Chen, who earned a business certificate from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and studied social entrepreneurship while earning her undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford University, decided to quit her teaching job and work full-time at the nonprofit as the workload grew.
“I had also worked at startups myself, so I had a background in that area and was able to combine it all together,” Chen said.
Chen said she enjoys working with her staff and the entrepreneurs.
“It really is a pleasure and an honor to be a part of our entrepreneurs’ journey and being surrounded by that energy is cool,” Chen said. “Our alumni have accomplished incredible things and our team here at Propeller is pretty incredible. They’re the ones that execute on our mission every day and they are very, very smart.”
Chen’s advice for entrepreneurs is to assess the risks and follow their hearts.
“Fear is not a bad thing; you should listen to what it’s telling you,” Chen said. “But don’t let fear stop you from following your heart.”