Alejandra Guzman is a force of inspiring strategic hope in the realm of economic development. She has a wealth of experience in developing and operating inter-sectorial partnership programs linking the public and private sectors to solve community and economic development challenges. In 2016 she began targeting her efforts to the +350,000 members of the Greater New Orleans Community whom she serves daily through the New Orleans Business Alliance as Vice President, Performance Management & Strategy.

Want more? Come hear Alejandra speak on 'Conscious Economic Development' at the 2020 INDIE Confab: New Orleans on January 14! Register now.

What are the main focuses of the New Orleans Business Alliance?

The New Orleans Business Alliance is a public-private partnership and the official economic development organization for the city of New Orleans. The organization was formed in 2010 through a coalition of business and civic leaders to employ the best practices in economic development to position New Orleans as the ideal intersection of commerce and culture. As the official economic development partnership for New Orleans and the hub of its business community, our goal is to continue to show the world that New Orleans is the best American city for business investment, quality of life and inclusive economic opportunity. We focus our work on small business growth, business expansion and retention, talent & workforce development, as well as strategic neighborhood development. Our business model includes pursuing an inclusive economic development strategy, in which we create the perfect intersection of culture and commerce while delivering New Orleanians enhanced economic security.

What work were you doing prior to joining the New Orleans Business Alliance?

Before joining the New Orleans Business Alliance in 2016, I spearheaded projects budgeted at or below $3 million which benefit more than 52,000 people in Latin America.  I also held a position at Capital Natural, a leading management and administration firm for private equity funds and real estate investment projects operating in Mexico. I promoted urban and community development for real estate projects valued in excess of $200 million and lead risk management for assets in excess of $400 million.

This included integrating and implementing urban, community, and political strategies into a core business model for the company. I managed a multi-sector team of staff and consultants to promote a public private partnership focusing on urban regeneration and mobility within the city of Monterrey, Mexico.

What's your day to day like at NOLA Business Alliance?

Given my background and professional interests, the Business Alliance has been a great fit. Currently, I´m working to develop a strategy that includes real estate to promote development in dis-invested communities. One particular program that we are looking to leverage is Opportunity Zones. This is a federal program designed to drive investment to communities that have lacked critical investment. It provides an incentive for investors to re-invest their capital gains into financial vehicles. I see a lot of potential in New Orleans and my objective is to have investors also see this and help them find success in our community. These are some of the projects I’ve been involved with that I’m most proud of because not only do they represent good business practices but they also positively impact the community’s quality of life.

New Orleans, Photo by Dante Nicholas

This type of work also brings a lot of dynamism to my days. For example, I’m constantly connecting with an array of stakeholders to move our strategy forward, attending seminars that we either put together or in which I’m participating as a panelist, and also directly visiting neighborhoods to get a sense of specific needs. Also, because we make sure that all of our programs include data driven solutions, I spend time using our consumer analytic tools to prepare pursuit packages for the businesses that we want to recruit. We make sure that when we recruit a business, we deliver the reliable data that will prove the probability of success in our market

What does ‘economic development’ mean to you?

Economic development promotes well-being, quality of life and the opportunities to develop human potential. Economic Development matters because people matter.

Creating the right conditions for this is a complex task that requires the participation of various sectors within our community, a holistic and deliberate approach that should be centered on people. A holistic approach to economic development recognizes that there are participants that work together in a system and that interact with each other. These include businesses and other sources of employment, workforce, and infrastructure. Each has interdependence to the rest, and they are all a requirement for development. This development will matter only to the extent that it touches and changes all citizens´ lives.

Cities that win in attracting financial and human capital will expand access to economic opportunity. However, it is also important to consider that development requires intentional action across multiple generations to allow change to happen in all neighborhoods.

Everyone should have an opportunity to thrive and to be successful. In order to create opportunity for all, leadership in all sectors of society have to make themselves important questions: How can cities yield more positive outcomes for all urban residents, small business owners, and long-term stakeholders?  What can we do to catalyze and accelerate more growth in the lower income and/or higher crime neighborhoods?  How do we ensure that all members of our communities are involved in these discussions, so we can create move inclusive economic opportunities?

Although New Orleans is no stranger to the spirit of continual re-invention that animates American cities, we have to continue to ask ourselves the hard questions to remain on a trajectory of equity and growth.

You’ll be speaking at the NOLA Confab in a conversation titled Conscious Economic Development. Can you share some insight into how diversity impacts business and financial performance?

There is plenty of evidence that communities that embrace diversity perform much better than those that do not. As the United States becomes a minority majority country, being able to be inclusive will be fundamental for the prosperity of our nation. During 2018 the Brookings Institute released research results stating that economic inclusion may be the key to lasting growth and prosperity. Their publication shows that the relationship of growth and prosperity to inclusion grows larger and stronger over time.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Company has been examining diversity in the workplace for many years. Recently they published their report Diversity Matters, which examined 366 public companies in different industries in four different countries. Their findings show that diversity makes business sense. For example, companies in the top quartile of ethnic and racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national and industry medians. Also, companies in the bottom quartile both for gender and for ethnic/ race are statistically less likely to achieve above average financial results than the average companies in the data set.

Diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time. Although correlation is not causation, this positive correlation does indicate that companies that commit to diversity are more successful. Diverse companies are able to retain top talent, have a better understanding of their consumer base, have the capacity of solving problems more effectively by bringing multiple perspectives to the mix. All of this leads to a virtuous organizational cycle that promotes success.

How do small businesses benefit from this?

Regardless of the size of a business, getting diversity right brings many positive organizational advantages. From an economic development perspective, larger organizations can play a fundamental role in supporting economic inclusion and local growth. Having a policy that commits to hiring local small and diverse businesses shows an organization’s interest and commitment to the wellbeing of the community they operate in. By contracting with these suppliers, committed organizations increase spend and consumption while promoting job creation at a local level.

What’s your favorite hotel in New Orleans?

The Pontchartrain Hotel which is located in the historic Garden District area. The hotel originally opened as a luxury apartment building in 1927. During the 1940s it was converted into a luxury hotel and it became the epicenter of prominent locals and visitors. It is said that Tennessee Williams worked on “A streetcar Named Desire” while staying at this hotel! It has also hosted famous figures such as Franck Sinatra, The Doors, Rita Hayworth and others. The Hotel was recently renovated and did a wonderful job in marrying and old school style with a modern flair. If you visit this hotel you will get a taste of traditional New Orleans while experiencing how our city has socially evolved. To this point, my favorite decorating element at the hotel is Ashley Longshore’s portrait of rapper Lil Wayne. This is the focal point of their lounge area leading into the Jack Rose restaurant.

What is a MUST do when visiting New Orleans?

New Orleans is the example of a unique American City that emerged from a cross-pollination of multiple cultures to create its own. The manifestations of the city’s culture can be appreciated in building and spaces, music and dance, social traditions, and of course our cuisine. There is no shortage of experiences in this city and there is a long list of MUSTS. If I have to narrow it down, I would definitely recommend exploring the culinary scene. Some of my favorite restaurants include Justine, Peche, Jack Rose, Commanders Palace, El Pavo Real, Compere Lapin and 1000 Figs. Each of these restaurants can offer a distinct and unique experience.  

StudioBE, Photo by Dante Nicholas

If you want an unexpected experience, visit BMike’s Studio BE. Brandan “BMike” Odums is a New Orleans-based visual artist who, through exhibitions, public programs, and public art works, is engaged in a transnational dialogue about the intersection of art and resistance. The artist has created this massive creative space where he expresses his truth about the city’s history, race, and equity. This space includes over a dozen of original murals, several room size installations and reconstructed murals from one of his other projects. There are a number of BMike’s murals sprinkled throughout New Orleans.

Another recent addition to our street art portfolio is a portrait of Louis Armstrong commissioned by developers ERG Enterprises and Kupperman Companies and that can be found in the corner of Gravier and O´Keefe.  The fascinating mural was produced by world renown Brazilian painter Carlos Eduardo Fernandes Leo, also known as Eduardo Kobra and was finished on the week of Armstrong’s birthday. While on the topic of Jazz icons, you can’t leave New Orleans without going to Frenchmen Street to check out some live music. You can opt to step into a music venue or just walk down the road to enjoy street musicians.

Favorite neighborhood and why?

All New Orleans’ neighborhoods offer a distinct sense of history, style, and different entertainment options. The possibilities of having unique experiences and adventures, even as a permanent resident, are really endless. I do have to select Lakeview as my favorite as I there is where I have established my home. This neighborhood was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaks. Nevertheless, Lakeview has bounced back in a big way.