Green Jobs Program Takes Top Honors at PitchNOLA


Joel Tilton, left, and Hamilton Simons-Jones, third from left, were the big winners at PitchNOLA, an elevator pitch competition for social entrepreneurship ventures.

Disposing of used cooking oil is a cost of doing business for most restaurants, but one local group is turning that unpleasant task into green— green fuel, green jobs and green cash.

The Gulfsouth Youth Biodiesel Project, which trains inner-city youths to convert used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel, took home first place and a cash prize of $5,000 at PitchNOLA, an elevator pitch competition for local social entrepreneurship ventures. The 2010 competition took place on Nov. 17 in the Woldenberg Art Center’s Freeman Auditorium on Tulane’s uptown campus.

The competition—a joint presentation of Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans (SENO), Tulane University’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives, the Freeman School, the Tulane Entrepreneurs Association and the Young Leadership Council—gave 10 social entrepreneurs three minutes each to pitch their ventures before a panel of judges and a live audience of more than 150 people. The judges evaluated the ventures, which ranged from a fleet of eco-friendly taxi cabs to swimming lessons for urban kids, and gave the entrepreneurs feedback about their ideas and presentations.

The Gulfsouth Youth Biodiesel Project collects used cooking oil from restaurants, which earn a tax deduction for their donations, and sells the clean-burning biodiesel fuel it makes to fleets and distributors, but the project’s true focus is its social mission. The group provides technical training and job skills to out-of-work young people between the ages of 14 and 25, many of them high school dropouts. In addition to gaining valuable skills for the emerging green economy, all graduates of the program earn a certificate from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which qualifies them for a variety of well-paying jobs.

“They’re reaching an audience that can really use the help, they have a sustainable plan and they’re building on things that are already in the market,” said John Elstrott, executive director of Freeman’s Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship and one of the judges. “It was a nice program, and we wanted to give them help.”

Hamilton Simons-Jones, chief development officer at Operation Reach Inc., which runs the project, said the cash prize will help the group scale up its training efforts, but he added that one of the biggest benefits of the competition was the chance to network with other social entrepreneurs.

“There were a couple of people who were finalists that I made sure to get cards from,” said Simons-Jones. “We depend on community support and understanding of our work, so to have such a diverse audience like this is awesome.”

Ann Davis of Swim 4 Success, which offers free swimming lessons to local kids, gets feedback from the judges after delivering her pitch.

In addition to the Gulfsouth Youth Biodiesel Project, New Orleans Panthers FC, which operates a soccer club for Central City youths funded in part by a community garden that supplies produce to local restaurants, won a prize of $500 for being voted as favorite pitch by audience members.

“We don’t plan on soliciting grants all that much, but if something comes up again, this experience will definitely be a benefit,” said Joel Tilton of New Orleans Panthers FC. “I made some connections and met some interesting people. It’s been a good experience.”

PitchNOLA received nearly 100 entries this year, twice the number it received in 2009, a testament to the growth of interest in social entrepreneurship in New Orleans. Funding for the program was provided by Penny Hart, a Tulane parent and member of the Tulane Parents Council.

“I’m an entrepreneur myself and I’ve lived the American dream, so I love the concept of supporting entrepreneurship,” Hart said. “At the same time, I have three children and I am very concerned about the environment and the future of our earth, so the combination of the two is a really wonderful thing to support.”

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