How a local tech community is jazzing up New Orleans

Michael Stahl
October 11, 2023
“How do we position New Orleans for what’s next?” — Tim Williamson, founder, NieuxCo

Despite being one of the world's most popular cities, New Orleans still feels like it's fallen behind after Hurricane Katrina. Michael Stahl explores how a local movement is looking to put their city on the map for its tech, not just its culture.

There are many adjectives to describe the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, but in the nearly 20 years since Hurricane Katrina, “resilient” is the first one that comes to mind for many. (It’s used so often that, in fact, some folks from the area are tired of hearing it.)

“New Orleans is one of the best cities at building community and connecting to each other. Whether it’s our Mardi Gras, our Jazz Fest, or our French Quarter Fest, this city connects better than any other in the world,” Tim Williamson tells me, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and New Orleans native. “Secondarily, our creativity: There’s no city I would put against us around our creativity. We’re the only city that’s developed our own food, music, and holidays.”

“New Orleans is one of the best cities at building community.”

— Tim Williamson, founder, NieuxCo

All of that is why Tim views his hometown as a potential “hotbed” for technology and innovation. He founded NieuxCo, a venture studio with a mission of leveraging “cutting edge technology” to strengthen communities in New Orleans and around the world. Indeed, global engagement is a major driver of the city's growth, which benefits to the tune of $10 billion a year from tourism in a normal year.

But there’s a well-documented wealth divide in New Orleans. Tourism money, and the rest of the profits in city's economy, does not trickle down smoothly to those who create the culture that attracts visitors to New Orleans in the first place. Tim estimates that as little as 0.01% of tourism revenue works its way into the pockets of those creators.

New Orleans is famous for its culture, particularly its Mardi Gras celebrations that occur in February/March every year. Dan Anderson/EPA, via Shutterstock.

It's a key focus at the Nieux Society, supported by NieuxCo to bring together artists, civic leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs to leverage technology and elevate New Orleans' cultural voices — and channel more tourism money their way, ensuring that New Orleans continues to retain it's place as one of the most desirable cities in the world.

Described as NieuxCo’s “genesis project,” there just over 500 members of the Nieux Society, 90% of whom live in the city. Members can often be found deep in pizza and conversation on St. Charles Avenue, the iconic thoroughfare that plays host to Mardi Gras parades and celebrations. The other 10% are based elsewhere in the world; all pooled money to join, collectively deciding which programmes to fund.

“In the first year we’ve been testing out a lot of different things,” says Tim, to learn “what people view as valuable.” The emphasis so far has been on education. “I love New Orleans more than anything, but New Orleans does not embrace new things quickly,” he says.

“It’s a 300-year-old, beautiful city, but when we were talking about the internet 20 years ago, people thought we were making it up. NieuxCo is about how we position New Orleans for what’s next and how we get out in front, whether it’s AI, blockchain, or anything else.”

A Nieux Society founders' dinner, including Nieux Society founder Tim WIlliamson (second from right) and managing director Lindsey Roussel (centre).

Membership, for example, is managed as a non-fungible token, which lets the community collectively manage its treasury without relying on a financial institution to hold the money. Each of the 504 tokens are represented by unique artworks with references to New Orleans, and included a pre-release song by rapper Big Freedia, who grew up in the city.

However, Tim recalls that when the project launched on May 4th, 2022, at 5.04pm, nine out of ten members didn't have a cryptocurrency wallet. That’s certainly changed today, and a growing number of local creators are learning how to use the tech as well, finally making New Orleans a front-runner, not a laggard.

Learning like that is what the community has become known for. One Nieux Society member is former New Orleans Saints American football player Steve Gleason. Forever a local hero for leading the Saints to victory during their first home game after Hurricane Katrina, Gleason lives with ALS, a motor neurone disease, and has been recognised with a Congressional Gold Medal for spreading awareness about the condition.

One of the Mardi Gras artworks created by Steve Gleason and the Nieux Society using artificial intelligence. Gleason is now using AI to help others with ALS find the joy of creativity through his foundation, Team Gleason.

Tim introduced him to AI art in late 2022, helping Gleason use a natural language generator powered by his eyes to write his own prompts. Gleason started with the words “man,” “tutu”, and “love”to create artwork that ultimately inspired the community's Mardi Gras collection. Delighted with the outcome, Gleason is now using the tech to help more people with ALS find joy creating with artificial intelligence.

“We have folks involved with the local business community, local tech leaders, real estate, banking. We are positioning those companies for the future, but more importantly, our artists and creators need to understand these tools going forward,” Tim says. “If they can make more money, they would then try more things. If they try more things, then you start a whole cycle of innovation.”

“Why not try to lead?”

— Tara Hernandez, Nieux Society member

The Nieux Society's work with creators is stewarded by Lindsey Roussel, a New Orleans art gallerist. “There’s never been a better way to prove who’s actually owned the art and how much it’s sold for,” she explains. If an artist's work sells as an NFT, she says, they can then track its sales over time.

This simplifies everything from royalty payments to marketing — capabilities that previous only galleries had the power to use. Now, artists have those powers too. “It’s a major disruptor, in a positive way,” she says, “and that’s coming from somebody who’s owned a brick-and-mortar art gallery.”

One of the 504 Nieux Society membership tokens. The artworks contain symbols of the city, like the banana plant, plus unique features, like this token's allusion to the city's French origins.

Another motivating factor has been the opportunity to help New Orleans keep pace with bigger cities in the United States, such as San Francisco or Miami — a goal shared by New Orleans’ tourism board, which recently developed a tourism advert using virtual reality. Privately, the entire city is looking ahead to 2025, when the Super Bowl will bring the nation's eyeballs to New Orleans.

Tara Hernandez, a Nieux Society member and real estate developer tells me she hopes that by then, the group will have put New Orleans on a “more level playing field” with the innovation coming from other cities. “We are entrepreneurs and creatives that are all together, and so why not try to lead, and why not say that it starts in New Orleans?” The diversity of the group is an added plus; Tara notes that members range from 9 years old to some members in their 80s. “Where else does that happen?” she smiles.

“For New Orleans to be sustainable,” Tim adds, “we need to be ahead of where things are going. Typically, we’re five to ten years behind the innovations coming out of the major cities. We need to be educated about what’s next and we need to position ourselves to be ready.”

“When we were talking about the internet 20 years ago, people thought we were making it up.”

— Tim Williamson, founder, NieuxCo

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Michael Stahl
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Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His reporting has appeared in a number of publications, including Rolling Stone, Vice, Vulture, CityLab, and Huffington Post.