The Carey–New Orleans connection began in mid-2010 with a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and former Peace Corps worker named Veneeth Iyengar, at that time a student in the Carey Business School’s Master of Science in Finance program. (He graduated in May.) Iyengar heard that the school sought for its part-time students something akin to the full-time Global MBA’s Innovation for Humanity overseas business project. His familiarity with his home region—particularly with the environmental and economic blows it has suffered—led him to urge Carey Business School administrators and faculty to arrange a student project with members of the Vietnamese enclave in New Orleans East, who were considering various business initiatives. “It made strategic sense for Carey to be involved,” Iyengar says, “given its mission of business that tries to do good for society.”
A fishing community that also has strong roots in agriculture, New Orleans East finally set its sights on a business that will combine both pursuits under one roof: an aquaculture-hydroponics facility. Here’s how it will work: Food fish (hardy, low-maintenance tilapia) will be raised in 50-gallon tanks, and the water and waste from those tanks will flow into adjacent containers where vegetables will be cultivated on 4-by-6-foot “grow rafts.” The plants—growing entirely in water—will take their nutrition from the fish waste, and then the plant water will be sent back to the fish tanks with the waste filtered out.
Each single operation, comprising four fish tanks and three vegetable grow rafts, will be contained within a backyard greenhouse. The project is designed to start slowly, with one pilot facility opening this year. Organizers hope to have 20 of the backyard operations running by 2014, resulting in one new job for every two facilities that open. By year five, they hope to generate enough revenue (a projected $128,000) so additional grant money won’t be required for operation. Aside from the expected financial benefits, the operation will give community members greater control of how they earn their living in an area subject to the vagaries of Gulf weather and oil spill damage.
The Carey Business School’s involvement accelerated early in the spring semester, when school officials recruited 12 part-time MBA students for a course in which they would first complete a feasibility study and then a business plan for the New Orleans East concept. Professor Richard G. Milter, who helped oversee the project from the Carey side, says the question for students was, “How do we add commerce and jobs, and do it in a way that’s sustainable and specific to the culture of this community?”
In March, five of the students went on a two-day fact-finding trip to New Orleans to begin the feasibility study. After presenting their study to the community members via videoconference in May, the other seven students commenced the business plan. The details from the MBA candidates’ number crunching later proved crucial to strengthening the community’s applications for operational grants and demonstrated to the residents how to make the business a going concern. The students’ in-person presentation of the plan to the community in early July especially impressed the residents because it was made in Vietnamese by Carey student My Yen Le.
Kevin Moss, on track to graduate in 2013, calls the experience “the best thing I’ve done in my time at Carey. I didn’t even know how to write a business plan when we started, but we all learned by doing it in seven weeks. It was a two-hour [per week] course, but I was putting in at least 30 hours every week.”
Daniel Nguyen directs the project for the community group behind the plan. One of his tasks has been raising $700,000 in funds from federal and private sources for the project, whose main customers will likely be local restaurants and food wholesalers. “It was great working with the Carey students,” Nguyen says. “We could see they were all putting more than 100 percent into the project.”