Lafayette Poised for Vibrant Tech Industry

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Company founder Chris Meaux, center, is stepping down as the company’s CEO. (Waitr)

LAFAYETTE (Opportunity Machine Blog)- Waitr executives Chris Meaux, Sonny Mayugba, and Jeff Bolante have a good feel for what Lafayette needs to take Acadiana’s tech sector to higher levels. 

All three have spent their working lives in the tech world — which involves specialized workers who command a generous salary and can find employment just about anywhere. Though the range of tech workers’ wants and needs is wide, there are constants that apply to a large majority, such as: 

  • Vibrant urban living, such as downtown, where there are hip places to live, eat, and attend community festivals and other events
  • Extreme sports like snow skiing, surfing, bicycle motocross and rock climbing, and water-borne activities like canoeing, kayaking and rafting along raging rivers
  • Indigenous cuisine, like the kind served up in Acadiana restaurants and homes
  • And restaurants whose food appeals to international palettes with dishes featuring sushi and pho, Andalusian lamb and Catalan spinach, beef kabob, and chicken tikka masala

While Lafayette doesn’t offer all the outdoor attractions — no mountains, very little snow, and very hot summers — there are things it does have. Instead of rapid rivers rushing around mountain rocks, there is the tranquil Bayou Teche and Vermilion River, where an outing in a canoe is hard to pass up. 

Meaux, Waitr founder and CEO, said that Lafayette — indeed, South Louisiana — has much of what the sought-after tech specialists are looking for in a community to call home. 

To draw in more specialists who command high-wage paychecks, Lafayette in the next year will roll out its Gold Collar initiative. Destin Ortego, director of Lafayette’s business incubator, the Opportunity Machine, is spearheading the initiative. 

Ortego said the program will target specialists in energy, technology, and medicine. 

“Our first goals for the Gold Collar initiative is to establish an understanding of what people in these fields love about Lafayette — what brought them here, what keeps them here — and create marketing campaigns that help to recruit individuals with those skill sets,” Ortego said. 

The goal is to show off a community that appeals enough to the high-demand workers that they move to Lafayette — or elsewhere in south Louisiana — without first securing a job. They’ll move here knowing they’ll have no problem finding a job. 

The goal is to have a community populated with high-wage, high-skill workers, which will entice the best startups in the country — medical, high tech and energy — whose founders are chasing the best talent. 

“The two main things startups need to be successful are a talented and motivated team and seed funding,” Ortego said. “The more talent and funding we have readily available, the easier it will be to bring in startups that have the potential to be the next Waitr for Lafayette.” 

Meaux said drawing in talent is a top priority for Waitr, which within the next year will need 100 specialized software engineers — full stack developers, for example, who can code both the front and back ends of software. 

And among those engineers, Meaux said, the company really needs experienced, senior engineers who can teach the recently graduated the tricks of the trade that were not taught in college. 

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, known internationally for its computer programming degrees, graduates excellent job candidates, Meaux said. But the school cannot give a graduate 15 years of experience. 

“We need senior people who can train these junior people,” he said. 

Waitr originally set up shop in Lake Charles in 2015. Then it became a tenant at Lafayette’s Opportunity Machine before moving operations into the bottom floor of The Advertiser building on Bertrand Drive. Now, Waitr has employees across Louisiana — with its operations center remaining in Lafayette — and it provides restaurant deliveries for customers in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama. 
 

Earlier in 2018, Waitr was acquired by a Houston billionaire who owns a number of high-end restaurant chains. Waitr is expected to become a public company later this year.

Though Meaux grew up near Lafayette — in Estherwood, five miles east of Crowley — other Waitr executives did not. Mayugba and Bolante had never heard of Lake Charles or Lafayette. Both hail from the San Francisco Bay area, where Silicon Valley is located. Mayugba and Bolante said they were content to stay there until Meaux hired them. (Meaux bought Mayugba’s app-based company, Requested, in 2016.) 

Bolante commutes from Lafayette to his home in San Francisco, and Mayugba bought a home in River Ranch and kept his residence in Sacramento. 

Both men have become enamored with a lot of what Lafayette offers — the cuisine, the nightlife, a downtown that’s offers places like the Wurst Biergarten, and the inherent niceness of the people. 

Mayugba said Lafayette reminds him of his hometown of Sacramento a few years back. It’s an agricultural city, and it’s also the capital of California. He said the first efforts to attract a tech industry failed because Sacramento was trying to be something it was not — San Francisco. 

“We’re Sacramento. We are what we are. We are agricultural, we’re in the San Jacquin Valley, where 78 percent of the nation’s produce is grown. So, we’re old school,” Mayugba said. 

City leaders embraced that, and started building around that. Mayugba said it wasn’t long before Sacramento had an identity that young techies, who were tired of paying too much to live near Silicon Valley, could build on. So, they started moving their furniture and their skill sets to Sacramento, and their friends followed. 

The technology industry noticed — one billionaire bought up a sizable part of downtown — and today Sacramento has a thriving technological economy. 

Meaux, Mayugba and Bolente see that kind of potential in Lafayette. Geographically the city links southeast and southwest Louisiana, where technology also is taking root. While Lafayette has an emerging tech ecosystem, they said the assets must be nurtured and added to for a continued tech boom. Among their suggestions in drawing specialized talent: 

  • Continue to refurbish downtown Lafayette, especially along the Jefferson Street corridor 
  • Emphasize the “meet-ups” and other communal activities that millennials love to take part in 
  • Highlight the variety of local artists, music, and entertainment styles  
  • Highlight the region’s exotic scenery and wildlife, as found in Acadiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, and non-traditional ways to experience it 

To bolster his point that successful tech companies can spring from many places and thrive, including Lafayette and south-central Louisiana, Meaux references Steve Case. Case built one of the first Internet super-successes – America Online – into an iconic brand with the iconic female voice telling users “You’ve got mail.”

Based in Washington D.C., Case and his venture capital firm, Revolution LLC, crisscross the country looking for good ideas with good business models. Case is not concentrating on New York to the east or Silicon Valley in the west. He’s looking inward, at America’s heartland.

“His whole point is you don’t have to be on the coasts to be successful,” Meaux said.

To learn more about the Opportunity Machine click here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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