a new option

New Houston career training program is helping young professionals and businesses amid pandemic

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Last March, school districts abruptly closed as the threat of the coronavirus grew. In-person classes were cancelled, graduation ceremonies were held virtually, and the future career plans of new graduates were suspended in uncertainty. Through the incertitude, a Houston-based company formed to offer a path forward for young professionals impacted by a newly changed world.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Allie Danziger sat down with her husband and tried to imagine what she would tell her children to do if they were graduating college. The University of Texas graduate relished her college experience before founding Integrate, an award-winning marketing firm in Houston.

"I wouldn't want them to go to virtual college and not have the same type of experience we were all fortunate to have," she explains.

Simultaneously, Danziger's email began to overflow with young people looking for advice on how to move forward or questioning a gap year. "I've always loved coaching and mentoring young professionals right out of college," she says.

In her 11 years at Integrate, she had mentored more than 100 interns and first-year employees. After researching gap year programs, Danziger launched a new career training program, Ampersand.

Danziger and her co-founder Scott Greenberg created Ampersand with a mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities by providing mentorship and three one-month internships to young professionals. (Disclaimer: InnovationMap is a part of the Spring 2021 Ampersand program.) The curriculum includes personality assessments, career mapping, one-on-one training, and basic career skills to know as an entry-level employee.

The flexible program includes five hours of curriculum-focused learning and 15 hours of interning, allowing participants with outside engagements and college classes to also participate.

"When I speak to universities all over the country, I always tell them that while I valued my college undergraduate experience, I got so much more out of my internships," she says.

The beta launched in August with a group of ten professionals and ten businesses. Each month, the participants rotate to a position at a different business, allowing them to be exposed to new industries and departments. The program is a flexible 20-hour commitment — five hours of curriculum-based learning and 15 hours of interning — done remotely. While Danziger created the program to serve as a way to be productive during a "gap year" or "gap semester," Ampersand can be balanced with outside activities or college classes.

During Brené Brown's 2020 commencement speech for the University of Texas graduation, she predicted that interviewers would soon tell them, "I see you're a 2020 graduate. That was tough. How did you handle it?"

The quote struck Danziger and "was probably the overall inspiration for this business," she reflects. She feels Ampersand is "a way to put that anxiety into a productive place and actually use the downtime, or use the time that you're considering your options, really mindfully."

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains.

Textbooks and classroom learning are important, but to Danziger, "real-world experience is invaluable." In her research and through first-hand experience, she notes there are "big issues with the higher education industry as a whole not really preparing their students for careers."

At Integrate, Danziger noticed newly-hired graduates would sometimes struggle with "basic things to know for day one," like how to ask for time-off or schedule a calendar invitation. "It ends up frustrating managers while also frustrating the entry-level employees because they're not able to succeed at the pace that they expected to," she says. "These students are graduating with tons of student debt, great skills focused in the major that they chose, but very few of the soft skills that they need in order to be successful professionally," she continues.

Student loan debt in the United States reached $1.7 trillion last year with more than 44 million borrowers; the crisis has exceeded the nation's credit card debt by more than $900 billion. A 2015 study from the University of South Carolina linked student loan debt to poor psychological functioning and stress.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in 10 students have changed their major more than once—a figure that can be correlated to the increasing student loan crisis.

"People are taking fifth and sixth years because they had to change their major, or they move careers after a year of their first job, which then costs them and the company significant dollars in lost wages," says Danziger.

Danziger feels Ampersand also answers the prominent issue of diversity in the workplace.

"If businesses get a more diverse workforce at that very entry-level space, who are prepared and ready to take on the jobs just like anyone else, these interns will grow through the ranks and have significantly more opportunities in management and in the boardrooms," she says.

Young professionals aren't the only beneficiaries of Ampersand. Businesses, too, have reaped the perks of interns hungry for new experiences and a resume boost. From competitive analyses to marketing plans, interns are contributing tasks companies "didn't have time to make it a priority, especially amid the pandemic," says Danziger.

Through weekly one-on-one virtual sessions, the Ampersand team works with the professionals to go over their to-do lists and act as their project managers.

"We do all the mentorship and coaching, so that the business just has to receive the end product," she explains.

"This definitely beats the option of a career day and sets them up to make more informed career choices," Liz Cordell, co-founder and COO at Mak Studio. Cordell, who participated in the first cohort, assigned interns to social media marketing projects her company didn't have the capacity to work on. Knowing the Gen Z and millennial-aged professionals excel social media, she has enjoyed working with interns who've "become a part of the team," despite a remote work environment.

"The training the interns receive with Ampersand prior to joining your team gives them access to fundamental skills, concepts, and tools used in business today. This levels up your interns to be able to meaningfully contribute to your company from day one," says Cordell. As a business owner, she feels the program provides "a unique opportunity to have an intern with professional support."

One Louisiana State University student used Ampersand to discover his creative strengths and land a job offer from one of his internships. At the beginning of the program, he confided in Danziger that he "wasn't feeling motivated to pursue this career accounting," and didn't find enjoyment in his classes.

The student's Ampersand personality assessment identified his inclination to creativity; he participated in a series of internships that included an architecture firm, furniture company, and a finance startup. "He's able to really see how he can keep his accounting degree and apply it to these other career paths. It's just amazing to see how he's blossomed from this," says Danziger.

While the nation prepares for a shift in power, the incoming president has outlined support for workforce training programs that aligns with Ampersand's mission. President-elect Joe Biden plans to make a $50 billion investment into workforce training programs when he takes office. The proposal announces that money will fund partnerships between community colleges, businesses, unions, state, local, and tribal governments, universities, and high schools to identify in-demand skills in and modernize training programs.

Ampersand kicked off its second cohort with 30 professionals and 30 participating businesses from around the country on Jan. 5, and is currently accepting applications for its summer program. She anticipates the growing startup will begin raising a seed round during the first quarter. While Danziger emanates with excitement about the launch and balances her role as President of Integrate, she has big plans for the future of Ampersand.

Danziger dreams of scaling Ampersand to serve as many young professionals and businesses who are interested in participating.

"With that, I really want to be able to bring this to the low-income community so we can fulfill the mission of democratizing access to internships and professional development to everyone," she says.


Ampersand // Professional Development & Internship Program www.youtube.com

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Building Houston

 
 

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

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