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

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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