HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 70

Houston founder calls for business leaders to 'make room for diverse voices'

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss COVID-19's affect on her business and fostering diversity at startups. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Last year was one of quick pivots and tech solutions for Ashley Small and her company's clients. Small — the CEO and founder of Medley Inc., a Houston-based branding and public relations firm — works with both for-profit and nonprofit entities to tell their stories, and of course 2020 had its challenges in doing so. But they weren't anything Small, her team, and technology couldn't overcome.

Small founded Medley over 12 years ago, and for the past three of those years, her team has been completely virtual. She shares on the Houston Innovators podcast that this give her team a headstart on being able to find and quickly adopt quick tech solutions — but last year's shutdown also meant navigating this for all her clients.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out what the best technology was for each client," Small says. "Where the learning curve has been is understanding all the available resources out there and understanding how offline experiences can help audiences connect online."

Founded in Houston, Medley has grown to the Los Angeles and Chicago markets over the years — and Small says that was intentional. An Oklahoma native, Small fell in love with Houston's diversity when she attended Texas Southern University, and sought out other diverse markets to expand her business. And, as a Black female founder, she fosters an inclusive community at her company — and wants to remind her fellow business owners how imperative it is to running an innovative company.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says, adding that when you bring different people to the table, you get new ways of thinking. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small knows early-stage companies aren't always able to hire a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds right from the start, but there are other ways to surround yourself with diverse ideas.

"Make room for diverse voices -- and you may have to be a bit creative," Small says.

Medley's team also realizes that not every startup can afford to bring on an in-house or third-party PR team, but the company has a few options for startups, such as a three-month retainer to start as well as a series of workshops available online for as low as $19.

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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