Lasting impact

BBVA selects two socially impactful Houston startups for accelerator program

BBVA, which recently went through a rebranding process, selected two Houston startups for its accelerator program. Photo via bbva.com

Two socially minded entrepreneurs in Houston are getting a big boost from a bank-sponsored accelerator program.

The pair of entrepreneurs — leaders of socially focused ventures Eight Million Stories and Small Places LLC — are among 19 social entrepreneurs from across the U.S. chosen to join the BBVA Momentum accelerator program.

This year, BBVA Momentum features five months of online and in-person education lasting from June to November. Headspring Executive Development by Financial Times runs the online component, while the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business manages the in-person training. Each social entrepreneur is paired with a mentor from banking giant BBVA to provide one-on-one support throughout the program.

At the end of the program, BBVA awards prizes to ventures that have been identified as being highly sustainable and creating the most social impact. Last year's top venture took home $75,000 in equity funding.

Eight Million Stories

One of the two Houston-based startups that was selected for the program is Eight Million Stories, which was founded by Marvin Pierre. The organization helps formerly incarcerated youth (16 to 18 years old) through a free, voluntary four-month program designed to help them:

  • Build strong relationships in their communities.
  • Gain access to an array of social services.
  • Develop life and job skills.
  • Continue their education.
  • Secure meaningful employment.

Pierre says his program "seeks to upend the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting previously incarcerated young people in successfully transitioning back into their communities, and by curbing unnecessary referrals from schools to the juvenile justice system."

Pierre hopes to eventually roll out Eight Million Stories across the country.

"We believe that there are a lot of commonalities in terms of why kids end up in the juvenile justice system, whether it's broken homes or lack of support in the school system or other factors," Pierre says. "If you interview every kid in the system, you'll find there's a common thread. That's what we're trying to undo. If we attack those commonalities, then we can aggressively work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline."

Small Places

Finca Tres Robles/Instagram

Today, the main focus of Small Places, co-founded by Daniel Garcia-Prats, is Finca Tres Robles (Spanish for Three Oaks Farm), Houston's only private farm inside the 610 Loop. The farm grows fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are sold to consumers directly by the farm and at local farmers markets.

"Agriculture is fundamentally about people, not plants," Finca Tres Robles says on its website. "While food is central to the work we do, the farm has the capabilities to impact other important areas of health. As an organization, our focus is on developing farms and agricultural spaces that can provide critical health-related services to communities that are need of basic infrastructure to support health."

Among the farm's projects is the Pre-K Produce Program. Finca Tres Robles estimates that thanks to the program, anywhere from $250,000 to $1.25 million in healthcare costs will be saved over the lifetime of the preschoolers.

Small Places also helps run the community farm at the Harris Health System's Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and operates Houston's 3 Oaks Farms, which focuses on production of the moringa tree, the source of a nutrient-packed superfood.

In a nutshell, Small Places offers:

  • Farm development, management, and consulting services.
  • Education.
  • Community outreach.
  • Job training.

Small Places says it concentrates on "placemaking and community health, helping community- and health-related nonprofits, municipalities that have food security/access issues and progressive commercial developers that want to establish a culture of health in their neighborhoods."

Yvette Casares Willis leads partnerships for MassChallenge Texas. Courtesy of MassChallenge

For Yvette Casares Willis, Houston already has what it takes to be a strong innovation ecosystem. Now, it's about working together to get the city where it needs to be, and MassChallenge hopes to do that with its new chapter in Houston.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston."

MassChallenge Texas announced its new Houston program in January. Applications for the inaugural cohort will be officially open as of tonight's launch party for the program. The organization, which has locations around the world, looks for early stage startups that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year. The cohort will support 25 startups with free GreenStreet office space, mentorship, investment opportunities, and more, all the while taking no equity in the companies.

Willis has been the organization's boots on the ground in Houston, since MassChallenge Texas is run out of Austin. She spoke with InnovationMap about what MassChallenge's Houston program means to her and the city.

InnovationMap: Why did the city need something like this?

Yvette Casares Willis: We're a little unique to what Houston already has. Houston has a lot of great organizations, but MassChallenge is unique in the fact that we're industry agnostic, we're a nonprofit, and we offer a different business model to be added into the local ecosystem.

IM: Having worked in Houston, what do you feel you bring to the table for MassChallenge?

YCW: My role covers the entire state, but I have been boots on the ground for MassChallenge in Houston and it's been exciting to bring this to where I'm from. I have over 20 years in the Houston market in the corporate environment — my background is in professional sports and entertainment.

IM: As the director of partnerships for MassChallenge, what have you been able to accomplish?

YCW: In the last 10 months, I've been able to meet with several community and corporate partners to talk about MassChallenge. I've seen a lot of excitement. We're working on collaborating, so that when we do have our cohort, we can provide them with the best opportunities to partner with the community and corporations."

IM: What are you most excited about for Houston's MassChallenge program?

YCW: I feel like Houston has all of the best ingredients to be an amazing ecosystem. MassChallenge is going to play a big part of bridging all of the different organizations together. I see that everything is here, but it needs to come together, and I think MassChallenge is really good at doing that wherever they are.

IM: What's next for MassChallenge?

YCW: In my role, when I talk to other organizations, I see a lot of interest between collaborations between Houston and other cities in Texas, but I also see a lot of excitement globally. Houston's a global city and a lot of people are excited about the network MassChallenge has around the world.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.