pitch perfect

Houston church launches social entrepreneurship pitch competition with $250,000 on the line

ArtPark Moving Studios — a local nonprofit that provides art programming for at-risk children — took home a big prize at last year's Project Flourish. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church

First Presbyterian Church of Houston launched the second round of Project Flourish, a social entrepreneurship contest, on August 18.

The contest is "a creative invitation to the community to help bring fresh ideas to the issues that face a major metropolitan city like Houston," reads a news release. The pitch competition is open to for-profit or nonprofit ideas. What's on the line? Up to $250,000 in seed money, to be divided among an undetermined number of winners as the judges see fit.

Although the church has held the competition in the past, it has made some changes to the newest iteration of the program. Past applicants were not required to have a Houston focus, but this year's individuals and teams must live within 50 miles of downtown Houston and their idea must impact Houston. Those who make it to the semi-final round will be invited to join the eight-week accelerator program, in which they will receive consulting and mentoring in preparation for pitching their ideas to the judges.

Austin Hermann, FPC's Director of the Center for Faith, Work, and Innovation, oversees Project Flourish. When InnovationMap asked him why the contest matters for Houston, Hermann says it's about lending a helping hand to Houston entrepreneurs.

"When you look at all the different groups that are trying to start things in Houston, there's a major gap in the ecosystem… Project Flourish is trying to fill that gap," he says. "We want to connect Houston-based and Houston-focused entrepreneurs who are in the earliest stages of idea formation to the resources of a church — social, intellectual, and financial capital — in a way that other institutions don't because they're not interested in small deals. [We offer] impact investing for and towards groups of individuals who can't get that access anywhere else."

According to a release, in Project Flourish's inaugural round, which concluded in March 2018, funding recipients included art studio on wheels nonprofit ArtPark Moving Studios, which won $55,000, and Rescue Houston, which claimed a $45,000 prize and focuses on empowering victims of sex trafficking.

Hermann says he's most excited about the new Houston emphasis this year as well as the opportunity to get new people involved. The program process is largely the same, but allows a new set of entrepreneurs, application screeners, navigators, skills coaches, and judges to take part.

"We're putting a call out for new ventures [that are] seeking the good of Houston."

For more information or to apply, please visit projectflourish.org. The application is live now through November 1.

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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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