Bragging rights

Houston deemed one of the top 'Cities of the Future' in North America

"The Houston of today looks like the United States of tomorrow," says Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Watch out, world. Here comes Houston.

Houston ranks fifth on a new 2019-20 list of the 10 North American Cities of the Future produced by the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times. New York grabbed the No. 1 spot, followed by San Francisco, Toronto, and Montreal. Following Houston were Chicago; Boston; Los Angeles; Palo Alto, California; and Seattle.

The ranking is based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, says Houston's "ethnically and culturally diverse population" coupled with its "robust and globally connected economy" help form a solid foundation for the city's future.

The North American Cities of the Future ranking is certainly not the only such accolade that Houston has garnered. Hailing Houston as "the American city of the future," Resonance Consultancy, a consulting firm, ranks Houston the 11th best large city in the U.S.

"Positive rankings and recognition like this help us continue to attract the best and brightest minds both domestically and around the world," Davenport says. "Houston has long been a place that solves the world's most complicated problems — from putting humans on the moon to pioneering open-heart surgery. But we make a conscious choice to measure ourselves not on past accomplishments but on what we do next."

Davenport cites Houston's vibrant startup scene, 21 Fortune 500 companies, and burgeoning innovation corridor, along with the presence of the world's largest medical complex, as helping position the city for economic growth.

She also mentions the fact that nearly one-fourth of local residents are foreign-born and that more than 145 languages are spoken. In April 2019, personal finance website WalletHub named Houston the most diverse city in the U.S.

"In short, the Houston of today looks like the United States of tomorrow," Davenport says.

In a March 2019 report, the Center for Houston's Future noted that Houston's economic growth — namely in the construction, healthcare and IT sectors — depends heavily on the continued influx of immigrants. Immigrants already make up nearly one-third of the region's workforce, the report says.

Between 2016 and 2036, almost 60 percent of all jobs added in the region will be filled by foreign-born workers, the report indicates.

Also on the international front, more than 5,000 Houston companies do business abroad, Davenport says, and more than 500 foreign-owned companies have invested in Houston in the past decade.

As Houston looks toward the future, business leaders will continue to diversify the economy through such sectors as life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and technology, according to Davenport. In addition, business leaders will keep driving the transition from traditional fossil fuels to "new energy" sources (like wind and solar), she says.

"Houston's future is a bright one," Davenport says. "Our young and well-educated workforce, coupled with targeted infrastructure investments, will help us become a hub for innovation in the years ahead."

Business Facilities magazine agrees with that assessment. In July 2018, it ranked Houston the No. 1 metro area for economic growth potential, stressing that the region's economy has expanded beyond Big Oil and that it's brimming with "innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship."

"Houston has a distinctly favorable business climate. The region benefits from a skilled workforce, world-class infrastructure and transportation system, and a pro-business environment that stimulates rather than stifles business growth," the magazine says.

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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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