Featured Innovator

Houston entrepreneur explains how he's seen the city's LGBT and innovation communities evolve

Corey Allen had entrepreneurialism in his blood — but it wasn't until he got involved with the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber that he got the courage to break out on his own. Courtesy of Corey Allen

Corey Allen grew up surrounded by entrepreneurship. His family owned several small businesses when he was growing up. But it took the support of his community to push him toward leadership.

From working in an accounting firm to dabbling in a few oil and gas companies, Allen's career trajectory changed when he joined the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Within the organization, for which he serves as treasurer, he met other motivated entrepreneurs and was given the support needed to open his own business, Ecotone.

Allen spoke with InnovationMap about his career and the importance of the LGBTQ community in entrepreneurship.

InnovationMap: How does Houston differ from other cities in the U.S. in terms of technology and entrepreneurship? What makes Houston different?

Corey Allen: I think everybody does default to Austin, right? People believe that that's the only technology hub in Texas. Houston is new and different from other cities in terms of tech and entrepreneurship, right now especially. In creating three local startups, we experienced tremendous support from well-established groups like the Greater Houston Partnership, the city of Houston with the Mayor's entrepreneurship program, the Greater Houston Chamber of Commerce. But, you know, what I think what is really new especially for Texas, within in Houston, is the local coworking spaces that are globally recognized brands and the coding camps. I think that is what is creating the infrastructure and ecosystem that we've been talking about for the last five years at least. I think that compared to other cities in the U.S., I don't see that type of energy and that type of investment being created in Houston right now.

IM: You mentioned a little bit about being involved in the process of creating three local startups. What makes Houston the right place to be involved in the startup culture that’s cultivating right now?

CA: I think there's two things that come to mind. Houston really is home, and it's always been home for me. And it really is a big, small town. I came from a small town in Texas, about halfway between Houston and Dallas, and our family always navigated to Houston for fun, but also for business. It was really the foundation for my own family, and I think what we get out of Houston is that southern hospitality is a real thing. So, that's certainly the first thing. And the second is that Houston has the foundation for a prosperous ecosystem. Obviously, there's a lot of oil and gas and the Texas Medical Center is already globally recognized. The more that we continue to focus on venture capital and innovation, which is what is wanted and needed right now, Houston is creating our own new technology and entrepreneurship to capture everybody's attention.

IM: What are some of the ways the tech and innovation community support their LGBTQ colleagues throughout the month of June?

Yeah, I love this question. I think it goes without saying for the community to come out and support the LGBTQ community by joining the chamber of commerce. Also, attending our second annual Pride in Business, which is June 28. That's been an outstanding event for all of the businesses in the community to be involved in the LGBT community. In three years time, (the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber) has been growing exponentially to over 125 visible members. And we have corporate partnerships that really speak to the impact that is being made in the community and in Houston. We have corporate partners like Shell and United. And also celebrate and attend the Houston Pride Parade, which is on June 22.

IM: What advice do you have for up-and-coming lgbtq entrepreneurs?

CA: The learning is the action. I used to really be annoyed by the phrase "sell faster." I actually live that now. You can't fail until you act, and now I know that you can't compete until you fail.

IM: That's great advice right there. What does pride month mean to you?

CA: It's very personal, and it hits home. My partner and I are going to be celebrating 19 years together in September, and I think that pride means celebrating a history that we don't stop to think about everyday. We were at a chamber meeting recently, and a member was sharing her experience of walking in the second pride parade. And she said that it wasn't the same. Even the police at the time did not protect the community. And that's a big difference from today. And I think anybody that goes out to the pride parade this year, I want them to know they're safe. And you know, I think that that's what we have to be thankful for today is to know that we can love without constant fear. It really just reminds us that we're not going to let anyone take that away again.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

During a crisis, it's easy for startup leaders to panic and make things worse. Here, we'll discuss how staying grounded will get you through a crisis. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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