Who runs the world?

Houston entrepreneur wants to pave the way for female-led startups and VCs

Allison Lami Sawyer is among the small population of female venture capitalists. Courtesy of Allison Lami Sawyer

It took her a second to be able to admit it, but Allison Lami Sawyer — a physicist by training and education — realized what her professional path was going to be when she was finishing up her MBA at Rice University.

"It took me a long time to say that I wanted to be an entrepreneur," she says. "There's just not a lot of little girls in Alabama, where I'm from, that are entrepreneurs. I never met a female tech entrepreneur until probably a few years into Rebellion."

Sawyer started her first company, Rebellion Photonics, when she was 24. The company's technology has cameras that see gas leaks before they cause explosions on rigs, refineries, and pipelines. She ran the company from 2009 to December 2017. She's still on the board of Rebellion.

Once she knew she should be an entrepreneur, she was on the hunt for an idea before she met her business partner, Robert Kester, who was the CTO and co-founder at Rebellion.

"I looked at a few different technologies to commercialize and the one I decided on was a technology invented by a grad student at Rice University and he was our CTO.

Now, Sawyer is on to her next endeavor. She's co-founded a Houston-based seed funding firm called The League of Worthwhile Ventures with Roy Johnston. She uses her experience as a founder and raising money to lead the firm and provide resources for the startups. The company expects to close its first round of funding in the next quarter.

InnovationMap: What was it like moving on from Rebellion?

Allison Lami Sawyer: I think at first it was exciting. Entrepreneurs are not the kind of people who like to do the same thing for nine years, so I was finally like, "oh, thank God, something new," but at the same time, change is always scary. I have a very high threshold for change and uncertainty, an even for me it was scary. We had 40 employees in the Houston office — and more in Asia — and you get used to being so busy. It was weird having time again. I didn't take much time off because I knew what I wanted to do next.

IM: So, you know your The League co-founder Roy Johnston met at Rice, but how did you reconnect?

ALS: He had approached me and said, "hey, whenever you're free, I'd like to do a seed venture fund here in Houston and you'd be the perfect complement to do that." So, that was kind of in the back of my mind. Then I contacted him again, and told him we should do that and that the space I want to focus on is machine learning and artificial intelligence-enabled software companies. That's the space I saw blowing up. He was well versed in that, and had seen that come up. He has the traditional background, and I have the operational experience within machine learning, because that's what I've been doing this whole time. It's just one of those things where you couldn't have planned it, but it's been absolutely perfect.

We're going to start doing investments in the second quarter so we are already looking at deels coming in from all across the country — and even the world. It's the part I've always enjoyed the most: looking at business models, looking at strategy, understanding the business 101 and then merging that with hardcore tech. That combination is really exciting. We're going to look back at this time just like how we look back on the internet age and how it affected every industry. It's the same way it's going to be with machine learning and AI.

Within artificial intelligence, whoever makes the model first and grows it, will have the smarter model. There really is a first-to-scale advantage.

Roy and I have a personal preference for not sexy industries. I come from oil and gas, and he comes from Waste Management. Sexy tech in non-sexy industies is basically our M.O.

It's exciting to be enabling other entrepreneurs to go build really big companies. One of our reach goals for The League is to fund a unicorn. In home run of all home runs, one of them coming from Houston. We haven't had one i Houston before. We would love to be a part of that. Most of our investments will be outside of Texas, but we are already looking to do one Houston investment come secord quarter, so in our first set of investments, one will be from Houston. I love this city and it's fun to do our little bit to see the city grow, and then also to just have women investors.

About four years ago, I had a $10.5 million raise for Rebellion — about 100 meetings or phone calls, which is normal. I only had one meeting with a woman — and she wasn't even a decision maker.

The main way venture capital investments go is getting the warm introduction through your network. Seeing as 92 percent of VCs are guys, they're going to know other guys, that's their network. So, typically, who gets funding, is by no means even slightly a meritocracy. It's how good your network is. The philosophy around that to justify this is that CEOs need to know how to hustle, but what that doesn't acknowledge of basic barriers and systemic flaws. So, I'm excited to add one more female VC out there, join that network, and make my presence known so I can speak very openly on what I see as systematic issues

If we want more female founders, we will have to have female VCs. I would love for houston to be known as the best place in the world to be a female founder.

It's an all-women startup weekend. We're super proud of all the women. It's become this whole thing with a leadership committee and some of the big companies around town are sponsors. All our winners have gone on to raise millions in venture capital.

IM: With you and Ray both doing The League and Start Here Now, will the two ever be connected?

ALS: No, it's just a nonprofit we do. It's just the two of us and we have the same values. A lot of people are nice — most people are nice — but not a lot of people are actively kind, and we think to change some of these problems in venture capital is these proactive steps to change and one of these is giving up our time to do StartHereNow. Another concrete change we've made is you don't need a warm introduction to get a meeting with us. Absolutely anyone can submit their pitch to us on their website and either Roy or I will put eyes on it. We also do office hours — anyone in the community can come in, even if it's not a company we'd invest in. Anyone can come in on the second and fourth Thursdays from 4 to 5 pm, and we're there. Those are actually super fun. We had one female founder come in — and we have a really high bar, we're not going to invest unless we think you can have viral growth — with offers she already had and just wanted to see me to get my opinion on her term sheets. It was an absolute pleasure, and it was no skin off my back.

Is there some lesson you had to learn the hard way that now you're able to guide these women in their careers?

I think this all stems from when I was starting my company at 24. It was brutal, and it was very lonely to be a young female founder in oil and gas. That type of isolation takes the fun out of all this. You see the male founders having huge networks, and it took the joy out of founding a company. I don't want the female founders of today to have to go through that, because it didn't add any value. It was pain just for pain sake.

During my $10.5 million raise, I remember having a meeting with a big venture fund, and it was the fifth meeting, so it was serious. One of the men said, "hey I see you have a ring on your finger." And I said," Yeah, I'm engaged." He said, "What is your maternity plan?" And I said, "oh no, I'm not pregnant." And they were like, "But you will be." And it just changes the tone of the meeting. By the way, my co-founder is sitting next to me and he has three kids all really young, but that conversation never came up with him.

In many ways, we're a very traditional seed fund. We'll do our first close next quarter, and we'll continue to raise $50 mill throughout the rest of the year that we'll continue to raise the rest of the year. It's pretty traditional, but just by the nature of who we are, we're not that traditional.

We're getting to a point in machine learning where the tools are so cheap.

We want diverse deal flow — not just for diversity's sake, but because AI is going to affect every industry. I thin Houston has a real role to play in that. We'll see. I'm shocked we've never had a unicorn come out of here.

IM: With your connections in Silicon Valley, what do you bring to the table for your companies?

ALS: For a good venture capital firm, they they really good deal flow, and they pick the right ones and they exit, and there's a third step that regional firms don't have, and that's connections with later stage VCs. You need to be able to walk them in to those VCs, and I think that's what we offer.

I go out there every quarter, and I give updates on the companies we know we're going to invest in and I give updates on those companies so by the time the companies are ready to scale up, they've already heard about this startup. And I think that's why startup founders are interested in us.

IM: How are you different from other local VCs?

ALS: We're much more focused on user growth over earnings. In fact, if you're making a lot of profit, I wonder why. Let's put this back in the company and grow this thing. And I think a lot of Texas investors are very conservative, and really look for profit quickly, and that's not our end game initially. You need to have a business model that is capable of very large gross margins, but right now I want you to be funneling it back into the company and building your assets. And I can't even believe I have to say that. On the coast, that'd be a no brainer, but here that's what makes us a little different. We're much more a traditional California seed fund without the brofest.

IM: So, what's the significance of firm's name?

ALS: Well, some people think it has something to do with sports. But one of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur is the loneliness, and we don't want anyone to feel that way. We want to have a community. When you join The League, you're joining all of us. It's why we have a massive advisory board and corporations that have agreed to talk to our startups.

IM: What's been the reception of The League?

ALS: I'm actually a little shocked and thrilled to see how much interest we've gotten locally. We've had people reach out to us directly wanting to invest in our fund. I thought maybe Houston's market would be a little too conservative to want invest in a seed AI fund. I was wrong, and I couldn't be more delighted to be wrong. We are really pushing for as much as our investors to be in Texas because we think it's important for a community as a whole to invest in its innovation economy.

I will say that here I have to do a lot more education when I talk about AI. Because I don't really mean robots when I say AI. I mean is software able to make predictions. I think if I wasn't doing this I'd be a science teacher, so I do kind of like that. It's just a bit slower of a process.

IM: Do you imagine The League stays just in Houston?

ALS: We do get asked sometimes about why we are staying in Houston, and it's tricky. We're getting pull, but as of now we are based in Houston. We probably will open a Silicon Valley office. It's really about where are investors are, so if we have most of our investors in Texas, we'll stay in Texas. And I'm southern, and you can't get good iced tea anywhere else.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.