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Exclusive: Houston Exponential names new CEO to lead strategy at the evolving organization
There's a new leader at the helm of an organization dedicated to advancing Houston's innovation ecosystem.
Natara Branch has been named as CEO of Houston Exponential. She started the new role earlier this month and replaces Lawson Gow, who temporarily held the responsibility when his company, Gow Companies, acquired the entity and transitioned it from a nonprofit into a for-profit. While Gow Cos. remains the parent company of HX, the organization will be led independently by its own set of leadership and board, which is in the process of being formed.
In her new role, Branch is focused on establishing the strategy of the evolved organization as well as strengthening and establishing key partnerships within Houston and beyond.
"When we acquired Houston Exponential, one of our immediate priorities was to search for a world-class CEO to lead the organization into the future," says Lawson Gow, who is the son of David Gow, CEO of Gow Media, InnovationMap's parent company. "We are thrilled to announce that we've found that in Natara Branch. She is going to be the amazing leader that Houston needs to carry HX into the future."
Born in Germany and raised all around Texas, Branch says she is passionate about Houston as her adoptive hometown. She attended the University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business, where she got her degree in accounting, and worked at ExxonMobil's audit team in Houston earlier in her career. Most recently, Branch was the first African American woman to hold a vice president position at the NFL. Based in New York, she oversaw operations in various leadership roles at the NFL for over 18 years.
A strategist and investor, Branch serves on the board for the University of Houston's Bauer School of Business as well as the school's Power Athletics Task Force. She also serves as a director for Super Group and as a director and chair of the audit committee for Bleuacacia.
"For the last 18 and a half years, I have been shouting from the rooftops about the resources, talent, and potential of this city," Branch tells InnovationMap. "And now, to be able to do that first-hand here in the city — that literally wakes me up excited every morning.
"This city has given me so much in so many different ways," she continues. "This is my opportunity to give back to the city that really did raise me and has given me so many opportunities. I could not be more excited to be a part of this momentum."
Branch joins HX at a uniquely transitional time for the organization. Founded in 2017 as a nonprofit by a cohort of collaborative organizations — the Greater Houston Partnership, the Mayor's Office, and the Houston Technology Center — HX was established to connect and convene Houston's tech and startup scene with the rest of the ecosystem, including educational institutions, corporations, investors, and more.
While the business model has evolved, this access to support is not changing, Branch says, explaining that entrepreneurs will always have access to resources and support at no cost.
"If HX is doing its job, you'll know the name — but you'll know it as a supporter of entrepreneurs," Branch says. "They are the heroes of the story. It's not HX. HX is here to tell the stories of these entrepreneurs so that they are getting funding, resources, advisers, mentors, exits."
While HX will continue the legacy of its two cornerstone events — its gala, which is on November 9 this year in collaboration with InnovationMap, and Tech Rodeo, usually occurring in the spring — Branch says the company will not be an events-focused organization. Rather, HX will amplify and convene the existing events and programming already taking place in town — both to Houstonians and to the rest of the world.
"We will be a sort of tour guide of innovation and technology within the city of Houston," Branch says, comparing the concept to her role at the NFL, which scouts out host cities for the SuperBowl. "If someone is looking for a coworking space or mentors and academic institutions to support their research, we will be that hub that can get that information out to the people already doing this hard and important work."