Houston innovators podcast episode 126

How this Houston entrepreneur is preparing the workforce for Gen Z employees

Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, is bridging the gap between the next generation — and their future employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

For decades, workplaces have had to deal with a generational divide among the employees. Businesses have to navigating the needs of a few generations simultaneously — from Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials.

Now, Gen Z is entering the workforce in droves, and Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand, is helping companies get ready for them.

"By 2026, 25 percent of the workforce will be Gen Z in these entry-level positions," Danziger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "By investing in an internship program or entry-level talent now, it's helping the rest of your workforce and the company adjust now to the new ways of working Gen Z is looking for."

Ampersand is a professional development tech platform that onboards interns, upskills them on how to be successful in the workplace, and then matches them with paid internships based on their interests and aspirations.

Originally founded in 2020, the startup has been buoyed by needs resulting from The Great Resignation.

"What's happening now is all these people who have been in a job for about two to five years are leaving. They are re-evaluating what they are looking for in a company, and they are either moving on to other companies, or they are taking time off," Danziger says. "Interns can really support that, as can entry-level employees."

Companies of every size are experiencing this sensation — and there's no quick fix. Onboarding and hiring replacements takes time and money, but bringing in already trained interns can be a solution.

"When someone leaves, other people take on that work. If you don't hire proper support for the people still there, you see the trickle. You see more and more people leave, because they are just burnt out," Danziger says. "By hiring interns or entry-level support, it shows the employees still there that you've got them."

The Houston community has bet on the impact of Ampersand. Earlier this year, the city of Houston the startup as a partner for the Hire Houston Youth initiative. All of the initiative's new hires will go through the Ampersand curriculum before they are matched with jobs. And, as Danziger explains on the podcast, they will then have access to opportunities via the platform too.

"It's awesome for us because it's giving us a ton of people on the platform. If they don't get hired for a Hire Houston's Youth job with the city, they still are on the Ampersand platform and can be eligible for one of our paid internship opportunities," Danziger says. "The city expects 5,000 applicants for those jobs from now until April 6."

The Ion has also brought on Ampersand, which raised $1.75 million in a pre-seed round last fall, as a part of its workforce development program.

Ultimately, this next incoming generation is just different, Danziger says, and employers need to be ready for it. Gen Z employees want to know their impact in the workplace, and they want to work from home and be supported. All they know is the heavily tech-enabled, post 9/11 world.

"They come with a really different mindset and different needs. It can be a challenge, if you're not prepared for it, to address that," she says. "We see businesses get frustrated with it, but it is what it is. Again, 25 percent of your workforce is going to be this demographic very soon here."

Danziger shares more on Ampersand's future and navigating the Gen Z workforce on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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