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Exclusive: New accelerator launches to prepare Houston's future civic leaders

HTXelerator, which is launching in September, is aimed at supporting future leaders and connecting them with the city's burgeoning tech scene. Photo via HoustonTX.gov

A new nonprofit program dedicated to preparing the future leaders of the city of Houston's is launching with the city's burgeoning innovation ecosystem in mind.

HTXelerator is a three-month program that trains its group of aspiring politicians on the nuts and bolts of city government. The program — designed to be similar to a tech accelerator — will launch out of The Cannon Downtown and The Ion in September. The idea to link the program with the startup and innovation community is intentional, says Randy Romman, executive director. Co-located with The Cannon and The Ion, Romman says he hopes the accelerator provides an opportunity for collisions between politics and innovation.

"Houston, in particular, needs more tech dollars and more people aware of tech dollars," he tells InnovationMap. "That's why we wanted this in The Cannon and The Ion — so that those people can sit in on these classes and participate. Our topics range from land use to economic development, transportation, and more. And hopefully these future leaders can learn something from the tech world."

Similar to a tech accelerator, the program concludes with a competition known as The Pitch, which enables each participant to put forward a policy platform for a hypothetical race.

"We have a competition that really prepares you to run for office — that's a little different from the other programs out there," Romman explains.

The accelerator, which is priced at $195 — a cost that is intentionally low to ensure accessibility, diversity, and equal representation, will prepare leaders for public service, specifically boards, commissions, and eventually city council, according to a press release from the program.

The courses will include immersive opening and closing weekend retreats, as well as 90-minute weekly education sessions include transportation, public safety, land use, diversity and social equity, economic development, homelessness, city finances, utilities, media training, and how to run a campaign.

"The Houston region continues to grow and subsequently so does the need for public leadership to reflect the city's dynamic diversity," says Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs and HTXelerator board member, in the release. "HTXelerator will allow people with an interest in public service to learn from experts in government, non-profit organizations, academia and the private sector. Whether pursuing a leadership position or running for office, HTXelerator graduates will be ahead of the game."

There is no fee to apply, and the application, which is available online, is due by August 3. New cohort members will be announced August 13.

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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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