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How Houston companies can use pandemic challenges to foster innovative corporate inclusion efforts

Two hiring managers weigh in on corporate DEI initiatives amid the pandemic in a guest article for InnovationMap. Photo via Pexels

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and over the last 18 months, that proverb has proven true across the world, from classrooms to boardrooms. Shuttered classrooms and businesses, overflowing hospitals, and social unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd have forced communities and leaders across the world, and here at home, to find innovative solutions to a myriad of problems.

But even as many people long for a return to normalcy, the truth is that, in many ways, the bell cannot be "unrung." Remote work, which was a necessity for many at the height of the pandemic, has given rise to an explosion of hybrid working environments that show no signs of reversing course. In the midst of this physical separation among colleagues, leaders across industries have been forced to throw out the rulebook and reimagine what it means to collaborate.

Additionally, the disparate impact experienced by communities of color throughout the pandemic has highlighted the importance of programs focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion. It is no coincidence, for example, that roughly six months into the pandemic, the general counsels of 12 major financial institutions penned an open letter to the legal community calling for greater inclusivity in the legal community.

So, how can companies transform the struggles presented by the pandemic into a springboard for lasting, innovative inclusion efforts? The answer lies in taking risks, strengthening the fabric of connectivity, and looking to the future.

Crowdsource new ideas

The concept of crowdsourcing is nothing new, but at the corporate level, leaders may overlook its benefits. Hackathons—large, collaborative events originally developed for computer programming or coding—can be implemented across all employment levels to crowdsource innovative ideas.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, the firm implements the Hackathon concept during the summer associate program, thus harnessing the creativity and progressive ideas of younger talent. When the pandemic forced the firm's 2020 summer program to go entirely virtual, the firm decided to create groups of summer associates across all offices to brainstorm programming ideas aimed at improving and sustaining diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Together with partner leaders, these summer associate teams worked virtually to create truly innovative programming ideas, several of which the firm is currently implementing to recruit diverse talent. The program was successfully replicated in summer 2021, asking participants to hack the problem of associate inclusion. In addition to generating important programming content, these Hackathons increased participant morale, encouraged cross-office collaboration, forged new relationships across various geographic regions, and tackled the timely topics of enhancing law firm diversity and inclusion that will improve client service in the future.

Other industries—from large, global corporations to small businesses—can implement the Hackathon concept to successfully build bridges and harness innovation around inclusion. For example, MIT recently held a successful hackathon to source solutions to the problem of student inclusion during the pandemic, and Microsoft sponsored a hackathon aimed at solving the education and technology gaps of remote learning brought on by the pandemic.

Moreover, experts agree that equity and inclusion initiatives are only successful with buy-in from the c-suite. In other words, fostering an inclusive corporate culture starts at the top. If corporate leadership participates in the Hackathon experience—as a mentor, judge, or coach, perhaps—as opposed to merely sponsoring the event, it sends a message to all employees that the company as a whole values inclusion as a cornerstone of corporate culture.

Embrace virtual connections

The pandemic forced us all to navigate the world of virtual meetings, and with the popularity of hybrid working environments, virtual connectivity is here to stay. Companies must embrace this new virtual frontier and implement programs that engage employees, promote collaboration, and introduce an element of fun.

At Hunton Andrews Kurth, new hires create introductory videos about themselves that are globally shared firm-wide, while veteran lawyers create their own video content introducing themselves and their practices, thus creating an immediate personal connection.

Additionally, virtual events celebrating diversity and inclusion events, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ Pride Month for example, provide opportunities for fellowship across offices and bolster inclusion efforts. Hunton Andrews Kurth hosted a virtual cooking class, based in a Dallas partner's kitchen, celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May, which was virtually attended by 132 attorneys firm wide.

Company-wide virtual events such as escape rooms, cocktail-making classes, games and trivia build camaraderie, which deepens the bonds of collegiality and strengthens feelings of inclusion and belonging. Companies should invest in virtual technologies to help facilitate this important new frontier of connectivity, recognizing that increased digital connectivity supports a collaborative and inclusive working environment.

Highlight community outreach

In global companies, high-level, company-wide diversity and inclusion leadership should work in tandem with leadership at the local level. At our firm, for example, in addition to firm-wide diversity leadership, each local office has a specified leader committed to promoting local inclusion initiatives. While virtual events help connect geographically-diverse employees, it is equally important to offer local employees opportunities to connect in person with one another and support diversity programming in the community.

For example, attorneys in Hunton Andrews Kurth's Richmond office recently came together to learn about and pool resources to support a local artist's public art project focused on creating murals to promote open dialogue around racial and social justice. Additionally, employees might select a local DEI educational experience in which to participate as a group outside of the office, then plan to gather informally (in person or virtually) to discuss lessons learned and continue important conversations. When colleagues come together to support local inclusion programs or participate in shared experiences, new connections are forged that help support a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.

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Rudene Mercer Haynes is a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, serves as a firmwide hiring partner, and also sits on the executive committee. Alex Gomez is also a partner and serves as a fellow firmwide hiring partner.

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Here's what Houston research news dominated this year on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
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  • Texas A&M University
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  • University of Houston
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The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

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