Money moves

Kinder Institute expands its urban data initiatives following $2.25M of fresh funds from the Houston Endowment

The funds will go toward the Kinder Institute's civic data initiatives. Photo via news.rice.edu

The Houston Endowment has renewed its support of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research with a $2.25 million three-year grant to expand its services relating to urban data collection and use.

"We are immensely grateful to Houston Endowment for its continued support of Rice and the Kinder Institute," Rice President David Leebron says in a release. "This renewed funding will allow the institute to continue its critical data-driven work to better understand the challenges that Houston and other cities are facing and create lasting solutions. Contributing to our home city and others in this way is central to Rice's mission and its strategic plan, and we are extremely appreciative of this generous support."

In addition to supporting the Kinder Institute's data tools, the funding will contribute to the Houston Urban Data Project 2.0. The institute is involved in the project as is the Houston Community Data Connections, or HCDC. According to the release, the UDP will work to align and enhance urban and community data initiatives, develop training and research support for a larger user base, and raise awareness of the institute's research through outreach.

The HCDC, which was established in September of 2017, is already equipped to analyze 143 areas in Harris County with over 9,000 users, almost 16,000 site sessions, and over 45,000 page views, per the release. The program has seen 120 research and data requests since launch. Meanwhile, the UDP has 200 datasets in Houston and has 400 users who have accessed the site 6,000 times since it launched in the Spring of 2018

"The UDP and HCDC have laid the foundation for a shift in how data is used and decisions are made in the public, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, and this funding will allow the Kinder Institute to build on this work," says Bill Fulton, director of the institute, in the release. "This project will help drive effective, data-driven decision-making for the region and will make the Kinder Institute the data hub for the entire region and a model for other cities around the world."

The purpose of the program will be two initiatives: Building Better Cities, which will focus on government efficiency and urban systems, and Building Better Lives, geared at quality of life and urban disparity among Houston residents.

"At Houston Endowment, our vision is a vibrant region where all have the opportunity to thrive," says Ann B. Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment, in the release. "We believe that making good data available to the public leads to better-informed decision-making on the part of our public officials and allows residents to more effectively advocate for their communities' needs. This is why the UDP and HCDC are so important for the future of our region."

The Kinder Institute, founded in 2010, is a research and advocate organization for urban development in Houston, and the Houston Endowment, established by Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones in 1937, has assets of $1.8 billion and contributes around $70 million annually.

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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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