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Station Houston's newest director wants the city's startups to reflect its diversity

Deanea LeFlore is Station Houston's new director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Courtesy of Station Houston

Deanea LeFlore, Station Houston's recently hired director of engagement, partnerships, and education, wants the startup incubator to foster more diversity — something that, considering Houston's status as the most diverse city in the nation, should be well within the realm of possibility.

LeFlore, who previously served as the chief of protocol for the city of Houston, as well as president of Casa Cultural de las Americas, stressed the importance of developing a diverse technology community at Station Houston and beyond.

"[Station Houston's] biggest need is to cultivate an environment of inclusivity and make sure everyone feels welcome and knows what the opportunities are," LeFlore says.

LeFlore spoke with InnovationMap about Station Houston's assets, how she wants Station to have changed by this time next year, and how her experience in overseeing the visits of thousands of international diplomats can be used at the technology incubator.

InnovationMap: What are your immediate goals?

Deanea LeFlore: Our goals are to make sure that the Houston community is aware of Station's existence, and by the Houston community, I mean some of the areas that we haven't tapped into proactively. My immediate goal is to share the story of Station Houston and let people know what resources are available.

IM: What areas do you see as untapped?

DF: I have good relationships with Houston's consular corps. Houston has more than 90 countries represented in the consular, and I think that's a great place to start. The consular general could connect us literally all over the world. I've been quote-unquote "selling" Houston access to them for almost two decades, and this is another area that needs to have more visibility. They can let their constituencies abroad know about [Station Houston].

Also, the local international communities that they serve, as well as different chambers of commerce and their members, would be other targets.

IM: What's Station Houston's biggest need?

DF: I think that the biggest need — not just for Station Houston, but the biggest need for the technology ecosystem — is to cultivate an environment of inclusivity and make sure everyone feels welcome and knows what the opportunities are. The biggest need is to get as many people involved as possible, so we can create better products for everybody.

IM: When you say "diversity," are you speaking about ethnic diversity, gender diversity, or a diversity of industries?

DF: All of the above. … Maybe it's because I'm new and overly eager, but I don't see it as being that difficult a task. I think the first key [to improving Station Houston's diversity] is awareness. In order to create that awareness, I'll be attending different events at chambers of commerce and [for women's' organizations].

IM: Are you hoping to model Station Houston's growth after the growth of another incubator?

DF: We want to partner and collaborate with other incubators. What makes Houston different is the type of company we have as a startup member. In Houston, we're very focused on B2B, we have the world's largest medical center, NASA, the Port of Houston … nowhere else on the planet can claim those things. We're already naturally distinguishable. I wouldn't say we want to compete or pull from [others], but see how we can complement each other.

IM: How did your time in the public sphere prepare you for this role?

DF: The type of work that I did — connecting with diverse communities – is really helpful. I have a really broad network across the city and [I can] bring them into Station.

Because I served as Chief of Protocol for the City of Houston, I'm very familiar with creating world-class experiences for people, members, and corporate and international members. We hope to continue to increase cross-cultural experiences and world-class hospitality at Station, and differentiate us from similar hubs in other cities.

IM: Twelve months from now, how do you want Station Houston to have changed?

DF: I would love for us to have many more technology companies that started in Houston, and that we helped springboard into success. I want technology companies that have [graduated] from the idea stage, and are now running successful multimillion dollar businesses. I want those companies to create jobs in Houston, contribute to our ecosystem, and be reflective of Houston's diversity.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kyle Judah is executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Another priority Judah has leading Lilie, which was founded at Rice in 2015, is to make sure opportunities are available for everyone. This month, the university launched the Rice Experiment Fund — a $500 semesterly stipend available to all students. The funds are meant to be used on early market testing and experiments, which can be prohibitive obstacles for students.

"We want to make sure that the diversity of entrepreneurship at Rice speaks to the diversity of the city in our backyard," says Judah, adding that diversity and inclusion is at the top of mind for programs like this.

Judah shares more on where he plans to lead Lilie and his early impressions on Houston's startup scene in the podcast episode. Overall, he's found it extremely welcoming.

"I found that everyone here wants Houston to win," he says. "We're really playing as a broader collective, and that's incredibly special."

You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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