Featured Innovator

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.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Corey Allen had entrepreneurialism in his blood — but it wasn't until he got involved with the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber that he got the courage to break out on his own. Courtesy of Corey Allen

Corey Allen grew up surrounded by entrepreneurship. His family owned several small businesses when he was growing up. But it took the support of his community to push him toward leadership.

From working in an accounting firm to dabbling in a few oil and gas companies, Allen's career trajectory changed when he joined the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Within the organization, for which he serves as treasurer, he met other motivated entrepreneurs and was given the support needed to open his own business, Ecotone.

Allen spoke with InnovationMap about his career and the importance of the LGBTQ community in entrepreneurship.

InnovationMap: How does Houston differ from other cities in the U.S. in terms of technology and entrepreneurship? What makes Houston different?

Corey Allen: I think everybody does default to Austin, right? People believe that that's the only technology hub in Texas. Houston is new and different from other cities in terms of tech and entrepreneurship, right now especially. In creating three local startups, we experienced tremendous support from well-established groups like the Greater Houston Partnership, the city of Houston with the Mayor's entrepreneurship program, the Greater Houston Chamber of Commerce. But, you know, what I think what is really new especially for Texas, within in Houston, is the local coworking spaces that are globally recognized brands and the coding camps. I think that is what is creating the infrastructure and ecosystem that we've been talking about for the last five years at least. I think that compared to other cities in the U.S., I don't see that type of energy and that type of investment being created in Houston right now.

IM: You mentioned a little bit about being involved in the process of creating three local startups. What makes Houston the right place to be involved in the startup culture that’s cultivating right now?

CA: I think there's two things that come to mind. Houston really is home, and it's always been home for me. And it really is a big, small town. I came from a small town in Texas, about halfway between Houston and Dallas, and our family always navigated to Houston for fun, but also for business. It was really the foundation for my own family, and I think what we get out of Houston is that southern hospitality is a real thing. So, that's certainly the first thing. And the second is that Houston has the foundation for a prosperous ecosystem. Obviously, there's a lot of oil and gas and the Texas Medical Center is already globally recognized. The more that we continue to focus on venture capital and innovation, which is what is wanted and needed right now, Houston is creating our own new technology and entrepreneurship to capture everybody's attention.

IM: What are some of the ways the tech and innovation community support their LGBTQ colleagues throughout the month of June?

Yeah, I love this question. I think it goes without saying for the community to come out and support the LGBTQ community by joining the chamber of commerce. Also, attending our second annual Pride in Business, which is June 28. That's been an outstanding event for all of the businesses in the community to be involved in the LGBT community. In three years time, (the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber) has been growing exponentially to over 125 visible members. And we have corporate partnerships that really speak to the impact that is being made in the community and in Houston. We have corporate partners like Shell and United. And also celebrate and attend the Houston Pride Parade, which is on June 22.

IM: What advice do you have for up-and-coming lgbtq entrepreneurs?

CA: The learning is the action. I used to really be annoyed by the phrase "sell faster." I actually live that now. You can't fail until you act, and now I know that you can't compete until you fail.

IM: That's great advice right there. What does pride month mean to you?

CA: It's very personal, and it hits home. My partner and I are going to be celebrating 19 years together in September, and I think that pride means celebrating a history that we don't stop to think about everyday. We were at a chamber meeting recently, and a member was sharing her experience of walking in the second pride parade. And she said that it wasn't the same. Even the police at the time did not protect the community. And that's a big difference from today. And I think anybody that goes out to the pride parade this year, I want them to know they're safe. And you know, I think that that's what we have to be thankful for today is to know that we can love without constant fear. It really just reminds us that we're not going to let anyone take that away again.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.