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.

Amy Chronis runs the Houston office of Deloitte and serves on the sustainability board for the GHP. AlexandersPortraits.com

When Amy Chronis, the Houston managing partner for Deloitte, was asked to join the Greater Houston Partnership last year, she immediately started doing some research on some of the bigger picture issues the city is facing.

In March, as the chair for the organization's sustainability committee, she brought together a group of constituents to engage in a Smart Cities study with the goal to identify what Houston needs to focus on — what it wanted to be known for.

Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders wanted the city to be known for its innovation, something that surprised Chronis. The group pared down the eight topics of action into three they felt were most timely and then spent the rest of the time focusing on: clean energy, transportation, and smart infrastructure (technology and communication). Now, Chronis has a better understanding on what the city wants as she leads her committee for the GHP.

In her career, which has spanned the state of Texas, she's always served clients in various sectors. Specifically over her last 30 or so years in Houston, Chronis has seen the tide change within innovation, especially with large energy companies.

"We're not Silicon Valley, but Houston has so much going on in terms of development — in energy but also even in medical with the Texas Medical Center," says Chronis, citing advancements from the likes of Rice University, Houston Exponential, TMCx, Station Houston, and more. "Houston's got a lot more going on than people realize."

Chronis sat down to talk with InnovationMap about the change Houston companies are experiencing and her work with the GHP.

InnovationMap: What did you learn from the smart cities study you conducted for the GHP?

Amy Chronis: I learned a lot. It's affirming how much all types of people with different backgrounds care and are interested in this topic and are highly desirous of our region moving forward. I also learned that things are more complicated or difficult than we would like — in terms of funding initiatives, for instance.

IM: In terms of developing the city's workforce, what aspects of the community does Houston need to focus on?

AC: I think there was widespread agreement that we need to keep improving our educational outcomes for all our people. The issues around workforce development are critical for us to improve. It will take public-private partnerships to make real progress.

IM: What can Houston learn from other cities?

AC: I learned a lot about other Smart City initiatives that are being done and accomplishments made in other cities around the world. What those accomplishments have in common was a concerted effort by the city, region, and business leaders — all the stakeholders — to agree on smaller, attainable goals. Instead of trying to address something in a huge way, they nibbled at the edges, if you will.

IM: Do you think Houston is able to do that?

AC: Absolutely, I love Houston — in particular our manifest destiny and inherent pillar to our culture where everyone can make it. It's why I came here 30-something years ago and why my family and I love it here. I think hard work and opportunity still makes Houston a great city. We have the ability, we just need help bringing actionable steps forward.

IM: Switching gears a little, what's the role Deloitte and its clients are playing within Houston's innovation ecosystem?

AC: We like to think we're a real conduit for innovation and a digital transformation for many of our clients. We're very blessed to serve many of the large energy companies — and across industries — in Houston. It's really gratifying to see how much is being invested in research and development and the focus on innovation catalysts. I think there's an awareness now — more than there was a few years ago — that if you're not moving forward, then you're behind.

IM: How do you see the future of Houston's workforce?

AC: I think we have real progress to be made to make sure all of our citizens can achieve the education and opportunities they need. I'm heartened by public-private partnerships that are already underway.

As digitalization moves along, people talk about whether or not artificial intelligence and machine learning will replace jobs. It will replace some jobs, but it'll be far more important that young people still learn those really critical thinking skills. We will need people to evaluate data and make decisions — that critical reasoning will still be absolutely vital.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.