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SXSW panel: What Houston needs to do to develop as an equitable tech ecosystem

Three Houston innovators discussed the strides the city is making in terms of equitable funding opportunities. Photos courtesy

Houston has consistently been recognized as one of the most diverse cities in the country — but is that translating into equitable funding opportunities for diverse founders? A panel at SXSW this year discussed whether or not Houston's playing field is level for people of color within the innovation ecosystem.

"People do business with who they know — and who they like," says Felix Chevalier, co-founder of Urban Capital Network, when the panel was asked where the disconnect is with funding diverse founders. "I think it boils down to a lack of exposure and a lack of relationships."

Chevalier was joined by Jesse Martinez of Resolved Ventures and VamosVentures and Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, who moderated the discussion, which was hosted in the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston House on Sunday, March 13, at SXSW in Austin.

"We have to look at the pipeline — what the existing ecosystem looks like," says Martinez, who leads the LatinX Alliance, an organization that's relocating its operations to Houston. "We have new funds, new diverse GPs, and we have more investors — and we're building talent. ... We are making great strides, but we still need more of us to be funding our diverse founders."

The key to the equation, the panelists agreed, is education and programming — both for potential investors, like UCN does with its hands-on support for its diverse investor base, and for founders of color who might be more hesitant to plunge by starting a company.

"The way you start to dissolve that fear for folks, for example, who may be in a corporate space but may want to spread their entrepreneur wings, is to just get involved with the ecosystem," Chevalier says. "What ends up happening is you bump into someone you know or someone who is from the same talent you are originally — all you have to do is immerse yourself in the environment."

"The opportunities are out there, but it is incumbent upon in those who want it to put themselves in a position to meet people who are in the environments that are going to help facilitate whatever your objectives are," he continues.

Hamilton explained her experience raising money as a Black woman — investors didn't want to bet on her. It's a chicken and an egg situation, she says, and support for diverse founders in terms of programming and investors focused specifically on underserved communities are going to help break the cycle. It's not about charity, but equitable opportunities.

"I don't want any charity – I don't want an overabundance of kindness. Scaffold me like you scaffolded Mark Zuckerberg," Hamilton says, giving Facebook as an example of a company that was supported in a way she never had. "If you are going to be in a nascent ecosystem, you need to have structures that explain why your pitch deck has to be efficient, why you need a team. We've got to not focus just on the money piece, but on this whole psychosocial aspect."

With Hamilton's call to Houston's development as an equitable tech ecosystem, the conversation turned to discuss whether or not Houston is ready to provide this support to startups and rise to being the global innovation hub the city wants to be.

"We've got to find our tribe. We have all the pieces," Martinez says. "It's going to take time, and we have to be very intentional. ... It's really about thinking of Houston as a startup itself. How do we act as a team, and bring in partners and investors to make it a thriving ecosystem over time."

It takes commitment, Hamilton says, and that's happening in the Bayou City.

"Everything is not figured out right now — but there's a commitment to figuring it out," she says. "It's not going to be Silicon Valley overnight — it will never be Silicon Valley. Because this is Houston."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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