This week's Houston innovators to know roundup includes Aimee Woodall of The Black Sheep Agency, Alok Pant of Unvired, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother. Photos courtesy

Houston's rising COVID-19 case numbers and Texas' new regulations for bars and restaurants are a sure sign that the city isn't out of the woods from the pandemic — and that includes Houston's startups and entrepreneurs.

This week's three Houston innovators to know include three people who are advocating for continuing through the pandemic — the right way, from using tech to better communicate with employees at home to factoring in the new moms when you roll out your back-to-work plans.

Aimee Woodall, CEO and founder of the Black Sheep Agency

Aimee Woodall has been focused on innovation and creativity during COVID-19 for her own company, The Black Sheep Agency, but also for its clients. Photo courtesy of The Black Sheep Agency

Aimee Woodall founded The Black Sheep Agency in order to help impact-based businesses tell their stories. Now, amid COVID-19, that mission is more important than ever.

"We write, we design, we build campaigns, we work in the digital space — whatever it takes to tell the story of the organization and to rally other people to not only pay attention to what the organization is doing but to also find their own way to participate in moving that mission forward," Woodall shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Thinking back to when COVID-19 really started affecting business and her campaigns, Woodall remembers how she and her team had to reevaluate existing content, pivot planned projects, and, in some cases, cancel events or programming. Read more.

Alok Pant, founder and CEO of Unvired

A Houston software startup has created a communication tool and is allowing free access amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Unvired

A Houston startup recently released an app to help employees voice their concerns and keep businesses with their finger on the pulse of employee morale. The survey is customizable for each business and contains questions with the most important factors such as employee health and well being, communication, confidence, and leadership.

"Digital Forms fits in with a whole new paradigm in the software world," says Alok Pant, CEO of Unvired. "It allows a business user to make their own specialized applications fast and easy with no coding necessary."

The low-code platform has a drag-and-drop form building feature to instantly deploy surveys, can store data in the Unvired Cloud, and instantly generate reports for insights in the administration portal. Read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

As offices started to reopen and release new safety measures that will be put in place in the office, Abbey Donnell noticed a certain group or people who were going to be affected by these measures: New moms. Mother's rooms are usually multi purposeful, lack access to sinks, and seen as expendable, Donnell writes in a guest column for InnovationMap,

"If mother's needs are not part of this vital return to work safety conversation, women may be left behind," she writes. "So let's start the conversation." Read more.

A Houston software startup has created a communication tool and is allowing free access amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston tech startup offers free survey app to help companies manage COVID-19 response

software solutions

Keeping employees and employers connected is crucial during a crisis. A Houston-based software startup recognizes the importance of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing its digital form and surveys app for free for six months.

Unvired Inc. recently unveiled its Digital Forms app to help employees voice their concerns and keep businesses with their finger on the pulse of employee morale. The survey is customizable for each business and contains questions with the most important factors such as employee health and well being, communication, confidence, and leadership.

"Digital Forms fits in with a whole new paradigm in the software world," says CEO Alok Pant. "It allows a business user to make their own specialized applications fast and easy with no coding necessary."

The low-code platform has a drag-and-drop form building feature to instantly deploy surveys, can store data in the Unvired Cloud, and instantly generate reports for insights in the administration portal.

The startup already has customers using it for their COVID-19 response, with users choosing to use it as a sort of information hub with frequently asked questions along with questions regarding employee and health wellbeing. While other companies use for surveying the number of masks and hand sanitizer supplies available.

The forms app, already in the works months before the virus changed the scope of daily life, will be officially launched in July.

"Digital Forms inadvertently became the perfect tool to easily build forms and create workflows during the time of the coronavirus pandemic," says Pant. "We wanted to help our community in any small way we can, so we saw offering this app for free as a great opportunity to help our business community."

Unvired, which is based out of Station Houston, has nationwide and international clients in a variety of different industries. According to Pant, Unvired's platform for surveys and customizable forms was first born out of their own customer's need for an app with form digitization capabilities.

"Many of our customers, especially in the oil field use many paper forms as part of their process," says Plant. "Our app is a very form-centric application that can serve our customers with automated digitization of forms, making it easier for employees to reduce manual data entry, enable real-time decision making, and lower operational costs."

This launch is only part of Unvired's new line of products. The startup is also releasing Chyme Bots, a digital communications solution that can be tailored to a specific business to answer frequently asked questions quickly and remotely.

"Many businesses will have to start to invest in digital in the near future," says Pant. "If they want to get out of the slump the pandemic has landed many businesses, digitization along with digital applications will be key to growth and efficiency."

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.