Three of Houston's mayoral candidates shared the stage at Tech Rodeo to talk about how they would lead the city toward greater success within the innovation space. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

It's an election year in Houston, and one of the big topics on the minds of the candidates is how to continue the momentum of Houston's developing innovation ecosystem.

Houston Exponential put three of the declared candidates on the stage yesterday to ask them about their vision for Houston on the final day of Houston Tech Rodeo 2023. HX CEO Natara Branch moderated the discussion with Chris Hollins, Lee Kaplan, and Amanda K. Edwards. Each candidate addressed issues from diversity and equity, the energy transition, and more.

Missed the conversations? Here are a few overheard moments and highlights of the panel.

“It’s integral to our vision for the future of Houston that this is a place where small businesses, entrepreneurs, and creatives can thrive. We want to grow this economy to be one of the strongest economies in the United States — and we know that startups and small businesses are the powerhouse for that.”

— says Chris Hollins, who explains that he's a small business owner himself and also served as interim Harris County Clerk from June 2020 to November 2020, overseeing the 2020 United States presidential election in Harris County.

“Houston has an energy-centric community, and a lot of people who have money have gotten too comfortable investing in just oil and gas. … I understand how hard it is to run a business, and I understand (it) from representing entrepreneurs and investors.”

— says Lee Kaplan, a founding partner at law firm Smyser Kaplan & Veselka LLP.

“One of the things that’s important in a leader is making sure that they understand your issues, but most importantly that they can execute. That has been something that has been chief in concert in the way that I have served in public service, but of course the way that I’ve been a part of the startup economy.“

— says Amanda K. Edwards, who contributed to the establishment of the city’s tech and innovation task force as an at-large Houston City Council member. The task force resulted in the creation of HX Venture Fund and the Innovation District, she explains.

“When we think about cities that have done this really well — Silicon Valley, The Bay Area, Boston, Austin — what’s key in many of those cities is institutions around education. … We have to lean into Rice University and the University of Houston — making these centers for talent, excellence, and innovation so that we’re developing the thinkers, the engineers, the creators of the future, and then we’re giving your businesses a crop of new hires.”

— Hollins says responding to a question about Houston's challenges.

“The thing that I think is the most important for the city is to be rigorous with what we do. We’re not going to get around the fact that it’s hot and we have mosquitos. But we can sell the fact that we have a city that’s improving.”

— Kaplan says on Houston's progress.

“I don’t want to compete or lose to any city in America. When I think about Houston, I’m bullish. I know that we are the place that is home to innovation, and it’s about time that people know us as that."

— Edwards says, referencing how Houston is known nationally for its problems — she gives the example of Hurricane Harvey. “We have major challenges in our city, but we can innovate using our innovation economy to provide answers and solutions to them.”

“Energy has to be a part of our story. We are where we are today because we’re the energy capital of the world. And we know that the energy transition is happening, and if we don’t lean into that, our region stands to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

— Hollins says on the types of emerging tech in Houston.

“You often hear it said that Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, but I pose this challenge: What good is it to be the most diverse if we’re not solving the challenges that diverse communities face? And that includes equity in tech. We have all of the raw ingredients here in the Houston community to make Houston the home of where tech and innovation is diverse and equitable.”

— Edwards says on Houston's diversity and the challenges the city faces.

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16 Houston-based companies hailed best places to work by U.S. News

the standouts

More than a dozen Houston-based companies are sharing the spotlight in U.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

The annual report examines publicly-traded companies around the world to determine the best employers based on six metrics including work-life balance and flexibility; quality of pay and benefits; job and company stability; career opportunities and professional development; and more. The companies were not ranked, but included based on reader surveys and publicly available data about each workplace.

New for the 2024-2025 report, U.S. News analyzed549 companies across 29 different lists, including the overall best companies list — which includes the best 300 companies across the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Bermuda — 24 industry-specific lists, and four regional lists.

There were 16 total companies based around Houston that made the lists, with the majority being based in the city, while one each were located in Spring and The Woodlands.

Leading the pack in Houston is construction company Comfort Systems USA, which provides HVAC, plumbing, and electrical services. Comfort Systems employs 15,800 people, brings in $5.57 billion in annual revenue, and has a market cap of $11.21 billion. The company earned high ratings for its job stability, "belongingness," and professional development opportunities, according to U.S. News.

Comfort Systems also made appearances on U.S. News' industry-specific "Best in Construction" list, and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

Independent energy company Marathon Oil was another top-rated Houston employer, with nearly 1,700 employees, an annual revenue stream of $6.38 billion, and a $15.4 billion market cap. The company was specifically highlighted with a "Top Quality of Pay" label, but also boasts high ratings for its employees' work-life balance, job stability, and belongingness.

In addition to being included in the overall "Best Companies" list, Marathon Oil earned recognition in the industry-specific "Best in Energy" list and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

A second Houston-based energy company earning a spot among the top employers is Occidental (also known as Oxy). The petroleum corporation, which has been in operation since 1920, has nearly 12,600 employees and brings in $27,43 billion in revenue every year.

According to U.S. News, Occidental offers many financial, health and wellness, and workplace benefits including 401k matching, tuition assistance, an employee assistance program, flexible work arrangements, and much more. The company was also given a "Top Quality of Pay" designation.

Occidental appeared in U.S. News' "Best in Mining and Raw Materials," the overall "Best Companies," and "Best Companies in the South" lists.

Other top companies to work for in Houston include:

  • Insperity, Kingwood – Best in Professional Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Southwestern Energy Company, Spring – Best in Energy; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • PROS – Best in IT, Software and Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Powell Industries – Best in Manufacturing; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Stewart – Best in Insurance; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • ConocoPhillips – Best in Energy, Best Companies in the South
  • LGI Homes, The Woodlands – Best in Construction; Best Companies in the South
  • Service Corporation International – Best in Consumer Products and Services; Best Companies in the South
  • Skyward Specialty Insurance – Best Companies in the South
  • Camden Property Trust – Best in Real Estate; Best Companies in the South
  • Cheniere – Best in Energy
  • EOG Resources – Best in Energy
  • Murphy Oil Corporation – Best in Energy

"Prospective and current employees understand the significant impact their employer has on their quality of life," said Carly Chase, vice president of careers at U.S. News and World Report, in a release. "Whether a new grad seeking a company to launch their career, an established professional looking for a change or an HR professional researching the strengths of their company and others, Best Companies to Work For provides a central space to see which companies are meeting their employees' needs best.

Top workplaces around Texas
In all, 42 different employers headquartered in the Lone Star State made it onto U.S. News' 2024-2025 "Best Places to Work For" lists. The Houston metro area tied with Dallas-Fort Worth with the highest number of top-rated employers, at 16 each. Only one company from West Texas made it onto the list: Diamondback Energy in Midland.

The top companies to work for in Austin are:

  • Cirrus Logic
  • CrowdStrike
  • Digital Realty
  • Silicon Labs
  • E2open
  • Q2

The top companies to work for in San Antonio are:

  • Frost Bank
  • iHeartMedia
  • Rush Enterprises, Inc., New Braunfels

The best places to work for across Dallas-Fort Worth are:

  • Thryv Holdings, Inc., Dallas
  • Comerica, Dallas
  • Veritex Community Bank, Dallas
  • Charles Schwab, Westlake
  • Southwest Airlines, Dallas
  • CMC, Irving
  • Sabre, Southlake
  • Texas Instrument, Dallas
  • Omnicell, Fort Worth
  • Enhabit, Dallas
  • Builders FirstSource, Irving
  • Invitation Homes, Dallas
  • Celanese, Irving
  • Atmos Energy, Dallas
  • Lennox, Richardson
  • Caterpillar, Irving
The full list of the best companies to work for can be found at usnews.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”