Overheard: Houston-based BIPOC, female founder finalists share challenges overcome

eavesdropping at the houston innovation awards gala

The five finalists in the BIPOC and Female-Founded Business categories for the Houston Innovation Awards share the challenges they have had to overcome. Photos courtesy

Houston is often lauded as one of the most diverse cities in America, and that diversity is seen across its business communities as well, which includes its innovation ecosystem.

Some of the BIPOC-Founded and Female-Founded Business category finalists from the Houston Innovation Awards Gala, which will be held on November 9, shared some of the challenges they faced being in the minority of their industries and careers.

"The biggest challenge I've faced as a female BIPOC founder is having to work 2 to 4 times harder to convince individuals that I am an expert in my field, and that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to my technology and implementation."

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— Asma Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Steradian Technologies. "The way I overcame it was by showing irrefutable data to support my expertise and our invention, as well as hiring a diverse team that could substantiate our claims," she adds.

"As a female founder, I used to think that I was looked at as 'less than,' compared to my male counterparts. While I still struggle with this feeling,...  I decided that the biggest hinderance in my confidence as a female founder was the lies that I was telling myself."

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— Megan Eddings, founder of Accel Unite. "I felt — and still sometimes do — insecure in a room filled with male founders, not because I thought I was any less-than, but because I was thinking they thought I was less-than — before ever even meeting me," Eddings added, sharing how she tries to change her own perspective. "I now feel a responsibility to share my story, as to show other women that they are not alone, their voice matters and to keep going."

"As a BIPOC founder, it was not easy in the beginning to find the connections and network with folks that had the resources to help us with our aspirations. That was the biggest challenge in getting started."

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— Enrique Carro, CEO of Blue People. "Now that we have a few clients and testimonials, we are able to pull on them to help us find new clients and connections," he continues. "But this was something that we had to really work hard on at the beginning."

"One of my fears going into the fundraising process was being seen as too weak or too fragile to lead an early-stage venture."

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— Joanna Nathan, CEO of Prana Thoracic, who shares she feels this way following the loss of her son. "I found that in being transparent with potential investors, after building some trust, and speaking openly about my loss and how it has inspired me to build this company, I was able to overcome this fear."

"The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a female founder comes down to resources. Finding the capital and time to get everything done is difficult for female founders because we have a lot on our shoulders and there are systemic inequalities that make things even more difficult."

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— Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand. "I’m creating a billion dollar company, but I’m a mom of two young girls, the executive director of one nonprofit and a board member of another, and a dependable friend, wife, daughter, sister and niece, too," she continues. "Other female founders and VCs are stretched, too, so it can be difficult to connect and find time to figure it out together. I have been very fortunate and also worked really hard to find both the time and resources to make it all work."

Your perspective on quiet quitting is probably generational, says one Houston expert and startup founder. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How to navigate Gen Z's quiet quitting movement at your company

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This month, the internet has been discussing "quiet quitting," the practice of employees setting hard boundaries about when they work and to what extent they are willing to go beyond the outlined expectations of their jobs.

The conversation around quiet quitting has also been lively at the Ampersand offices. As a training company that is dedicated to training new professionals for employers both big and small, it's critically important for our team to have a good grasp on the relationship employees have with their jobs, and what motivates them to succeed. So we had a long meeting where we discussed what quiet quitting meant to each of us.

My team's take on quiet quitting

When I first read about quiet quitting, I was surprised. I started my career in New York City during the Great Recession. I was just grateful to have a job, and I was immersed in the hustle culture of NYC, working long hours to prove my value. I made a habit of getting up early and staying late during a formative time in my career, and still maintain those expectations of myself today (here I am now, working on this blog at 5:43 am).

The Gen Xers on my team were even more surprised by the quiet quitting trend than I was. Their take was that you have to do what it takes to get ahead. It’s taboo for many Gen Xers to leave before the boss. They are used to working longer hours, with less “work life balance” than me, filling their off time with volunteer roles and second jobs.

The Gen Zers on my team crave the work/life balance we all hear about in the news. Rather than throwing themselves headfirst into grind culture, they want to make sure that they have time for their life outside of the office. If they are going to show up early and work late, they want to know that it's for a purpose they believe in and it’s directly related to accelerating their career growth and increase their salaries.

Reaching an Understanding

When I look around my office (and by office, I mean Zoom tiles), I think about how a lot of offices around the world look similar to mine. The workforce will always be a blend of people from different generations, each shaped by their own experience. We’re all adjusting to new styles of work. No matter what generation you come from, or what generation you’re managing, you’ll get stronger results from your team if you set clear expectations, check your generational bias, and understand the perspective of others.

What does this look like in action?

Here are three steps you can take to encourage and inspire your team to put their hearts into what they do:

1. Show appreciation for your team.

If an employee is making $50,000, explain that value back to them. What does their work mean to the overall organization? How does their wage and work contribute to the vision and overall goals of the company? By showing your team their value and reminding them that what they do has a purpose, you can inspire each team member to stay engaged in their work.

2. Embrace flexible work schedules and trust your team.

Let Gen Z innovate, do their thing and find their own way of getting work done. At the same time, communicate: outline clear KPIs, let them know what you expect, and give feedback along the way. Remember, part of an employee feeling a sense of purpose in their job is knowing that they are learning and growing. The more engaged you are in their development and show respect for their time, the more engaged your team will be in following through. And if they don’t meet expectations, have an open, honest conversation with them while still embracing their preferred work style.

3. Help your employees better prioritize their work.

Leverage available tools and resources to find efficiencies while you’re developing your team. Make sure that your processes are well-documented and easy to understand, and encourage the team to contribute ideas and better tools if they have them. Remind them that there’s an open door if they have any questions.

At the end of the day, our job as leaders in an organization is to keep our teams boldly engaged. By helping our employees find purpose in their work, we can build stronger teams that are less likely to be swayed by the latest trend, and more likely to stay focused on their jobs because they care.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder of Ampersand, an online training platform for businesses and professionals looking to level up their talent.

After working with thousands of interns, Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals says she's now got a product to upskill and train new hires for employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Houston startup rolls out B2B program for onboarding new hires

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After seeing success with her internship training and matchmaking platform, Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, has expanded the concept to include a new hire training service that allows employers to better optimize the onboarding process and have a well-trained new staff member from day one.

In just over a year, Ampersand has worked with over 7,000 professionals through its original concept of upskilling and matching young professionals to internship programs. A few months ago, Danziger and her team expanded to include career development training for students first entering the workforce with the City of Houston's Hire Houston Youth program. Danziger says it was developing out the platform for this program that proved there was a need for this type of training.

"While we have focused on matching professionals with businesses for paid internships, we recognized a further gap with employers that have their own recruiting/talent acquisition teams, or just their own preferred way of bringing on entry-level talent, and didn’t have a need for our matching platform," Danziger tells InnovationMap. "But, they recognized the benefit of our proven training platform that pre-vets and de-risks their hires, and still wanted access to the training for their own hires."

The new program has evolved from training interns to new hires, so parts of the program that focuses on interviewing or applying for a job have been removed. Instead, the 8.5 hours of training focuses on networking, best practices for working with a manager and team, performance reviews, common software training, and more.

Danziger says usually new hires need the most experienced mentor or manager, but they don't usually get that support — especially when it comes to businesses that don't have their own built-out mentorship or training program.

"Ampersand’s new training product fills that gap — it gives employers of any size any easy solution to provide basic job readiness training to employees, access to our team of dedicated coaches, and a detailed report at the end of their training summarizing how their new hire did in the training and any trends recognized and tips for managing this employee based on what the platform uncovered," she says. "Businesses can also sign up for additional coaching sessions and customize training materials, as an add-on if interested."

The program costs the employer $100 per new employee, and checkout online takes less than a minute. Through both this program and the original internship program, Ampersand is constantly evolving its training content.

"These professionals are going through the same training experience that we have proven out over the last year, and we are constantly adding to based on data we see in the user experience," Danziger says.

Danziger recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast discuss some of the benchmarks she's met with Ampersand, as well as the importance of investing in Gen Z hires. Listen to that episode below.


Investing in your entry-level employees from the beginning will only continue to positively impact their future, and the ripple effect for businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Upskilling entry-level employees should be your priority, says Houston expert

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With Spring Break behind us, many soon-to-be grads will be anxiously applying for their first entry-level jobs or internships; however nearly 50 percent of college graduates don’t feel qualified for entry-level positions and 20 percent feel like they lack basic skills to compete in the job market. It’s important for young professionals to have a solid foundation before the first day on the job, yet 40 percent of graduates say they only occasionally or rarely use skills they learned in college. This is scary for young professionals, and even more terrifying for businesses that are hiring entry-level employers.

Closing young professionals’ education-to-employment skills gap is crucial to the future of work, and how we go about surviving The Great Resignation. Businesses do not have the time, resources or money to teach every entry-level employee basic workforce skills, such as email etiquette and calendar management. According to Indeed, the average time employers spend training entry-level hires is around 33 hours per new employee, but shouldn’t some of the training be the universities’ jobs?

Maybe. However, over the past two years, colleges have been forced to redirect their focus to take care of students' mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic—understandable as between 80 to 90 percent of college students have experienced some mental health strains during the pandemic.

Each year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) puts out a survey that assesses what should be taught in both internship-preparedness and career-readiness programs, to fill the gaps and upskill young professionals with the lessons they need to be learning. These core competencies were incorporated into Ampersand’s training, where young professionals are upskilled in a wide array of transferrable workforce skills that allow immediate success in new workplaces. Our 50-plus hours of curriculum was developed around NACE’s expertise, feedback from hundreds of businesses we spoke to,and my own personal frustrations of running a business for 12 years, which caused me to realize what opportunities and skills I wanted to bring to the new generation of professionals. Ampersand’s curriculum focuses on a variety of fundamental skills, such as: business structure fundamentals, interpersonal conflict resolution, combatting biases in the workplace, proactive communication, handling mental health issues and the art of constructive feedback.

One of the most appreciated courses in the Ampersand curriculum is the lesson on growth and grit mentality. According to psychology professor Angela Duckworth, the blend of passion and perseverance, aka “grit,” forecasts positive long-term success throughout someone’s life. Investing in these young professionals will not only set them up for larger success, but it will also give an equal and foundational opportunity to these youths as they begin developing their skills and growth mentalities. Mastering both basic workforce skills and goal setting allows young professionals to help them decide whether or not a job position is the right fit for them. Additionally, it will also help young professionals set up and successfully navigate five- or 10-year plans to use as bars of measurement in their future work endeavors.

In recognizing the education-to-employment skills gap and the need for excellent career-readiness training, The City of Houston’s Hire Houston Youth program has partnered with Ampersand to upskill thousands of young professionals applying for its summer jobs. Ampersand has created an exclusive curriculum for the Hire Houston Youth program that includes 35 lessons, five modules and four hours of asynchronous career-readiness content. These modules include topics such as professional development, employee rights and basic skill building. As a part of its partnership with Ampersand, Hire Houston Youth is making it mandatory for the young adults applying for a job to go through Ampersand’s platform in order to be eligible for an interview. With the partnership between Ampersand and Hire Houston Youth, the next generation of Houstonians will have a sharp set of career-readiness skills and be able to hit the ground running in any future job.

By recognizing and focusing on these necessary skills early on, while also providing a space for these young professionals to learn and grow, the new generation will have more opportunities and doors open up for them as they begin their careers. Investing in them from the beginning will only continue to positively impact their future, and the ripple effect for businesses.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Ampersand Professionals.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand, Wesley Okeke of CUBIO, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health tech to future of work — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

Allie Danziger, is bridging the gap between the next generation — and their future employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has established herself as an expert in the future of work and all things Gen Z in the workplace. The founder of an internship matching and training platform called Ampersand, she's contributed numerous articles on related topics, including "The Great Resignation," which is affecting the workforce across industries. It's also something her platform can address, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"When someone leaves, other people take on that work. If you don't hire proper support for the people still there, you see the trickle. You see more and more people leave, because they are just burnt out," Danziger says. "By hiring interns or entry-level support, it shows the employees still there that you've got them."

Danziger shares more on Ampersand's future and navigating the Gen Z workforce on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Wesley Okeke, CEO of CUBIO Innovation Center

Wesley Okeke has established some much-needed new lab space in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy

Look alive, Houston biotech innovators. CUBIO Innovation Center has some new space available for you. What originated as mostly coworking space, CUBIO has pivoted to provide more lab space for early stage biotech startups. The latest edition to CUBIO in the Texas Medical Center? A brand new wet lab.

“We have all the necessary equipment for a fully functioning biotech lab,” Okeke tells InnovationMap.

"For those working with cell culture, the dry lab provides almost no resources or infrastructure for you to build it out," he continues. "A wet lab brings in the necessary equipment and environment to be successful in developing pharmaceuticals, drug delivery devices, whatever you need in the biotech space.” Click here to read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo courtesy

How should startups be marketing themselves to venture capitalists? Libby Covington has some advice in a guest article for InnovationMap — from making your marketing plan and catering specifically to VCs.

"It is important to focus on efficient top line revenue growth as a business grows and scales," she writes. "Digital marketing is an important part of the overall growth plan, and should not be overlooked. The clock starts ticking on profitability growth once a business owner partners with investors. Make sure your business has an effective plan to meet the goals set out." Click here to read more.

Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, is bridging the gap between the next generation — and their future employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

How this Houston entrepreneur is preparing the workforce for Gen Z employees

Houston innovators podcast episode 126

For decades, workplaces have had to deal with a generational divide among the employees. Businesses have to navigating the needs of a few generations simultaneously — from Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials.

Now, Gen Z is entering the workforce in droves, and Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand, is helping companies get ready for them.

"By 2026, 25 percent of the workforce will be Gen Z in these entry-level positions," Danziger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "By investing in an internship program or entry-level talent now, it's helping the rest of your workforce and the company adjust now to the new ways of working Gen Z is looking for."

Ampersand is a professional development tech platform that onboards interns, upskills them on how to be successful in the workplace, and then matches them with paid internships based on their interests and aspirations.

Originally founded in 2020, the startup has been buoyed by needs resulting from The Great Resignation.

"What's happening now is all these people who have been in a job for about two to five years are leaving. They are re-evaluating what they are looking for in a company, and they are either moving on to other companies, or they are taking time off," Danziger says. "Interns can really support that, as can entry-level employees."

Companies of every size are experiencing this sensation — and there's no quick fix. Onboarding and hiring replacements takes time and money, but bringing in already trained interns can be a solution.

"When someone leaves, other people take on that work. If you don't hire proper support for the people still there, you see the trickle. You see more and more people leave, because they are just burnt out," Danziger says. "By hiring interns or entry-level support, it shows the employees still there that you've got them."

The Houston community has bet on the impact of Ampersand. Earlier this year, the city of Houston the startup as a partner for the Hire Houston Youth initiative. All of the initiative's new hires will go through the Ampersand curriculum before they are matched with jobs. And, as Danziger explains on the podcast, they will then have access to opportunities via the platform too.

"It's awesome for us because it's giving us a ton of people on the platform. If they don't get hired for a Hire Houston's Youth job with the city, they still are on the Ampersand platform and can be eligible for one of our paid internship opportunities," Danziger says. "The city expects 5,000 applicants for those jobs from now until April 6."

The Ion has also brought on Ampersand, which raised $1.75 million in a pre-seed round last fall, as a part of its workforce development program.

Ultimately, this next incoming generation is just different, Danziger says, and employers need to be ready for it. Gen Z employees want to know their impact in the workplace, and they want to work from home and be supported. All they know is the heavily tech-enabled, post 9/11 world.

"They come with a really different mindset and different needs. It can be a challenge, if you're not prepared for it, to address that," she says. "We see businesses get frustrated with it, but it is what it is. Again, 25 percent of your workforce is going to be this demographic very soon here."

Danziger shares more on Ampersand's future and navigating the Gen Z workforce on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startups raise funding, secure partnerships across space, health, and sports tech

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It's been a new month and a few Houston startup wrapped up November with news you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three Houston startups across health care, space, and sports tech have some news they announced recently.

Houston digital health company launches new collaboration

Koda Health has a new partner. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health announced a new partnership with data analytics company, CareJourney.

"This collaboration will aim to develop benchmarking data for advance care planning and end-of-life metrics," the company wrote on LinkedIn. "Koda will provide clinical and practice-based expertise to guide the construction of toolkits, dashboards, and benchmarks that improve ACP programs and end-of-life outcomes."

Koda Health announced the partnership in November..

“Beyond the checkbox of a billing code or completed advance directive, it’s important to build and measure a process that promotes thoughtful planning among patients, their care team, and their loved ones,” says Desh Mohan, MD, Koda's chief medical officer, in the post.

CareJourney was founded in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm hopeful next-generation quality measures will honor the patient’s voice in defining what it means to deliver high quality care, and our commitment is to measure progress on that important endeavor," noted Aneesh Chopra, CareJourney's co-founder and president.

Sports tech startup raises $500,000 pre-seed investment

BeONE Sports has created a technology to enhance athletic training. Photo via beonesports.com

Houston-founded BeONE Sports, an athlete training technology company, announced last month that it closed an oversubscribed round of pre-seed funding. The company announced the raise on its social media pages that the round included $500,000 invested.

Earlier in November, BeONE Sports completed its participation in CodeLaunch DFW 2022. The company was one of six finalists in the program, which concluded with a pitch event on November 16.

Space tech company snags government contracts

Graphic via cognitive space.com

The U.S. Air Force has extended Houston-based Cognitive Space’s contract under a new TACFI, Tactical Funding Increase, award. According to the release, the contract "builds on Cognitive Space’s work to develop a tailored version of CNTIENT for AFRL to achieve ultimate responsiveness and optimized dynamic satellite scheduling via a cloud-based API.

The $1.2 million award follows a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research award that the company won in 2020 to integrate CNTIENT with commercial ground station providers in support of AFRL’s Hybrid Architecture Demonstration program.

“The TACFI award allows Cognitive Space to continue supporting AFRL’s vitally important HAD program to help deliver commercial space data to the warfighter,” says Guy de Carufel, the company’s founder and CEO, in the releasee. “CNTIENT’s tailored analytics platform will enable HAD and the GLUE platform to integrate modern statistical approaches to optimize mission planning, data collection, and latency estimation.”

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.