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

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

guest column

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

who's who

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.


The city tapped key partners for the initiative, including a Houston startup. Photo courtesy

City of Houston launches annual career development and internship program for young adults

for the kids

City officials and business leaders in Houston are recruiting employers to collectively offer at least 12,000 paid jobs and internships this summer for local 16- to 24-year-olds.

Organizers on March 8 kicked off this year’s Hire Houston Youth initiative. It encourages employers in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to bring aboard youth for summertime jobs and internships.

One of the program's partner is Ampersand, a Houston-based startup and tech platform that has designed a career-readiness curriculum for this age group. In partnership with the City of Houston, Ampersand customized a portion of its curriculum to upskill and prepare young Houstonians for the workforce across 35 lessons, five modules, and four hours of content — all of which provide essential job skills ranging from email best practices to mental health management in the workplace.

Employers can sign up for Hire Houston Youth online. The deadline for youth to apply for jobs or internships through this program has been extended from March 11 to April 8.

“Employment plays a pivotal role in reducing gender, ethnic, racial, and other social inequalities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “Therefore, providing meaningful employment experiences for our youth is in the best interest of all, including young people, their communities, and Houston as a whole.”

In 2021, as the city coped with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hire Houston Youth offered more than 9,500 opportunities. This year, Turner hopes the program can produce at least 12,000 jobs and internships, and as many as 15,000.

The National League of Cities recently awarded a $150,000 grant to Hire Houston Youth. In addition to the grant, Houston will receive assistance from National League of Cities staff and other experts to advance the city’s efforts to expand STEM career opportunities for marginalized young people.

The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. ranks as the highest among all age groups. In the pre-pandemic year of 2019, the national unemployment rate for the 16 to 24 age group stood at 8.4 percent. No other age group had an unemployment rate above 4.1 percent in 2019.

The jobless rate for people of color and lower-income people in this age group has historically been higher than the overall rate for that age group.

The pandemic exacerbated unemployment woes for 16- to 24-year-olds in the Houston area around the country. Data compiled by the Schultz Family Foundation and Mathematica shows that during the peak of the pandemic, youth unemployment rates in the Houston area ranged between a low of 12.6 percent from July to December 2020 and a high of 16.1 percent from January to June 2021.

The Measure of America project estimates that more than 4.1 million Americans in the 16-24 group are neither working nor attending school. In Harris County, 13.4 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds in Harris County met that definition in 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“The years 16-24 are crucial for the development of human capital — through activities such as education and workforce preparation that pay dividends in the form of higher wages, lower unemployment, and other benefits later in life. Yet even before the pandemic, many young people were disconnected from school and work and the economic opportunities that follow,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas says in a 2021 report.

New programming at the Ion hopes to equip the workforce with valuable skills and education. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Ion Houston offers up low-cost workforce development programs

digital skillset

The Ion announced this week that it will launch four new workforce development programs that aim to enhance learner's digital skills and prepare them for careers in tech.

The courses will start in February and will take on a variety of formats, from bootcamps to traditional courses and virtual coaching sessions. All were created with the support of The Ion's founding partner Microsoft.

“The Ion is collaborating with new and existing organizations to create visible pathways to careers in technology for underrepresented populations and job seekers,” says Jan E. Odegard, executive director at The Ion, in a statement. “The Ion is excited to offer low-cost programming that meets learners of all skill sets and financial backgrounds where they are to make a tech-fueled career or career in tech possible.”

The programs are in development with:

Innovation Map spoke with The Ion's senior director Joey Sanchez last month about the programming that's slated for the Midtown innovation hub in 2022.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," he said on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."
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Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

money moves

By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.

Houston energy giant expands implementation of Canadian startup's tech

big, big energy

CruxOCM, a startup with a significant Houston presence that specializes in robotic industrial process automation for energy companies, has secured even more business from energy giant Phillips 66.

The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to expand it use of CruxOCM’s pipeBOT technology to cover even more pipelines. The pipeBOT technology is designed to improve the safety and efficiency of control room operations for pipelines and reduce control room costs.

CruxOCM and Phillips 66 launched a test of pipeBOT in 2020.

CruxOCM, based in Calgary, Canada, says pipeBOT is engineered to decrease manual controls through intelligent automation. With this technology in place, the fatigue of control room operators declines, because as many as 85 percent fewer manual commands must be entered, according to CruxOCM. Therefore, control room operators can focus on higher-level tasks.

“At CruxOCM, we empower control room operators with modern software that enables the autonomous control rooms of tomorrow, within the safety constraints of today. We look forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with Phillips 66 for many years to come,” Adam Marsden, chief revenue officer at CruxOCM, says in a news release.

Founded in 2017, Crux OCM (Crux Operations Control Management) established its Houston presence last year. Also in 2021, the startup raised $6 million in venture capital in a “seed extension” funding round. Bullpen Capital led the round, with participation from Angular Ventures, Root Ventures, Golden Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Industry Ventures.

In 2019, Angular Ventures and Root Ventures co-led a $2.6 million funding round.