This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Nicole Rogers of Validere, Allie Danziger of Ampersand, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries — from energy tech to business entrepreneurship.

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how her company has grown exponentially over the past year. Photo courtesy of Validere

Nicole Rogers joined Canadian startup Validere during the summer last year — right smack dab in the middle of a pandemic. But despite COVID-19 and the drop in oil prices, the energy company grew exponentially — in clientbase, in venture capital support, and in employee count.

"One of the things we found that was to our advantage throughout the pandemic was a lot of folks in oil were having a career identity crisis. Oil really struggles with employment elasticity," Rogers says. "A lot of the colleagues we were talking to were just fatigued with the ups and downs going on in the past decade."

Rogers, who's based in the company's Houston office, shares more about Validere's growth and opportunities in the new year — plus what she thinks Houston needs to do to maintain its status of energy capital of the world in the episode. Click here to read more and to stream the podcast.

Allie Danziger, founder of Ampersand

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has two small children, but she started thinking about if her kids were college age, would she want them to enroll in a virtual college experience or hold off for a time where they could have a more traditional experience. Realizing she probably wasn't alone, she thought about how she could create an alternative for high school grads — in this time of the pandemic but also in a time where college degrees aren't the best option for job security.

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains. Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

It's a new year and the perfect time to reflect on where society is at from a technological standpoint. In light of the pandemic and an overarching trend of tapping into tech to provide solutions to COVID-19-related challenges, 2021 will likely see more of these trends.

"As a business owner, it's clear to me that many of these shifts will persist long after the pandemic has ended," writes Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., in a guest column for InnovationMap.

From subscriptions to online shopping, Small highlighted the types of tech in the digital realm that deserve our special attention in 2021. Click here to read more.

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

New Houston career training program is helping young professionals and businesses amid pandemic

a new option

Last March, school districts abruptly closed as the threat of the coronavirus grew. In-person classes were cancelled, graduation ceremonies were held virtually, and the future career plans of new graduates were suspended in uncertainty. Through the incertitude, a Houston-based company formed to offer a path forward for young professionals impacted by a newly changed world.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Allie Danziger sat down with her husband and tried to imagine what she would tell her children to do if they were graduating college. The University of Texas graduate relished her college experience before founding Integrate, an award-winning marketing firm in Houston.

"I wouldn't want them to go to virtual college and not have the same type of experience we were all fortunate to have," she explains.

Simultaneously, Danziger's email began to overflow with young people looking for advice on how to move forward or questioning a gap year. "I've always loved coaching and mentoring young professionals right out of college," she says.

In her 11 years at Integrate, she had mentored more than 100 interns and first-year employees. After researching gap year programs, Danziger launched a new career training program, Ampersand.

Danziger and her co-founder Scott Greenberg created Ampersand with a mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities by providing mentorship and three one-month internships to young professionals. (Disclaimer: InnovationMap is a part of the Spring 2021 Ampersand program.) The curriculum includes personality assessments, career mapping, one-on-one training, and basic career skills to know as an entry-level employee.

The flexible program includes five hours of curriculum-focused learning and 15 hours of interning, allowing participants with outside engagements and college classes to also participate.

"When I speak to universities all over the country, I always tell them that while I valued my college undergraduate experience, I got so much more out of my internships," she says.

The beta launched in August with a group of ten professionals and ten businesses. Each month, the participants rotate to a position at a different business, allowing them to be exposed to new industries and departments. The program is a flexible 20-hour commitment — five hours of curriculum-based learning and 15 hours of interning — done remotely. While Danziger created the program to serve as a way to be productive during a "gap year" or "gap semester," Ampersand can be balanced with outside activities or college classes.

During Brené Brown's 2020 commencement speech for the University of Texas graduation, she predicted that interviewers would soon tell them, "I see you're a 2020 graduate. That was tough. How did you handle it?"

The quote struck Danziger and "was probably the overall inspiration for this business," she reflects. She feels Ampersand is "a way to put that anxiety into a productive place and actually use the downtime, or use the time that you're considering your options, really mindfully."

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains.

Textbooks and classroom learning are important, but to Danziger, "real-world experience is invaluable." In her research and through first-hand experience, she notes there are "big issues with the higher education industry as a whole not really preparing their students for careers."

At Integrate, Danziger noticed newly-hired graduates would sometimes struggle with "basic things to know for day one," like how to ask for time-off or schedule a calendar invitation. "It ends up frustrating managers while also frustrating the entry-level employees because they're not able to succeed at the pace that they expected to," she says. "These students are graduating with tons of student debt, great skills focused in the major that they chose, but very few of the soft skills that they need in order to be successful professionally," she continues.

Student loan debt in the United States reached $1.7 trillion last year with more than 44 million borrowers; the crisis has exceeded the nation's credit card debt by more than $900 billion. A 2015 study from the University of South Carolina linked student loan debt to poor psychological functioning and stress.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in 10 students have changed their major more than once—a figure that can be correlated to the increasing student loan crisis.

"People are taking fifth and sixth years because they had to change their major, or they move careers after a year of their first job, which then costs them and the company significant dollars in lost wages," says Danziger.

Danziger feels Ampersand also answers the prominent issue of diversity in the workplace.

"If businesses get a more diverse workforce at that very entry-level space, who are prepared and ready to take on the jobs just like anyone else, these interns will grow through the ranks and have significantly more opportunities in management and in the boardrooms," she says.

Young professionals aren't the only beneficiaries of Ampersand. Businesses, too, have reaped the perks of interns hungry for new experiences and a resume boost. From competitive analyses to marketing plans, interns are contributing tasks companies "didn't have time to make it a priority, especially amid the pandemic," says Danziger.

Through weekly one-on-one virtual sessions, the Ampersand team works with the professionals to go over their to-do lists and act as their project managers.

"We do all the mentorship and coaching, so that the business just has to receive the end product," she explains.

"This definitely beats the option of a career day and sets them up to make more informed career choices," Liz Cordell, co-founder and COO at Mak Studio. Cordell, who participated in the first cohort, assigned interns to social media marketing projects her company didn't have the capacity to work on. Knowing the Gen Z and millennial-aged professionals excel social media, she has enjoyed working with interns who've "become a part of the team," despite a remote work environment.

"The training the interns receive with Ampersand prior to joining your team gives them access to fundamental skills, concepts, and tools used in business today. This levels up your interns to be able to meaningfully contribute to your company from day one," says Cordell. As a business owner, she feels the program provides "a unique opportunity to have an intern with professional support."

One Louisiana State University student used Ampersand to discover his creative strengths and land a job offer from one of his internships. At the beginning of the program, he confided in Danziger that he "wasn't feeling motivated to pursue this career accounting," and didn't find enjoyment in his classes.

The student's Ampersand personality assessment identified his inclination to creativity; he participated in a series of internships that included an architecture firm, furniture company, and a finance startup. "He's able to really see how he can keep his accounting degree and apply it to these other career paths. It's just amazing to see how he's blossomed from this," says Danziger.

While the nation prepares for a shift in power, the incoming president has outlined support for workforce training programs that aligns with Ampersand's mission. President-elect Joe Biden plans to make a $50 billion investment into workforce training programs when he takes office. The proposal announces that money will fund partnerships between community colleges, businesses, unions, state, local, and tribal governments, universities, and high schools to identify in-demand skills in and modernize training programs.

Ampersand kicked off its second cohort with 30 professionals and 30 participating businesses from around the country on Jan. 5, and is currently accepting applications for its summer program. She anticipates the growing startup will begin raising a seed round during the first quarter. While Danziger emanates with excitement about the launch and balances her role as President of Integrate, she has big plans for the future of Ampersand.

Danziger dreams of scaling Ampersand to serve as many young professionals and businesses who are interested in participating.

"With that, I really want to be able to bring this to the low-income community so we can fulfill the mission of democratizing access to internships and professional development to everyone," she says.


Ampersand // Professional Development & Internship Program www.youtube.com

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Mayor greenlights major solar farm project in south Houston

shine on

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council have given the green light on a project that will convert a 240-acre former landfill in Sunnyside into a brownfield solar installation.

The public-private partnership with Sunnyside Energy LLC. received unanimous approval on a lease agreement that will move the project — which is a part of the City's Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative — forward.

"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."

The solar field, which is anticipated to be installed and working by the end of next year, will be able to power 5,000 homes and offset 120 million pounds of CO2 each year, according to the release.

"We applaud the actions of Mayor Turner and the City Council in taking this significant step," says Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy LLC, in the release. "It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community. We are grateful that Mayor Turner has given us his support."

The city's involvement with the company began in 2017 when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition – a global competition to promote sustainable energy projects. As a part of the competition and through the city's efforts on the initiative, powers at be selected the winning proposal from Wolfe Energy LLC, which formed Sunnyside Energy LLC to execute the urban solar farm project.

Per the lease agreement, the city of Houston owns the land and Sunnyside Energy will be the tenant responsible for permitting, construction, operation, and more.

Houston health company acquired by Seattle tech biz

M&A Moves

A West Coast health tech company has announced the acquisition of Houston-based 2nd.MD.

Accolade Inc., which uses technology solutions to help users better understand their benefits and the health care system, announced last week that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Houston-based expert medical opinion company 2nd.MD.

The goal of the acquisition is to further simplify the healthcare experience for employees and increase return on investment for employers, according to a press release from Accolade, and the company will continue to offer 2nd.MD's service on a stand-alone basis as well.

"We share a common vision to help every person live their healthiest life by dramatically improving quality and accessibility of care through a people-focused, clinically-driven support model," says Rajeev Singh, CEO of Accolade, in the release. "Bringing 2nd.MD's world-class Care Team and digital approach with expert medical consultation into Accolade, and continuing to offer it on a stand-alone basis, will have an immediate and measurable impact for our customers, their employees, and the health plans we work with."

"Both companies have built deep relationships with employers and health plans by helping employees navigate the increasingly complex and inconsistent healthcare system," Singh continues. "With the addition of 2nd.MD, we'll nearly double our total addressable market while providing the most comprehensive, integrated healthcare navigation experience available."

2nd.MD supports over 300 employers — connecting more than 7 million people to over 900 nationally recognized, board-certified medical specialists. According to the release, the company reported unaudited revenues of approximately $35 million.

"When it is you or a loved one facing a serious health decision, waiting for weeks to receive a second opinion from an expert isn't acceptable. We've built a scalable Expert Medical Opinion offering that treats every member like family," says Jason Melton, CEO of 2nd.MD. "Combining our Care Teams and technology with Accolade will enhance the reach and quality of support to members from the moment of crisis to the other side of treatment on the path to wellness. We share a common business vision, our cultures are highly aligned around employee purpose and we share a common mission to change healthcare for the benefit of all consumers."

5 PR and marketing tips for Houston startups and small businesses in 2021

guest column

The past year has been a rollercoaster for small businesses. When the pandemic hit, every single person was affected. We've all had to pivot in some way either personally, professionally, or both.

As public relations and marketing professionals who specialize in working with small businesses, we've spent the last 10 months in the trenches with our clients, advising and helping business owners and entrepreneurs navigate these uncertain times. While small business revenue is down since January 2020, it's not all doom and gloom out there – we've seen many other businesses experience unexpected success and growth, and according to economists, we are entering the greatest entrepreneurial economy of our time.

And as we start this new year, there is no better time to invest in business growth and planning. Below are five tips to help you get started.

1. Get smart on your PR

Whether you know a little or a lot about public relations, marketing, and social media, take some time to get caught up on the current landscape. It is constantly changing, and having a better understanding of how traditional media, social media, paid marketing, owned content and all other components can benefit your business will inform decisions about where to allocate your time and resources.

First, assess what stage of business you are in as well as your business goals to determine what PR and marketing tools could be most beneficial to your growth at this time. Not all small businesses are prepared, financially or otherwise, to invest in PR, and there are fundamental steps you can do on your own to get your business positioned to succeed.

With online education booming, there are many free resources and tools at your disposal. We created All You Need Method to simplify PR and marketing for small business owners. You can download our Free PR Roadmap on our website to assess what level of PR support is right for your business. We also created The PR Starter Kit online course to give small business owners the fundamental tools they need to use PR, marketing, and social media to support business growth and build a lasting brand – and it only takes a few hours to complete.

2. Revisit your target audience

The world has changed significantly over the past year and so have the wants, needs, habits, and interests of consumers. As a small business, it's imperative to understand your target audience's current problems in order to relate to them, build trust, and deliver a product or service that is meeting their needs.

Before investing time and financial resources creating and executing a 2021 business plan, take a step back and consider your ideal customer. Outline how the past year has created opportunities or challenges in their life, problems they are facing, new shopping habits, lifestyle shifts, communication preferences, concerns, etc. If you have more than one ideal customer, work through this exercise for each.

With this new perspective, you will be equipped to make business decisions through the lens of how you can better serve your customers, rather than how to increase revenue.

3. Stand for something

Brands that are succeeding today are the brands that are authentic, vulnerable, and that stand for something. According to a global study by Zeno Group in July 2020, consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to purchase and champion purpose-driven companies.

Having a purpose doesn't require a brand to have a philanthropy component or an outspoken political stance – it's about identifying your specific values and making them apparent through your messaging and leadership within your industry. Values could include committing to sustainable production methods, outstanding customer service, commitment to diversity, or supporting a specific cause. What is most important is that your values are authentic and that you can stand behind them long-term.

As the founder/owner of a small business, you have an opportunity to put a face and values behind the brand so that your company is about more than selling something.

4. Clarify your message

After revisiting your target audience and carefully considering your brand values, incorporate those findings into your messaging. Conduct an audit of your website, social media channels, and all external facing materials, and update your messaging to ensure that if your ideal customer had a 30 second encounter with your brand, they would walk away with your most important messaging points. Important points to consider as you craft new messaging include:

  • How your product or service solves a problem for or benefits your target audience
  • Brand values
  • Points of differentiation

5. Be authentic and communicative

Before the days of social media, a brand had to rely on third parties, including editorials and ads in magazines and newspapers, to spread the word about their brand. Social media and all "owned channels," including a brand's website, blog, and newsletter, have leveled the playing field and allow small business owners to have control over their communication with customers. Through your owned channels, a brand can decide what to post and when, which is incredibly valuable.

While securing press and advertising opportunities is valuable to growth and brand awareness, it's largely outside of one's control. Focus your time and financial resources on communicating with your audience by creating content for your owned channels. Creating content and posting consistently can seem overwhelming to a solopreneur or small team, but there are ways to make it manageable:

  • Pick only a few owned channels to focus on, prioritizing platforms you are most familiar with using and where your audience is most active
  • Quality and consistency are more important than quantity. If you're only posting once a week due to bandwidth, commit to that frequency and increase frequency as you are able
  • To inspire and inform content creation, think about how you can serve your customers through your areas of expertise and what is relevant to both your brand and audience (events, holidays, partnerships, new product launches, etc.)
  • Create a content calendar so that you can plan out posts a month in advance to avoid last minute scrambling to decide what to post

Once you've worked through these five tips, make a plan to support your business goals - and start thinking in two phases.

  • Phase 1: Pandemic Home Stretch - Although there is hope with a COVID-19 vaccine, we know we will likely be dealing with the effects indefinitely. Use this time of uncertainty to get your business in the best shape possible.
  • Phase 2: Post Pandemic - How do you want your business or brand to show up when the world opens back up? It feels far off, but it is closer than you think and there is a huge opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work now.

Remember, these challenging times will pass. There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future.

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Kathryn Worsham Humphries and Carla M. Nikitaidis are the co-creators of Houston-based All You Need Method, a PR and marketing resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs.