Joy Jones is opening her Oak Forest location of Code Wiz later this month. Screenshot via Code Wiz

A Houstonian has switched up her career to focus on inspiring and equipping children STEM-focused skills.

Joy Jones, who has worked for a decade in the corporate world, is starting the new year with a new career — this one focused on her passion of providing more STEM programming access to students. In 2021, she came across Code Wiz, a coding school franchise based in Massachusetts with 19 locations across the country, and met with Ruth Agbaji, CEO and "nerd-in-chief" of the company.

“Talking with Ruth and hearing the story of her mission to touch 1 million kids through Code Wiz, I found exactly what I’ve been looking for, a mission that aligned with mine,” says Jones, in a news release.

Code Wiz features a Montessori-style approach, according to the release, and classes are project-based so that students are able to explore at their own pace while building confidence and interest. Here are some of the things Code Wiz students engage with:

  • Build multi-level video games
  • Create animation
  • Introduction to Python
  • Website development in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Enroll in classes for Roblox, Minecraft and Unity
  • Enter robotics competitions
  • Celebrate birthday parties and programs for local Girl Scout troops

The Houston area is already home to two Code Wiz locations — one in Cypress and the other in Katy — and Jones is bringing the third oneto Houston proper in Oak Forest on the northside of Houston later this month.

"We have a chance to teach young learners in Oak Forest and the surrounding central Houston area, the language of the future – coding – in a language they already understand in games and robotics,” she continues.

Classes at Code Wiz Oak Forest begin next week, and the location is celebrating its grand opening on Saturday, January 14, from 10 am to 1 pm. with classes starting the week before. Per the release, Founding Family memberships are currently available to the first 50 families who sign up to receive 31.4 percent off a lifetime membership.

A Houston startup is making it easier to connect and manage the relationship between tech freelancers and businesses with software projects. Image via Pexels

This Houston startup is changing the way companies access tech talent

freelancers unite

With the gig economy continuing to grow — especially in light of the COVID-19-caused crisis and growing unemployment — a Houston startup has created a portal for companies to access technology-focused freelancers.

FreelancingTeams, co-founded by Raj Kal, allows companies to easily search and find tech professionals for projects — as well as manage that team throughout the work. On the other side of the table, the startup is allowing the country's growing population of freelancers a platform to get picked up for jobs.

"We are changing the way we look at team building," Kal says, noting that a huge percentage of freelancers struggle to find jobs with existing resources.

Not only does FreelancingTeams act as a marketplace for tech talent, but Kal says the platform allows for project management and payment processes. While there are other talent portals — like Fiverr and Upwork — this added capability sets the startups apart from its competition.

"People come in with an idea, and they can do it from start to finish," Kal says, explaining that users don't have to find separate tools to find their team, manage the project, and price and pay for the work.

FreelancingTeams is free for clients to list and staff their projects, and a 10 to 15 percent cut comes out of the freelancer side. However, there is an option for clients to upgrade to a paid subscription option for larger, more complex projects that require additional hands-on management resources from FreelancingTeams.

With its free option, FreelancingTeams has seen a lot of interest from startups looking to build there minimum viable product, or MVP.

"We are working with a lot of startups as a Station Houston partner," Kal says. "We are helping them get their MVP done, so that when they come to our platform, we can work with them to understand the requirements and connect them to their teams."

Betsy Furler, founder of For All Abilities, a Houston-based software company aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism, recently used FreelancingTeams to staff her MVP development project. She says using the platform made it easy to manage and test the work the freelancers were doing.

"FreelancingTeams helped me build my MVP quickly and inexpensively," Furler says. "Their quote was much less expensive than the others [I received] and the work was fantastic. Because of the platform, I also spent more time thinking through what features were needed and how to prioritize them, rather than just giving a developer or project manager a list to complete."

Outside of affordably building tech for startups, the coronavirus has greatly affected the workforce with unemployment at a historic high. This has led to an increased interest in freelancing.

"A lot of people are unemployed and are looking for alternative options," Kal says. "Freelancing is a place where we are seeing large growth."

He says he's also observing an increased interest in freelancers from large companies and even retailers who need to upgrade their online presence.

"The COVID situation has brought more challenges to bigger businesses, and they are looking for cost-effective solutions as well," Kal says.

Kal is looking to grow FreelancingTeams, which might include fundraising in the future, he says. For now, the company has a low overhead and uses freelancers on its own site to develop its technology.

"The next step for us is to grow bigger in Houston and then around Texas," Kal says.

Daytum exists to train coding experts in oil and gas. Getty Images

Houston startup aims to arm the energy industry's workforce with coding skills

Coding camps

Nearly 2,000 miles separate the energy industry of Houston and Silicon Valley where startups have cropped up to help manage the thousands of data points collected on oil rigs each day. The different geographies have developed their own dialects: data scientists on the West Coast talk about how operations should be, according to their models, while the lingo of Third Coast engineers and technicians centers on oil-specific operations.

Last year, while working in natural resource investing from Houston, Kunal Rayakar realized he had heard from a number of students who could, uniquely, speak both. The reason: They knew coding languages, which meant they could analyze their own data and bridge that gap between the coasts. When Rayakar followed the trail of students to the University of Texas at Austin, he found two engineering professors, John Foster and Michael Pyrcz, who were teaching their students data skills as part of the curriculum. They started talking, and eventually Foster and Rayakar founded daytum — and soon after, Pyrcz joined, too.

"The intention is to give people more awareness of the data that comes through, so they can make faster decisions," Rayakar says.

An education program for workers in the energy industry, daytum hosts workshops and an online learning network for technicians and engineers to better understand the data they're working with. This, Rayakar says, helps them exercise more control over the work — especially for those whose preliminary training in the field was before data became indispensable to the job. The professors and Kunal host two– or five-day workshops, and just a few weeks ago, they held both introductory and intermediate courses at the University of Houston.

The professors teach Python, a common programming language. Although there's a learning curve to studying Python, it's not as confusing as some of the tools, like MATLAB, that engineers studied in their undergraduate educations. But students don't actually have to become Python experts at all — instead, they use Jupyter, an online digital notebook that can import Python packages, which are large and ready-made coding sequences.

Often, these are free and available to download on sites like Github. Daytum professors teach packages that are useful for analyzing and visualizing the data they work with in the field, and students leave having a usable workstation on their computers, ready to be installed and implemented in their work.

"People really enjoyed the courses," Rayakar says. "We were really happy."

But right now, daytum's main goal is to continue to grow its workshops — including introducing Austin bootcamps, to engage people in learning, and to empower oil industry technicians to navigate the industry's digital transition more smoothly.

"By building longer-term solutions and cultures, we can build better educations," Rayakar says.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

Class project

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Houston's job market has seen a growing demand for coders, as companies seek to bring coding in house. DigitalCrafts is stepping in to provide an educated workforce. Courtesy of DigitalCrafts

Houston coding class grows tenfold in 2 years to meet the job market needs

Back to school

When DigitalCrafts hosted its first coding boot camp in Houston, it opened with eight people. Two years later, the organization's next class will graduate 125 people as coders, ready to take on the challenges of the Bayou City's 21st century work environment.

"We work with local companies as part of our advising board," says Jason Ephraim, the Houston campus director. "And our students go to work for those companies when they complete our program. That kind of localization helps us understand what the Houston ecosystem needs in terms of workforce skills, and allows us to adapt our curriculum to meet their needs, which helps us ensure our graduates get placed."

DigitalCrafts began in Atlanta, co-founded by Max McChesney and Jake Hadden. The Houston outpost is only the second expansion for the company, a move Ephraim says is a deliberate; DigitalCrafts looks to make small, impactful changes as a company, better ensuring it meets the needs of both its students and the workforce they'll enter.

The company offers a project-based curriculum, where outside companies come into the classroom and describe the challenges they're facing. Students are then offered the opportunity to work in teams on digital solutions, providing an experiential learning environment that mirrors what they might find in their careers.

"In Atlanta, we work with companies like the Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, but here in Houston, where energy is still dominant, we have companies come in and explain the tools they need to maximize their business," Ephraim says. "That means students are working on actual projects with an end result for a business, and it gives them exposure to area businesses."

That combination of providing a deep dive into coding and partnering with Houston companies helps DigitalCrafts graduates get an edge on the competition. The program itself is super hands on, and most of the students who come into it have taken at least one computer programming course, most likely Python or JavaScript, whether in the course of their college education or via a MOOC (massive open online course).

"For most of our students, that exposure wasn't enough and they want a deeper dive," says Ephraim.

DigitalCrafts offers both full- and part-time class options. The full-time program is 16 weeks and fully immersive. Students take courses every day, building on skills and training as full-stack developers. The part-time sessions unfold across 26 weeks, and students learn front- and back-end web development.

"Our goal has always been to help our students be ready for careers in all aspects of software and web development," says Ephraim. "The average student is 30, and looking to either make a career change to coding and development, or wants to enhance what he or she has already learned."

The vetting process for students is exacting, explains Ephraim. Each applicant is evaluated based not only on what he or she knows and is looking to learn, but also in terms of what his or her individual career goals are. DigitalCrafts looks to ensure that its programs will meet the needs of its students.

Ephraim says that given Houston's current job landscape, the need for coders is strong — and growing.

"Over the last two years, we're seeing companies who used to outsource this kind of development bringing it back in-house," he says. "That's created a really high demand for people who understand coding and programming and know how to solve problems. And it's not just happening at energy companies. It's happening in finance, in health care."

In short, the industries that play a huge role in keeping the Houston economy ticking.

In addition to offering its in-depth boot camps, DigitalCrafts also contracts with companies to train employees. The company will either offer basic classes or work with an organization to custom-create a curriculum based on individual needs. Ephraim says that his organization has had success in the Bayou City because it's made it a point to understand the local landscape, as well as look at the larger picture of what digital careers here look like.

"Houston isn't like Austin, where you have that almost stereotypical idea of people walking around with their laptops and working in coffee shops," Ephraim says. "The digital landscape here is different, and there are jobs here for those who know how to fill this need. Companies here want to hire Houstonians. We're here to help make sure they can."

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Climatetech incubator announces C-suite promotion, Houston jobs, and nonprofit transition

greentown updates

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

Photos: Houston coworking company expands with new location

open for biz

Calling all coworkers north of Houston — there's a new spot in town to set up shop.

The Cannon, a coworking company with locations in Houston and Galveston, has expanded north of Houston for the first time. A new Cannon workspace opened at The Park at Fish Creek retail center (618 Fish Creek Thoroughfare) in Montgomery last month. On February 1 at 4 pm, the new community is holding an open house to tour the space.

“The Cannon is a Houston innovation institution, and we meet demand where innovators and entrepreneurs live—in this case, Montgomery County,” says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. “The goal is to grow The Cannon community – and entrepreneurship overall – regionally, via the Fish Creek brick-and mortar space, and to also expand utilization of our digital community platform, Cannon Connect.”

With 8,100 square feet of space, the facility has 19 private offices, three conference rooms, and several gathering and working areas. Memberships — from assigned desks and private space to day passes — are now available. All Fish Creek members receive access to Cannon Connect, a global, digital community platform that provides resources, networking and building blocks for business growth.

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

This Houston entrepreneur is enabling fashion upcycling for more sustainable style

houston innovators podcast episode 170

When shopping online one day, Hannah Le saw a need for a platform that allowed transactions between upcycling fashion designers and shoppers looking for unique, sustainable pieces.

Le created RE.STATEMENT, an online shopping marketplace for upcycled clothing. Before RE.STATEMENT, designers were limited to Etsy, which is focused on handmade pieces, or Poshmark and Depop, which are dedicated to thrift finds. Upcycle fashion designers didn't have their own, unique platform to sell on — and, likewise, shoppers were scattered across sites too.

"These marketplaces are really good for what they do," Le says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but, whenever I think of someone looking for something unique and sustainable, it's hard for me to imagine finding that on these marketplaces."

The platform soft launched in December with 25 upcycling designers and over 1,200 buyers that had been on the company's waitlist for almost nine months. Now that the site is live, Le hopes to give both buyers and sellers quick access to transactions.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le explains. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

Le says that she started with buyers to see what exactly they were looking for, then she searched and found the designers looking to sell their pieces, and the current platform is dynamic and flexible to the needs of users within her community.

"Even today, it changes every single day depending on how users are interacting with the website and what sellers are saying that they need — really communicating with buyers and sellers is how the marketplace is evolving," she says.

RE.STATEMENT's ability to quickly evolve has been due to its early stage, Le explains on the show. She's not yet taken on institutional funding or hired anyone else other than tech support. She says this allows her to quickly make changes or try out new things for users.

"For me, there are still so many things I want to prove to myself before I bring others involved," she says. "To start, it's coming up with new opportunities for buyers to interact with the website so that we can keep learning from them."

Le has already proven some success to herself. Last year, she took home one of three prizes offered at the city's Liftoff Houston competition. The contest, which gives Houston entrepreneurs pitch practice and mentorship, awarded RE.STATEMENT $10,000 for winning in the product category.

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le says of the competition where she got to introduce her business to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a whole new audience of people. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shares more about her vision for RE.STATEMENT and the integral role Houston plays in her success on the show.