The Comcast RISE program will give $10,000 grants to 100 BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston, and 150 other BIPOC entrepreneurs will receive technology and marketing assistance. Photo via Getty Images

Grants totaling $1 million are being given to 100 BIPOC-owned small businesses in the Houston area through the Comcast RISE program.

In addition, more than 150 BIPOC-owned small businesses in the region will receive technology and marketing assistance from Comcast RISE. BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous, and people of color.

"COVID-19 made a tough year of 2020. As a small business, what hurt most was being deemed nonessential and having to close our doors," Angelus McFarlane, owner of Houston's Ravlin Martial Arts, says in an April 27 news release from media, cable TV, and internet services giant Comcast. "I'm extremely excited that a business like Comcast has taken an interest to support small businesses. I believe that the technology resources from Comcast will help us, which will then bring more people back and help us grow."

Here's a sampling of recipients of the $10,000 grants in the Houston area:

  • Advantage Motorsports
  • Beyond Music Management
  • Candid Smiles Dentistry
  • Dumpling Haus
  • Hortiprocess
  • Million Cakes
  • OutSmart Media
  • Phuong My Music
  • Trinity Freight Services
  • True Image Orthodontics
  • Wonder Wall Wraps

Houston is among five places where small businesses are getting Comcast RISE grants of $10,000 each. The others are Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

To qualify for a Comcast RISE grant in Houston, a BIPOC-owned small business:

  • Must be located in either Harris County or Fort Bend County.
  • Must have been in business for at least three years.
  • Must employ no more than 25 people.

Overall, Comcast RISE is supporting 13,000 BIPOC-owned small businesses with monetary grants; a TV campaign, production of a TV commercial, or consulting services from Effectv; or computer equipment, internet, voice, or cybersecurity from Comcast Business.

In addition, Comcast RISE has teamed up with Ureeka, an online platform for entrepreneurs, to provide grant recipients with business coaching to help build their skills. The Ureeka platform also will offer access to education and expertise.

"Comcast RISE represents a holistic program that can help advance BIPOC entrepreneurs. The commitment to coaching, capital, and connections is critical for historically overlooked communities in achieving economic prosperity," says Melissa Bradley, co-founder of Ureeka.

Comcast RISE was formed in late 2020 to give BIPOC-owned small businesses various tools to survive and thrive. Among BIPOC-owned small businesses, those run by Black, Hispanic, and Asian entrepreneurs were hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When we launched Comcast RISE, we knew a profound need existed in many of the communities we serve," says Ralph Martinez, Comcast's regional senior vice president in Houston. "We now see firsthand how the program's marketing and technology resources are benefiting Houston business owners, who are working to rise above 2020. We anticipate these awards will have a long-lasting, positive economic impact on these businesses and beyond."

RISE stands for representation, investment, strength, and empowerment.

Comcast is looking out for the one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area that are minority-owned. Photo courtesy of comcast.

Tech company to grant funds to Houston-area BIPOC small business owners

comcast cares

Comcast, the telecom, media, and entertainment conglomerate, is awarding $1 million in grants to small businesses in Houston owned by entrepreneurs who are Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC).

In all, 100 grants of $10,000 each will be given to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Local businesses can apply for the grants March 1-14. Grant recipients will be announced in April and awarded in May.

"Unfortunately, many small businesses in Houston were not able to withstand the many months of suppressed revenues [amid the pandemic]. While we remain optimistic about our economic recovery, public-private partnerships will play a vital role in minimizing the disruptions that so many small businesses, specifically minority-owned businesses, are facing," says Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex-Tatum, who chairs the Houston City Council's Economic Development Committee.

The Houston grants are part of a $5 million investment fund sponsored by Comcast RISE, which launched last year to provide resources to BIPOC-owned small businesses around the country. Under this initiative, grants also will be awarded in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

Studies show BIPOC-owned small businesses have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and recent research by JPMorgan Chase Institute found that Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Philadelphia were among the top markets for sharp declines in local spending. Additionally, the majority of applications for the marketing and technology services component of Comcast RISE are from these five cities.

To qualify for a Comcast RISE grant in Houston, a BIPOC-owned small business:

  • Must be located in either Harris County or Fort Bend County.
  • Must have been in business for at least three years.
  • Must employ no more than 25 people.

To drive outreach about the program and provide support, training, and mentorship, Comcast also has awarded more than $2 million to six Houston business groups: Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Black Chamber, Asian Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston East End Chamber, and Cámara de Empresarios Latinos de Houston.

"Small businesses have always played an integral role in Houston's growth and future," Ralph Martinez, senior vice president for Comcast's Houston region, says in a February 9 release. "In the midst of the pandemic, these entrepreneurs provided many of the services and resources that have kept our communities up and running."

About one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area are minority-owned. Among largest metros in the U.S., Houston ranks fifth for the percentage of minority-owned startups (30.45 percent).

Comcast RISE is part of a broader $100 million diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that launched last summer. In June, Comcast NBCUniversal announced a multiyear plan to allocate $75 million in cash and $25 million worth of media over the next three years to fight injustice and inequality against any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability.

The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

City offers internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians amid pandemic

tech support

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

The Easter Seals of Houston demonstrated new vision control technology from Comcast. Photo courtesy of Easter Seals

Houston nonprofit tests Comcast's new vision control technology for viewers with disabilities

tech for good

A local nonprofit organization has tapped into new technology from Comcast to benefit the community of people with visual disabilities and impairments.

In November 2014, the company announced the industry's first voice-enabled television user interface, a solution that allowed those who are blind or visually impaired to navigate the platform. In May 2015, Comcast announced the Xfinity remote with voice control. Later that same year, the company produced the first live entertainment show in U.S. broadcast history to be accessible to people with visual disabilities.

Continuing on this track of innovation, in June 2019, the company announced eye control for television. Any Xfinity user can now change the channel, set a recording, and search for a show using eye movement, working seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston demonstrated the new technology with their community, posted on the its YouTube page. The demonstration showcased the web-based remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an eye gaze system allowing viewers to control their smart TV.

"While eye gaze technology has existed for quite some time, last summer Comcast launched the Xfinity X1 eye control, which is a web-based TV remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an existing eye gaze system," says Cristen Reat, founder and program director of Easter Seals' BridgingApps. "This feature allows people with physical disabilities, such as Cerebral Palsy, ALS, and spinal cord injuries the ability to change the channel, set a recording and search for a favorite TV show with just their eyes."

Reat tells InnovationMap that most people who have significant physical disabilities are also nonverbal or have nonstandard speech, making a voice remote not a possibility.

"Now, with this new feature, they can do things without relying on a caregiver," says Reat.

The Comcast website states that X1 eye control is free and uses a web page remote control that works seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software, Sip-and-Puff switches, and other existing assistive technologies. To use eye control, Xfinity customers can visit xfin.tv/access and use their Xfinity login credentials to pair the web-based remote with their set-top-box. Then, each time the customer gazes at a button, the web-based remote will send the corresponding command to the television.

"The response from clients we have demonstrated this with has been ecstatic," says Reat. "Something as simple as being able to change the channel independently, without relying on another person's help, can be life-changing."

Reat tells InnovationMap that Comcast and Easter Seals have collaborated in the past.

"We've been great partners, especially over the past few years," says Reat. "Because of that partnership, they reached out to us when they wanted to create awareness about this new feature."

"Changing the channel on a TV is something most of us take for granted but until now, it was a near-impossible task for millions of viewers," says Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility at Comcast in the product launch news release. "When you make a product more inclusive you create a better experience for everyone and we're hoping our new X1 feature makes a real difference in the lives of our customers."

The new $16 million Comcast facility is another feather in the cap of Fort Bend County, which is booming with new business. Courtesy of Comcast

Comcast unveils its $16 million technology center in a growing suburb just outside of Houston

Cable news

At Comcast's new $16 million technology center in Missouri City, technicians for the internet and cable TV provider can "test drive" new product and services at a demo lab and can take classes at Comcast University. It's a far cry from the stereotypical workplace of the "cable guy."

The center represents a cutting-edge expansion for Comcast — and represents yet another feather in the economic-growth cap of Missouri City and Fort Bend County.

On June 19, officials from Comcast, Missouri City government, and the Fort Bend Economic Development Council debuted the 32,000-square-foot center. The center is at 551 Buffalo Lakes Dr., near the intersection of Texas Freeway and Independence Boulevard. Aside from the demo lab and Comcast University classrooms, the center features more than 100 workstations and 15 conference rooms.

The center employs more than 300 technicians, Comcast Business and Xfinity sales professionals. Service technicians install and maintain internet, video, voice, and home security services for residential and business customers in Missouri City and nearby areas, while network technicians build and maintain Comcast's local fiber-optic system.

Employees at the new center previously worked at other offices in the Houston metro area but live in Missouri City and surrounding communities. More than 1,200 people work at Comcast's 10 technology centers throughout the Houston area.

Michael Bybee, director of external communications at Comcast, says Missouri City was picked for the new center because of its strong economic growth and its proximity to major highways and, ultimately, "to bring our employees closer to customers."

Missouri City and Fort Bend County are gaining more potential Comcast customers by the day. From April 2010 to July 2018, the population of Missouri City grew 12.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For Fort Bend County, the population growth rate during the same period stood at 34.7 percent.

Economic growth has accompanied that population growth. Last year, the Comcast center was among several economic development wins scored by Missouri City. An $85 million, 550,000-square-foot Best Buy distribution center and a 200,000-square-foot Warren Valve warehouse and distribution center were two of the other wins.

Fort Bend County as a whole is enjoying economic success. For instance, discount retailer Dollar Tree said in February that it's building a $130 million distribution center on a 140-acre site in Rosenberg that will employ more than 300 people. The company operates more than 1,600 Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores in Texas.

The 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center, on Spur 10 near Klosterhoff Road, is scheduled to open in the summer of 2020.

"When you have a company like Dollar Tree seeing the opportunity that we offer, it just adds to our strengths and builds on our assets," Bret Gardella, executive director of Rosenberg Development Corp., said in a Dollar Tree news release.

The economic growth in Missouri City, Rosenberg and other places in Fort Bend County isn't likely to subside, at least for the next several decades. A report from the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs predicts Fort Bend County will end up being the state's third-fastest-growing county from 2010 to 2050.

"Fort Bend County has continued to top lists for livability and economic success — and there is no sign of slowing down," the Fort Bend Economic Development Council says on its website. "Residents and businesses agree that there's no place better to live or work."

Contributing to Fort Bend County's draw is the presence of five business parks — two in Missouri City, and one each in Rosenberg, Sugar Land, and Stafford. The council touts Fort Bend County as "the hub for industrial development."

Courtesy of Comcast

Aside from the demo lab and Comcast University classrooms, the center features more than 100 workstations and 15 conference rooms.

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Energy company with U.S. HQ in Houston acquires local business

M&A

A renewable energy retailer based in the United Kingdom is once again expanding its presence in Texas with another strategic acquisition.

Octopus Energy US, which is based in Houston, announced that it has signed an agreement to acquire Houston-based energy provider Brilliant Energy LLC in a $2.23 million deal. With the acquisition, Octopus Energy will take on the 9,000 residential customers currently supplied by Brilliant Energy. These users will be transitioned onto Octopus Energy's technology platform Kraken.

"Brilliant Energy is a company that has always stood for quality and unique brand experiences. It complements our strong dedication to bringing unparalleled customer experience to our users," says Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US, in a press release. "This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes."

The acquisition is the latest move from Octopus Energy's plans to invest $100 million into the U.S. energy market and target 25 million U.S. energy accounts by 2027, according to the release.

Last fall, Octopus acquired Houston-based Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal. Evolve was founded by Lee, and he transitioned into his role as Octopus CEO following the deal.

Octopus Energy, which was founded around five years ago, reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April 2020.

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy US. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.