Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses. Photo via Getty Images

It's clear that the pandemic continues to negatively impact many businesses, and chief among them small, minority-owned businesses. In fact, a study from late last year revealed that minority-owned organizations have been hit disproportionately hard – Black business owners experienced a 41 percent drop in business activity, while Latinx business activity dropped by 35 percent and Asian business activity dropped 26 percent.

Of course, COVID-19 is not the only obstacle that small and minority-owned businesses face. They are also contending with systemic social and economic injustices, civil and social unrest, as well as environmental events. In fact, the pandemic has further spotlighted these ongoing inequities in our communities.

In Houston, nearly 30 percent of startup companies are minority-owned, and studies indicate that Black neighborhoods have driven the majority of start-up growth during the pandemic. These small businesses and their owners have been in survival mode, using their skills, creativity, resources and capacities to keep their doors open and their businesses profitable — but this heavy burden should not fall on them alone.

After all, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. When they don't make it, our nation as a whole suffers: skyrocketing unemployment rates, reduced consumer spending and less optimistic long-term forecasts for all businesses, among other effects. But when they succeed, we all succeed.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses — and that's why last year Comcast created its initiative, Comcast RISE, to help these businesses resolve their challenges and find long-term success.

As part of the first wave of RISE — which stands for "Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment" — we gave eligible minority-owned small businesses located in Houston (and in four other U.S. cities severely impacted by COVID-19) the chance to apply for direct grants of $10,000. More than 700 small businesses received these grants, including more than 200 businesses based in the Houston area. Now, the second round of applications for RISE grants is open, and 100 lucky applicants will be chosen to each receive $10,000.

Two local businesses have already experienced the positive impact that these grants can provide. Ashley Gomez, 132 Design partner – a brand and web design company for small businesses – used their business' RISE grant to invest in technology and professional development for the staff. Since then, 132 Design has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue. Meanwhile, Cori Xiong, owner of the Houston-area staple Mala Sichuan Bistro, was able to pay off her extra business expenses associated with the pandemic, as well as invest in publicity and marketing efforts for her storefronts.

Here's what you need to know if you're a small business owner interested in applying for a grant. If your minority-owned business is eligible — that is, at least 51 percent minority-owned, independently owned and operated, registered as a business in the U.S., in operation for more than a year, and located in Harris or Fort Bend county— simply fill out the form on the Comcast RISE website between October 1 and 14, 2021.

We, at Comcast, are deeply committed to helping drive change and bolster the process of correcting social and economic injustices. The Comcast RISE program helps meaningfully impact and support the small businesses that are shaping our communities. At the end of the day, our economy's success is just part of the equation. It's on all of us to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion for our communities.

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Vince Margiotta is the vice president at Comcast Business.

Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Google grants Houston founders funds, The Ion looks for artists, and more local innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with news, and for this reason, local startup and tech updates may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Comcast RISE program expands to grant more funds, Google names Houston-area recipients from its Black Founder Fund, The Ion is looking for artists to participate in a new initiative, and more.

Google cohort awards Black founders $100,000 each

Google has granted funds to two Houston companies. Photo via Pexels

DOSS and SOTAOG, two Houston-based startups, have received $100,000 each as a part of the second cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, a $10 million initiative for Black founders. Originally reported to be a part of Google's accelerator early this summer, DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and SOTAOG is an enterprise solutions provider within the oil and gas and heavy industrial industries.

"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund embodies our mission of helping underrepresented founders grow their businesses. We are excited to continue the fund and contribute funding to Black founders, with no strings attached. Black founders currently receive less than 1 percent of total VC funding," says Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, in a news release. "We heard loud and clear from the 2020 fund recipients that Google for Startups and Goodie Nation have been crucial to their success not only through funding, but through community, mentorship, network connections and technical expertise."

Last year, Google for Startups awarded 76 Black-led startups up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, as well as technical support from tools and teams across Google, including as much as $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, according to the release.

In addition to the two companies from Houston, eight companies from Austin and Dallas were also chosen for the second program.

The Ion calls for local artists

The Ion is looking for local artists to create innovative window displays. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, a Midtown innovation hub that's owned and operated by Rice Management Company, is looking for local artists to work on two prominent display windows at the front of the newly renovated historic Sears building.

"As a nexus for creativity of many different kinds, The Ion welcomes Houston's talented artists to tap into their unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds to submit inventive proposals that will ultimately comprise two different art installations. Each installation will contribute to Houston's innovation ecosystem by inspiring the growing community of creators who will see the building's display windows on a daily basis," says Artistic Consultant Piper Faust in a news release.

The two art installations will reside for six months — from February to August of next year. The submissions will be evaluated by a team of experts identified by Rice Management Co. and Piper Faust. The budget for each project will be $20,000.

According to the release, the submissions are open to Houston-area artists and should be in line with The Ion's "vision and mission of accelerating innovation, connecting communities and facilitating partnerships to create growth and opportunity in Houston."

Artists can apply online until October 1 at 5 pm.

Comcast RISE announces additional $1 million for Houston founders

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

The Comcast RISE program will give out another batch of $10,000 grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which announced funding for 100 small businesses in Houston earlier this year, has expanded to provide an additional $1 million in support. The program is focused on BIPOC-owned small businesses in Harris and Fort Bend Counties that have been in business for three or more years with 1 to 25 employees.

Eligible businesses can apply online at ComcastRISE.com beginning October 1 through October 14 for one of the one hundred $10,000 grants.

Houston startup wins $25,000

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, won $25,000 for her company. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Dallas-based Impact Ventures, a nonprofit startup accelerator focused on empowering women and communities of color, hosted its bi-annual event, The Startup Showcase. A Houston-based company, Church Space, took the top prize of $25,000.

Billed as the "Netflix of churches," Church Space originally started as a way to allow groups to rent spaces for worship. But, in light of the pandemic, the company is pivoted to launch Church Space TV, a streaming program that allows churches and ministries to stream worship services for free.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, previously told InnovationMap. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time."

The company is also one of MassChallenge Texas's 2021 cohort.

Houston health care leader receives prestigious award

Dr. Peter Hotez, a leader in the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, has been named the recipient of a prestigious award. ​Photo courtesy of TCH

Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children's Hospital Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, has been awarded the 2021 David E. Rogers Award. Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The annual award, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, "honors a medical school faculty member who has made major contributions to improving the health and health care of the American people," according to a news release.

"I am thrilled to be honored with the David E. Rogers Award," Hotez says in the release. "As we continue this fight against COVID-19, having the additional support from the AAMC will amplify our efforts to improve public health nationally and globally."

The award will be presented to Dr. Hotez at the 2021 AAMC Awards Recognition Event on Wednesday, October 27.

Hotez is leading the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, according to the release, and he has dedicated much of his time to vaccine advocacy efforts, countering rising antivaccine and anti-science sentiments in the United States while promoting vaccine diplomacy efforts globally.

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Corporations can help level the playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses

Guest column

There were times when I wasn't sure what to do next.

When I started Connect the Dots PR in 2012, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on people in the PR industry to guide me in terms of pricing and feedback. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but you hope not to use them.

My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. I didn't have time to wait it out or say let's see what happens. It was time to move strategically.

Like most businesses, we hit a snag. A big chunk of our client base was reeling with corporate layoffs, shutdowns and revamped budgets. We've held on, but at times, it was overwhelming. I remember when the pandemic initially shut everything down, my fear was what is going to happen to my business and those that depend on me, such as employees, vendors, clients and contractors? At the onset of the pandemic, an employee came to me and said if I needed to let them go they understood. It hurt to do so, but it was a mutual decision and he landed on his feet and relocated to another state.

For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building Connect the Dots PR, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.

While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they've gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, which includes Hispanic and Asian American communities among others, more severely than white ones, BIPOC-owned businesses have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we're just now embarking upon.

The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.

First and foremost, there needs to be an investment in people of color-owned businesses from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Six months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program which, since late last year, has invested in 2,500 BIPOC-owned businesses nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received the Comcast RISE Investment Fund for Connect the Dots PR, which provided relief when it was most needed. With this grant, I have been able to focus on the business and invest in my brand.

We're not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. Houston was also one of five cities selected to award a $10,000 grant to 100 local businesses from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which is the grant I received. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for people of color business owners.

Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don't discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.

That way, when the next crisis hits, you'll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we'll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that's a business plan worth holding onto.

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Vanessa Wade, is the founder and owner of Houston-based PR firm Connect the Dots.

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

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

fresh funding

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.

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How universities can help equip Houston with a skilled cybersecurity workforce

guest column

With an increasing number of data breaches, a high job growth rate, and a persistent skills gap, cybersecurity professionals will be some of the most in-demand workers in 2022. It’s more important than ever to have people that are properly trained to protect individuals, corporations, and communities.

Demand for cybersecurity talent in Texas is high. According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, employers in the Houston metro area have posted over 24,000 cybersecurity jobs since the beginning of 2021. But the pipeline of cybersecurity workers is very low, which means many local and national companies don’t have enough people on the front lines defending against these attacks.

Unfortunately, it looks like the cybersecurity skills gap is far from over. An annual industry report from the Information Systems Security Association shows that the global demand for cybersecurity skills still far exceeds the current supply of traditionally qualified individuals, with 38 percent of cybersecurity roles currently unfilled. This shortage has real-life, real-world consequences that can result in misconfigured systems and improper risk assessment and management.

How can companies help close the cybersecurity skills gap within their own organizations? We believe it will become increasingly important to look beyond “traditionally qualified” candidates and view hands-on experience as the same, or even more important than, the certifications or bachelor degree requirements often found in cybersecurity job descriptions.

The top open cybersecurity roles in the Houston area include analysts, managers, engineers, and developers. Employees in these positions are essential to the everyday monitoring, troubleshooting, testing and analyzing that helps companies protect data and stay one step ahead of hackers. When looking to fill these roles, hiring managers should be looking for candidates with both the knowledge and experience to take on these critical positions.

Fortunately, Houston-based companies looking to establish, grow, or upskill their cybersecurity teams don’t have to go far to find top-tier talent and training programs. More local colleges and universities are offering alternative credential programs, like boot camps, that provide students with the deep understanding and hands-on learning they need to excel in the roles that companies need to fill.

2U, Inc. and Rice University have partnered to power a data-driven, market-responsive cybersecurity boot camp that provides students with hands-on training in networking, systems, web technologies, databases, and defensive and offensive cybersecurity. Over 40 percent of the students didn’t have bachelor degrees prior to enrolling in the program. Since launching in 2019, the program has produced more than 140 graduates, some of whom have gone on to work in cybersecurity roles at local companies such as CenterPoint Energy, Fulcrum Technology Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

Recognizing programs like university boot camps as local workforce generators not only gives companies a larger talent pool to recruit from, but also increases the opportunity for cybersecurity teams to diversify and include professionals with different experiences and backgrounds. We’re living in a security-first world, and the right mix of cybersecurity talent is essential to keeping us protected wherever we are.

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David Vassar is assistant dean of professional and corporate programs at Rice University. Bret Fund is vice president overseeing cybersecurity programs at 2U.

Houston's billionaire benefactors gift another $1 million to citywide charity

a united front

Arguably Houston’s most recognizable benefactors, Rich and Nancy Kinder have done it again. The billionaire couple, known for mammoth donations throughout the city, have just donated $1 million to the United Way of Greater Houston, the organization announced.

According to the United Way, the Kinders’ gift addresses the impact of the pandemic on the local economy, and how it has raised unemployment, drained household finances, and strained nonprofit basic needs resources.

“Lifting up the many hard-working families and individuals in our community and supporting their pathway to self-sufficiency is an effective and critically important approach,” said Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation. “We support United Way of Greater Houston’s new strategic vision because we recognize the impact it can have on those seeking a sustainable quality of life.”

As CultureMap has previously reported, the Kinders are longtime donors to the United Way; this is the third consecutive year the couple has made a $1 million campaign gift at the nonprofit’s Luminary Leadership Giving level.

That Luminary Leadership Giving level is the highest within United Way of Greater Houston’s Alexis de Tocqueville Society, which is a group of generous individuals currently numbering more than 700. The group is noted for making gifts of $10,000 or more annually to United Way of Greater Houston. The group contributed more than $17 million to United Way last year, per a press release.

This year, the Kinders landed on the annual Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. Houstonians will no doubt recognize the couple from other hefty local allotments, including the game-changing, $70 million donation to Memorial Park.

They are also behind the stunning and newly opened Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston med device company secures first patient for clinical trial

health care tech

The first patient has been enrolled in a nationwide clinical trial that will evaluate the safety of Houston-based Saranas’ device for early detection of bleeding during minimally invasive heart procedures.

The initial patient was enrolled earlier this month at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey. The trial will eventually enroll up to 265 patients across the U.S.

Saranas’ Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System aids the detection of bleeding during high-risk percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) procedures using mechanical circulatory support (MCS). In the clinical trial, the MCS will be the Impella heart pump.

PCI refers to minimally invasive procedures for opening clogged coronary arteries. MCS boosts heart function when the organ can’t perform at its best. The trial will test the ability of the Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System to detect serious or potentially fatal bleeding.

“As the field of minimally invasive, catheter-based procedures continues to advance, patient safety is paramount,” Dr. Babar Basir, director of acute mechanical circulatory support at Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System and co-principal investigator of SAFE-MCS, says in a news release. “This study will collect comprehensive procedural data in patients undergoing PCI with MCS.”

The data then will be reviewed to determine how real-time monitoring of bleeding can improve a patient’s health, Basir says.

Dr. Philippe Généreux, co-director of the Structural Heart Program at Morristown Medical Center, is the other co-principal investigator for the clinical trial.

“SAFE-MCS is the first prospective trial focused exclusively on the impact of integrating bleed monitoring in large-bore access for high-risk protected PCI patients,” says James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas, a medical device startup.

About one-fifth of patients will experience bleeding complications during “large bore” blood vessel procedures such as percutaneous MCS, transcatheter aortic valve replacement, and endovascular aneurysm repair. The estimated cost of one bleeding complication during these large-bore procedures is $18,000, adding up to an annual cost of $729 million for health care providers.

The Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System is the first and only device approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for real-time monitoring of bleeding problems during endovascular procedures for repair of blood vessels.

Saranas’ collaborators in the clinical trial are Proxima Clinical Research, a Houston-based contract research organization, and South Korea’s CardioVascular Research Foundation. The Early Bird study is expected to be completed by January 2023.

Since being founded in 2013, Saranas has collected $31.5 million in funding. This includes a $12.8 million Series B round that Saranas received this summer from Chicago-based Baird Capital and Austin-based S3 Ventures.

The Early Bird device was developed at Houston’s Texas Heart Institute. The FDA approved the device in 2019.