In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rodz explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners.

InnovationMap: How did this partnership come about to provide this this unique credit card for small business owners?

CarolynRodz: We have been looking at ways to support business owners along their capital journeys for a long time. Since we started Hello Alice access to capital has been the number one barrier for small business owners, and that's only magnified when we look at business owners of color and our new majority business owners that we focus on. And so it made natural sense as we went down a path of conversations with MasterCard initially around how do we create something, particularly in a world where accessing capital, which would be daunting for business owners.

There's a lot of talk around venture capital and getting loans and what that growth journey looks like. But the reality is most business owners understand a credit card — they understand how it works. So, that was a great starting point for us. Then we looked at what are some of the issues with cards — all business cards particularly or commodities. They're typically an afterthought from a lot of the financial institutions that offer them. We're seeing a lot of these emerging fintech companies that are rolling out cards, but even for them, the small business audience is typically an afterthought. They're really focused on tech companies and very rapid growth businesses.

It felt like mainstream small businesses were really getting lost in this conversation, so that was where we really wanted to tackle. How do we solve some of these problems — how do we create benefits that are actually meaningful to small business owners? Things like one-on-one coaching and helping them get access to workshops that will help them along their growth journey. Things that they can redeem points for experiences and opportunities that that may not otherwise be accessible through a lot of these business owners.

The other piece that we wanted to support is the large group of businesses that don't qualify for a traditional credit card. And so we, in tandem with our unsecured credit card, also launched a secured card. And the idea for that was that we could actually roll out a credit quality tool. So, in conjunction with all the education and wraparound services that we're offering, there's a six- to nine-month process that a business owner — if they have poor credit history — can go through to build up that credit with a secured credit card and then seamlessly transition into an unsecured card. It's an opportunity to take that first step toward building and growing their business and accessing the capital that they need to grow.

IM: How does this initiative target the inequality in access to capital for small business owners?

CR: Well, nine out of 10 of business owners are relying on their personal credit card when they're applying for financing. When we look at entrepreneurs of color, the rate of low credit score for them is two to three times higher for Black and LatinX entrepreneurs specifically. So for us, this is the importance of building in conjunction with our creating equitable access to credit program that is much broader, frankly, than the card itself, but offering the wraparound services around it, making sure that we are providing the secured to unsecured seamless transition plan.

We're also working with the First National Bank of Omaha, and the reason we selected them at the bank, they're the largest privately held bank in the country. This also gave us the flexibility to really look at alternative underwriting models and the the opportunity to learn through all of the insights that we're gaining around these small business owners. We're trying to figure out how do we start to look at some of these alternative data points and identify not just the financial history of a business owner.

There are a lot of circumstances that lead to poor credit scores, whether it was for a health circumstance that they endured or veteran business owners who may have no credit history because they've been overseas for a long period of time. We're looking at what are some of the data points that are indicating that a business owner is more likely to succeed and more likely to repay the credit that they've taken on. We know already through a lot of research and data points that having a business plan automatically makes you more likely to repay your your debt. Or the fact that you are getting positive feedback from mentors is a strong indicator that you're going to be more likely to pay off some of those debts. And so we're really looking at what are some of these things that may be overlooked but are frankly more indicative of who the business owner is and the potential for their for their business and their opportunities to be able to repay credit that they take off.

IM: What type of small business owners do you feel like this is a really good solution for? What all can they expect from the program?

CR: As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had. When I started this company, I really looked at what was available to the market. This credit card, like many cards, offers benefits that are pretty standard in the market right now. Things like cash back, extra points, and kickers for certain spends that are relevant to small business owners. But again, we really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access.

What we discovered was there are lots of accelerators, programs, and workshops and things — but they're expensive. So, there's an opportunity here. We work with our network of partners that we have for Hello Alice that are traditionally paid or have a cost to roll them out and offer business owners points and earnings that can be spent toward that.

Mentorship, as you know, is a huge, huge barrier, particularly when we look at our new majority entrepreneurs, so all of our cardholders get access to one-on-one coaching for this card. And we've really focused on areas that are primary interest to them, things like business strategy, operations, and financing for their businesses.

And then the other important piece of this is leveraging our partner network. We have so many partners that we work with at Hello Alice, companies that are offering products and tools and services to small business owners. With this card, we're opening up additional discounts beyond what we've already negotiated standards for all of our community, whether it's an extra discount on things like QuickBooks, Salesforce, or different tools that they might be using. We have over 70 affiliate partners that we've already brought into the program working with more every week right now, which is really exciting.

We're also trying to find new opportunities — where can we bring the most benefit these business owners in a way that grows with their company and that, as they're spending and creating traction with their company, our team is working behind the scenes to unlock more and more opportunities every stage of that journey.

IM: Do you feel like this program is a response to the growing challenges small businesses have been facing over the past few years?

CR: I mean, our business certainly had a hell of a couple of years, and 89 percent of small business owners in our community, which is now over a million business owners strong, claim the access to capital is limiting their growth potential. Where we focus a majority of our energy as a company is unlocking those barriers.

As we dig into that, what we're seeing is access to capital — whether that's early days as a credit card or a grant funding, or later stage with loans or even venture capital — is that we need to address this by helping to unlock that journey for business owners, but also making sure that we're supporting them with the opportunities that are relevant to their own stage of growth.

The other piece is revenue generation. We always want to focus on the core and sustainable business health of a company and making sure that they're bringing in revenue and that they've created a business model that actually works and is scalable. We're working a lot on providing them not just money into their business or outside capital, but how do we actually help them generate revenue and clear capital in all the stages unless they have that capital? How do we actually help them deploy that capital in meaningful ways will help them grow their business?

All of the wraparound services that come with the core of what Hello Alice offers — and certainly with this credit card we're getting a deeper layer of insight, because we know more about the businesses, we know how they're spending, what they're doing. We're really learning about how do we additionally support this cohort of business owners with the right wraparound services, making sure that they're getting the right thing at the right time.

What's interesting is that and the reason we really started with the credit card is that 50 percent of small business owners have a personal credit score of 680 or better, and that's strong enough to apply for most business credit cards. However, that score locks them out of getting a business loan, which typically requires a score of 720 or better to qualify. So we're able to tap into a cohort and help them grow this pool of capital in the earliest stages. But really making sure that we're giving them the growth tools that ultimately free them up to go get that loan, to go walk into a main street bank and have that power of choice along their capital journey.

In general, we focus a lot on access to capital. We deployed over $37 million in small business grants to date, and we're continuing to grow that pool. We're actually working right now on an equitable access to capital fund, which will allow us to utilize those grants to actually pay the security deposit for select business owners who may not qualify for additional credit.

Ultimately, this is a really tangible way to work with financial institutions, MasterCard, and our broader partner ecosystem. We haven't seen the statistics move in decades. How do we actually open up more capital to business owners that otherwise wouldn't qualify for it? And this is our our first of many steps toward towards putting a really tangible stake in the ground.

IM: What about the challenges of the pandemic — how do you see COVID-19 and its shutdown affect small businesses?

CR: For us, like many businesses, I think the pandemic was it shook everything up. I think we had a plan and a path forward that always entailed unlocking access to capital and unlocking opportunity — that has never changed for us. But it accelerated a lot of things. We had planned to deploy grant funding in 2020 independent of the pandemic. When COVID hit and we saw these businesses struggling, we quickly pivoted. We accelerated that plan significantly. We started deploying grants within weeks of shelter in place — even before PPP had been announced and before businesses were accessing any government support. We were among the first to offer emergency grants and put us in a really strong position to grow that program and again to accelerate the rollout of that, which is now turned into a much larger program.

That really was, I would say, the acceleration of our entire early stage access to capital continuum. And what we learned from that was how much capital these business owners actually need. The process gave us a lot of information that that has really helped roll out the broader continuum of capital for us. We launched our lending marketplace with over 92 small business lenders all focused on fair and equitable funding, which is available over all as well. And so these credit cards round out that early stage access to capital.

But when we look at our new majority cohort — and even many white male businesses — we have to get business owners of all types that are struggling with access to capital. Everybody's willing to give money to business owners that have traction, that are doing well with their business, that are on a growth path. But it's very hard to get the traction that big investors need, and that's always really struggle.

The pandemic accelerated a lot in this space. It made us realize that the opportunity here is actually much greater to support these businesses and also got a lot of attention from partners. We've been having these conversations for years, frankly, prior to the pandemic. And everybody recognized there was an issue, but I don't think they realized the impact of the issue until COVID hit, and small businesses were the ones that kept operating and made sure that we were getting the resources that we needed to continue to live in a time when everything was a little bit uncertain.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Small business owners now have a new option for their credit and financial support needs, thanks to Hello Alice and Mastercard. Image via Getty Images

Houston small biz tech platform launches entrepreneur-focused credit card

hello credit

When you're a small business owner, every service you sign up for or institution you open an account at should be a helpful partner on your business journey. At least, that's how Hello Alice sees it.

The Houston company has partnered up with Mastercard and First National Bank of Omaha to provide small business owners a suite of financial services with their line of credit. The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard will offer users expert business advice, business insights, cashback, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

“We designed the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard to meet the needs of small business owners where they are, breaking longstanding barriers to mentorship, access to credit, and overall financial health for those who have traditionally been denied access,” says Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, in a statement.

“In times of economic boom and bust, access to capital remains the leading challenge for all small business owners, and particularly for New Majority owners, which is why we continue to focus our efforts on expanding the capital continuum beyond our existing grants and loans programs,” the duo continued.

Offered as a traditional credit card, the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard provides users with credit-building opportunities. Business owners with a limited or poor credit history also have the opportunity to a secured version of the credit card that still provides full benefits from the program.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, yet too often face significant obstacles in securing the resources they deserve, particularly if the owners come from underserved communities,” says Linda Kirkpatrick, president for North America at Mastercard, in the release. “The launch of the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard is an important step in our mission to build a more inclusive digital economy by providing small businesses with the financial tools and capital they need to thrive, while also advancing our half-billion-dollar commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities.”

This initiative is the latest announcement from Hello Alice’s Equitable Access to Capital program, which is focused on increasing access to the capital — as well as financial products, tools, and education — small businesses need to grow sustainably and power the national economy. By 2025, according to Hello Alice, approximately $70 million in grants could fund credit enhancements for approximately 30,000 business owners, unlocking up to $1 billion in credit access.

“FNBO has been committed to helping small businesses succeed for 165 years, and we are proud to partner with Hello Alice and Mastercard in this vital initiative to elevate all small businesses,” says Jerry J. O’Flanagan, executive vice president of Partner Customer Segment at First National Bank of Omaha.


The new credit card will provide credit and financial advice, support, and education to small business owners. Image via helloalice.com

Houstonians are carrying sizable debt into the new year. Photo via LivingDice.com

This is how much credit card debt the average Houstonian carries, says report

MONETARY MISFORTUNE

Residents of Houston are nursing New Year's hangovers of another kind — credit card debt.

According to a LendingTree study of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, Houston consumers rank fourth for the highest median amount of credit card debt to ring in the new year: $3,720. In second place is Austin ($3,911), with Dallas at No. 7 ($3,560). San Antonio holds down the No. 14 spot ($3,414).

Hartford, Connecticut, claims the dubious distinction of ranking first in this category, with median credit card debt of $3,994.

Matt Schulz, LendingTree's chief credit analyst, says people with good credit and high income typically are more inclined to carry bigger credit card balances, since they usually have access to higher credit limits. But he notes that a significant number of younger consumers carry a high amount of credit card debt.

"When you're young and don't have a lot of financial experience, that scary combination can lead to more debt, especially for those living in big, expensive cities," according to LendingTree.

By another yardstick, Texas' four major metros fare much better in the LendingTree study.

Houston ranks 38th for the share of credit card users with debt (81.1 percent). Austin ranks No. 21 (84.7 percent), followed by Dallas at No. 37 (81.2 percent), and San Antonio at No. 48 (75.7 percent).

LendingTree researchers used an anonymized sample of more than 40,000 My LendingTree users from the first 15 days of December 2020 to estimate the percentage of credit card users carrying debt into 2021. They also relied on that data to compile median credit card debts.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."