The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will have online resources as well as an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA. Photo courtesy of Urban Land Institute Houston

Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, and the YMCA of Greater Houston is looking to do its part to promote equity innovation by opening a new center.

The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will be the first of its kind in the region, and it will operate as a space for Houstonians to gather and collaborate.

"The YMCA of Greater Houston vows to stand with our brothers and sisters who are made to feel less safe by the many recent incidents – fighting for health equity in the face of the inequities being laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and unjust killings," says Stephen Ives, president and CEO, YMCA of Greater Houston, in a press release. "The Y will continue expanding and strengthening its commitment to combat racism, bias, prejudice and inequalities while fighting for justice."

The center will provide resources and activities so that visitors and collaborators can "walk away with a solid learning or unlearning" of social justice issues that are prominent in both Houston and nationally.

Rolling out in three phases, the project's first step is to foster conversations, consulting, and online trainings regarding systemic racial inequities. The next two phases will include setting up an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA, which would come to fruition by early next year.

The project is made possible by Reliant, a partner of the YMCA of Greater Houston.

"At Reliant, we respect, recognize and celebrate that our differences shape us, and that diversity and inclusion make us stronger. We're committed to powering change and supporting progress in the places where we live and work," says Elizabeth Killinger, president at Reliant, in the release. "By powering the Equity Innovation Center, we hope to further strengthen Houston so we can harness our full potential and make lasting change for future generations."

Reliant has donated $100,000 to the project, which will be distributed in $50,000 commitments over two years. The sum is a part of Reliant and NRG's "Powering Change" initiative, which has committed $1 million to go to organizations that combat racial inequities, injustice, and related violence, according to the release.

"We are grateful Reliant is joining our efforts to implement lasting and meaningful change within our community and beyond. We know that when we work as one, we move people and communities forward," Ives says.

Stephen Ives (left) is the president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Houston, and Elizabeth Killinger is president of Reiliant. Images courtesy

The Ion has tapped DivInc. as a partner. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion announces partnership with nonprofit to serve Houston's diverse entrepreneurs

diving into diversity

Houston is ranked the No. 1 diverse city in the nation, and a local organization has forged a new partnership to make sure that diversity is represented within the city's innovation ecosystem.

The Ion, an innovation hub currently rising in Midtown Sears Building, and DivInc, a Texas nonprofit, have agreed to partner to advance diversity among Houston entrepreneurs. It's Austin-based DivInc's first Houston initiative, according to a news release.

"Our experience equipping diverse entrepreneurs with strategies to create exceptional companies, coupled with the Ion's enthusiasm and thoughtful approach to building an inclusive space where entrepreneurs from all walks of life can thrive is a winning combination," says Preston L. James, founder and CEO of DivInc, in the release.

"No matter where they are in their entrepreneur journey, we want all Houstonians to know DivInc is here to help you achieve your biggest dreams."

Since its founding in 2016, DivInc has worked to provide over 60 founders and more than 50 tech companies with resources and support for growth. Locally, DivInc is already working on programming to extend its reach to Houston entrepreneurs, including a kick-off event at The Ion on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 pm.

"As The Ion looked for a partner to provide best practices and resources to our local business communities and leaders that have historically been overlooked, we knew our partner needed to be ambitious, thoughtful and encouraging, but also have a record of success and experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with entrepreneurs," says Deanea LeFlore, senior director of The Ion, in the release.

"Our efforts and relationship with DivInc will do just that. We can't wait to help our stakeholders take their businesses to new heights and further demonstrate Houston is the best city in America for diverse entrepreneurs to thrive."

A new study ranks Houston as the country's 10th most ethnically diverse large city. Getty Images

Houston named a top 10 big city for ethnic diversity by new study

BAYOU CITY BRAGGING RIGHTS

Houston prides itself on its diversity — and rightfully so. A new study ranks Houston as the country's 10th most ethnically diverse large city.

Among 501 U.S. cities, Houston also ranks 28th overall and first in Texas, according to the study, released February 11 by personal finance website WalletHub.

To come up its ranking, WalletHub measured three key indicators of ethnic diversity: language, ethnicity and race, and birthplace. Houston ranks 25th for language diversity, 36th for ethnic and racial diversity, and 244th for birthplace diversity.

This finding differs from a study by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research that found Houston was the most ethnically and racially diverse metro area in the U.S. as of 2010. Why the disparity? The WalletHub study looked at data for the city of Houston, while the Kinder Institute study examined data for the entire Houston metro area.

The new finding also differs from a broader WalletHub study published in April 2019. In that study, Houston was crowned the most diverse city in the U.S., based on socioeconomic, cultural, economic, household, and religious diversity. Ethnic diversity is only one component of that ranking.

"Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. But diversity alone is not enough — we must always strive to be more inclusive," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted in December 2019. "As your mayor, I know that diversity and inclusivity are what makes us strong. And I will always work to build one complete Houston."

However you slice it, Houston leads the pack in Texas for ethnic and racial diversity. Here's how other major cities in the Lone Star State fare in the new WalletHub study:

  • Arlington, No. 38
  • Plano, No. 46
  • Dallas, No. 47
  • Fort Worth, No. 62
  • Austin, No. 73
  • San Antonio, No. 136

While Austin and cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area don't rank particularly high in the WalletHub study, Austin and DFW do show up on a recent list of the country's most racially diverse metro areas.

DFW held the No. 11 spot in the Bloomberg news service's 2018 ranking of racial diversity among the 100 largest U.S. metros, while Austin stood at No. 19. Houston bested both of those areas, though, landing at No. 5.

Austin and Dallas didn't perform as well in a racial and ethnic index compiled by U.S. News & World Report.

The index shows the racial and ethnic diversity of Dallas actually slipped 3.4 percent from 2010 to 2018, with Austin's diversity declining by 0.10 percent. The decrease was 2.6 percent in San Antonio and 1.2 percent in Houston, the index shows.

The diversity picture was brighter in other Texas cities included in the U.S. New & World Report index, which measured racial and ethnic diversity in U.S. cities with at least 300,000 residents. Arlington saw its racial and ethnic diversity rise 3.6 percent from 2010 to 2018, with Fort Worth at 1.8 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based Work & Mother is rethinking how new mothers pump in the office. Courtesy of Work & Mother

This growing Houston company is revolutionizing the way new mothers pump in the office

Pump it up

A new mom returning to work is probably dreading her new daily inconvenience of taking the time out of the workday to pump her breast milk.

While some employers provide a wellness room to us, but the more likely scenario is that she will have to pump in your car, an empty conference room or the bathroom. And once she is done pumping, she'll have to wash her equipment in the kitchen sink, alongside her coworkers' coffee mugs or dirty Tupperware containers.

One newly launched company mission is to make that scenario a thing of the past.

Work & Mother is a boutique pumping and wellness center that opened its first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. The 600-square-foot space opened on the first floor of 712 Main St. and offers memberships to companies and individuals, regardless of whether they work in the building.

Abbey Donnell founded the company after speaking with friends who recently returned to work after giving birth.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Work & Mother offers its members several private pumping rooms, private pumping office spaces, a kitchen area, member lockers and a small retail section where members can buy pumping and wellness equipment. The company's pitch to individual mothers is simple: come to us for privacy and community. But its pitch to companies is more rooted in regulations.

Per the Fair Labor Standards Act Section 7(r), companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." Companies that aren't in compliance with Section 7(r) — and lack the resources to do so — can either purchase individual or company memberships to Work & Mother.

"The reception from moms has been incredible," Donnell says. "I've gotten a lot of support from women who are older in their fields, who talk about how [pumping in the office] was a horrible experience for them."

Work & Mother is planning its second location, which will also be in downtown Houston, but Donnell declined to share additional details. When she started the company in 2017, she took minimal investments from friends and family, she says. But in anticipation of the company's second location, Work & Mother will likely launch a pre-seed fundraising round this summer, Donnell says. No financial figures have been finalized, but Donnell says the tentative plan is to raise roughly $1 million.

The company is also hoping to open in cities such as Chicago, New York, Austin, and Dallas in the near future.

Work & Mother isn't targeting companies that are solely concerned about meeting Section 7(r) compliance, Donnell says. Rather, she's hoping to show companies that investing in the well-being of new mothers is essential to running a successful business – and it's the right thing to do.

"If there's an employer who really only cares about the compliance, then they're not exactly a good fit, because they'll convert a closet and check that box," Donnell says.

But what Donnell says she's found refreshing is that most of the companies she's interacted with have had great feedback for her. They're trying to recruit — and retain — top female talent, she says.

More soon

Courtesy of Work & Mother

Donnell has plans for a second Houston location, as well as an expansion to other major United States cities.

The Bayou City has been named the top Texas metro for minority entrepreneurial success. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Houston named a top city for minority entrepreneur success

Melting pot

Houston reigns as the top major metro area in Texas for successful minority entrepreneurs, a new study shows.

The Houston area ranks No. 11 in the study, done by lending marketplace LendingTree, with Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 17, Austin at No. 29, and San Antonio at No. 34. In all, the study measures the success of minority entrepreneurs in the country's 50 largest metro areas.

Houston is no stranger to high marks for its minority-entrepreneur environment.

In 2017, Expert Market ranked Houston the No. 1 city in the U.S. for minority entrepreneurs. A year earlier, Rice University's Kinder Institute noted that the Houston area ranked sixth in the U.S. for metro-area concentrations of minority entrepreneurs.

For its ranking, LendingTree looked at four metrics:

  • Percentage of self-employed minorities in each metro area. (It's 2.5 percent in Houston).
  • Minority businesses ownership parity. A metro area scores well in this regard if the share of minority-owned businesses aligns with the percentage of minority residents. (Houston received a score of 59 in this category, with 100 being a perfect score.)
  • Percentage of minority-owned businesses that posted at least $500,000 in annual revenue. (It's 46.7 percent in Houston.)
  • Percentage of minority-owned businesses that have operated for at least six years. (It's 56.2 percent in Houston).

Ingrid Robinson, president of the Houston Minority Supplier Development Council, credits the Houston area's strong showing in the LendingTree study to a number of factors.

For one thing, minority entrepreneurs in Houston enjoy access to a vast array of resources at each stage of a business' growth, she says. For example, Houston Minority Supplier Development Council tailors its programs, seminars, and services to minority businesses in four revenue categories, ranging from less than $1 million a year to more than $50 million a year.

Furthermore, Robinson says, business development groups in the Houston area work more collaboratively than they do in many other regions.

"We truly try not to duplicate efforts, but to support one another and direct minority entrepreneurs to the appropriate organization that can best meet their needs," she says.

Robinson underscores the diversity of industries in the Houston area, including energy, healthcare, and aerospace. This diversity helps sustain business activity during tough economic times, she says.

Then, there's the fact that Houston is diverse in its demographics. A report released by Rice University proclaimed Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse major metro area in the U.S. More than 145 languages are spoken throughout the region by a robust mix of white, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian residents.

"Houston is the only place in America that you can go to today that reflects the demographics projected for our entire country in 20 years," Robinson says. "So we have the opportunity to lead the way in showing the rest of our nation that minority business is good business for everyone."

Minority-owned businesses in the Houston area enjoy strong support from local, county, and state elected officials, Robinson says.

"The tone set by our governing bodies to ensure the broadest inclusion of minority entrepreneurs in governmental contracts makes Houston attractive to individuals seeking opportunities," Robinson says.

During his 2015 election campaign, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stressed that a competitive business environment — including a thriving community of minority-owned, woman-owned and small businesses — "is critical to Houston's future economic health."

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Space City News: Houston passed over for military HQ, Rice forms new partnerships

aerospace updates

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news.

The Ion awarded $1.4M to launch Aerospace Innovation Hub

The Ion will be home to the Aerospace Innovation Hub, thanks to a federal grant. Courtesy of Rice University

Through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center and DivInc, The Ion has been awarded $1.4 million in federal funding to create its Aerospace Innovation Hub. The ASCI-Hub will support and develop regional minority business enterprises addressing aerospace-related challenges.

"Landing this award is another win for the region that leverages the unique strengths of the crewed space program at NASA JSC," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, says in a news release. "As Houston was critical to landing men on the moon in the late-'60s, the Ion's Aerospace Innovation Hub will be key not only to advancing the future of spaceflight, including the mission to Mars in the future, but also to tackling challenges facing our everyday lives here on Earth."

The hub will provide NASA's expertise and resources across robotics, medicine, health support systems, additive manufacturing, and more — as well as community events, education and training, and an accelerator program.

"We're eager to partner with the MDBA, Rice University and the Ion to help develop and grow minority entrepreneurs and accelerate innovative and tech-forward solutions in Houston," says Vanessa Wyche, deputy director of the JSC, in the release. "This partnership builds toward NASA's goals to enhance scientific and technological knowledge to benefit all of humankind and catalyze economic growth, as we propel commercialization of space and extend our presence in the solar system."

Opening in 2021, the Ion announced $1.5 million in grant funds in September. Those funds are going toward accelerators, which will collaborate with the Aerospace Innovation Hub.

"While we have taken many small — and valuable — steps over the past few years, this is one giant leap forward for our efforts to promote sustainable inclusion in Houston's entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at the Ion, in the release.

The Air Force announces 6 potential sites for Space Force base — and Houston misses the mark

Houston will not be considered for the Space Command HQ — but Texas isn't completely out of the running. U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez

The United States Department of the Air Force announced the six candidate locations for the U.S. Space Command Headquarters — and Houston didn't make the cut.

The six locations include:

  • Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Offutt AFB in Nebraska
  • Patrick AFB in Florida
  • Peterson AFB in Colorado (where temporary operations are located)
  • Port San Antonio in Texas
  • Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama

The Air Force evaluated self-nominated cities from across 24 states based on factors related to mission, infrastructure capacity, community support, and costs to the Department of Defense, according to a press release. U.S. Space Command Headquarters location announcement is expected in early 2021.

"We are disappointed that Houston is not among the finalist locations for the U.S. Space Command," Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. "We believe we put together a strong case for why Houston should be chosen. We will continue to work with the U.S. Air Force and other branches of the military on future opportunities and we will remain vigilant in our pursuit of aerospace industry opportunities for this region."

Rice Space Institute to collaborate with Canada

The Rice Space Institute has a new partner is Canada. Photo courtesy of NASA

Rice University's Rice Space Institute has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas to collaborate on space science and technology.

The parties made the collaboration official at a virtual event on November 20. RSI Director David Alexander OBE, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy, says the partnership is key to the continued commercialization of space exploration.

"What's different about this agreement is that with the rapid growth of commercial space worldwide and the strength of the aerospace industry in Houston, it presents a new pathway for potential interactions between Canadian science and industry and commercial entities not just in the Houston region but around the world," he says in a news release. "It's a nice, complementary aspect to our connection with NASA."

The United States has collaborated with Canada on space exploration for decades, and Canada's government is committed to advancing space technology.

"This MOU with the Rice Space Institute comes at an exciting time in human space exploration," says Rachel McCormick, the Consul General of Canada in Dallas and Canada's official representative in the U.S. South Central region, in the release. "In 2019, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $1.9 billion over 24 years for the next generation of smart, AI-powered space robotics for the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway program.

"We are also providing $150 million over five years for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program," she continues. "LEAP will fund the development and demonstration of lunar science and technologies in fields that include AI, robotics and health."

University of Houston launches new institute to promote drug discovery research

New to hou

The University of Houston has introduced a new institute to its campus. The multi-disciplinary program includes both on-campus and citywide collaboration.

UH has established the Drug Discovery Institute in order to streamline and modernize drug discovery. In partnership with the Texas Medical Center, as well as other organizations, the DDI will tap into technology and innovation to advance modern medicine. The institute will collaborate with the UH colleges of Pharmacy, Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Cullen College of Engineering.

"Our new Drug Discovery Institute could not have been launched at a more appropriate juncture. With the frantic quest for effective drugs to counter the current and future viral infections, the broad and deep strength of the University of Houston is being brought to bear and will no doubt advance the development of innovative cures," says Amr Elnashai, vice president for research and technology transfer, in a press release.

The university currently has about 100 faculty members conducting drug discovery-related research, but, according to the release, these efforts have been fragmented. With DDI, UH hopes to bring these efforts together under one roof in order to promote synergistic research.

F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, has been advocating for the idea of a collaborative drug discovery research center for more than a decade

"The breadth of this initiative will establish the institute and the University among the national leaders in drug discovery and become one of the first to fully embrace AI into its academic drug discovery programs," Pritchard says in the release.

The new institute will be led by Ruiwen Zhang, Robert L. Boblitt Endowed Professor in Drug Discovery at the College of Pharmacy,. He will hold the position of director for two years, before the title rotates through the collaboration of colleges.

"Working together is critical, none of us can do this alone," Zhang says in the release. "In drug discovery, a chemist needs a biologist, a biologist needs a pharmacologist, and so on. We will build a platform and infrastructure, along with the necessary tools, to bring everyone together."

The facility will work to promote each of the school's expertise across many aspects of the drug discovery process — including high-throughput screening technologies, organ-on-chip models, biosensing and biofeedback, molecular modeling and more.

"Practicing team science is key to making innovative discoveries and we are eager to collaborate with faculty across the University to develop cutting-edge research and ultimately to find treatments and cures for disease," says Dan Wells, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, in the release.

Additionally, DDI will offer seed grants for interdependent drug-discovery projects and encourage collaboration and the sharing of data with experts around the world

"I foresee one day in the near future that we are able to create some of the strongest databases and artificial intelligence approaches to drug discovery," Pritchard says in the release. "Rather than having to screen millions of compounds to find one therapy, we may be able to narrow that down to 1,000 and really streamline the process."

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.