Houston founder calls for business leaders to 'make room for diverse voices'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 70

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss COVID-19's affect on her business and fostering diversity at startups. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Last year was one of quick pivots and tech solutions for Ashley Small and her company's clients. Small — the CEO and founder of Medley Inc., a Houston-based branding and public relations firm — works with both for-profit and nonprofit entities to tell their stories, and of course 2020 had its challenges in doing so. But they weren't anything Small, her team, and technology couldn't overcome.

Small founded Medley over 12 years ago, and for the past three of those years, her team has been completely virtual. She shares on the Houston Innovators podcast that this give her team a headstart on being able to find and quickly adopt quick tech solutions — but last year's shutdown also meant navigating this for all her clients.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out what the best technology was for each client," Small says. "Where the learning curve has been is understanding all the available resources out there and understanding how offline experiences can help audiences connect online."

Founded in Houston, Medley has grown to the Los Angeles and Chicago markets over the years — and Small says that was intentional. An Oklahoma native, Small fell in love with Houston's diversity when she attended Texas Southern University, and sought out other diverse markets to expand her business. And, as a Black female founder, she fosters an inclusive community at her company — and wants to remind her fellow business owners how imperative it is to running an innovative company.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says, adding that when you bring different people to the table, you get new ways of thinking. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small knows early-stage companies aren't always able to hire a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds right from the start, but there are other ways to surround yourself with diverse ideas.

"Make room for diverse voices -- and you may have to be a bit creative," Small says.

Medley's team also realizes that not every startup can afford to bring on an in-house or third-party PR team, but the company has a few options for startups, such as a three-month retainer to start as well as a series of workshops available online for as low as $19.

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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

YMCA of Greater Houston announces equity-focused innovation center backed by Reliant

it's fun to innovate at the

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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Houston company receives FDA approval for tech that uses sound to blast away cellulite

Zip zap

Soliton, a Houston-based technology company, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry.

The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

MIT engineer and doctor Christopher Capelli first developed the basis of the tool while he led the Office of Technology Based Ventures at M.D. Anderson.

Capelli uncovered that he could remove tattoos more effectively by treating the skin with up to 100 waves per second (about five to 10 times greater than other devices on the market), giving birth to the company's proprietary Rapid Acoustic Pulse (RAP) platform.

In 2012 he formed Soliton with co-founder and entrepreneur Walter Klemp, who also founded Houston-based Moleculin, and later brought on Brad Hauser as CEO. By 2019, the company had received FDA approval for using the technology for tattoo removal.

"The original indication was tattoo removal, which is what Chris envisioned," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time.

Brad Hauser is the CEO of Soliton. Photo courtesy of Soliton

"It works similarly in the fibrous septa, which are the tethered bands that create the dimples and cellulite and the uneven skin. Those are stiffer than the surrounding fat cells in the subcutaneous tissue," Hauser says. "That allows the technology to disrupt those fibrous septa and loosen and release the dimples."

In 2021 the company plans to commercialize their product and get it into the hands of dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and other medical professionals for 25 key accounts—potentially including ones Houston—with a plan for a national rollout in 2022.

And they don't plan to stop there.

The company has already announced a partnership for a proof-of-concept study with the U.S. Navy in which Soliton will aim to use its technology to reduce the visibility of fibrotic scars, and more importantly work to increase mobility or playability of scars.

"Often the scar ends up causing restrictions in motion and discomfort with pressure of even clothing and certainly with sleeping," Hauser says. "We believe based on the reduction in volume and the increase in playability that we saw in our original proof-of-concept study that we will be able to bring benefits to these military patients."

Work on the study is slated to begin in the first half of this year.

In the meantime, the company is making headway with treatment of liver fibrosis, announcing just this week that it's pre-clinical study in animals demonstrated positive results and a reduction in effects by 42 percent seven days after the completion of carbon tetrachloride (CCL4) induction. The RAP technology was also named the best new technology by the Aesthetic Industry Association earlier this month.

"It's really targeting collagen fiber and fibroblasts on a cellular level" Hauser says. "Which we think has numerous potential uses in the future."

UH launches online MBA, plus six new digital degree programs

online ed

The University of Houston's C. T. Bauer College of Business announced this month that it will begin offering fully online Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Business Administration programs in the upcoming fall semester.

The new offerings are part of the college's 2020-2025 Strategic Plan that focuses on becoming a leader in digital learning and affordable education options.

In addition to the online BBA and MBA degrees, Bauer is launching five other fully online business-minded graduate programs:

  • Online Master of Science in Business Analytics
  • Online Master of Science in Finance
  • Online Master of Science in Management & Leadership
  • Online Master of Science in Management Information Systems
  • Online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management

Over the summer, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer School and Cullen Distinguished Chair Professor, told InnovationMap that enrollment in the Bauer College had increased by about 70 percent, as the school focused on accessibility and affordability amid the pandemic and record job losses.

According to Pavlou, these new degree programs will be an extension of that effort.

"Given the recent developments due to COVID-19, and the broader challenges for higher education, it has become imperative to enhance our ability to leverage technology to offer courses remotely," he says in a statement.

The seven programs will cost between 15 to 20 percent less than traditional degree programs at the university, according to UH. The new programs will charge in-state tuition for all students, regardless of residency, and online students will not pay additional fees.

"These new offerings demonstrate our dedication to providing students financially accessible programs that emphasize innovation, technology, and experiential learning," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. "Student success is our top priority, and as the need for flexible instruction and course delivery increases, we will meet that need."

The Bauer School has long been touted as one of the top schools for entrepreneurship in the country. In late 2020, UH announced that it received a $13 million donation from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation to go toward Bauer's well-known programs, as part of the school's $1.2 billion "Here We Go" initiative.

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.