Houston investor goes all in on funding female founders

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 81

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert wasn't planning on becoming a venture capital investor — it just happened organically.

"This has been kind of a backwards process. Our fund was driven by demand," Colbert, founder and general partner of Houston-based Curate Capital, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We were getting such good deal flow in terms of quantity and quality."

Colbert says she originally carved out a practical career and worked her way up the corporate ladder within the energy industry — first at Anadarko Petroleum and then at Hilcorp Energy Co. — for almost 20 years. On the side, she was also establishing herself as a prominent content creator specializing in all things colorful on her blog and Instagram.

It was through the network she created that she started learning about up-and-coming businesses that she wanted to get involved in — first as an angel investor for a few years and now through her VC.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are."

A prime example of this interaction was Jordan Jones, founder and CEO of Austin-based consumer goods company, Packed Party. Jones suggested meeting up with Colbert, and the two hit it off. Down the road when it came time to fundraise, Colbert became Jones' first outside investor.

"I've never had to search for deals," Colbert says. "I connect with them on social media or, in pre-pandemic days, I meet them at creative conferences."

Now, under her Curate Capital, Colbert is raising an initial $10 million fund — and she's already committed about 40 percent of that into companies across industries — consumer packaged goods, fintech, health tech, and more.

"We are not industry specific," Colbert says. "Rather, where I have found our sweet spot to be is businesses by women, for women... That's where I think I can provide the most value."

Female founders continue to be funded less than their male counterparts, and Crunchbase reported that last year the discrepancy increased drastically. Colbert recognizes this need and carved out her niche accordingly.

"Women control so much of the spending, and yet are getting so few of the VC dollars. We really see that as an opportunity. It's not a problem we're trying to fix necessarily — we certainly can't rectify it on our own," Colbert says.

Colbert expects her first fund's initial close around July, and she also plans on announcing new investments in the next few weeks. She's also working on bringing on new limited partners and will soon be launching a crowdfunding opportunity to get more women in her network involved.

Colbert shares more about Curate Capital and her advice for her fellow female entrepreneurs on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Attention Houston female founders — there are two new accelerator programs to have on your radars. Photo via Getty Images

Houston organizations announce two new female founder-focused programs

who runs the world?

A couple of Houston startup development organizations have recently announced programing and opportunities for female founders looking to advance their businesses.

Impact Hub Houston has announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program. Applications are now open online and once the inaugural cohort is selected, they will receive the program for three months at no cost.

"At Impact Hub we believe the time to act is now. It's why we are excited to launch our new Accelerate Membership," says Maria Trindade, global network development director at Impact Hub Global, in a news release. "Its unique approach combines all the benefits of an enterprise support program with the flexibility that entrepreneurs need; plus its tailored nature makes this intervention highly accessible for entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds who may not be able to dedicate full-time to their business idea."

Impact Hub Houston has also teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"There is unprecedented growth in startup creation as a result of the pandemic and founders from all corners of the world are connecting in this virtual environment to build and scale amazing ideas," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas, in a news release. "With these new collaborations, we are also witnessing a massive gap in access to startup development resources. Our partnership with Workforce Solutions and Impact Hub Houston will help female founders build on their existing knowledge to become life-long innovators."

Applications for the bootcamp opened April 1 and will close at 5 pm on April 7 and are available online in both English and Spanish. The industry agnostic program will leverage MassChallenge's acceleration model and Impact Hub Houston's inclusive incubation expertise to accelerate female founders by connecting them with the resources they need to launch and scale high-impact businesses, according to the release.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in the release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding."

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Fiona Mack of JLABS, Grace Rodriguez of Impact Hub Houston, and Emily Cisek of The Postage. Photos courtesy

3 female 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 female innovators across industries — from life science to impact innovation.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack has joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. She shares her vision for the lab on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Fiona Mack is among the latest additions to the Houston innovation ecosystem, as she joined JLABS @ TMC just a few months ago. On her plate right now is assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says. Read more and stream the podcast interview.

Grace Rodriguez, executive director and CEO of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez and her team at Impact Hub Houston is in for a busy week. Courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez has a marathon of a week ahead of her — but it's an exciting one. The fourth annual Houston Innovation Summit is going on now, and she's really passionate about the theme.

"The focus on education and policy is really interesting to me — it's not just about tech and business anymore," Rodriguez says. "It's really about how we are supporting businesses in the face of the pandemic, climate change crises — floods, fires, hurricanes — the entire world is being affected by these crises. ... [We need to focus on] how we are making sure that people are aware of everything that's happening and how we can innovate solutions." Read more about the latest from Impact Hub and what THIS events not to miss.

Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage is a new company that uses technology to help ease the experience of afterlife responsibilities for family members. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Three years ago, Emily Cisek was struck with immense grief when she lost three family members back to back. She says she learned first-hand how arduous the process of wrapping up someone's life is and how it can take away from the grieving process.

Cisek's grief planted a seed and she has the idea for The Postage, a digital platform that helps collect information and digital assets in one place to ease with affair planning.

"I think the way The Postage has [made planning more available] it's provided a price point, an understanding and steps involved that are more easily accessible; no matter what age group, what race, what your background is, your religion, anything like that, you're able to sign up," says Cisek. Read more.

Two Houston entrepreneurs — Molly Voorhees (left) and Christina Milligan — have launched a new line of sanitizing products. Photo via instagram.com/cobaltclean

Houston entrepreneurs launch design-focused sanitizing operation

happy hands

Houstonians Molly Voorhees and Christina Milligan have officially launched a line of hand sanitizing and surface cleaning products that blend the importance of cleanliness and safety with the added value of accessibility and a refined appearance.

The products make up the entrepreneurs' new brand, Cobalt, that Voorhees, president of Beck's Prime, and Milligan, an organizing and style expert, first conceptualized in March. As working parents of young children, the two women wanted to create a line of sanitizing products that boosted their confidence in the safety of their environments amid a pandemic and that they'd be proud to pull out of their purse on short notice.

"Cleaning products are in your bathroom or are in an ugly looking bottle or the back of our restaurant in massive chemical containers. There is really nothing for the on-the-go market," Voorhees says.

Too, the women didn't want to stop at hand sanitizer. Instead, they sought to encourage and educate clientele on the importance of cleaning high-touch surfaces, like phones, steering wheels, sunglasses, and the likes.

"It really resonated with us that your hands are only as clean as the surfaces that you touch," Milligan says. "We wanted it to be very approachable and easy to understand and also discrete. We didn't want anyone to feel ashamed if they pulled out a bottle of Lysol on a table."

The result was six FDA-approved sanitizers, sprays, keychains, and to-go kits that eliminate 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses in easy to access, personal-sized, contemporary bottles, ranging from $14 to $30. The products are designed to be free of harsh, alcoholic odors and come in scents like peppermint and bubble gum.


The duo business women wanted to avoid harsh alcoholic smells and opted for calming and fun scents. Photo courtesy of Cobalt

Each item in the line boasts sleek, trendy designs in a cool blue hue. And while they look quite polished today, bringing the line to launch started off as a somewhat messy process.

"We kinda thought it would be easy. We would just put cleaner in a 4-ounce bottle and that would be fine," Milligan says.

But due to the high demand for chemical products in the pandemic and the way that industrial filling lines are set up, producing cleaning products in personal-sized bottles proved difficult. The women, who became known as the "the girls who want to put cleaner in their purse," were initially met with a resounding "no" from large chemical corporations.

However, by the summer the duo was able to make more headway. They were nearing production with a chemical partner when they learned of a local business who could produce their product by hand all within the Bayou City.

"It turned out through a connection we were making with labels that we discovered [William Price Distilling Company] that was right in our backyard in Houston that was newly filling bottles," Milligan says. "They were employing out of work restaurant staff. Molly and I both felt really strongly about that."

Voorhees and Milligan quickly partnered up with the Garden Oaks-Oak Forest distillery and have since produced roughly 2,500 units of their various products.

In fact, the line is decidedly Houston-based. In addition to William Price, Cobalt was also created with the help of Houston Labels for design. Deutser helped the team from a business management perspective. And the custom scents were developed by Clarity Fragrance near Memorial City.

As of press time, the products are available for purchase online and in area boutiques, including Emerson Sloan, Lexington Boutique, Zadok Jewelers, Therapy Hair Studio, and The Chocolate Bar. They aim to expand to more stores and markets and adapt the line based on demand.

"We feel so fortunate that we have a variety of products," Voorhees says. "It's always my belief that the consumer will tell you what they want and you go in that direction."

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

Houston entrepreneur tackles diversity and inclusion challenges through new book

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 39

If you went to school in America, you might have been taught that George Washington's teeth were made out of wood. While this information might have been effective in promoting oral health as a kid, it's important for you to know that George Washington's dentures were not made of wood. They were made of ivory, metal alloys, and other human teeth — usually pulled from slaves.

History seems to have been rewritten in this case, and it's not the first — nor the last — time that's happened. Denise Hamilton wants individuals to recognize moments, acknowledge them, and move forward toward the truth. That's why she's publishing a thoughtful journal entitled "Do Something: An Ally's Guide to Changing Yourself So You Can Change Your World."

"I feel really strongly that we all have these challenging stories in our minds that we have to identify and release," Hamilton shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I give that example so that we all are clear that we don't have the full story for a lot of these topics. To me, if you allow yourself to be humble and be open to the fact that you really cannot believe everything you think, we can make so much progress in this space."

Hamilton founded her company, WatchHerWork, five years ago to act as a platform for women seeking career advice and mentorship.

"I had been an executive for many years — around 25 years at this point — and I had been the only woman or the only African American in so many situations that people wanted to pick my brain or take me to lunch," she says. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day."

The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership.

In the months following the death of George Floyd, Hamilton has seen companies react in various ways to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement with marketing campaigns and initiatives for improving workplace conditions.

"The biggest challenge is the same thing that's the biggest opportunity," she says. "Every company has the opportunity to reinvent their approach to how they handle systemic racism in their organizations, and they are terrified by it."

As Hamilton has seen first hand, companies are navigating a minefield of how to react. In her consulting with companies, Hamilton has advised business leaders to be transparent and recognize if they haven't been an ally in this space — and to not act like it. Disclose the things that are being improved and amplify the work that's already been done — don't reinvent the wheel, she says.

"And if you turn this moment into a marketing event instead of a true seed change, we can spot that a mile away. Lead with authenticity, be sincere, and be honest," she says.

The other ongoing challenge Hamilton is navigating with her work is the effect COVID-19 has had on women in the workplace. The pandemic has amplified existing gender issues in the workplace and created new challenges as well. In the past, female executives have been able to climb the corporate ladder while hiring services to help on the home front, but COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under these women's feet.

"Women are starting to opt out because they are overwhelmed," Hamilton says, adding that this thought terrifies her. "We shouldn't live in a society that penalizes you for having children — that's just the bottom line."

What employers have to realize — and this is a cornerstone of Hamilton's work — is that inclusion in the workplace isn't treating everyone the same. It's factoring everyone's differences.

"I don't want you to treat me the same. I want you to look at my situation and treat me the way I need to be treated based on my situation," she says. "And that can be difficult to navigate, but that's what we help our clients do."

As challenging both the social unrest and pandemic has been, it's an opportunity to move forward and make a difference.

"It's a bittersweet experience when there's lots of change — there's always a lot of opportunity as well," Hamilton says. "Never waste a good crisis."

On the episode, Hamilton shares more details about her forthcoming book, advice for female founders, and more. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Houston entrepreneur levels the playing field for female runners with new activewear line

running game

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

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New Houston med school to offer low-cost health care thanks to $1M gift

for the people

The University of Houston College of Medicine has announced it will open a low-cost health care facility thanks to a $1 million gift from The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

UHCOM will open the direct primary care clinic on the campus of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and, according to a news release from UH, it's only just the beginning of a network of clinics focused on treating those without health insurance.

"A direct primary care practice will add value to the local health care ecosystem by tackling one of the most pressing problems of our city: the lack of a comprehensive primary care system for the uninsured," says UH President Renu Khator in the release. "The Cullen Trust for Health Care shares our commitment to improving the overall health and health care of the population of Greater Houston and we are grateful for their support."

The direct primary care, or DPC, model is an alternative to insurance-based and fee-based care and eliminates third party payers. Instead, patients pay a monthly membership to receive primary care services — including telehealth, basic office procedures, at-cost laboratory testing, and access to medications at reduced prices. The clinic will offer same-day or next-day appointments as a guarantee and be staffed by faculty physicians and UH health professions students.

"The UH College of Medicine wants to restore primary care as the foundation of health care. We have developed a model with strong incentives to innovate the delivery of primary care designed to improve quality and more effectively control the cost of care," says Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in the release. "We are building our model upon the four pillars of access, population health, social determinants of health and trusting relationships. In this framework, the physician is accountable for the health of their member panel and will demonstrate long-term cost and quality outcomes."

Dr. Stephen Spann is the founding dean of the UH College of Medicine. Photo via UH.edu

Founded in 2020, UHCOM's brief existence has been supported by generous donors – including a foundational $50 million gift as well as an endowment. This latest funding is from The Cullen Trust for Health Care — established in 1978 as an organization that grants financial assistance to institutions providing health care services in the Greater Houston area.

"The Cullen Trust for Health Care is proud to support this pilot endeavoring to bring a new form of patient-centered primary care to Houston's underserved communities. We are hopeful that the new UH College of Medicine direct primary care clinic will proactively engage patients to increase utilization and improve continuity of care," says Cullen Geiselman, chairman of the board for The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

This week, the school also announced its second-ever class of students. The UHCOM class of 2025 includes 30 students selected out of about 6,000 applicants. According to a news release, more than half of the second cohort received a $100,000 four-year scholarship. The future doctors will be celebrated with a White Coat Ceremony on Saturday, July 31, at the Hilton University of Houston.

More than half — 67 percent — of the new class is female and 60 percent of the group are Black or Hispanic. Sixty-three percent represent low socioeconomic status (as defined by Texas Medical Dental Schools Application Services).

These 10 Houston companies rank among best U.S. employers for young professionals

workplace praise

Ten businesses in the Greater Houston area are clocking in among the country's best employers for millennials, according to a new report.

The Best Workplaces for Millennials list is published annually by Fortune magazine and compiled by Great Place to Work, a company that focuses on improving workplace culture.

Looking at the 10 Houston-area employers, mega developer David Weekley homes takes the top spot. The company appears at No. 12 on the list of large employers.

"It's an honor to once again be recognized as a top company for working millennials," said Robert Hefner, David Weekly vice president of human resources, in a statement. "We are very proud to offer a rewarding workplace culture as well as competitive benefits and amazing perks to draw this group of young talent to our award-winning team."

In that survey, 97 percent of staffers called David Weekley Homes a great place to work. The home builder previously ranked at number 26 on the 2020 list.

Joining David Weekly on the list are these large, mid-size, and small Houston-area companies:

Large employers:

  • Camden Property Trust, No. 32
  • Hilcorp, No. 37
  • Cornerstone Home Lending, No. 38
  • Transwestern, No. 65
  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise, No. 95

Small and mid-sized employers:

  • Continued, No. 33
  • Venterra Realty, No. 49
  • Republic State Mortgage, No. 90
  • E.A.G. Services, No. 91

Here's how employers in Texas' other major metro areas fared.

Dallas

  • Plano-based Granite: No. 6
  • Addison-based Credera, No. 36
  • Dallas-based Pariveda Solutions, No. 76
  • Dallas-based Embark, No. 97
  • Dallas-based PrimeLending lands at No. 29
  • Dallas-based Ryan LLC at No. 35.

Austin

Large employers:

  • Round Rock-based Dell Technologies, No. 75

Small and mid-sized employers:

  • Austin-based OJO Labs, No. 51
  • Austin-based SailPoint, No. 60
  • Austin-based Sedera Health, No. 69
  • Austin-based The Zebra, No. 86

San Antonio

Large employers:

  • San Antonio-based NuStar Energy, No. 91
  • San Antonio-based USAA, No. 98

"The Best Workplaces for Millennials treat their employees like people, not just employees," says Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work. "These companies foster caring and respect for one another, at every level of the organization. The result is millennial employees who say they look forward to coming to work and — as our research says — are 50 times more likely to stay a long time."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.