Houston entrepreneur tackles diversity and inclusion challenges through new book

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 39

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

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.

SXSW was canceled this year due to the rising threat of COVID19, aka the coronavirus, but these events are still ones to check out if you are still planning on attending. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

The show must go on with these SXSW-related events in Houston and Austin

Texas strong

With SXSW canceled — and now the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has followed suit — and Austin and Houston entrepreneurs are reeling from the loss of networking, pitch competitions, and business opportunities. But unaffiliated organizations are trying to keep some of the spirit of SXSW alive in both Texas cities and online.

"Coronavirus dropped an economic bomb on Austin, and we are trying to triage the scraps," says Marc Nathan, vice president of client strategy at Egan Nelson, an Austin-based, startup-focused law firm.

The economic impact of SXSW 2019 was reported by the organization to have been over $350 million, and, even assuming this year's festival was on par with that, the city of Austin has lost more than that — from the affect on restaurants, lodging, and more. At this point, refunds are not being given out to badge holders.

Additionally, the organization itself is hurting. The 10-day festival has a year-round staff of over 150 people, and SXSW has recently laid off around 30 percent of those employees. Nathan, who says he highly suspects the organization will have to look into restructuring or even bankruptcy, also notes the cancelation will hurt individuals in a way that's not so easy to track.

"This did affect individuals," Nathan says. "Yes, the big brands were hurt and lost a lot of money, but it's not about them. It's about the little guys — the startups that wanted to launch, the bands that wanted to play, or the films that were selected for the contest. It's all the people who use SXSW as a platform, and that platform just disintegrated."

A group of scrappy Austinites have banded together to create Rally Austin and are putting together resources and events online for those still coming into the city and are looking to network responsibly. A few events are also taking place digitally. Here's a list of events to attend, and keep an eye on Rally Austin for any last-minute updates.

Houston-based WatchHerWork's Female Founders Day (March 12 in Austin)

Two Houston female founders — Reda Hicks and Denise Hamilton — saw an opportunity to make SXSW more female friendly, and that's what they've done by introducing this new unofficial SXSW event. Click here for more.

Hicks recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunity. Click here to listen.

SoFin @ SXSW 2020 (March 13 in Austin)

Focused on fintech solutions, SoFin will go on as planned and will feature Houston-based iownit.us, a blockchain-enabled investment platform. Click here for more info.

The Austin Tech Happy Hour will also still be held on Friday, March 13, in Austin. Click here for more info.

Houston-based Hatch Pitch Competition (March 16 hosted online)

The annual pitch competition, which is usually streamed online, will switch to completely online only. Click here for more info.

Hatch Pitch is also expected to host a Houston-based, cybersecurity-focused competition next month. Click here to read more.

OpenCoffee Club (March 16 in Austin)

Open Coffee Club, a monthly networking opportunity, will continue as planned. Networking is encouraged, handshaking is not. Click here for more info.

Digital Pitch - An Alternative to SXSW2020 (March 17 hosted online)

Houston's Startup Grind has organized a digital pitch competition that will be hosted completely online. Click here for more info.

Startup of the Year Virtual Pitch Competition (March 17 hosted online)

The Established's annual pitch competition is going online, despite The Established House's physical location being canceled. A Houston-based company will still pitch and the competition has Houston judges involved as well. Click here for more info.

Houstonian Lindsay Huelse launched the number one wellness app for women. Photo courtesy of The FITT Cycle

Houston fitness entrepreneur launches health-focused app for women

LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Sticking to a fitness routine can be challenging — what with the myriad exercises, personal trainers, gyms, and apps. Creating a personalized program to fit specific goals, gain confidence, and take control of health concerns is what drove Houstonian Lindsay Huelse to launch a wildly popular female wellness app.

The FITT Cycle (which stands for Fasting, Intervals, and Target Training) app incorporates fitness routines, nutrition plans, accountability, community, and entrepreneurship.

"Historically, fitness apps are great for memberships," Huelse tells CultureMap. "I wanted to create a platform for returning clients where they could have stability and ditch the diets."

Since its launch in December 2019, Huelse says she has seen a membership growth of almost 2,000 percent, noting that there is no other app with The FITT Cycle's features. She calls it a hybrid of My Fitness Pal, the Peloton App, Facebook communities, and more.

"Everything is in one place," she adds.

The app combines exercise and diet to make for a more complete health tracking app than existing technology. Photo courtesy of The FITT Cycle

A retired nurse, Huelse is now a certified nutrition coach and self-proclaimed "queen of carb cycling," a regimen that focuses on alternating daily carbohydrate intake to promote weight loss and overcome weight loss plateaus.

Fitness has always played a role in Huelse's life, both on and off the field. She played soccer competitively throughout high school and college but it wasn't until her pre-nursing track where she became intrigued by nutrition.

"It was something I didn't learn growing up," Huelse adds. "I was fascinated with fueling my body to help it function properly."

Upon graduation, she worked in the intensive care unit before retiring in 2018 from the corporate world of home health and hospice. As a geriatric nurse, she says she enjoyed educating the elderly on manageable ways to change their diet and reduce inflammation, something they're not always willing to do.

"This led me to be passionate about helping women with preventative measures to decrease inflammation and create food freedom," she says.

With multiple features, including carb cycling macros and an in-app nutrition tracker for weight loss success; daily workouts and targeted training for the home or gym; an in-app guide to intermittent fasting with a timer to indicate when the fasting window is complete; a community to keep members accountable; and a library of more than 250 recipes, The FITT Cycle app is truly customizable for your health, wellness, and fitness goals.

"As a woman who used to work out for hours at a time and follow a clean nutrition plan, I was gaining weight but couldn't understand why," she says. "There's a science to reaching your fitness goals and through learning about my clients who have children, are older, or are postmenopausal helped me design the app to show them you don't have to feel fatigued or struggle with losing weight."

Huelse adds that the last diet her clients followed will be the last diet they ever chase.

Every one of Huelse's clients who join The FITT Cycle app has the opportunity to earn a 50 percent commission for anyone they enroll in the app. Huelse says her vision for creating a cycle of entrepreneurship is to give back to her community and to those who helped her on her path to entrepreneurship.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Ventilator designed by Rice University team gets FDA approval

in the bag

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

Nonprofit arts event in Houston pivots to virtual experience

the show must go on

As summer rolls on and Houston adapts to the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, myriad arts organizations are pivoting, morphing their in-person events into virtual experiences.

One such event is the 49-year-old, annual Bayou City Arts Festival, which has just announced that it has reimagined its outdoor event originally scheduled for October 10-11 this year. Due to the cancelation of the event because of coronavirus concerns, all 2020 festival tickets will be honored at Bayou City Art Festival events in 2021, according to organizers.

In place of an in-person festival in 2020, a Bayou City Art Virtual Experience will take place the week of October 5-11. The event will feature an art auction, virtual performances, art projects for kids with Bayou City Art Festival nonprofit partners, creative activities with Bayou City Art Festival sponsors and more, according to a press release.

"The decision to convert our Bayou City Art Festival Downtown to a virtual experience was difficult, but the health and safety of our community and our festival family is our top priority," says Kelly Batterson, executive director of the Art Colony Association.

Organizers have also announced that a fundraising campaign dubbed Save Our Art - One Passion. One Purpose. One Community, in partnership with the City of Houston to support the arts and the festival's local nonprofit partners.

Interested parties can donate by sending a text SaveOurArt to 243725, donating via our website and Facebook page, or by participating in the many upcoming fundraising events.

Festival fans can stay up to date via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.