3 Houston innovators to know this week

WHO'S WHO

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Gaurav Khandelwal of Velostics, Samantha Hepler of SeekerPitch, and Zain Shauk of Dream Harvest. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from logistics tech to sustainability — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of Velostics

Velostics has fresh funding to support growing its logistics software solution. Photo courtesy of Velostics

The logistics industry has a lot of room for improved optimization — and that's exactly what Gaurav Khandelwal set out to do when he founded Velostics. The company just raised its $2.5 million seed round that will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandelwal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.” Click here to read more.

Samantha Hepler, CEO and founder of SeekerPitch

Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch based on her own ill-fated job hunt experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

When Houstonian Samantha Hepler was trying to find a job, she couldn't even get in the door. Due to algorithms and antiquated hiring processes, she was overlooked.

"I knew if I could just get through the door, a company would see the value in me," Hepler tells InnovationMap. "I wasn't being seen, and I wasn't being heard. I didn't know a way to do that."

This experience gave her the idea for SeekerPitch, a platform that allows job seekers to create an account and tell their story — not just their job history. The platform prioritizes video content and quick interviews so that potential hires can get face-to-face with hiring managers. Click here to read more.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.” Click here to read more.

Velostics has fresh funding to support growing its logistics software solution. Photo courtesy of Velostics

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes former city council member Amanda Edwards, Gaurav Khandelwal of Velostics, and Anshumali Shrivastava of ThirdAI. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from logistics tech to computer science — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Amanda Edwards, former Houston City Council Member

Amanda Edwards worked with local female leaders to launch BEAMW. Photo via LinkedIn

A couple years ago, Houston City Council Member Amanda K. Edwards, along with entrepreneurs Carolyn Rodz and Courtney Johnson Rose, formed a task force to provide Mayor Sylvester Turner with recommendations about increasing increase access to capital for minority- and women-owned business enterprises and assisting these business owners in scaling up their businesses. The task force created the Houston Small Business Community Report, which shed light on the disparities in access to resources for women and BIPOC-founders.

In response to this report, Edwards and a cohort of female leaders have launched the Business Ecosystem Alliance for Minorities and Women, or BEAMW, to address these disparities these businesses face when seeking capital and attempting to scale their businesses.

"It is not enough to state that Houston is the most diverse city in the country; we must be the city where the challenges that diverse communities face are solved," Edwards says in a release. Click here to read more.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics

Serial entrepreneur says he sees logistics innovation as a "massive opportunity" for Houston. Photo courtesy

Gaurav Khandelwal has been an advocate for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem since he started his company ChaiOne — an industrial software provider — in 2008. Now, with his new company, Velostics, he is passionate about making Houston a hub for logistics innovation too.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"If you look at Chicago — it's had some crazy amount of logistics unicorns that have popped up over the past few years, and they aren't slowing down," Khandewal says on the show. "Houston, I would argue, is better positioned, because we have this massive port. I think logistics is a massive opportunity for Houston." Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Anshumali Shrivastava, CEO and co-founder of ThirdAI

Anshumali Shrivastava is also an associate professor of computer science at Rice University. Photo via rice.edu

A seed-stage company is changing the game for data science and artificial intelligence, and the technology was developed right on the Rice University campus.

ThirdAI, founded by Anshumali Shrivastava in April, raised $6 million in a seed funding round from three California-based VCs — Neotribe Ventures and Cervin Ventures, which co-led the round with support from Firebolt Ventures.

"We are democratizing artificial intelligence through software innovations," says Shrivastava in a news release from Rice. "Our innovation would not only benefit current AI training by shifting to lower-cost CPUs, but it should also allow the 'unlocking' of AI training workloads on GPUs that were not previously feasible." Click here to read more.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new venture, Velostics. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Serial entrepreneur sees logistics innovation as a 'massive opportunity' for Houston

Houston innovators podcast episode 99

For over a decade, Gaurav Khandewal has been working with clients to provide software solutions to industrial problems with his company, ChaiOne. Now, in his latest venture, he's addressing a market within logistics that can be run a whole lot smoother: The middle mile.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Khandewal explains that the middle mile in logistics is the trucks transporting between warehouses, for instance, and that includes trucks checking in and checking out at these warehouses. This process, and other aspects to the middle mile, is antiquated and manual — something his new company, Velostics, is looking to address.

"This middle mile commerce is very ancient," Khandewal says. "There is a lot of friction between ordering and paying. A lot of it is unnecessary and should be made simpler."

This middle mile represents a $700 billion market, and Velostics is ready to make an impact in that space. Last month, the company acquired Terusama, a logistics tech company with dock management and truck scheduling capabilities. The company's software solution that speeds up truck loading and unloading will be rolled into Velostics's platform.

The potential impact Velostics can make is exciting to Khandewal, who relates the technology to truck drivers being able to check in like passengers do with airlines. Smoothing out the so-called "log jam" of the middle mile can be a gamechangers for consumers and businesses alike.

"If we could accelerate the middle mile where a lot of the log jam is happening, we could get stuff in 30 minutes," Khandewal says. "We'd never have to go to a store again."

Khandewal has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. Now, he's on the Houston Exponential board and thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says.

Velostics is one of seven Houston startups tied to logistics — and Khandewal mentions others like Voyager, GoExpedi, and Cart.com that are providing solutions in the space.

"If you look at Chicago — it's had some crazy amount of logistics unicorns that have popped up over the past few years, and they aren't slowing down," Khandewal says on the show. "Houston, I would argue, is better positioned, because we have this massive port. I think logistics is a massive opportunity for Houston."

He shares more on his passion for Houston, as well as what's next for Velostics on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based Velostics has made an M&A move to integrate new software onto its platform. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Houston logistics SaaS company makes strategic acquisition

M&A

A Houston company that has created software to automate logistics at terminals, plants, and warehouses has announced the acquisition of a California-based startup.

Houston-based Velostics Inc. has acquired Terusama, a logistics tech company with dock management and truck scheduling capabilities. The company's software solution that speeds up truck loading and unloading w2ill be rolled into Velostics's platform.

"We are enthusiastic about integrating Terusama's truck scheduling with Velostics' load automation and check-in solutions. The combined offering enables Velostics to create a new standard for inbound logistics automation," says Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO of Velostics, in a news release.

"We can now bring to market unmatched ROI on logistics automation, by providing visibility into future demand, reducing delays associated with load prep and staging, eliminating manual errors, improving throughput and reducing operating costs and detention at our customers' facilities," he continues.

The two software-as-a-service solutions aim to reduce delays and errors, improve ROI, and provide visibility into deliveries and future product demand.

"Appointment scheduling technology is a powerful lever to track, measure, and improve operations at facilities large and small. Being part of the Velostics family gives Terusama the opportunity to not only continue that mission, but also to accelerate and to serve larger markets," says Andrew Denta, CEO of Terusama. "I have full confidence that Velostics' unique capabilities, out-of-the-box integrations with carriers and solid support resources will further fuel the growth at Terusama and further reduce cost to the customer."

The details of the deal were not disclosed. Founded in San Francisco last year, Terusama has raised $150,000 from Y Combinator, according to Crunchbase, and has two employees.

Terusama's trucking software will be implemented into Velostics's services. Image via terusama.com

Startups all over Houston and across industries are answering the call for tech solutions to COVID-19-caused issues from real estate and mental health to new software and services. Duy Do/Getty Images

9 Houston startups that are pivoting to provide COVID-19-related services

Startups to the rescue

From software to new services, several Houston startups are using this time of crisis to roll out new options for people living in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, InnovationMap rounded up seven health tech startups providing health care solutions. This week, here are nine more startups that have reacted to the coronavirus with new tech solutions.

GotSpot

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot, has launched Rescue Spot to help out Houstonians dealing with the COVID crisis. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks founded her company Gotspot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it — on the heels of Hurricane Harvey after seeing how hard it was for Houstonians to activate physical spaces in an emergency.

Now, in the face of another — albeit drastically different — situation, Hicks has created Rescue Spot to be that activation portal for specific COVID-19-related crisis needs.

"We are working with local community leaders to try to activate specific kind of space for emergency response," Hicks says in a Facebook interview with Bunker Labs, "so, restaurants turned into community kitchens, cold storage for perishables, storefronts that can be used as drive-by distribution centers, and places for people to house their pets while their owners are feeling overwhelmed and can't take care of their four-legged family members as well."

People with space or in need of a Rescue Spot can list their space or needs online.

SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama was founded in May of last year to connect mothers using machine learning that factors in vicinity, children's ages, shared motherly struggles, and more to create a support group digitally and socially. Now, the startup has sped up the release of a new feature so that users have more mental health resources during the pandemic.

Founder and CEO Amanda Ducach created SocialMama's expert program — an update to the app, which has been downloaded by over 15,000 users since launch — to connect moms to professionals specializing in everything from family medicine and mental health to career and personal safety. A portion of these experts join from Gravida, a post partum and return to work resource, according to a news release.

"Knowing someone is on the other side of the screen with a very similar story is truly comforting. The app considers all females, including those planning to become moms, those who are trying to conceive, those who have lost a child, etc. SocialMama is here for our community in a whole new way with the launch of our expert program," says Ducach in the release.

With mothers being tasked with educating and entertaining their children at home during the crisis on top of their regular jobs and duties, many are turning to SocialMama's online forum and app for support, ideas, and solidarity.

Accel Lifestyle

Accel's masks are made out of their specialty anti-bacteria fabric. Photo courtesy of Accel

While you might not usually think an activewear brand has anything to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, you have to remember that Accel Lifestyle isn't a typical activewear brand. Founder Megan Eddings created the Prema® anti-bacterial fabric for an anti-stink feature in her clothing. That feature has another use: Preventing the spread of the disease.

Accel quickly pivoted her t-shirt-making supply chain to designing and sewing the masks. The reusable, washable masks are available online for individuals to purchase, but one Houston hospital system has made a huge purchase. Houston Methodist ordered 9,000 masks to be made for their hospital staff.

"The fact that a hospital system that is on the forefront of COVID-19 is choosing Accel Lifestyle to create PPE is profound and humbling," Eddings says in a press release. "I truly believe we're all in this together and we all have a role to play during this pandemic. If Accel Lifestyle can help flatten the curve in any way, then we're going to do it."

Predictive Solutions

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston-based Predictive Solutions created a web application in March to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hands — and now the tool has been expanded to the entire state.

The online map identifies nearby testing locations as well as indicates cases that have been self reported in the area. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in a news release. Read more.

Truss

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau, who is a member of InnovationMap's board, previously told InnovationMap. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions. Schneidau is looking for health care organizations to work with the technology so that patients and their doctors can have secure access to loved ones. Read more.

ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne has launched a new tool that can help companies track supply chain delays resulting from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of its new software called Velostics — the "slack" for logistics that solves wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate."

Velostics results in an improved cash cycle for clients, cutting a 90-day settlement down to one day, along with an overhead reduction that reduces costs and improves output along with error reduction. The digital platform is specially engineered to reduce waste while keeping the supply chain running efficiently. Read more.

Umanity

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The company, which is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, is creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis." Read more.

Otso

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

When Josh Feinberg had the idea for his newest startup, Otso, he was hoping to remove the pointless burden of cash deposits required for new commercial and retail leases. But as the coronavirus pandemic began enacting stay-at-home mandates that forced small businesses to close their physical spaces, he had another idea.

Otso, with its financial partner Euler Hermes, provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. While he first envisioned this tool for new leases, Feinberg created a system so that local businesses that are struggling to pay their rent can opt into this type of contract through an addendum to the lease. They can get back their cash deposits and use that capital now when times are tough.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg previously told InnovationMap.

Tenants or landlords can begin the process online. Feinberg recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unprecedented state of commercial real estate and offer his advice for business owners. Click here to listen.

Spruce

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded, Austin-based Spruce, which has an office locally, has launched a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release. Read more.

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Early-stage startup accelerator names latest Houston cohort, new local leader

new to Hou

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class.

Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor has announced today the five participating startups in gBETA Houston. The program will be led by Muriel Foster, the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which originally launched in Houston in 2020 thanks to a grant from from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The program, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more, is based in the Downtown Launchpad, and is free and does not take equity in the participating companies. The cohort kicked off on April 21 and concludes on June 10.

The new cohort includes:

  • Founded by CEO Steffie Thomson a year ago, Getaway Sticks has designed a shoe that gives women the painless support they need using athletic foam to create a shoe that gives women the painless support they need. Getaway Sticks provides the solutions to women’s #1 wardrobe complaint of high heel pain. Since launch, the company has earned over $35,000 in revenue from over 150 customers.
  • Through a combination of software and hardware technology, LocBox is rethinking the shopping experience for online and local purchases. If you shop, ship, or have food delivered to your house, LocBox will make your life easier. Led by CEO Sterling Sansing, LocBox has previously participated in the Texas A&M MBA Venture Challenge.
  • SpeakHaus is focused on equipping young professionals and entrepreneurs with public speaking skills through its on-demand training platform and group coaching program. Since launching in October 2021, SpeakHaus has facilitated 6 corporate trainings and coached 61 business leaders generating over $49,000 in revenue. The company is led by CEO Christa Clarke.
  • Led by CEO LaGina Harris, The Us Space is creating spaces intentionally for women of color, women-led businesses, and women-centric organizations. Since launching in June 2021, The Us Space has created partnerships with more than a dozen community organizations, sustainable businesses, and organizations creating positive economic impact in the City of Houston.
  • Founded in August 2021, Urban Eatz Delivery is a food delivery service app that caters to the overlooked and underrepresented restaurants, food trucks, and home-based food vendors. Urban Eatz Delivery has earned over $88,000 in revenue, delivered to over 2,000 users, and worked with 36 restaurant and food vendors on the app. The company is led by CEO D’Andre Good.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

it's Foster's first cohort at the helm of the program. A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor.

The program is housed at the Downtown Launchpad. The five startups will have access to the space to meet with mentors, attend events, and run their companies.

"Creating (the hub) was a little like a moonshot, but it’s paying off and contributing enormous impact to the city’s economy. The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Spring cohort will continue that legacy,” says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. “As these entrepreneurs chase their dreams and create something epic, they will know Downtown Houston is standing behind them. I am so proud of what Downtown Launchpad is already, and what it will become.”

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

Vote now for your favorite 2022 Houston science teacher

Rewarding the Spark

Since 2019, alliantgroup and the Houston Independent School District have been partnering for the SPARK Award, a program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers who are increasing student engagement and achievement through innovative lesson plans that emphasize both the importance and fun aspects of science.

The overall winner receives a $3,500 personal award plus $500 for their classroom, and the other five finalists receive $1,300 each plus another $500 to spend on their classrooms.

Get to know this year's crop of nominees below, then be sure to cast your vote once a day here until May 25.

After working for three years as an accountant, Lynell Dillard taught a weekly finance class where her students became her inspiration to pursue a full-time career in the classroom.

She secured her first teaching position in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. For three years now, she has been teaching science and giving her students hands-on learning opportunities they may not experience outside of the classroom.

Dillard explains that for many of her students, her role as a teacher is to give them as many opportunities to interact with the natural environment as possible. She knows many of her students and their families would not have access to these resources if it were not for the school district.

"We all learn in a different way, so we have to be willing to help that other person if they don’t get what I get, and there’s no criticism in it," Dillard says. "I tell them they are my future. Every single part of your education is important."


"Before I went to foster care, I was not doing well in my education," Ruth Giles says. "My foster mom, Nancy, took the time to figure out how I learned. She figured out I’m good with memorization, flashcards, and practicing. I would not be here without her today."

Sadly, Nancy passed away in January from COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it’s important to Giles that she continue sharing her experiences with her students to keep Nancy’s legacy alive.

Giles says the best part of teaching fifth-grade science is helping her students view the world in a different way, just like Nancy did for her.


Melanie Jenkins has been a fifth grade ESL teacher at Katherine Smith Elementary School for three years, but first got started in substitute teaching. She then went on to fulfill her childhood dream of working in finance, but found it wasn’t all she thought it would be.

"I still had in the back of my mind these kids whose lives I touched and who remembered me and understood what I was trying to teach them," she says.

Now she can't imagine doing anything else. It's challenging that many of her students are learning English for the first time, but she focuses on vocabulary and giving them resources in both English and Spanish is key, along with truly forming relationships with them.

“I try to figure out who likes what and how I can bring that into the classroom,” says Jenkins. “If you are a hands-on learner, we have the opportunities to put our hands on things. If you are a project-based learner, you have the opportunity to do projects. So there’s no one size fits all.”


According to science teacher Mimi Muñoz, STEM education is important but learning to be kind should be first in any classroom environment.

She also works hard to get her fifth-grade students engaged in their lessons and understand why science is important to their everyday lives.

“They get so excited to do hands-on activities, experiments, and projects,” Muñoz explains. “One thing I really want them to understand is that you need learning every day of your life. And learning science, as well as the world around us, is their real life. The things I’m teaching you [in the classroom] are important.”

Muñoz has been teaching for three years and spent her entire career at Seguin Elementary. She says the last two years were very tough on her students because of the pandemic, but despite virtual learning, it has only strengthened the way she connects to her students.


An educator of 17 years, Gerjuan O’Neal is following in her family’s footsteps.

"My maternal grandmother was a second and third grade teacher, and my maternal grandfather was a high school government teacher," she says. "My great-aunt was an elementary teacher and then a homebound teacher. My favorite thing is that I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, so every day is different."

She loves teaching STEM to her students because they can see how it applies to the other subjects they are also learning in school.

"I really like for my students to be creative problem solvers, and I like to show them all the different components of STEM," O’Neal explains. "If we are doing a science technology map, everything fits together. If we do a Lego build, we’re doing estimating with numbers. If we are coding, they get to see where math is involved and where they must be critical thinkers."


Although this is her first year teaching at Bonner Elementary School, Leticia Sifuentes is a veteran of the classroom with 24 years of experience.

Her favorite part about teaching is seeing her students become just as passionate about science as she is.

“I tell my students I’m a science nerd. We watch a movie — where’s the science? We go somewhere — where’s the science? They’re able to bring science to everything they talk about. It’s in reading, it’s in math, it’s just the way we can incorporate science in everyday life.”

Sifuentes was named an honorable mention teacher for alliantgroup’s 2019 SPARK Award, but three years later she says she is a better educator after working through the challenges of a pandemic and virtual learning. She now realizes that as an educator it is not only her responsibility to ensure her students are performing well academically but also emotionally, socially, and mentally.

CAST YOUR VOTE ONCE A DAY HERE before May 25.

Houston ranks as No. 3 city for Asian American entrepreneurs

diverse city

Known for its diversity, Houston ranks as the third best major metro area in the U.S. for Asian American entrepreneurs, according to a new study.

Personal finance website SmartAsset analyzed data for 52 of the largest metro areas to come up with the ranking. The analysis looked at nine metrics in three categories: prevalence of Asian-owned businesses, success of new businesses, and income and job security.

About 9 percent of the Houston metro area’s residents identify as Asian.

The SmartAsset study puts Houston in fifth place for the number of Asian-owned businesses (nearly 19,900) and in fourth place for the share of Asian-owned businesses (almost 17.9 percent) among all businesses. Furthermore, Houston ranks 14th for the increase (nearly 9.6 percent) in the number of Asian-owned businesses from 2017 to 2019.

Leading the SmartAsset list is the San Francisco metro area, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth. Austin comes in at No. 11 and San Antonio at No. 14.

The largest minority-owned business in the Houston area, as ranked by annual revenue, is Asian-owned private equity firm ZT Corporate.

Founded in 1997 by Chairman and CEO Taseer Bada, who was born in Pakistan, ZT Corporate is valued at more than $1 billion. ZT Corporate generates more than $600 million in annual revenue and employs over 3,000 people.

“As we look ahead, the vision for ZT Corporate is limitless. Our team will continue pushing boundaries and finding the bright spots in the economy that produce consistent financial gains for our investors,” Bada says in a news release marking his company’s 25th anniversary.

ZT Corporate’s flagship businesses are:

  • Altus Community Healthcare, a provider of health care services.
  • ZT Financial Services, a wealth management firm.
  • ZT Motors, which owns and operates auto dealerships. Last year, ZT Motors bought three Ron Carter dealerships in the Houston area.

“ZT Corporate is a vital asset to our citizens as a longtime local employer,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says, “and has positively affected many lives through their health care organizations and philanthropic efforts.”