Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

The winner of the contest will be announced at a Rockets game in early April. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston Rockets, BBVA launch annual startup competition

game on

It's game on for Houston startups looking to compete in the Launchpad contest backed by BBVA USA and the Houston Rockets.

Houston startups have until February 28 to submit their companies for the competition. Judges from BBVA and the Rockets will select four by late March, and fans will vote on their favorite company. The winner will be presented with a $10,000 check at a Rockets game in late April. The winning startup will also receive consultations with Rockets and BBVA USA executives.

It's the fourth time BBVA has sought out entrepreneurs, but last year the organization revamped the program to focus on technology-driven startups.

"Over the past three years, we have been proud to partner with BBVA to highlight small businesses in Houston and their contribution to our economy," says Rockets Chief Revenue Officer Gretchen Sheirr. "Entering its fourth year, the Launchpad contest seeks nominees focused on using best in class digital strategies to enhance their small business. We look forward to reviewing submissions and honoring the great work that is being done by these businesses in our community.

BBVA's new Houston CEO Dillan Knudson, who was promoted to his new position in November, is excited for his inaugural involvement in the contest.

"It's extremely exciting to collaborate with the Rockets for the first time, and for such a great initiative that helps Houston's thriving small business scene," says Knudson. "Part of my new role is to create opportunities and financial freedom for Houston's communities through the bank's ample resources, and to do that in collaboration with a staple organization of this city is an honor."

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Last year, Launchpad's winner was Hamper. Hamper's co-founder and CEO Safir Ali started his company to use technology to optimize the dry cleaning business and compares Hamper to the "Red Box of dry cleaning." The win was big for Hamper's future.

"It was an absolute pleasure to be recognized by BBVA and the Houston Rockets as the winner of the 2019 Launchpad Contest," says Ali in the release. "It was a very exciting moment for Hamper, and we are very grateful to have the opportunity to be recognized in our community. Many thanks to both BBVA and the Houston Rockets for empowering Houston businesses and giving them such a great platform to be recognized for their efforts, and for playing an active role in empowering entrepreneurship in Houston."

From personal and consumer technology to B2B companies ready to scale, here's who to watch in Houston tech. Getty Images

5 emerging tech startups in Houston to keep an eye on

up and comers

When it comes to Houston's tech startups, it's as diverse as Houston's population. There are software-as-a-service companies, new mobile technology, and even virtual reality startups that all call Houston home.

Here's a roundup of these Houston companies that you need to keep an eye on.

Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Despite working most summers in his family's dry cleaning shop, Safir Ali wasn't thinking about taking over his family business. He was living his young professional life with a freshly minted degree from Texas A&M University and a corporate job. However, when he started thinking of all the modern conveniences available now — RedBox, ridesharing, delivery apps — he couldn't help but think of how antiquated dry cleaning was compared.

Ali and his brother hope to upgrade dry cleaning with their startup, Hamper. Ali describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

The company has gained some traction — and even some prize money. Hamper won first place in the 2019 LaunchPad Contest, which was sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass. The win brought in a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes.

Read more about Hamper here.

Pandata Tech

Houston-based Pandata Tech uses its machine learning technology to advance oil and gas operations. Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

Drilling data can be muddled and hard to use, but Houston-based Pandata Tech has developed the technology to clean and automate data collection for its oil and gas clients. But Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to take his technology into other industries.

The Pandata team is now expanding to fields like defense and healthcare, which also generate hundreds of thousands of data points that need it be checked. The unique challenges of working with large drilling rigs have translated well to working with aircrafts. And the healthcare field is similar — with the Texas Medical Center, Houston's medical research centers can benefit from hastening the process of data validation.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says.

Read more about Pandata Tech here.

Camppedia

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Photos courtesy of Camppedia

Probably the least fun thing about summer camp is finding and booking the summer camp. Of course, this responsibility falls on the busy adults' to-do lists. Two Houston parents, Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana, wanted to create a solution for the overwhelming process.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

Read more about Camppedia here.

HTX Labs

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Virtual and augmented reality training in industrial settings is on the rise as the process and technology allows for quicker training and minimized risk. Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs, says. Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

Read more about HTX Labs here.

Lodgeur

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Travelers are usually faced with a decision to make: Privacy and homeliness of an apartment rental or style and class of a hotel room. Houston-based Lodgeur hopes to exist to have the best of both worlds. With Houston's busy business travel industry, founcer Sébastien Long knew he was starting in a good market.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Read more about Lodgeur here.

From rethinking dry cleaning or marketing to flipping the script on pop culture events, here's who to know this week in Houston innovation. Courtesy Photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

This week's batch of Houston innovators to know are all rethinking the way things are being done, from dry cleaning and marketing to pop culture events. Scroll through to see who's who in Houston innovation this week.

Safir Ali, founder and CEO of Hamper

Safir Ali leads Houston-based Hamper, which won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

It's a good week for Safir Ali, who's company just won a startup competition put on by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass. Hamper, his company, makes dry cleaning more convenient for customers with pick up and delivery. His parents run a dry cleaning shop and he always thought it was a bit antiquated.

"I had this 'aha' moment in 2016," Safir says. "I had graduated from Texas A&M in 2014 and was working a corporate job and the last thing on my mind was joining the family business. But I started to see all the pain points for people in dry cleaning." Learn more about Hamper here.

Allie Danziger, founder and president of Integrate Agency

When it comes to setting up a marketing budget for your startup, considering every angle is important, says Allie Danziger of Integrate Agency. Getty Images

Allie Danziger has been focused on digital marketing since before it was cool. The entrepreneur created her Houston agency 10 years ago and has been growing ever since. She wrote a guest column for InnovationMap last week about how startups and small businesses should decide on how much to spend on marketing.

"Industry research suggests spending 5 percent to 12 percent of total revenue on an annual marketing budget," she writes. "At Integrate Agency, we believe marketing spend should be determined from key data points, versus current size." Click here to read the rest of the article.

Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

It's safe to say that Michael Heckman has had a busy weekend. The 11th annual Comicpalooza took over downtown Houston this past weekend, but just because one event is over, doesn't mean Heckman or his team at Houston First Corp. is slowing down.

"Our convention sales team looks to break another record this year," Heckman tells InnovationMap. "We have a lot of major events upcoming — from the college football playoff to the men's basketball Final Four, and we'll eventually pursue another Super Bowl."

Heckman says he has some big ideas for even an innovation-focused conference. Read the rest of the Q&A with Heckman here.

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Houston 'RedBox of dry cleaning' startup wins the Rockets' Launchpad Contest and pockets a $10,000 prize

Winner, winner

Safir Ali and his brother, Mubeen, thought they had a better way to improve and modernize the dry cleaning user experience, and, lucky for them, the judges behind the 2019 LaunchPad Contest agreed.

The contest, sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass, will reward Hamper with a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes. But winning the startup competition, which seeks to recognize Houston-area entrepreneurs using technology to advance their businesses, has been icing on the cake for Hamper's successes.

The brothers grew up in their parents' dry cleaning store. After school and over summer vacations, the boys would work in the shop, which their father founded shortly after emigrating to the U.S. in 1989.

"I had this 'aha' moment in 2016," Safir says. "I had graduated from Texas A&M in 2014 and was working a corporate job and the last thing on my mind was joining the family business. But I started to see all the pain points for people in dry cleaning."

The biggest, he observed, was the inconvenience of it all. He'd notice people rushing to collect their shirts and suits in the after-work hours between 5 and 7 p.m., harried looks on their faces in the sprint to get there in time, relief that they'd made it before the doors closed at 7.

"'I'm so glad you're still open!' they'd tell us," he says. "And I thought, there really has to be a better way."

That better way, he and Mubeen are betting, is Hamper. Safir describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

Hamper's concept is two-pronged, but simple. Before the company even built a drop-off kiosk, they created an app that would allow people to schedule when a driver could come and collect their dry cleaning. Using technology similar to the kinds of location software Uber uses, Hamper users could create an account, tick off what items they needed laundered or dry cleaned, then select both a pick up and a drop off time. A Hamper driver would come and collect the items, and then return with them fully pressed and cleaned.

The app launched in 2017, but it was never the end game.

"The kiosk prototype took us a year and a half to build out," says Safir, who enlisted the help of some friends who'd studied mechanical and electrical engineering to do it. Last summer, Hamper started a pilot program for the kiosks, setting them up in three Class-A office buildings.

"The idea is that the buildings and offices can offer dry cleaning as another amenity," says Safir.

For customers, using a Hamper kiosk is easy. The first time they visit the kiosk, they input their mobile phone number, then create an account with their name and office suite. They then scan the special Hamper bag they've picked up either from a promotional visit by Hamper or from the kiosk itself. Each bag has a unique QR code that becomes attached to the customer record. Once the bag is scanned, customers receive a text message to connect with Hamper and complete their order, listing the items they've put into the bag and inputting payment information. They then seal the bag and drop it into the kiosk. Hamper drivers collect all of the bags, and bring them to the Ali family's dry cleaning shop, where they are laundered. Once they're ready, the items are brought back to the offices. Customers keep the dry cleaning bags for their next order.

"We strive for excellence, both in terms of price and quality of service," says Safir, who's a member at Station Houston. "When the garments come in and when they go out, we have a seven-point inspection system. If a seam's come loose or a button has been broken somewhere along the way, we fix that."

Being able to combine the quality of a family business with 21st century technology has been exciting for Safir. The kiosk software was built in Angular, and is now hosted on React JS. Hamper's revamped website is about to make the transition to React JS, having formerly existed on Angular.

"The cool thing for us is that we're gearing up to build software for our dry cleaning facility – we call it the plant," says Safir. "We want to revamp the traditional experience where each garment is given an individual ticket and someone staples that onto the garment and pushes it through the system."

He envisions a system where a permanent barcode will be imprinted on a particular garment's care tag, so that whenever that garment comes back to Hamper, all the information about its cleaning will be there: does the customer like light starch, does it need some sort of additional care.

"If we can automate that intake process, we can be more efficient," says Safir. "At some point, I'd love to look at using AI to do things like spot stains or other damages before we wash the garments."

Safir knows he's disrupting the family business, and he readily admits that his father looked at him and his brother like they were crazy when they first broached the idea. But he came to appreciate the brothers' worth ethic, which Safir says they inherited from their mom and dad,and the idea that his sons were making a dream of his come true.

"For as long as I can remember, my dad talked about wanting a warehouse space in addition to a retail store," says Safir. "And thanks to the business we've brought in, we're working to make that a reality. We'll probably move in in September."

Once they do, Safir knows, two generations of dry cleaners will co-exist, using the tools of their centuries to continue their business.

In addition to the prize money from the Rockets Launchpad Contest, Hamper will also be recognized in a joint press release announcing the company's win, as well as getting some love at halftime at an upcoming Rockets game and having the win posted on social media.

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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.

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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.”