This week's innovators to know are all female leaders in different industries within Houston innovation. Courtesy photos

Female leaders play a huge role in the Houston innovation ecosystem. This week's innovators to know are all women — and are each representatives for different industries. From health care and nonprofits to education, meet this week's who's who of Houston innovation.

Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest

Courtesy of Urban Harvest

For the first time — thanks to Houston nonprofit Urban Harvest — Houston has caught up with the times for providing access to healthy foods in exchange for government subsidies.

"Double Up is new to Houston, this is the first time we have had a Double Up kind of program here in the metroplex, ever," says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest. "It is something that is very common in a lot of states."

Read more about the organization here.

Beena George, chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas 

Courtesy of UST

Beena George is the inaugural chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas. The former UST business school dean takes on the role at an interesting time for higher education. In the next few years, the industry expects a sizable drop in enrollment, which means UST is tasked with positioning itself in a way that creates value for its students.

"There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way," she says. "Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase."

Read more about Beena George here.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network

Courtesy of Ignite

It's astounding to Ayse McCracken that, while so much of the health care industry is comprised of women, the C-suites of medical companies were mostly male. She wanted to create an organization that helps women climb those corporate ladders — and innovation and startups were a way to do it.

"As we saw this innovation economy and startup space begin to evolve in the city, it seemed that our contribution to this was that we could help incubate and find companies that had high likelihood of success," says McCracken, who is the founder of Ignite Healthcare Network — a group of female health care executives who, among other things, hosts an annual pitch competition.

Read more about Ayse McCracken here.

Urban Harvest is introducing a new location and a new program that accepts government assistance. Erik Scheel/Pexels

Houston nonprofit grows to provide more resources to underserved communities in Houston

Innovating food deserts

For some Houstonians, fresh foods are far away and too expensive to incorporate into their diets regularly. A Houston organization is looking to change that.

Urban Harvest, a 25-year-old nonprofit focused on bringing fresh produce and education to underserved communities, received a $347,000 grant from the Rebuild Texas Fund earlier this year to expand their services across town. The expansion also means a new community farmers market in northeast Houston that opens on Saturday, August 17, at Kashmere Gardens Elementary School (4901 Lockwood Drive).

The farmers market was created to serve a food desert continuing to recover from Hurricane Harvey, according to a news release. Urban Harvest is partnering with Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council and Common Market to create and run the market.

The new market will accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, which offer nutrition assistance to over 637,000 low-income individuals in Harris County. With the addition of the Double Up Houston program, which launched in April 2019, SNAP shoppers receive a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $20 per day, that they will be able to use to purchase fresh produce. In total, there are 13 farm stands across Houston that can access the Double Up SNAP incentive.

"Double Up is new to Houston, this is the first time we have had a Double Up kind of program here in the metroplex, ever," says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest. "It is something that is very common in a lot of states."

Fair Food Network, based in Michigan, assists in working the Double Up program in 22 states across the country, including their partnership with Urban Harvest in Texas. "It gives people the opportunity to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables, which are very expensive," said Roberson.

"Last fall we received a grant with a large group of partners for Double Up Houston," Roberson tells InnovationMap. The grant was gifted by Rebuild Texas, a fund created by the Austin-based Michael & Susan Dell Foundation after Harvey.

"Initially, they did not do a lot of funding in Houston because we have a lot of resources here in our city, so their primary task was to fund in other places that had been hit by Hurricane Harvey that didn't have that foundation," adds Roberson. "They were really interested in areas of Houston that had been hit by Harvey and impacted, and how those places related to food and food access."

Urban Harvest, founded in 1994, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization providing community garden programming, farmers markets, gardening classes, and youth education. The farmers markets, launched in 2014, bring in farmers and producers from within 180 miles of Houston, offering the freshest, local produce and meats available. The organization has a staff of 11 and is located in east downtown Houston.

"There is programming also going at these markets where we are working with the University of Houston and the Houston Food Bank's nutrition office to have people come out to the markets and actually prep fresh produce to be able to show people, with very simple recipes, what you can do with the extra vegetables that you are purchasing," says Roberson.

In the past year, Urban Harvest has been working to strategically grow in the greater Houston area. In September of last year, the organization's main farmers market moved to its current location at 2752 Buffalo Speedway, tripling in size.

"We moved the market and expanded it, presenting some 72 vendors at the market location," Roberson tells InnovationMap. The Buffalo Speedway market operates 52 weeks a year every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.

Urban Harvest has over a dozen spots where it has weekly farmers markets around town. Courtesy of Urban Harvest

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Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.