The University of St. Thomas has opened its esports center on its campus. Photo courtesy of UST

Houston's University of St. Thomas has taken a big step into the esports arena.

On August 31, the school held a grand opening for its on-campus esports facility. The facility features 13 gaming stations decked out with high-end tech equipment, including three 70-inch TV screens and Alienware monitors. The university recently gained an esports sponsorship from Monster Energy.

Beena George, chief innovation officer at UST, introduced esports to the school. It's the first university in Houston to launch a competitive esports team and esports academic program. UST teamed up with Houston-based Mainline, an esports platform and media company, to develop the curriculum.

"Our university is educating youth to take advantage of the tremendous career opportunities that are presented by esports," George says.

Esports is one of the world's fasting-growing industries, with global revenue projected to hit $1 billion this year and $1.8 billion in 2022. North America accounts for nearly one-third of this year's projected revenue.

According to Next College Student Athlete, UST joins about 175 colleges and universities that are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. The website lists eight schools in Texas with esports programs:

  • Concordia University - Texas in Austin.
  • McMurry University in Abilene.
  • Schreiner University in Kerrville.
  • Texas A&M University - San Antonio.
  • Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.
  • University of North Texas in Denton.
  • University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson.
  • Wayland Baptist University in Plainview.

Anthony Dominguez, a 20-year-old computer science major from Puerto Rico, competes on UST's varsity esports team, which started last year. He's pondering a career in esports after earning his degree.

"After college, I see myself pursuing a future in one of the two fields, either computer science or esports," Dominguez says in a UST news release. "As a competitive esports player, I consider myself to be very good. I may consider pursuing gaming as a professional."

Justin Pelt, UST's esports coach and program director, says the academic element of the esports initiative offers an array of professional opportunities for students like Dominguez. A UST student currently can receive a minor in esports coaching, an academic specialty that launched this fall. In the near future, UST plans to introduce more esports minors (in communication and business).

The North America Scholastic Esports Federation partnered last year with UST to enable high school students to earn college credit while learning about the business of esports.

"UST provides students with the foundational pieces of the industry, the production, the business aspect, and the professional side," Pelt says in the news release.

Potential jobs in esports include broadcaster, player, coach, entrepreneur, events manager, sales professional, social media coordinator, talent manager, and contract attorney.

Some UST graduates may be able to stay in Houston to pursue esports careers, as the industry is expanding here. The Houston Outlaws esports team was founded in 2017, and Belong Gaming Arenas said in June that its first U.S. esports location will be in Houston. In addition, several esports startups are based in the Houston area, including Mainline, Enterprise Gaming, and Uconnect Esports.

"The more Houston innovates and grows in the esports space and starts hosting big events, people around the world in the esports demographic will inevitably take notice and potentially create more interest in our city," Pelt says.

UST is one of about 175 colleges that has an esports team. Photo courtesy of UST

And the finalists for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards are... Graphic via Gow Media

InnovationMap names 28 Houston startup finalists for inaugural awards

who will take home the win?

Who are Houston's rising stars across energy transition, sports tech, health, and more? InnovationMap set out on a quest to discover that for its inaugural awards. Ahead of the September 8 event, we're revealing the finalists across all categories.

Eight judges evaluated over 100 applications across eight categories for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave. This year's judges included: JulianaGaraizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation at Greentown Labs; Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon; Rajasekhar Gummadapu, co-founder and CEO of Techwave; Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap; Serafina Lalany, interim president at Houston Exponential; Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge; Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center; and Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

The winners will be announced and celebrated — along with this year's previously announced Trailblazer Award recipient, Barbara Burger of Chevron Technology Ventures — at the September 8 event at The Cannon - West Houston. Honorees, sponsors, judges, and their guests will celebrate in person, and the rest of the innovation community is invited to tune in to the livestream. Click here to RSVP.

Sponsorships are still available! If you are interested in partnering with InnovationMap as a sponsor of this event, send an email to awards@innovationmap.com.

Without further adieu, here are this year's finalists:

BIPOC-Founded Business Finalists

The finalists for the BIPOC-Founded Business Award category, honoring innovative tech companies founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation, are:

  • Allotrope Medical — creator of StimSite, a device that improves surgical safety and efficiency in millions of operations performed every year.
  • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
  • LAMIK Beauty — a tech-enabled clean color cosmetics company focusing on women of all diverse backgrounds
  • Molecule Software — creator of a leading cloud-native energy trading software.

Female-Founded Business Finalists

The finalists for the Female-Founded Business Award category presented by Veritex Community Bank, honoring innovative tech companies founded or co-founded by women, include:

  • DonateStock — simplifying the process of donating stock and helping nonprofits solicit, process, and manage stock donations.
  • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
  • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
  • RingOn — wearable GPS tracker that is also a panic button that's designed for school kids and with an impact-driven mission of ending child trafficking.
  • Topl — impact monetization engine that enables digital and sustainable transformation across value chains and empowers the monetization of impact verified on the Topl Blockchain.
  • Zibrio Inc. — a fall prevention solution that empowers both clinicians and patients for better outcomes.

Health Care Business Finalists

The finalists for the Health Care Business Award category presented by Gray Reed, which honors health care businesses with an innovative solution within life sciences, include:

  • Allotrope Medical — creator of StimSite, a device that improves surgical safety and efficiency in millions of operations performed every year.
  • Medical Informatics Corp. — creator of Sickbay, which features web-based applications that transform data into actionable information to help care teams make better, faster decisions.
  • Saranas — creator of the Early Bird, the first and only FDA-approved bleed detection system for endovascular procedures.
  • Starling Medical — using AI and telehealth enabled medical devices to enable millions with bladder dysfunctions to be able to urinate safely and conveniently again.

Energy Transition Business Finalists

The finalists for the Energy Transition Business category, which honors energy business with innovative solutions within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond, are:

  • Cemvita Factory — engineering microbes that eat CO2 and produce valuable chemicals.
  • Data Gumbo — creator of an interconnected industrial smart contract network secured and powered by blockchain.
  • Enercross LLC — automation software for the energy industry.
  • Nanotech — a material science company with a mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption.
  • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
  • Renewell Energy — converting idle oil and gas wells into flexible energy storage.

Sports Tech Business Finalists

The finalists for the Sports Tech Business category, which is honoring a sports tech business with an innovative solution within sports are:

  • FitLift — a wearable device and mobile platform that tracks motion and gives real-time feedback on lifting technique, allowing trainers, and athletes to drive results.
  • Mainline — an esports tournament management system, tournament organizer, and event production company.
  • sEATz — a mobile ordering and delivery platform for food, drinks, and merchandise at large events.

Space Tech Business Finalists

The finalists for the Space Tech Business category, which is honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration. are:

  • Cemvita Factory — engineering microbes that eat CO2 and produce valuable chemicals.
  • Cognitive Space — providing a scalable satellite constellation management solution to the space industry.
  • NANCO Aero — developing package- and person-carrying air vehicles.

Top Founder Under 40 Finalists

The finalists for the Top Founder Under 40 category, which honors an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021, are:

  • Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL — using artificial intelligence and automation to streamline surgical scheduling.
  • Timothy Neal of GoExpedi — an e-commerce, supply chain, and analytics company that is streamlining procurement for industrial and energy MRO (maintenance, repair and operations).
  • Kim Roxie of LAMIK Beauty — a tech-enabled clean color cosmetics company focusing on women of all diverse backgrounds.
  • Emma Fauss of Medical Informatics Corp. — creator of Sickbay, which features web-based applications that transform data into actionable information to help care teams make better, faster decisions.
  • Emily Cisek of The Postage — a legacy planning platform using tech to make afterlife decision making easier.

People’s Choice: Startup of the Year Finalists

The finalists for the People's Choice: Startup of the Year category, which will each present a 60-second live elevator pitch at the event on September 8, are:

    • Cheers Health — creating products that are designed to support your liver and help you feel better after consuming alcohol.
    • GoCo — all-in-one employee management platform.
    • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
    • Liongard — a platform that helps Information Technology companies automatically discover, document, and audit their customers' IT systems.
    • Nanotech — a material science company with a mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption.
    • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
    • Topl — impact monetization engine that enables digital and sustainable transformation across value chains and empowers the monetization of impact verified on the Topl Blockchain.

    Launch Esports, a partnership between two Texas companies, has expanded into more schools. Photo courtesy of Launch

    Houston esports software company says game on to untapped market

    ready player one

    A joint venture between a Houston-based esports tournament software and management company and a Dallas-based college multimedia rights company has expanded into a new market.

    Launch Esports, formed by Mainline and Steel Planet Esports, announced a round of competitions that bring structure and continuity to conference-level play for small college conferences and schools across the country, according to a news release.

    "Launch Esports and its member conferences are focused on the massive untapped opportunity to reach a community at over 1,500 schools across the nation," says Darin David, president of Launch Esports, in the release. "By bringing the advanced tools, best practices, competition platforms, and live event production to these schools, we are opening a huge opportunity for a collegiate community that reaches 55+ million students and alumni nationwide."

    Launch Esports is providing its platform and structure for Division II, Division III, NAIA and community college conferences and universities, including KCAC, Mid-South Conference, Conference Carolinas, Sooner Athletic Conference, and Red River Athletic Conference.

    "Our experience with Launch Esports running our Madden Invitational this summer was excellent and has only added to the KCAC's vision of esports as we enter our inaugural year of full competition this fall," said KCAC Commissioner Dr. Scott Crawford. "Launch has delivered on building first-class tournaments for our student-athletes and teams. It is a great feeling to know we are working with the premier partner ensuring a best-in-class experience when it comes to the overall platform, onboarding competitors and teams, marketing competitions, and broadcasting the great competition within the KCAC."

    This initiative is just the first expansion for Launch Esports. According to the release, Launch anticipates adding more conferences across various NAIA, Division II, Division III and Community Colleges.

    "The Mid-South Conference is proud to partner with Launch Esports as we begin to compete as a conference this fall," says Eric Ward, commissioner of the Mid-South Conference, in the release. "Their knowledge and expertise in competitive gaming will make our initial efforts to sponsor esports as a conference championship seamless and hassle-free."

    Here's what Houston startups won prizes at the inaugural Venture Houston conference. Photo via Getty Images

    Inaugural Houston Venture startup pitch competition names big winners and doles out nearly $1M

    taking home the W

    Just a few months ago, Venture Houston 2021 was just an idea. Now, the two-day conference concluded with over 2,500 registrants and doled out nearly $1 million in cash and investment prizes to startups.

    The idea was to bring together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem, says Sandy Guitar, managing director at HX Venture Fund, at the closing event. The conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, wrapped up with the announcement of nine startups taking home investment or cash prizes.

    In its first year, the Venture Houston conference attracted over 266 startup applications, and a group of Houston innovation leaders named 30 semifinalists that pitched on Thursday, February 4. On Friday, February 5, seven finalists pitched:

    • Koda Health
    • Spark Biomedical Inc
    • PATH EX, Inc.
    • Conversifi
    • CellChorus
    • MacroFab, Inc.
    • Mainline

    The top three startups in the competition took home cash prizes — Macrofab won first place and $15,000 from Halliburton Labs, Spark Biomedical won second place and $10,000 from Softeq, and PathEx won third place and $5,000 from ChampionX.

    • Work & Mother won $250,000 from The Artemis Fund
    • MacroFab won $250,000 — $100,000 from Mercury Fund and $150,000 from Carnrite Ventures
    • Conversifi won $200,000 — $100,000 from Next Coast Ventures and $100,000 from Live Oak Venture Partners
    • Koda Health won $50,000 from Houston Angel Network
    • CellChorus won $50,000 from Texas Halo Fund
    • Nesh won $50,000 from Plug and Play
    • CemvitaFactory won $25,000 from baMa

    Two previously announced prizes — $500,000 from Fitz Gate Ventures and $250,000 from Montrose Lane — were not given out.

    The Venture Houston organizers are already looking forward to next year's program, but in the meantime Guitar had a parting call to action.

    "Keep helping your fellow entrepreneur," she says, "that's really what Venture Houston 2021 is really about at the end of the day. The entrepreneur journey is a difficult one — often a lonely one — and sometimes one of hard knocks. Please keep finding entrepreneurs within your ecosystem. Let's help them with our advice, our capital, and our understanding."

    The ultimate who's who of 2020 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

    Editor's Picks: Top 7 Houston innovation interviews of 2020

    2020 in review

    Editor's note: With 2020 in the rearview, InnovationMap is looking back on the top stories of the year. With over 60 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast and about half of those being recorded in 2020, here are the top episides from the year.

    Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline

    With sports went offline, esports startup Mainline saw an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

    What happened when collegiate sport stadiums shut down and seasons were postponed? People started to turn to esports to get their competitive fix. And Houston-based esports tournament software company Mainline saw a huge boost to business.

    "Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline, says in a June episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

    On campuses this past spring, colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

    "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

    Fiona Mack joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. Photo courtesy of JLABS

    Last year, JLABS @ TMC — a local health tech startup incubator under the Johnson & Johnson arm — welcomed Fiona Mack as the new head of the program. On her plate was assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

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

    One of the things that's top of mind for Mack is a focus on diversity — both from an entrepreneurship and a representation standpoint.

    "From a research perspective, there's a strong effect of having a lack of diversity in a lot of the metrics we're looking at," she shares.

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

    Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

    Despite a pandemic that at least in some ways negatively affected venture capital investment, a Houston software startup managed to persevere with a $17 million series B. Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says in a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

    In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

    "Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

    Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how they made the pivot from making T-shirts to face masks. Photos courtesy

    For years, Megan Eddings, founder and CEO of Accel Lifestyle, worked on perfecting the perfect antibacterial fabric for an anti-stink athletic clothing line, but it only took her a few weeks to pivot toward using the material to make masks.

    On a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Eddings and Amanda Cotler, director of operations, shared the story of how this pivot came to be and how they saw the Center for Disease Control was recommending wearing bandanas and cloth when face masks weren't available, they had an epiphany.

    "Megan and I read that and immediately hopped on a call with our team," Cotler says. "We had a realization with our antibacterial fabric that a face mask made from it would be so much cleaner."

    Within 24 hours, the duo had a sample in their hands, and they had 14,000 yards of their Prema fabric being shipped from California to Houston, where they had managed to find 60 local sewers ready to start making the masks.

    Now, with the Houston workforce making moves to return to the workplace, Eddings says she's seen an increased interest in corporations wanting custom masks with the company logo on it for their employees.

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Durg Kumar and Allen Bryant,  partners at Knightsgate Ventures

    Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impactDurg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

    Durg Kumar founded Knightsgate Ventures in order to find and fund startups with a social impact and a profitable business strategy. The Houston-based firm was founded in Houston and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation. The duo joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in November.

    "For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

    The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

    The end of the year, Kumar and Bryant were focused on helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

    "Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Joy M. Hutton, local leader of the Grow with Google in Houston

    Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

    In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Joy M. Hutton was named the local leader. The entrepreneur and business consultant is hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

    "In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says in a December episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

    Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Kyle Judah, executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

    Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new role. Photo courtesy of Lilie

    When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

    Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

    "One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says in a September episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

    Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

    "We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

    Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

    Houston-based Mainline is providing the tournament software for an unprecedented esports showdown between the Big 12 schools. Jamie McInall/Pexels

    Houston esports company to provide software for a first-of-its-kind collegiate tournament

    game on

    While college football's fate this fall is up in the air thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Big 12 Conference is definitely going to face off virtually thanks to esports software developed in Houston.

    According to an announcement from the Big 12 Conference and Learfield IMG College, its multimedia rights partner, the tournament has opened for registration for all 10 member schools — Baylor University, Texas Christian University, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Iowa State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and West Virginia University.

    "This is a great opportunity to engage in an emerging space on a Conference-wide level," says Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a news release. "This opportunity is a unique way to provide original content from within a competitive environment during these challenging times. We appreciate the collaborative efforts that have made this first-of-its-kind Big 12 Championship tournament possible."

    Houston-based Mainline, an esports software startup, has been selected to provide the tournament software for this unprecedented event, which is set to take place July 13 to 16. Each of the 10 schools will host its own single-elimination qualifying tournament featuring Madden NFL 20. Students have until July 10 to register to compete. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ will air both the schools' finals and the Big 12 Conference Championship tournament. The host of Big 12 This Week, Bill Pollock, will call the tournament.

    Not only will Mainline's tournament software enable the competition, but it will allow Learfield IMG College to sell sponsors on esports visibility. Just like the football season, the esports tournaments will promote school branding and an opportunity to connect with student participants.

    "It's more important now than ever to provide college students the ability to stay connected and engaged, and our technology can help aggregate the college esports community to help make that happen," says Chris Buckner, Mainline's CEO and founder, in the release. "This will multiply the opportunity, power and fun of esports to college students attending all Big 12 universities and keeps students competing while still practicing social distancing."

    Earlier this month, Buckner joined InnovationMap's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunities — as well as the challenges — the pandemic posed for his company.

    "Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says on the episode. "Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution."

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    CultureMap Emails are Awesome

    Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

    houston voices

    Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

    The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

    As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

    Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

    The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

    An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

    Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

    A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

    At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

    When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

    Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

    After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

    Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

    In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

    At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

    When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

    Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

    Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

    • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
    • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
    • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
    • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

    Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

    Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

    Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

    That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

    How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

    1. Keep the music playing.

    Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

    Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

    2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

    Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

    Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

    3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

    Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

    Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

    A Second Act

    As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

    Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

    Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

    Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

    When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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    This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).

    10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for April

    WHERE TO BE

    From pitching competitions to expert speaker summits, April is filled with opportunities for Houston innovators.

    Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

    Note: This post may be updated to add more events.

    April 4 — Mission Control: Texas’ Leadership in Space, Technology, and Innovation 

    Since its inception, the space industry has expanded across Texas and grown beyond scientific exploration into a tableau on which the terrestrial set have placed bets related to tourism, mining, communications, healthcare, food science, national security, technical innovations across all industries, and even human habitation beyond earth. The Texas Lyceum’s 2024 Public Conference (PubCon) will explore these opportunities and the journey to realize the promise of space and beyond for Texas and the nation.

    Throughout the event, an expected 300 industry leaders and Texas legislators and staffers will participate in thought provoking discussions to inform our stakeholders and state leaders on the trajectory, challenges and opportunities in the Space Economy.

    This event starts Thursday, April 4, from 2:30 to 9:30 pm at the Thompson Hotel. Click here to register.

    April 4-6 — 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition

    Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which is Rice University's internationally-recognized initiative devoted to the support of entrepreneurship, and Rice Business, the Rice Business Plan Competition offers an educational program mirroring real-world experience through this multi-day event for student startups from across the world.

    In total, more than $1 million in investment and cash prizes are expected to be awarded at the 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition. Every single startup will walk away with at least $950 in cash prizes, no matter where they place in the competition.

    The Elevator Pitch event is open to the public and on Thursday, April 4, from 6 to 9 pm at Jones Graduate School of Business. Click here to register.

    April 6 — 12th Annual Houston Global Health Collaborative Conference

    This meeting is an annual gathering of interdisciplinary professionals and students with a passion for global health innovation and advancement. This year's Conference Theme is Global Health Diplomacy: Shaping Policies for Health Impact and will feature subthemes of vaccine diplomacy, global surgery, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, and the global nutrition crisis. Clinicians, researchers, healthcare workers, policymakers, and students across any field who are interested in global health are especially encouraged to attend.

    This event is Saturday, April 6, from 7:45 am to 7 pm at the University of Houston College of Medicine. Click here to register.

    April 10 — Bayou City Bio Pulse

    Check out a showcase of life sciences in The Woodlands. This event will feature a vendor exhibition, presentations from business, academic and community development leaders, and a panel discussion on The Woodlands’ life sciences ecosystem. Spanning across five sites totaling over 80 acres, The Woodlands Innovation District is positioned to meet the needs of companies focused on in-house manufacturing (from biopharma to industrial biology), as well as contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs).

    This event is Wednesday, April 10, from 8 am to 12 pm at the Woodlands Towers. Click here to register.

    April 18 — Energy Underground: All Things Hydrogen

    The Energy Underground is a group of professionals in the Greater Houston area that are accelerating the Energy Transition. Come together to learn and support each other's work in advancing the Energy Transition: make industry contacts, secure financing, share deals, recommend talent looking to enter the energy workforce, and anything else that leads to bigger, better energy companies.

    This event is Thursday, April 18, from 12 to 1:30 pm at the Cannon West Houston. Click here to register.

    April 19 — Build Day x Tour: Houston Hackathon

    A partnership between ACT House, a human analytics leader, and Tech Equity Collective, a Google Initiative driving black innovation in tech formed an exciting new accelerator. Participants will build their own startup team, collaborate on ideas, and sprint on real work. The first place winning team will receive $10,000, the second place team will recieve $5,000 and the third place team will get $2,500.

    This event is Friday, April 19, at 4 pm until April 20 at 4 pm. Click here to register.

    April 21 — The Energy Corridor District's Earth Day Celebration

    Come out for a day of fun and environmental awareness. Get hands-on and contribute to a communal art piece that symbolizes a collective commitment to Mother Earth. Pick up a brush or a marker and add your creativity to the canvas.

    Take a moment to learn how the world's top energy companies are contributing to a more sustainable future. Get inspired and pick up some tips for your own eco-journey

    This event is Sunday, April 21, from 1 to 4 pm at Terry Hershey Park. Click here to register.

    April 22 — EO4Energy Workshop

    The Geological Remote Sensing Group (GRSG) Americas, in partnership with the University of Houston, invites you to a workshop focusing on the role of Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing in the Energy Industry.

    As the industry moves towards sustainability, driven by Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations, the significance of EO and remote sensing continues to grow. This workshop will encompass insightful case studies, introduce emerging technologies, and present advanced methodologies. Participants will engage with a diverse group of professionals from the energy, space, academic, and government sectors.

    This event begins Monday, April 22, at 8 am at Hilton University of Houston. Click here to register.

    April 25 — 2024 PIDX International US Spring Conference

    In this industry event, explore the intersection of AI and Digital Standards. All experienced speakers across industries are invited to contribute articles, share use cases and theories, and connect with attendees from the Energy Industry.

    The accumulated knowledge shared at the event will guide the forthcoming phase of PIDX Standards Development tailored for the Energy Industry.

    This event begins Thursday, April 25, at 8 am at 501 Westlake Park. Click here to register.

    April 26 — StartupLaunch USA: Ignite Your Entrepreneurial Journey

    This is an immersive online learning experience tailored for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to kickstart their startup ventures in the United States. This event provides participants with the essential knowledge, skills, and resources needed to navigate the complexities of launching and scaling a successful business.

    Through a series of interactive workshops, expert-led seminars, and practical case studies. Participants will learn how to develop innovative business ideas, validate market opportunities, and create viable business models that resonate with target audiences.

    This event is Friday, April 26, from 1 to 6 pm at Museum of Natural Science. Click here to register.

    April 27 — World Youth Foundation: STEAM Innovation Incubator

    WYF's STEAM Innovation Industry Pathways, or SIIP, is a youth out-of-school-time monthly program designed to bridge the gap between academic learning, industry, and digital skilling.

    Open to youth ages 6 to 24, SIIP is not your typical program—it's a gateway to a world of metaskilling, offering a dynamic range of skills from design thinking, strategic project management, soft skills development, digital skills development, and industry application.

    This event is Saturday, April 27, from 10 am to 1:30 pm at Sunnyside Health and Multi-Service Center. Click here to register.


    Report: Here's how Houston ranks in terms of its gender pay gap

    by the numbers

    It's 2024 and women are still making less money than men, thus keeping the unfortunate reality of the wage gap alive. But at least in Houston, the wage gap isn't as bad as other Texas cities, according to a new earnings study by Chamber of Commerce.

    Houston ranked No. 142 on the list, which examined earnings for full-time workers in 170 of the most populous cities in the United States.

    The study found that, in 2024, men in Houston are currently making $4,474 more than women — a figure that's significantly lower than the national wage gap, which is a little over $11,000.

    The U.S. city with the worst gender pay gap is none other than Frisco, a Dallas suburb. Men in Frisco are currently making a staggering $52,216 more than women, which is more than $12,000 more than the gap in 2023.

    Also in North Texas, McKinney remained in the No. 5 spot for the second consecutive year. McKinney men make $24,568 more than women, which is a $4,400 decrease year-over-year. Plano's gender wage gap has worsened since 2023: The Dallas suburb is now listed among the top 10 worst pay gaps in the U.S., climbing to No. 6. The study says the Plano's wage gap is now $23,415, or nearly $2,300 more than last year.

    Statewide gender pay gap

    Chamber of Commerce found that Texas' gender pay gap has increased since last year; The 2023 study found that women made nearly $11,000 less than men, and that discrepancy has widened in 2024 to nearly $12,000.

    However, Texas' ranking has improved 10 spots from No. 29 last year to No. 19 this year.

    For added context, New Hampshire has the No. 1 worst pay gap in the nation, with men making over $18,000 more than women.

    Other Texas cities that earned spots in the report are:

    • No. 20 – Amarillo
    • No. 22 – Laredo
    • No. 24 – Austin
    • No. 30 – Corpus Christi
    • No. 31 – Pasadena
    • No. 33 – Irving
    • No. 52 – Lubbock
    • No. 59 – El Paso
    • No. 65 – Grand Prairie
    • No. 81 – Fort Worth
    • No. 118 – Dallas
    • No. 121 – San Antonio
    • No. 125 – Arlington
    • No. 167 – Brownsville
    • No. 168 – Garland

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    This article originally ran on CultureMap.