In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rodz explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners.

InnovationMap: How did this partnership come about to provide this this unique credit card for small business owners?

Carolyn Rodz: We have been looking at ways to support business owners along their capital journeys for a long time. Since we started Hello Alice access to capital has been the number one barrier for small business owners, and that's only magnified when we look at business owners of color and our new majority business owners that we focus on. And so it made natural sense as we went down a path of conversations with MasterCard initially around how do we create something, particularly in a world where accessing capital, which would be daunting for business owners.

There's a lot of talk around venture capital and getting loans and what that growth journey looks like. But the reality is most business owners understand a credit card — they understand how it works. So, that was a great starting point for us. Then we looked at what are some of the issues with cards — all business cards particularly or commodities. They're typically an afterthought from a lot of the financial institutions that offer them. We're seeing a lot of these emerging fintech companies that are rolling out cards, but even for them, the small business audience is typically an afterthought. They're really focused on tech companies and very rapid growth businesses.

It felt like mainstream small businesses were really getting lost in this conversation, so that was where we really wanted to tackle. How do we solve some of these problems — how do we create benefits that are actually meaningful to small business owners? Things like one-on-one coaching and helping them get access to workshops that will help them along their growth journey. Things that they can redeem points for experiences and opportunities that that may not otherwise be accessible through a lot of these business owners.

The other piece that we wanted to support is the large group of businesses that don't qualify for a traditional credit card. And so we, in tandem with our unsecured credit card, also launched a secured card. And the idea for that was that we could actually roll out a credit quality tool. So, in conjunction with all the education and wraparound services that we're offering, there's a six- to nine-month process that a business owner — if they have poor credit history — can go through to build up that credit with a secured credit card and then seamlessly transition into an unsecured card. It's an opportunity to take that first step toward building and growing their business and accessing the capital that they need to grow.

IM: How does this initiative target the inequality in access to capital for small business owners?

CR: Well, nine out of 10 of business owners are relying on their personal credit card when they're applying for financing. When we look at entrepreneurs of color, the rate of low credit score for them is two to three times higher for Black and LatinX entrepreneurs specifically. So for us, this is the importance of building in conjunction with our creating equitable access to credit program that is much broader, frankly, than the card itself, but offering the wraparound services around it, making sure that we are providing the secured to unsecured seamless transition plan.

We're also working with the First National Bank of Omaha, and the reason we selected them at the bank, they're the largest privately held bank in the country. This also gave us the flexibility to really look at alternative underwriting models and the the opportunity to learn through all of the insights that we're gaining around these small business owners. We're trying to figure out how do we start to look at some of these alternative data points and identify not just the financial history of a business owner.

There are a lot of circumstances that lead to poor credit scores, whether it was for a health circumstance that they endured or veteran business owners who may have no credit history because they've been overseas for a long period of time. We're looking at what are some of the data points that are indicating that a business owner is more likely to succeed and more likely to repay the credit that they've taken on. We know already through a lot of research and data points that having a business plan automatically makes you more likely to repay your your debt. Or the fact that you are getting positive feedback from mentors is a strong indicator that you're going to be more likely to pay off some of those debts. And so we're really looking at what are some of these things that may be overlooked but are frankly more indicative of who the business owner is and the potential for their for their business and their opportunities to be able to repay credit that they take off.

IM: What type of small business owners do you feel like this is a really good solution for? What all can they expect from the program?

CR: As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had. When I started this company, I really looked at what was available to the market. This credit card, like many cards, offers benefits that are pretty standard in the market right now. Things like cash back, extra points, and kickers for certain spends that are relevant to small business owners. But again, we really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access.

What we discovered was there are lots of accelerators, programs, and workshops and things — but they're expensive. So, there's an opportunity here. We work with our network of partners that we have for Hello Alice that are traditionally paid or have a cost to roll them out and offer business owners points and earnings that can be spent toward that.

Mentorship, as you know, is a huge, huge barrier, particularly when we look at our new majority entrepreneurs, so all of our cardholders get access to one-on-one coaching for this card. And we've really focused on areas that are primary interest to them, things like business strategy, operations, and financing for their businesses.

And then the other important piece of this is leveraging our partner network. We have so many partners that we work with at Hello Alice, companies that are offering products and tools and services to small business owners. With this card, we're opening up additional discounts beyond what we've already negotiated standards for all of our community, whether it's an extra discount on things like QuickBooks, Salesforce, or different tools that they might be using. We have over 70 affiliate partners that we've already brought into the program working with more every week right now, which is really exciting.

We're also trying to find new opportunities — where can we bring the most benefit these business owners in a way that grows with their company and that, as they're spending and creating traction with their company, our team is working behind the scenes to unlock more and more opportunities every stage of that journey.

IM: Do you feel like this program is a response to the growing challenges small businesses have been facing over the past few years?

CR: I mean, our business certainly had a hell of a couple of years, and 89 percent of small business owners in our community, which is now over a million business owners strong, claim the access to capital is limiting their growth potential. Where we focus a majority of our energy as a company is unlocking those barriers.

As we dig into that, what we're seeing is access to capital — whether that's early days as a credit card or a grant funding, or later stage with loans or even venture capital — is that we need to address this by helping to unlock that journey for business owners, but also making sure that we're supporting them with the opportunities that are relevant to their own stage of growth.

The other piece is revenue generation. We always want to focus on the core and sustainable business health of a company and making sure that they're bringing in revenue and that they've created a business model that actually works and is scalable. We're working a lot on providing them not just money into their business or outside capital, but how do we actually help them generate revenue and clear capital in all the stages unless they have that capital? How do we actually help them deploy that capital in meaningful ways will help them grow their business?

All of the wraparound services that come with the core of what Hello Alice offers — and certainly with this credit card we're getting a deeper layer of insight, because we know more about the businesses, we know how they're spending, what they're doing. We're really learning about how do we additionally support this cohort of business owners with the right wraparound services, making sure that they're getting the right thing at the right time.

What's interesting is that and the reason we really started with the credit card is that 50 percent of small business owners have a personal credit score of 680 or better, and that's strong enough to apply for most business credit cards. However, that score locks them out of getting a business loan, which typically requires a score of 720 or better to qualify. So we're able to tap into a cohort and help them grow this pool of capital in the earliest stages. But really making sure that we're giving them the growth tools that ultimately free them up to go get that loan, to go walk into a main street bank and have that power of choice along their capital journey.

In general, we focus a lot on access to capital. We deployed over $37 million in small business grants to date, and we're continuing to grow that pool. We're actually working right now on an equitable access to capital fund, which will allow us to utilize those grants to actually pay the security deposit for select business owners who may not qualify for additional credit.

Ultimately, this is a really tangible way to work with financial institutions, MasterCard, and our broader partner ecosystem. We haven't seen the statistics move in decades. How do we actually open up more capital to business owners that otherwise wouldn't qualify for it? And this is our our first of many steps toward towards putting a really tangible stake in the ground.

IM: What about the challenges of the pandemic — how do you see COVID-19 and its shutdown affect small businesses?

CR: For us, like many businesses, I think the pandemic was it shook everything up. I think we had a plan and a path forward that always entailed unlocking access to capital and unlocking opportunity — that has never changed for us. But it accelerated a lot of things. We had planned to deploy grant funding in 2020 independent of the pandemic. When COVID hit and we saw these businesses struggling, we quickly pivoted. We accelerated that plan significantly. We started deploying grants within weeks of shelter in place — even before PPP had been announced and before businesses were accessing any government support. We were among the first to offer emergency grants and put us in a really strong position to grow that program and again to accelerate the rollout of that, which is now turned into a much larger program.

That really was, I would say, the acceleration of our entire early stage access to capital continuum. And what we learned from that was how much capital these business owners actually need. The process gave us a lot of information that that has really helped roll out the broader continuum of capital for us. We launched our lending marketplace with over 92 small business lenders all focused on fair and equitable funding, which is available over all as well. And so these credit cards round out that early stage access to capital.

But when we look at our new majority cohort — and even many white male businesses — we have to get business owners of all types that are struggling with access to capital. Everybody's willing to give money to business owners that have traction, that are doing well with their business, that are on a growth path. But it's very hard to get the traction that big investors need, and that's always really struggle.

The pandemic accelerated a lot in this space. It made us realize that the opportunity here is actually much greater to support these businesses and also got a lot of attention from partners. We've been having these conversations for years, frankly, prior to the pandemic. And everybody recognized there was an issue, but I don't think they realized the impact of the issue until COVID hit, and small businesses were the ones that kept operating and made sure that we were getting the resources that we needed to continue to live in a time when everything was a little bit uncertain.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Small business owners now have a new option for their credit and financial support needs, thanks to Hello Alice and Mastercard. Image via Getty Images

Houston small biz tech platform launches entrepreneur-focused credit card

hello credit

When you're a small business owner, every service you sign up for or institution you open an account at should be a helpful partner on your business journey. At least, that's how Hello Alice sees it.

The Houston company has partnered up with Mastercard and First National Bank of Omaha to provide small business owners a suite of financial services with their line of credit. The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard will offer users expert business advice, business insights, cashback, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

“We designed the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard to meet the needs of small business owners where they are, breaking longstanding barriers to mentorship, access to credit, and overall financial health for those who have traditionally been denied access,” says Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, in a statement.

“In times of economic boom and bust, access to capital remains the leading challenge for all small business owners, and particularly for New Majority owners, which is why we continue to focus our efforts on expanding the capital continuum beyond our existing grants and loans programs,” the duo continued.

Offered as a traditional credit card, the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard provides users with credit-building opportunities. Business owners with a limited or poor credit history also have the opportunity to a secured version of the credit card that still provides full benefits from the program.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, yet too often face significant obstacles in securing the resources they deserve, particularly if the owners come from underserved communities,” says Linda Kirkpatrick, president for North America at Mastercard, in the release. “The launch of the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard is an important step in our mission to build a more inclusive digital economy by providing small businesses with the financial tools and capital they need to thrive, while also advancing our half-billion-dollar commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities.”

This initiative is the latest announcement from Hello Alice’s Equitable Access to Capital program, which is focused on increasing access to the capital — as well as financial products, tools, and education — small businesses need to grow sustainably and power the national economy. By 2025, according to Hello Alice, approximately $70 million in grants could fund credit enhancements for approximately 30,000 business owners, unlocking up to $1 billion in credit access.

“FNBO has been committed to helping small businesses succeed for 165 years, and we are proud to partner with Hello Alice and Mastercard in this vital initiative to elevate all small businesses,” says Jerry J. O’Flanagan, executive vice president of Partner Customer Segment at First National Bank of Omaha.


The new credit card will provide credit and financial advice, support, and education to small business owners. Image via helloalice.com

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Deadline extended: InnovationMap, HX open nominations for new combined awards gala

calling all innovators

Update: The deadline for nominations have been extended to midnight on Sunday, October 2.

InnovationMap is back to honor local startups and innovators — and this time, we've upped the ante.

Houston Exponential and InnovationMap have teamed up to combine their annual awards and event efforts to premiere a brand new program. The Houston Innovation Awards Gala on Wednesday, November 9, at The Ion will be a comprehensive event honoring Houston founders, innovators, investors, and more. InnovationMap and HX, which was acquired earlier this year, are in the same network of ownership.

Nominations are open online until midnight October 2, and nominees will have until October 11 to complete an additional application that will be emailed to nominees directly. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review those submissions and determine finalists and winners across 11 categories. The categories for this year's awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Hardtech Business honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond
  • B2B Software Business honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector
  • Green Impact Business honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond
  • Smart City Business honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond
  • New to Hou honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years
  • DEI Champion honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization
  • Investor of the Year honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing
  • Mentor of the Year honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event
Nominees can be submitted to multiple categories.

Additionally, the awards gala will honor an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community. While you may nominate an individual for the Trailblazer Award via the online form, the judging committee will not require applications or nominations for this category and will be considering potential honorees from the ecosystem at large. If you are interested in sponsorship opportunities, please reach out to cbuckner@houstonexponential.org.

Last year, InnovationMap introduced its awards program and named 28 finalists and honored the nine winners on September 8. Click here to see more from last year's event.

Tickets for the November 9 event are available online. Early bird tickets will be $60 per person and startup founders will be able to attend for $25.

Click here to submit a nomination or see form below.


Major corporation opens hub for global decarbonization in Houston

seeing green

Management consulting giant McKinsey & Co. plans to spend $100 million over the next decade to pump up Houston’s decarbonization economy.

McKinsey says the initiative will, among other things, focus on:

  • Promoting innovations like carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen
  • Revamping business models for carbon-heavy companies
  • Ramping up the community of local startups involved in energy transition
  • Developing talent to work on decarbonization

As part of this program, McKinsey has set up a decarbonization hub in its Houston office, at 609 Main St.

“Decarbonization will lead to a new chapter of economic development, while also addressing a critical problem of climate change,” McKinsey partner Nikhil Ati says.

Global decarbonization efforts over the next three decades will require a $100 trillion investment, according to Utility Dive. Houston, home to 40 percent of publicly traded oil and gas companies, stands to gain a substantial share of that opportunity.

McKinsey’s Houston office has worked for several years on Houston’s energy transition initiatives. For instance, the firm helped produce a study and a whitepaper on energy transition here. The whitepaper outlines Houston’s future as the “epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub.”

“Texas is the nation’s largest renewable energy producer, home to half of the nation’s hydrogen pipelines, and its companies have unparalleled capabilities in building and operating complex projects,” McKinsey senior partner Filipe Barbosa says. “This is Houston’s moment in time on the global stage.”

McKinsey estimates a Houston-based global hub for clean hydrogen that’s in place by 2050 could generate 180,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $100 billion.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Collaboration has made a world of a difference for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem, according to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"I think Houston has this culture of collaboration that I suspect that some other major cities don't have in the same way," Burke says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And while we're a big city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem feels like a small network of a lot of people who work really well together."

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics

A new partnership for Houston-based Syzygy will generate 1.2 million tons of clean hydrogen each year in South Korea by 2030. Image via Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics is part of a new partnership that will develop a fully electric chemical reactor for production of clean hydrogen in South Korea.

The reactor will be installed in the second half of 2023 at Lotte Fine Chemical’s facilities in Ulsan, South Korea. Lotte Fine Chemical, Lotte Chemical, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas are Syzygy’s partners in this venture.

“Simply improving existing tech isn’t enough to reach the world’s decarbonization goals. Stopping climate change will require industries to reimagine what is possible,” Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best says in a news release. “Our technology expands the accepted paradigms of chemical engineering. We have demonstrated the ability to replace heat from combustion with renewable electricity in the manufacture of foundational chemicals like hydrogen.” Click here to read more.

Nicolaus Radford, CEO and founder of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via LinkedIn

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.” Click here to read more.