Ten Houston companies received funding from the Founders First CDC's Job Creators Quest Grant. Photo courtesy

A national nonprofit has granted $100,000 in funding to 31 companies across the state. Ten of the recipients are based in Houston.

Founders First CDC — an organization that supports diverse founder-led, revenue-generating businesses — named the winners of its new Job Creators Quest Grant this week. Over 600 Texas businesses applied, and the selected recipients represent industries from construction and manufacturing to STEM and healthcare, to hospitality, and more.

"The challenges of simply keeping the doors open have been amplified by an unforeseen obstacle – the pandemic. Now more than ever it takes commitment, perseverance and healthy funding to succeed, which is why I'm excited about Founders First CDC," says Texas State Senator and small business owner, Royce West, in a news release. "This organization is providing small businesses with wherewithal to create jobs, which in turn help sustain operations, achieve business goals and stimulate the economy."

Launched earlier this year, the Job Creators Quest Grant is funding businesses to help them retain and grow their workforce through the pandemic. Since its inception, the program has awarded more than $220,000 to minority and underrepresented business owners throughout the United States.

"We have observed many founders working more in their business than on their business. Our priority is to give entrepreneurs resources to grow while simultaneously becoming premium wage job creators within their community," says Shaylon Scott, executive director of Founders First CDC, in the release. "Investing in diverse entrepreneurs is an impactful way to drive job and wealth creation in underserved communities. The Job Creators Quest Grant is more than a dollar amount, it's a celebration of their success."

Eligibility requirements included the company's founder must be Black, indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQIA+, military veteran, woman or located in a low to moderate income area and be a for-profit company with annual revenues between $100,000 to $3 million. Grant winners will use the funds to help create and add 1-2 net new premium wage jobs in the next 12 months. The program was funded by a $1 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, along with Founders First CDC Capital Partners' recent $9 million series A.

The Houston companies that received funding were:

  • DM Electrical and Construction LLC - $10,000
  • Medley Inc. - $10,000
  • EFS GROUP PLLC - $2,500
  • AtWork Personnel Services - $2,500
  • Camellia Alise, LLC - $1,500
  • Flava Wings - $1,500
  • Oops Steam Cleaning - $1,500
  • The Body: A Home for Love - $1,500
  • TNR Accounting & Management Consulting, LLC - $2,500
  • Socium Solutions LLC - $2,500

The other Texas companies that received grant money were:

  • COCINA 54 (Austin) - $1,500
  • Laundris Corp (Austin) - $1,500
  • Center for Music Therapy, Inc. (Austin) - $1,500
  • Le Rouge Cuisine Food Company (Dallas) - $5,000
  • TDG Scientific (Dallas) - $5,000
  • SCENT & FIRE CANDLE COMPANY (Dallas) - $2,500
  • brittani (Dallas) - $2,500
  • Atmospheric Home Staging (Dallas) - $1,500
  • RD Adams Enterprise LLC dba ONE Elite Staffing (Dallas) - $1,500
  • Civil Pour (Dallas) - $1,500
  • Lalloon Marketing Group, LLC dba Imperium Surgical Partners (Dallas) - $1,500
  • WEST ONE PRODUCTS LLC (Fort Worth) - $1,500
  • Hooked On Code, LLC (Frisco) - $5,000
  • Hustle Clean (Frisco) - $5,000
  • PriceSenz LLC (Irving) - $1,500
  • R2R Palliative and Hospice Care LLC (Lewisville) - $1,500
  • Bernadette Davis Communications (Plano) - $1,500
  • Channel Source Inc (Southlake) - $5,000
  • KoderLabs (Trophy Club) - $1,500
  • Brisco Wheel Repair LLC DBA Alloy Wheel Repair of San Antonio (San Antonio) - $1,500
In times of crisis, communities are disproportionately affected and access to tech is limited. Here's what one organization is doing to bridge that gap. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Houston expert: Three steps community organizations can take to close the digital divide

Guest column

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income communities. On top of job losses and a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, people in disadvantaged neighborhoods face another significant hurdle: access to technology.

In communities like Houston's Fifth Ward, owning a device with internet access can be an almost insurmountable challenge, as residents are 53 percent more likely to lack access to basic technology than the greater Houston area.

Technology has the power to help level playing fields, providing information and resources and even programming and socialization to all who have access, but for communities where the median household income is roughly $18,308, or less than half of Houston's median income, organizations must bridge the gap and support residents' access to and adoption of technology.

Here are three steps the Julia C. Hester House, a community center serving the greater Fifth Ward in Houston, has taken in order to provide successful virtual programming and services to ensure that everyone from children to seniors can benefit.

Provide greater access

The first barrier disadvantaged communities face is access: both to devices and to the internet. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of low-income adults lack a computer, and a majority are not tablet owners. However, many residents have access to landlines and smartphones, offering a starting point for virtual engagement. Community centers can start with partnerships with tech companies to help bridge the gap by securing and distributing tablets and internet-ready devices to provide an initial step toward connectivity.

On top of low device adoption rates, the recurring cost of home broadband internet creates another hurdle. When the City of Houston used a portion of CARES act funds to provide one-year internet vouchers to 5,000 low-income households, Hester House worked to spread the news quickly to the Fifth Ward. Hester House also recently partnered with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, which has taken on a leadership role in this regard, to get internet service into the homes of local seniors and families with young children. Public-private partnerships and policies that provide free or low-cost internet services across communities can enhance connectivity and improve outcomes for families and neighborhoods.

About 4 percent of Fifth Ward residents possess a college degree, and while that's not required to browse the web, it suggests a lack of exposure to technology, particularly among seniors who came of age before widespread adoption of the internet.Beyond securing greater access to broadband, new approaches to providing computer training and teaching tech fundamentals such as how to access and participate in Zoom meetings go a long way toward increasing new technology adoption rates. Zoom program participants may be reticent at first, but practice and support offer opportunities for greater community adoption.

Innovate program models

As internet, hardware and software access has increased in the community, the next step requires adjusting programming to meet new virtual parameters. Hester House moved many of their programs online and developed new programs to replace what was offered in person prior to the pandemic. Shifts to virtual programming can include virtual tutoring and youth classes, mental and social support programming, exercise and activity based video programming and purely social engagements such as group dinners and games.

The acclimation to virtual programming at Hester House has been a challenge, particularly for youth, however program managers continue to make adjustments to program models to strengthen engagement. Recurring programs that make use of music, guest speakers and pre-planned topics of conversation can help strengthen engagement and encourage participant retention, providing more shared experiences that uplift communities.

Measure and iterate results

As virtual programming continues to grow and find its cadence, program managers must continue to survey participants and make adjustments. Understanding the experiences and needs of participants will help guide planning and execution of changes that ensure participants will not only come back but will bring friends. Utilizing appreciative inquiry to improve programming benefits attendees and ensures that mission-oriented goals are met with regard to service to the community. For example, recent virtual gardening and food preservation classes, aimed at teaching healthy food growth and storage practices, has been so popular that the Hester House is assessing ways to expand the program and dive more deeply into specific topics.

Feedback from the community through surveys and qualitative data collection through individual interviews offer the space to understand the experience from members of the community, allowing organizations to focus on testing and iterating new approaches to foster successful engagement, continuing to meet the needs of the community.

It's no surprise that during difficult times, there's an even greater squeeze on nonprofits serving at-risk communities, which is why Hester House launched its Technology and Innovation Access Campaign in December. Campaign goals include funding long-term internet access, computer training, tech education classes and support, real-time tech support, helping residents navigate online applications for local, state, and national resources, and more. Community centers are focused on a successful continuation of service in these changing times, and the steps above offer a model for technology innovation for other organizations looking to provide continuity of service in difficult times.

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Lis Harper is a strategist and account executive at Houston-based Medley Inc.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Rachel Moctron of ClassPass, Sid Upadhyay of WizeHire, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from fitness tech and software to PR and communications.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

ClassPass recently announced its entrance into the Houston market, and at the helm of the company's new local presence is Rachel Moncton. In a guest article for InnovationMap, she shares why ClassPass was so interested in Houston. The search actually started four years ago, but the tech company finally landed in Houston for its fourth location.

"In 2017, the ClassPass team spent nine months conducting an intensive nationwide search for a city that matched our mission and values," Moncton writes. "As a brand focused on supporting an active lifestyle, we wanted a city that offered a connection to the outdoors. One of the most important driving factors in our search was finding a city where we could attract incredible talent to our team. Though we settled on Missoula, Houston was high on the list." Click here to read more.

Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Sid Upadhyay's startup has something to celebrate. The software company founded in Houston closed a $7.5 million series A round of funding led by two Houston-area venture capital firms — Amplo and Mercury Fund. According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

For Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., innovation and inclusion go hand in hand. Business leaders need diverse voices at the table to drive new ideas and innovation.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Click here to stream the episode and read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss COVID-19's affect on her business and fostering diversity at startups. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Houston founder calls for business leaders to 'make room for diverse voices'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 70

Last year was one of quick pivots and tech solutions for Ashley Small and her company's clients. Small — the CEO and founder of Medley Inc., a Houston-based branding and public relations firm — works with both for-profit and nonprofit entities to tell their stories, and of course 2020 had its challenges in doing so. But they weren't anything Small, her team, and technology couldn't overcome.

Small founded Medley over 12 years ago, and for the past three of those years, her team has been completely virtual. She shares on the Houston Innovators podcast that this give her team a headstart on being able to find and quickly adopt quick tech solutions — but last year's shutdown also meant navigating this for all her clients.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out what the best technology was for each client," Small says. "Where the learning curve has been is understanding all the available resources out there and understanding how offline experiences can help audiences connect online."

Founded in Houston, Medley has grown to the Los Angeles and Chicago markets over the years — and Small says that was intentional. An Oklahoma native, Small fell in love with Houston's diversity when she attended Texas Southern University, and sought out other diverse markets to expand her business. And, as a Black female founder, she fosters an inclusive community at her company — and wants to remind her fellow business owners how imperative it is to running an innovative company.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says, adding that when you bring different people to the table, you get new ways of thinking. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small knows early-stage companies aren't always able to hire a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds right from the start, but there are other ways to surround yourself with diverse ideas.

"Make room for diverse voices -- and you may have to be a bit creative," Small says.

Medley's team also realizes that not every startup can afford to bring on an in-house or third-party PR team, but the company has a few options for startups, such as a three-month retainer to start as well as a series of workshops available online for as low as $19.

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Nicole Rogers of Validere, Allie Danziger of Ampersand, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries — from energy tech to business entrepreneurship.

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how her company has grown exponentially over the past year. Photo courtesy of Validere

Nicole Rogers joined Canadian startup Validere during the summer last year — right smack dab in the middle of a pandemic. But despite COVID-19 and the drop in oil prices, the energy company grew exponentially — in clientbase, in venture capital support, and in employee count.

"One of the things we found that was to our advantage throughout the pandemic was a lot of folks in oil were having a career identity crisis. Oil really struggles with employment elasticity," Rogers says. "A lot of the colleagues we were talking to were just fatigued with the ups and downs going on in the past decade."

Rogers, who's based in the company's Houston office, shares more about Validere's growth and opportunities in the new year — plus what she thinks Houston needs to do to maintain its status of energy capital of the world in the episode. Click here to read more and to stream the podcast.

Allie Danziger, founder of Ampersand

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has two small children, but she started thinking about if her kids were college age, would she want them to enroll in a virtual college experience or hold off for a time where they could have a more traditional experience. Realizing she probably wasn't alone, she thought about how she could create an alternative for high school grads — in this time of the pandemic but also in a time where college degrees aren't the best option for job security.

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains. Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

It's a new year and the perfect time to reflect on where society is at from a technological standpoint. In light of the pandemic and an overarching trend of tapping into tech to provide solutions to COVID-19-related challenges, 2021 will likely see more of these trends.

"As a business owner, it's clear to me that many of these shifts will persist long after the pandemic has ended," writes Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., in a guest column for InnovationMap.

From subscriptions to online shopping, Small highlighted the types of tech in the digital realm that deserve our special attention in 2021. Click here to read more.

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

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

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


December 1 — Fall 2021 D2K Showcase

The Rice D2K Lab is a hub for data science education. In the interactive D2K Showcase, you will explore D2K students' end-of-semester projects sponsored by D2K Affiliate members, researchers and community partners. Interact with student teams in the poster session and learn more about their projects. Vote on your favorite project and team as students compete for cash prizes.

The event is on Wednesday, December 1, at 5 pm. It's free and happening at Rice University (Duncan Hall - McMurtry Auditorium). Click here to register.

December 2 — TeeMates Launch Party

Join TeeMates for happy hour in town at The Cannon's new sportstech and media location. DJ, drinks, prizes, local businesses, and golf.

The event is on Thursday, December 2, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Sports + Media (5353 W Alabama St. Ste 450). Click here to register.

December 3 — Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community

The Greater Houston Partnership invites you to the Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community. This virtual event will feature a dynamic panel discussion with some of the region's top minds working to advance health care and medicine for the future. These leaders will discuss topics ranging from the region's health care system including funding, workforce, technology/innovation, equity and living in a post-pandemic world.

The event is on Friday, December 3, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 5-9 — 23rd Annual World Petroleum Congress

Returning to the United States for the first time in over 30 years, the 23rd World Petroleum Congress will transform Houston into the epicenter of the global energy debate. Recognized as the energy capital of the world, the host city is home to 4,600 energy firms and a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship both within the energy sector and across aligned sectors. The Congress will gather together industry and government leaders from across the world to address all aspects of the industry from technological advances in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations to the role of natural gas and renewables, management of the industry and its social, economic, and environmental impact.

The event is from Sunday, December 5, through Thursday, December 9, at George R. Brown Convention center. Click here to register.

December 7 — Latest Trends & Opportunities in Sports Tech

Join DivInc on December 7th for an in depth discussion focused on trends, challenges and opportunities in this city and beyond at the intersection of sports and technology! The panel consists of subject matter experts from HTX Sports Tech, Intel, 2K, and The Cannon. We will also be sharing details and answering questions regarding upcoming Sports Tech accelerator.

The event is on Tuesday, December 7, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Ion (4201 Main St). Click here to register.

December 8 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event spanning across twenty-two cities and 2 virtual cohorts, celebrating the almost two-hundred veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses from our recent cohort. It gives you a chance to network with local participants. Become part of your local business community and learn how you can get involved by patronizing, investing in, or partnering up with veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at WeWork (The Jones Building - 708 Main St.) Click here to register.

December 8 — The Future of Energy Celebration

Join energy tech leaders right after World Petroleum Congress for drinks, live music and startups to celebrate the Future of Energy — powered by Halliburton Labs, Accenture, Greentown Labs and The Ion.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at 8th Wonder Brewery (2022 Dallas St). Click here to register.

December 8 — HTXelerator's Pitch Event

The Pitch for the inaugural cohort is now upon us and you're invited to be a part of the celebration! Hear from the HTXelerator's nine finalists as they deliver a mock campaign speech for city council. Enjoy drinks and light bites in the courtyard of The Cannon Downtown as the judges crown first, second, and third place to close out the inaugural year.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 7 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 10 — Feedback Friday: Strategy Planning for 2022

Join this session with Impact Hub Houston Board Member and startup advisor Brandy Guidry to receive feedback on your business goals for 2022.

The event is on Friday, December 10, at 1 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 14 — UpSkill Works Forum: New Mission, Transferable Talent: What Employers Need to Know About Hiring and Retaining Veterans

With more than 250,000 veterans in residence, Houston has the country's second highest veteran population. Veterans are a diverse, highly skilled talent population that can bring valuable experience to a workplace but can be difficult to effectively access and engage. Join the UpSkill Houston initiative, NextOp Veterans Executive Director Stephanie Drake, and area employers to learn how to attract, hire, support, and retain talented veterans in your workforce.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 14 — gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Cohort Pitch Night

Pitch Night is a celebration of all of the current gBETA cohorts. It's an exclusive reception during which participating companies have the opportunity to pitch to an audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and community members. Join either in-person or virtually for one or more Pitch Night events.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening online and at Cannon West Houston (1334 Brittmoore Rd #1327). Click here to register.

4 Houston firms land on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies

BIG BIZ IN H-TOWN

Some Houston-area companies have some major bragging rights. Forbes has released its new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue, and five local firms land on the list. They are:

  • Car dealership group Gulf States Toyota, No. 45, $8.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Energy company Calpine, No. 48, $8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Petroleum and petrochemical products marketer Tauber Oil, No. 61, $6.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Casino, restaurant, and sports conglomerate Fertitta Entertainment, No. 166, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • BMC Software, No. 219, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

Elsewhere in Texas, San Antonio-based H-E-B ranks fifth on Forbes’ new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue. According to Forbes, the grocery chain’s annual revenue is $32.8 billion, making it the largest private company in Texas. On its website, H-E-B reports annual sales of $32 billion.

The only other San Antonio company on the Forbes list is construction engineering company Zachry Group. It ranks 225th, with annual revenue of $2 billion.

Nearly all of the other Texas companies in the Forbes ranking are based in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas. As well as the five Houston companies, 13 DFW companies companies show up on the list:

  • Grand Prairie-based alcohol and wine distributor Republic National Distributing, No. 25, $11.9 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based conglomerate Sammons Enterprises, No. 70, $5.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • McKinney-based roofing distributor SRS Distribution, No. 80, $5.4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels, No. 81, $5.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, No. 101, $4.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based electrical systems and equipment maker Consolidated Electrical Distributors, No. 103, $4.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Fort Worth-based food and beverage distributor Ben E. Keith, No. 107, $4.2 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based oil and gas explorer Hunt Consolidated, No. 113, $4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Frisco-based transportation and logistics software provider Transplace, No. 127, $3.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Addison-based cosmetics retailer Mary Kay, No. 164, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Plano-based senior healthcare provider Golden Living, No. 178, $2.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based general contractor Austin Industries, No. 217, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based transportation and logistics company Mode Transportation, No. 220, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

One other company on the Forbes list, New Jersey-based IT company SHI International Corp., has a strong connection to Texas. Austin billionaire Thai Lee, with a net worth estimated at $4.1 billion, is co-founder, president, and CEO of SHI. The company ranks 28th on the Forbes list, with annual revenue of $11.1 billion.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Featured Innovator

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.