There is a clear need to upskill Houston-area young adults in IT fields, but few programs in Houston have the experience to tackle this issue. Photo courtesy of Genesys Works

Since the start of the pandemic, Texas has emerged as a national leader in job creation. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, a boom in tech, finance, and professional service employment has helped the state spur 563,000 new jobs since February 2020.

Yet companies across Houston continue to face challenges in identifying and retaining diverse talent to fill their high-growth, high-demand IT positions. Houston IT jobs are projected to increase by 18 percent over the next five years, according to the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, while at the same time, the talent gap in area high school graduates widens.

The lack of diversity in the IT sector has long been acknowledged as an industry-wide challenge. Black and Latinx workers comprise 30 percent of the U.S. labor force but only 16 percent of computing and mathematical occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The systematic barriers that prevent diversity in the IT field are vast, and companies often struggle to implement successful inclusion and diversity programs. A report by Capgemini revealed that 85 percent of leadership executives believe their organizations provide equitable opportunities for career development and advancement for all employees, only 18 percent of women and minitories agree.

There is a clear need to upskill Houston-area young adults in IT fields, but few programs in Houston have the experience to tackle this issue.

One local nonprofit is dedicated to addressing this evolving workforce. Genesys Works Houston was created to bridge the gap between companies and motivated, underserved youth 20 years ago. The founders had a simple goal: to create a program that could guide motivated youth into the corporate world where they could get opportunities for meaningful employment. Now, two decades later, the organization has expanded additional chapters across the nation, and serves about 2,500 students each year with internship programs that provide coaching and counseling to high school seniors to find career pathways while helping employers fill critical talent gaps.

The program offers mentorship and coaching during the first six to nine months of employment. Additionally, thanks to a partnership with Workforce Solutions, the program also offers linkages to wraparound services — transportation, basic needs, childcare, etc. — all at no cost to trainees.

The numbers don’t lie — Houston needs to dedicate resources to upskilling its future IT workforce, and supporting organizations like Genesys Works and others can help to bridge that gap.

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

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

Nonprofit awards 10 Houston companies over $30,000 in grant funding

founders first

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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These elite Houston researchers were named among the most-cited in their fields

MVPs

Nearly 60 scientists and professors from Houston-area universities and institutions, working in fields from ecology to immunology, have been named among the most-cited researchers in the world.

The Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers 2022 list considers a global pool of public academic papers that rank in the top 1 percent of citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science. It then ranks researchers by the number of times their work has been cited, or referenced, by other researchers, which, according to the University of Houston, helps their findings "become more impactful and gain further credibility."

This year 6,938 researchers from 70 different countries were named to this list. About 38 percent of the researchers are based in the U.S.

“Research fuels the race for knowledge and it is important that nations and institutions celebrate the individuals who drive the wheel of innovation. The Highly Cited Researchers list identifies and celebrates exceptional individual researchers who are having a significant impact on the research community as evidenced by the rate at which their work is being cited by their peers," says David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, in a statement. "These individuals are helping to transform human ingenuity into our world’s greatest breakthroughs.”

Harvard University was home to the most researchers, with 233 researchers making the list, far outpacing Stanford University, which had the second highest total of 126 researchers.

Texas universities and institutions had a strong showing, too. The University of Texas at Austin had 31 researchers on the list, tying UT with the University of Minnesota and Peking University in China for the No. 35 spot. MD Anderson had 30 researchers on the list, the most among organizations in Houston, earning it a 38th place ranking, tied with the University of Maryland and University of Michigan.

Below is a list of the Houston-area highly cited researchers and their fields.

From UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

  • Jaffer Ajani (Cross-Field)
  • James P. Allison (Immunology)
  • Jan A. Burger (Clinical Medicine)
  • George Calin (Cross-Field)
  • Jorge Cortes (Clinical Medicine)
  • Courtney DiNardo (Clinical Medicine)
  • John V. Heymach (Clinical Medicine)
  • David Hong (Cross-Field)
  • Gabriel N. Hortobagyi (Cross-Field)
  • Robert R. Jenq (Cross-Field)
  • Hagop M.Kantarjian (Clinical Medicine)
  • Marina Y. Konopleva (Clinical Medicine)
  • Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis (Cross-Field)
  • Scott E. Kopetz (Clinical Medicine)
  • Alexander J. Lazar (Cross-Field)
  • J. Jack Lee (Cross-Field)
  • Anirban Maitra (Clinical Medicine)
  • Robert Z. Orlowski (Clinical Medicine)
  • Padmanee Sharma (Clinical Medicine and Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • Anil K. Good (Cross-Field)
  • Jennifer A. Wargo (Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • William G. Wierda (Clinical Medicine)

From Baylor College of Medicine

  • Erez Lieberman Aiden (Cross-Field)
  • Nadim J. Ajami (Cross-Field)
  • Christie M. Ballantyne (Clinical Medicine)
  • Malcolm K. Brenner (Cross-Field)
  • Hashem B. El-Serag (Clinical Medicine)
  • Richard Gibbs (Cross-Field)
  • Heslop, Helen Cross-Field
  • Joseph Jankovic (Cross-Field)
  • Sheldon L. Kaplan (Immunology)
  • Joseph F. Petrosino (Cross-Field)
  • Cliona Rooney (Cross-Field)
  • James Versalovic (Cross-Field)
  • Bing Zhang (Cross-Field)

From Rice University

  • Plucker M. Ajayan (Materials Science)
  • Pedro J. J. Alvarez (Environment and Ecology)
  • Naomi Halas (Materials Science)
  • Jun Lou (Materials Science)
  • Antonios G. Nikos (Cross-Field)
  • Aditya D. Mohite (Cross-Field)
  • Peter Nordlander (Materials Science)
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Physics)
  • James M. Tour (Materials Science)
  • Robert Vajtai (Materials Science)
  • Haotian Wang (Chemistry)
  • Zhen-Yu Wu (Cross-Field)
  • From University of Houston
  • Jiming Bao (Cross-Field)
  • Shuo Chen (Cross-Field)
  • Whiffing Ren (Cross-Field)
  • Zhu Han (Computer Science)

From UTMB Galveston

  • Vineet D.Menachery (Microbiology)
  • Nikos Vasilakis (Cross-Field
  • Scott C. Weaver (Cross-Field)
  • From UT Health Science Center-Houston
  • Eric Boerwinkle (Cross-Field)

Overheard: Houston experts call for more open innovation at industry-blending event

eavesdropping at the Ion

Open innovation, or the practice of sourcing new technologies and idea across institutions and industries, was top of mind at the annual Pumps & Pipes event earlier this week.

The event, which is put on by an organization of the same name every year, focuses on the intersection of the energy, health care, and aerospace industries. The keynote discussion, with panelists representing each industry, covered several topics, including the importance of open innovation.

If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the panel.

“If we want to survive as a city, we need to make sure we can work together.”

Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. "From being competitive, we’ve become collaborative, because the challenges at hand in the world right now is too big to compete," she continues.

“The pace of innovation has changed.”

Steve Rader of NASA. He explains that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive on earth today. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.”

“You can’t close the door. If you do, you’re closing the door to potential opportunities.”

— Michelle Stansbury, Houston Methodist. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.” She explains that there's an influx of technologies coming in, but what doesn't work now, might work later or for another collaborator. "I would say that health care as a whole hasn’t been very good at sharing all of the things we’ve been creating, but that’s not the case today," she explains.

“The thing that makes Houston great is the same thing that makes open innovation great: diversity.”

— Rader says, adding that this makes for a great opportunity for Houston.

“Some of our greatest innovations that we’ve had come from other industries — not from health tech companies.”

— Stansbury says. "I think that's the piece everyone needs to understand," she says. "Don't just look in your own industry to solve problems."

“Nobody knows what is the best technology — the one that is going to be the new oil."

— Garaizar says. “All of this is going to be a lot of trial and error," she continues. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.