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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Houston ecommerce scale-up company acquires Amazon advertising partner

all aboard

A Houston tech company has tapped an Amazon partner in a strategic acquisition and is bringing the company's full team on board.

Cart.com acquired Ohio-based Amify, a company that provides optimization and advertising solutions. The terms of the deal were not disclosed but Cart.com will on board Amify’s entire employee base, including its founder Ethan McAfee, CEO Chris Mehrabi, and COO Christine McCambridge.

As chief delivery officer, Mehrabi will take the helm of Cart.com’s professional services business and McCambridge will lead Cart.com’s marketplace services team as vice president of marketplace services operations.

“I’m happy to welcome the entire Amify team to Cart.com and have industry veterans Chris Mehrabi and Christine McCambridge join our leadership team,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “Amify has been widely recognized for their expertise and technology and we’re excited to leverage their experience to help our customers maximize their potential across channels.”

Cart.com's membership will have access to Amify's proprietary technology platform, including advertising, creative content, supply chain strategy, and analytics. The company, which was founded in 2011, currently supports over 50 global brands and manages approximately $1 billion in gross merchandise value. According to LinkedIn, Amify has over 50 employees.

“We could not be more excited to join Cart.com and leverage the company’s resources and scale to deliver value to both our customers and employees,” Mehrabi says. “I’m honored to step into the role of Chief Delivery Officer and contribute to Cart.com’s incredible growth story and innovative reputation.”

Founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com provides comprehensive physical and digital infrastructure for online merchants. The company raised a $60 million series C and grown its customer base to over 6,000 users. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

Earlier this year, Tariq sat down with the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about how the company is currently in scale-up mode.

Houston health tech innovator collaborates on promising medical device funded by DOD

team work

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.