Among Dimensional Energy's funders are Microsoft and United. Photo via dimensionalenergy.com

Climatech company Dimensional Energy, which operates a Houston office, has scooped up $20 million in series A funding.

Founded in 2014, Ithaca, New York-based Dimensional Energy specializes in producing decarbonization technology, sustainable aviation fuel, and carbon emissions-derived fuels and materials. South Korea’s Envisioning Partners led the round, with participation from investors such as:

  • United Airlines’ Sustainable Flight Fund
  • Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund
  • RockCreek Group’s Smart Aviation Futures fund
  • DSC Investment
  • Delek US
  • Empire State Development
  • Climate Tech Circle

The company also says it’s working toward becoming a certified B Corporation. Businesses that achieve this certification seek to balance purpose and profit.

Dimensional Energy says the $20 million funding round positions it for “significant growth,” enabling it to:

  • Build the world’s first advanced power-to-liquid fuel plant and continue developing commercial power-to-liquid fuel plants.
  • Roll out the company’s initial B2B and B2C products, such as a fossil-free surf wax and a cruelty-free fat alternative for vegan food manufacturers.
  • Evolve the company’s proprietary reactor and catalyst technologies, which are being tested at its pilot plant in Tucson, Arizona.

“The world needs immediate and rapid decarbonization across all sectors, and Dimensional Energy shows great promise as a cleaner and lower-carbon aviation solution alongside reductions in industrial emissions,” Brandon Middaugh, senior director of Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, says in a news release.

Dimensional Energy’s technology transforms carbon dioxide emissions into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), renewable diesel, and synthetic paraffin that can be refined into more than 6,000 everyday products.

“Dimensional Energy particularly stood out to us for their differentiated technology, exceptional team, and significant progress to date towards producing SAF and other industrial products from CO2,” says Justin Heyman, managing director at RockCreek. “This technology can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the airline industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

The Corporate of the Year category for the Houston Innovation Awards has four finalists — each playing a role in Houston's innovation ecosystem across energy, tech, and health care innovation. Photos courtesy

Meet the 4 corporations best supporting Houston's innovation ecosystem

Houston innovation awards

What corporations are most supporting Houston's startup ecosystem? The Houston Innovation Awards sought to find that out with a new category for the 2023 event.

The Corporate of the Year category has four finalists — each playing a role in Houston's innovation ecosystem across energy, tech, and health care innovation. Learn about each of these finalists in the interviews below.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we announce the winner of this exciting new category.

Aramco Ventures

Jim Sledzik, North American managing director of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, leads the organization locally. Photo via Aramco

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Aramco Ventures has supported the development of Houston's innovation ecosystem as a founding member of the Ion to advance energy transition and Houston's tech economy. Jim Sledzik, managing director, Aramco Ventures North America, serves on the Ion Advisory Council. In addition we support Greentown Labs with its offices in Boston and Houston with Sledzik also named to its Advisory Board. Aramco Venture professionals are frequently tapped as speakers and participants for numerous industry speaking events and "Pitch Competitions" for start-up companies. For example, the 20th Annual Energy Tech Venture Forum held in Houston and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship; Climate Week NYC; and the first ever Women's Capital Summit in New York City.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Houston is considered the energy capital of the world and Aramco's support and involvement will help amplify the city's reputation and presence as a global energy hub.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Aramco's impact has been felt throughout the city by our involvement in major innovation events, activities, and investments.

Chevron Technology Ventures

Jim Gable, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, leads the organization locally. Photo courtesy

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Investing in the communities where we operate is a core Chevron value, and Chevron is committed to building the innovation ecosystem in Houston. It’s good for our company and it’s good for the city.

The Houston region, with its deep pool of engineering and industry talent, world-class university expertise, growing startup community and vast energy infrastructure, is well-positioned to lead in the creation of lower carbon energy and improve the region’s global competitiveness. By leveraging its strengths, Houston can create its own model for how it’s going to disrupt the energy space.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

At Chevron Technology Ventures, we leverage our trial and deployment resources, venture investments and strategic partnerships – both internal and external – to support the technological breakthroughs that will enable the evolution to a lower-carbon energy system. CTV is an active sponsor of university programs and accelerators that build up the Houston energy ecosystem. It has led Chevron’s founding partnership with Greentown Labs Houston and was The Ion’s first tenant and program partner. CTV also backs The Cannon and Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, among others. As a partner and supporter of the innovation ecosystem, Chevron is committed to helping the ecosystem thrive.

Houston Methodist

Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, leads the company's innovation efforts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Our new collaborative space, the Tech Hub at Ion, is one way we are expanding our culture of innovation within Houston and its growing innovation ecosystem. Beyond showcasing ongoing technology, the Tech Hub at Ion also serves as a nucleus for community engagement and networking and hosting educational initiatives, with additional programming opportunities like reverse pitch sessions in the works.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Healthcare is evolving at a rapid pace thanks to digital technology, so it’s important to search for solutions that are beyond the traditional walls of the hospital and even beyond our own industry. Serving our patients both in and outside the walls, especially in the community, has been a priority for Houston Methodist since our inception. We’ve had success in the healthcare innovation space, so we think it’s important to pay it forward and support the Houston innovation community.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Our new collaborative space, the Tech Hub at Ion, is one way we are expanding our culture of innovation within Houston and its growing innovation ecosystem. Beyond showcasing ongoing technology, the Tech Hub at Ion also serves as a nucleus for community engagement and networking and hosting educational initiatives, with additional programming opportunities like reverse pitch sessions in the works. Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation often collaborates with technology companies with solutions that provide a better patient experience and/or support clinicians and often these are technology companies early in their start-up journey. One Houston start-up Houston Methodist at the beginning of the pandemic and continues to use is MIC Sickbay, the technology that powers the virtual ICU and uses algorithms and AI to monitor patients.

Microsoft

Rob Schapiro, Energy Acceleration Program director and Houston site leader for Microsoft, leads the company's local innovation support efforts. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Microsoft is committed to driving tech and innovation in the Houston community with a specific focus on underrepresented communities. Microsoft is financially supporting the ion, Greentown Labs Accel, DivInc, Tejano Tech Summit, and the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator as well as programs designed to bring the next generations of Houston founders to the forefront (G-Unity Business Lab, SuperGirls Shine Foundation, Tech Fest Live, PVAMU). Aside from the financial support, Microsoft brings a dedicated team of volunteers and mentors to each of these engagements, and they are helping shape the future of innovation in the city of Houston.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

We believe that it is our duty to be an active and engaged corporate partner to any and all communities in which we operate. We decided to invest in Houston because of the rich, diverse talent pool and the growing energy transition industry.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

  • Partnered with DivInc to create an Energy Tech Accelerator program that had its first cohort of seven companies this year.
  • Driving thought leadership and bringing attention to valuable initiatives through serving on the advisory boards of the Ion (Vice Chair position), Greentown Labs Houston, Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator.
  • Supporting the next generation of innovators: 120 high school students received hands on training in innovation and prototyping as part of the G-Unity Business Lab. This program doubled in size due to its success. Microsoft sponsored prototyping and design thinking training. We also seated one of the Hustle Tank judges.
  • Graduated 14 students from the Level Up fellowship program in partnership with Prairie View A&M University and Accenture; most students received and accepted employment offers from Accenture.
  • Sponsored 20 high school girls who participated in the SuperGirls Shine Foundation's 40/40 mentorship program.
  • Ten women founders received mentoring and training as part of the DivInc Women in Tech Cohort
  • Held a four-week high school internship program for BIPOC students

Cruise is now cruising some Houston streets. The self-driving car service has launched with $5 flat-rate rides. Photo courtesy of Cruise

Exclusive: First self-driving car service for passengers launches in Houston

ready to ride

For the first time, Houstonians can hail an autonomous vehicle to get from point A to point B, thanks to a tech company's latest market roll out.

San Francisco-based Cruise, which has launched in its hometown, Phoenix, and Austin over the past year and a half, previously announced Houston and Dallas as the company's next stops. Dallas, where Cruise is currently undergoing testing, will roll out its service by the end of the year.

As of today, October 12, Houstonians in the Downtown, Midtown, East Downtown, Montrose, Hyde Park, and River Oaks neighborhoods can hail a ride from an autonomous electric vehicle seven days a week between the hours of 9 pm to 6 am.

"We believe that everyone has a right to safer, more accessible and more affordable transportation, and we remain focused on cities first because that’s where our mission will have the greatest impact. Houston follows that city-first strategy with its densely traversed downtown, propensity for ridehail, and vibrant cultural center," Sola Lawal, Cruise's Houston manager, tells InnovationMap. "Cruise also shares in Houston’s Vision Zero mission to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030 and we’re excited to address the transportation needs of Houston communities."

Although today marks the launch to the public, Cruise's employees and their friends and family have been testing out the service since August.

"People love this shift from working for your car as the driver, to the car working for you and the time this gives people back in their days," he explains. "A common reaction from first time riders starts with people being shocked and awed for the first two minutes then the ride becomes so normal that you forget you're in a driverless car."

Founded in 2013 by CEO, CTO, and President Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan, Cruise vehicles have self-driven over 5 million miles — 1 million of those miles were cruised on Texas streets. The company's fleet includes 400 electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.

Cruise's plan for Houston is to launch and grow from there, including launching larger passenger vehicles, the Origin fleet, for bigger groups of people.

"We always start small and methodically expand from there. For us it’s all about safety and how we expand in partnership with communities, so we let that be our guide for expansion vs arbitrary timelines," Lawal says. "Our goal is to continue to expand as quickly and safely as possible so we can get folks to the Rodeo when it starts and back home, anywhere in Houston, when it ends. You can expect expanded map areas, increased supply of AVs, and expanded hours until we are 24/7 across Houston."

Cruise has raised $10 billion in capital commitments from investors, including General Motors, Honda, Microsoft, T. Rowe Price, Walmart, and others. Additionally, the tech company has also a $5 billion credit line with GM Financial, giving it the financial support needed to scale. Strategically aligned with General Motors and Honda, Cruise has fully integrated manufacturing at scale.

Cruise, which touts a pricing model competitive to existing rideshares, is launching with $5 flat-rate rides for passengers.

"Houstonians who ride with us have the chance to be part of history in the making," Lawal tells Houston's to-be Cruise riders. "The industry has made incredible progress in the last two years but we are still in the early days of what’s to come as driverless ridehail becomes a reality for more people.

"We are proud of the service we’ve built so far and the safety record we have to show for it, but will always continue to improve. We're excited to launch with the community of Houston and we simply ask that you give it a try," he continues. "And when you do please give us feedback, we’d love to hear about your experience."

Origin, a larger, six-person self-driving vehicle, will also launch in the Houston market once Cruise rolls it out. Rendering courtesy of Cruise

DivInc's newest accelerator based in Houston will support Web3 companies with a social impact. Photos courtesy of DivInc

Texas organization announces inaugural cohort of social enterprise startups with Web3 tech

Dedicated to DWeb

A Texas-based accelerator focused on helping BIPOC and female founders on their entrepreneurial journeys announced the inaugural class for its newest accelerator.

DivInc's DWeb for Social Impact Accelerator, a 12-week intensive hybrid program sponsored by Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, will mentor nine companies, all of whom integrate Web3 technologies into their impact entrepreneurship. Participating startups will have access to the Ion’s resources and receive a non-dilutive $10,000 grant to use during the course of the program.

Cherise Luter, marketing director at DivInc, says the Austin-based development program instead chose Houston to host this inaugural cohort because they have a secure partnership with the Ion and other premiere partners in the area, including Mercury, JP Morgan, and Bank of America.

“The team that we already have in place in Houston is so strong, we thought, this would be a great place to launch this concept and then from there determine if we want to launch it in Austin,” Luter says.

Amanda Moya, director of programs for DivInc, says this accelerator will truly be hybrid, enabling entrepreneurs from around the country to benefit from quality virtual mentorship and four weeks of in-person training.

“We want to really engulf them in the Houston innovation ecosystem, to let them know that this is also a landing pad if they are ever to move or travel around and come back to Houston,” Moya mentions.

One Houston-based startup, CultureLancer, will be participating in the program. A career-focused platform that matches students from HBCU with companies looking to hire in the fields of business development, data analysis, marketing, and operations, CultureLancer provides students with project-based learning opportunities.

Brianna Brazle, CultureLancer founder and therapist, says after discussing with friends and family members their struggles to get hired post-graduation she uncovered an underserved market of people in need of career guidance.

“That’s a problem that has been existing and then after doing more research I learned historically about 56%, year over year, of college graduates find themselves unemployed or underemployed,” Brazle explains. “My first solution to this problem was a hybrid marketplace.”

The rest of the inaugural cohort includes one to two entrepreneurs from the following companies:

  • Craftmerce, based in Dallas, is a B2B technology platform that brings African artisans and mainstream retail partners together through distributed production, enterprise management, and financing tools.
  • Instarails is working to simplify cross border payments through their API which provides the option to make instant global payments regardless of currency.
  • Looks for Lease, a Los Angeles based wardrobe rental company is combating the carbon emissions brought on by the fashion industry through their circular consumerism business model which operates on an AR platform.
  • Motherocity is an app that allows postpartum moms to track their mental and physical health through personal insights, experiential data, data science, and artificial intelligence, all the way through the first year after giving birth.
  • Salubata combines sustainable fashion and tech through their shoes made from old plastic bottles and integrating an NFT component that allows access to new shoe designs for customers.
  • Seed At The Table is a crowdfunding platform connecting marginalized founders with non-accredited investors, founded by a former Goldman Sachs investment manager.
  • Tribe is a mental health mobile app aiming to make mental healthcare affordable and accessible to black people through their directory of black therapists whose patients can directly book appointments within the app.
  • Subler, which was founded by a Los Angeles high school board member, is a digital marketplace that allows schools to rent out their unused spaces to local community groups.

The program will run from Sept. 18 until their demonstration day which is scheduled for Dec. 7 at the Ion.

DivInc, which runs several accelerators across Texas, originally partnered with the Ion in 2020. The organization introduced its new DWeb program earlier this year.

Last month, DivInc also introduced its inaugural cohort to another new diversity-focused accelerator. The 2023 Clean Energy Tech accelerator program sponsored by Chevron and Microsoft is currently ongoing.

DivInc wrapped its inaugural Clean Energy Tech accelerator this month. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston energy accelerator celebrates inaugural class of diverse startup founders

showcased

DivInc, a Texas-based accelerator focused on uplifting people of color and women founders, recently concluded their inaugural clean energy cohort, catapulting several early-stage companies to major milestones.

The 12-week intensive Clean Energy Tech accelerator program sponsored by Chevron and Microsoft instructed seven clean energy startup founders at the Ion, through a variety of workshops, mentor sessions, and deep dives with VC professionals. DivInc also gave each startup a non-dilutive $10,000 grant to use during the course of the program.

Cherise Luter, marketing director at DivInc, said the Austin-based development program decided to expand from its previous accelerators — Women in Tech and Sports Tech — into clean energy because it is a newer industry with ample potential.

“Clean energy is an emerging space where founders like ours, women and POC founders, can really get in on the ground floor in a great way so that they are building as well as benefiting from this new space,” Luter tells EnergyCapital.

Luter said corporate partners Chevron and Microsoft were similarly on board with prioritizing diversity in the clean energy sector and together they agreed Houston would be the best place to headquarter the accelerator for its expansive resources, particularly VCs.

“Houston, as the energy capital, the resources, connections, and network are here, and we have found that those are the things that are most important for our founders to be able to really take their companies to the next level,” Luter explains.

The participating startups’ focuses ranged from innovations in solar power to electric vehicle charging stations, but these corporations were all united in aiding the clean energy transition.

“It’s so interesting with this particular cohort, how they are really merging the human part of clean energy – how it’s contributing to a better life for people–with a better situation for our environment and our climate,” Luter says.

The inaugural cohort included one to two entrepreneurs from the following companies:

  • BlackCurrant Inc., based in Chicago, is transforming the hydrogen industry by simplifying OTC transactions and offering a comprehensive platform for businesses to seamlessly obtain equipment, fuel, and services essential for hydrogen adoption.
  • Owanga Solar, founded by two Emory University law students in Georgia, delivers sustainable and affordable solar energy solutions to households and businesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Maryland-based Pirl Technology Inc. is building next generation electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Houston-based Quantum New Energy has a software platform, called EnerWisely, that helps those who own assets that reduce carbon emissions, like solar panels, generate high quality, verifiable carbon credits that don’t green wash.
  • SOL roofs, founded by Austinite Daniel Duerto, is creating the next generation of solar roofs through innovating existing technologies.
  • WIP International Services LLC, a Houston-based company, is addressing drinking water scarcity with its atmospheric water generators, which produce fresh drinking water from the humidity in the air.

Tracy Jackson, CEO of WIP International Services LLC, announced on the accelerator’s demo day her Houston-based company that produces atmospheric water generators, which transform humid air into clean drinking water, contracted with several schools in El Salvador for a pilot program to send 40 of their smaller models.

“We’re going to continue on our path and we’re looking forward to signing more international contracts and look forward to having any local opportunities that we can develop as well,” Jackson says.

Since the program ended, Luter shared WIP has also secured a “major international contract in Mexico.”

Luter also shared that accelerator participant Quantum New Energy, a climatech Houston-based company, has pre-launched expansion of EnerWisely, their software that tracks carbon credits, for commercial facilities.

Luter says DivInc plans to eventually host another cohort of their clean energy accelerator and they are continuing to accept applications from founders on a rolling basis.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Isabella Schmitt of Proxima Clinical Research, Rob Schapiro of Microsoft, and Lara Cottingham of Greentown Labs. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech

A Houston life science expert shares what she thinks Houston needs to work on to continue growing as an health care innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy

Houston is home to the world's largest medical center, but it still tends to fall behind other metros when it comes to life science innovation hub rankings. Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about why this is — and what can be done to change that.

"Houston's life sciences sector holds immense growth potential, but addressing funding, talent recruitment, regulatory navigation, and collaboration challenges is needed for continued success," she writes. "By tackling these issues and leveraging its unique strengths, Houston can establish itself as a significant player in the global life sciences arenas. If we wait too long, we won’t be able to truly establish the Third Coast because another player will come into the mix, and we’ll lose companies like BioMatrix to their golden shores." Read more.

Rob Schapiro, Energy Acceleration Program director and Houston site leader for Microsoft

Rob Schapiro of Microsoft joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss DEI initiatives, translating between the tech in the energy sectors, AI, and more. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

At a glance, Rob Schapiro admits his resume might not make the most sense. A trained geologist with decades of experience in the energy sector, Schapiro made the move to Microsoft three years ago.

"I saw this disconnect between technology companies and energy companies — they didn't really speak the same language," he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I thought I could help potentially solve this problem and work between the two as a sort of translator."

Now, as Microsoft’s Energy Acceleration Program director and site leader for the company’s Houston office, which is located in the Ion, Schapiro is deeply embedded in Houston's innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to helping advance Houston's role energy transition in a sustainable and equitable way. Read more.

Lara Cottingham, vice president of strategy, policy, and climate impact at Greentown Labs

Greentown Houston is asking its current and potential members what they want in a wet lab. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Greentown Labs is in the early stages of building out a wet lab for its members. But first, Lara Cottingham, vice president of strategy, policy, and climate impact at Greentown Labs, says they want to know what their members actually want.

"We want to announce to the community that this is something we're going to build — but we still need a lot of feedback and input from startups so we can learn what exactly they need or want to see from the wet lab," Cottingham tells InnovationMap. "No two wet labs are the same."

Right now, there aren't any details available about timeline or specifics of the new facility. Greentown is prioritizing getting feedback from its members and having conversations with potential sponsors and corporate partners. Read more.

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Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

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

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

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

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

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

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

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

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

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

1. Keep the music playing.

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

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

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

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

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

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

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

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

A Second Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE TO BE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 4-6 — 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition

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

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

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

April 6 — 12th Annual Houston Global Health Collaborative Conference

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

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

April 10 — Bayou City Bio Pulse

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

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

April 18 — Energy Underground: All Things Hydrogen

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

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

April 19 — Build Day x Tour: Houston Hackathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22 — EO4Energy Workshop

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

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

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

April 25 — 2024 PIDX International US Spring Conference

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

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

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

April 26 — StartupLaunch USA: Ignite Your Entrepreneurial Journey

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

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

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

April 27 — World Youth Foundation: STEAM Innovation Incubator

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

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

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


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

by the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

Statewide gender pay gap

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

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

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

Other Texas cities that earned spots in the report are:

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

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.