In these highly divisive times, it can be a struggle to curb political discussions in the workplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Politics has always managed to find its way into the workplace. Casually popping up in conversation here and there. Usually reserved for the water cooler. It always managed to seep through the cracks like a gentle breeze. But, what was once just a breeze, has now become a tsunami.

Politics in the workplace doesn't just casually pop up anymore. In many respects, it has consumed it. According to Harvard Business Review writer Rebecca Knight, companies themselves are now taking political stances. With the advent of social media, political grandstanding is more prevalent and even encouraged in the workplace in many places, than ever before.

The problem is obvious. Few things are as divisive as politics. With emotions often running at a fever pitch, you're bound to see tension and friction in the workplace. Once it starts to disrupt business and the flow of work, it's time to rethink your company's approach to political discourse on the boss's dime.

Establish a policy for politics in the workplace

You have a right to free speech, even in the workplace. Read that again. Because it's completely WRONG.

You don't have a right to free speech in most workplaces. A private employer can and usually does establish a set of rules for politics in the workplace. If you're an employer and you don't want to completely ban political discussion, you can still establish policies to prevent the display of political support in the office. The golden rule here is to stay neutral. Don't highlight a specific political view or party or candidate over another.

"Talking politics can be tricky, but, like many things it's an unavoidable part of the workplace. Hold strong, the presidential race will be over (soon), and everyone will be back to talking shop (at least until inauguration)," said Lynze Wardle Lenio, in her article for The Muse.

Handling complaints

This depends on your particular company's policy on politics. Does your company prohibit all conversations about politics? Can your employees talk politics on lunch breaks? If someone is in violation of your policy, the first action should be to confront them privately and remind them of the policy.

"If your policy is more lax, you might want to encourage the complainant to respectfully ask the person engaged in political talk to take their conversation somewhere else," said Macy Bayern of TechRepublic.

"Never discipline an employee for having a different political opinion from another employee. The discipline should only come within the framework of the company's policy," she continued. Are they making someone uncomfortable? Are they wasting company time? Creating workplace hostility? These are all grounds for serious reprimanding.

Handling harassment

Now we're venturing into more serious territory. It's one thing to have complaints about people talking about an election out in the open. It's another to have complaints that someone was attacked for their political beliefs. "You're the employer. You have a responsibility to keep your employees safe above all else. That means protecting them from bullying," Bayern expressed.

This is a situation where you should be more firm in your reprimanding. Although it's not illegal per se, since political leanings aren't a protected class, you still want to nip this in the bud before it compromises the integrity of the entire office. The last thing you want is for employee morale to dip because of bullying. If allowed to go unpunished, this could easily spill over into bullying because of race, sex or religion. Then you have a legal problem.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Startup founders seek answers to how PPP loan funds provide their companies security and support. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

What Houston startups need to know about PPP loans

Houston voices

Unless you've been vacationing on Mars for the past six months, you know that a $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was recently approved by Congress. Business owners are sifting through the fine print to see if they qualify for PPP loans for startups.

The stimulus package carries provisions that will surely assist startups and small business during our current state of national emergency. The most notable part of this legislation is known as the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"Under the PPP, startups can qualify to attain a forgivable loan of 2.5 times the average monthly payroll, with restrictions, of course," explained the vice president of communications for Zeni Inc., Emilie Pires.

Emilie Pires oversees Zeni, a company that helps startups manage financial affairs and helps clients apply for PPP loans.

The federal government has a history of lending to small businesses through the Small Business Administration. The PPP loan differs from past loans, however, because it can be forgiven, and because it doesn't require a personal guarantee.

"Loan forgiveness is the most notable aspect of the PPP. It is significant because if you comply with the requirements, the loan actually functions like more of a grant. It's non-dilutive capital from the federal government to keep your company alive," Pires continued.

Perks of PPP

According to Bloomberg business writer Sara McBride, not requiring a personal guarantee gives startup founders a much needed boost.

"If a loan requires a personal guarantee, the founder would likely be weighed down with heavy personal debt if the startup ended up failing. A loan like this is not very appealing, so it's a big deal that the PPP loan doesn't require a personal guarantee."

Here are the two requirements if you want the loan to be forgiven. Per Bloomberg:

1) You must spend the money within 24 weeks of receiving funds, and;

2) You must use the loan on payroll, rent, mortgage, interest, or utilities.

The affiliate rule

Here's where it gets a little dicey. First off, it's best to consult a lawyer regarding the specifics of the affiliate rule. The affiliate rule essentially states that, if you own multiple startups, you have to count all the employees of all your companies when determining if you qualify for the PPP loan, which requires you to have less than 500 employees total to qualify.

With that said, here is an interpretation given by tech industry venture capitalist and lawyer Ed Zimmerman: "You might be able to skate by the affiliate rule if no one who owns other companies has more than a 20 percent stake in your company, and if no one in your company has enough control to veto any actions from your board."

Qualifying for PPP

Zimmerman also lays out a three-question test that might help you determine if your venture capitalist-supported startup qualifies for a PPP loan. The three questions are:

1) Does your venture capitalist hold 50 percent of your company's equity?

2) Even aside from that, does at least one venture capitalist control the majority of the company's board?

3) Further, does any venture capitalist control large portions of protective provisions, allowing him or her to veto corporate action, giving this venture capitalist control of the startup?

According to Zimmerman, if your answer to any one of the above is yes, you should attain legal counsel. If you answered no to all three, that's great news for you (but should still seek out legal counsel).

It is worth noting that the CARES Act does offer a program for companies with up to 10,000 employees. But those rates will be higher and will come with much bigger caveats.

Again, it's best to consult a lawyer to decide if you qualify to avoid the affiliate rule.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Houston data solutions startup rebrands, expands to support neuroscience research

startup soars

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

Deadline extended for inaugural InnovationMap Awards nominations

nominate now

If you didn't get a chance to submit your nomination for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave by the July 23 deadline — you're in luck. The nomination period has been extended, and you now have an extra week to submit.

The new — and final — deadline for nominations is July 30 by midnight. Submissions can be made online at InnovationMapAwards.com.

Following nominations, the nominated companies will receive an application to submit by August 13. The already nominated companies will receive their applications today. So, if you're interested in being a part of the awards and you haven't received an application from InnovationMap by the end of Monday, July 26, your company has not already been nominated.

The categories for the awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
  • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
  • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
  • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
  • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
  • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
  • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

Earlier this month, InnovationMap named the eight judges for this year's awards. Click here to see who will be selecting the award finalists and winners.

Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

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 oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.