The four finalists in the BIPOC-Founded Business category for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards share their best advice for their fellow founders. Photos courtesy
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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. Courtesy photos

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 — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

Houston software startup to use fresh funds to become 'unquestionably the best' for the electricity industry

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 84

Sameer Soleja went to business school and came back into the workforce with a bit of a revelation about software for the commodities industry.

"I realized, 'wait a second, we've been making terrible software and selling it for tens of millions of dollars," Soleja, CEO of Molecule, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had to be able to do something better than this — technology is better than this."

Soleja founded Molecule in 2012 to address the problem. The technology isn't unfamiliar to what ardent stock traders have at their fingertips, but before these types of platforms came into the picture, commodities companies didn't have a central platform.

"The way to think about the product is if you have a brokerage account — like Robinhood, or something like that — you see how much stock you have and how much you've made or lost," Soleja says. "For companies that are trading electricity, crude oil, natural gas, and other commodities and agricultural products, they also want to see how much of each thing they have and how much they've made or lost. But they don't just get to log into their brokerage account and figure it out. That's in a lot of different places."

Lately, a couple companies have bought up some of the businesses in this sector, leaving a lot of room open up at the top. Soleja says he saw this as an opportunity and started the arduous fundraising process. Molecule closed its series A round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund this month.

The other opportunity Soleja says he saw was a new market focus on electricity — a subsector Molecule is very good at working with. About half of Molecule's clients are in this field and electricity — as opposed to oil and gas products — is full of data. Where data comes in weekly or even monthly for O&G, fresh data comes in every 15 minutes for Molecule's electrical clients.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Therein lies the opportunity for Molecule, which is also interested in deploying its capital is into engineering to both meet the feature gap and exceed in places where the company is already better, Soleja explains.

"We realized, well that's the place we double down because that's where the economy is going and that's what we're good at. Let's become unquestionably the best at it," he says.

The funds will go toward company expansion. Soleja says he plans to add 50 percent to his team within the next 6 to 12 months and potentially be at 30 to 40 people in a year or two from now. Over the past nine years, Molecule has been growing organically without a centralized focus on sales and marketing.

"We are way below the benchmark for what everyone else spends on sales and marketing. So, we're going to fix that," he says.

Soleja shares more about his raise process and shares advice for his fellow startup founders on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Molecule has closed new funding in order to focus on the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

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Early-stage accelerator names finalists for its second Houston cohort

ready to grow

A traveling seed-stage accelerator has announced its return to Houston and named its second cohort.

CodeLaunch, produced by Dallas-based constant and software development company Improving and presented by Ohio-based VC network Cyrannus, is returning to Houston. The company's second Houston accelerator event will be held on March 2.

Putting a fresh spin on the seed accelerator model, CodeLaunch combines a startup competition with a tech tradeshow, as well as allows for networking among attendees. Since its inception ten years ago, the touring competition has doled out over $1.4 million in services to its finalists and overall winners.

"CodeLaunch is a startup and rock-n-roll show like nothing you've ever seen before," says CodeLaunch President and Founder Jason W. Taylor in a news release.

The competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies. This year's finalists and mentor pairings are as follows:

  • Lake Charles, Louisiana-based GOPHR's consultant mentor is Softeq
  • Port Arthur, Texas-based DrinKicks is paired with BJSS
  • Energy360, based in Houston, has been matched with Honeycomb Software
  • Inpathy, based in Detroit and Tyler, Texas, will work with Contollo
  • Drivingo, led by a student founder from Virginia Tech, is selected to collaborate with Blue People
  • Houston-based AnyShift's consultant mentor is Improving

Houston-based Softeq is returning to the event after working with software startup Codiac.

“CodeLaunch was great. We gained customers, investors, and a lot of local notoriety. It was the best event we had all last year," says Ben Ghazi, founder of Codiac about the event.

ResQ TRX, a Houston startup that provides solutions for the logistics industry, won CodeLaunch HOU 2022. Houston-based Clutch won Judges' Choice in last year's competition.

This year, investment is also on the line. Presenting partner Cyrannus announced that all startup founders who advance to the semifinal round of CodeLaunch will be competing in a $100,000 investment challenge, as well as the $50,000 challenge for impact startups. There would be one or two winners — either a winner for each award or, if a company scores top marks in both categories, one company can take home the entire $150,000.

“Not only will (a winner) get the cash, but also be introduced to a network that will help them refine their idea and get ready for their first big fundraiser," says Lee Mosbacker, founder of Cyrannus, in a news release.

This year's CodeLaunch event will be a part of Houston Tech Rodeo, which is taking place February 27 to March 2 this year. Tech Rodeo, which announced its schedule this week, will conclude its programming with the CodeLaunch event.

"Houston Exponential could not be more excited about our partnership with CodeLaunch Houston," says Houston Exponential CEO Natara Branch in the release. "They are a fantastic ally in Houston’s efforts to serve its growing startup community and CodeLaunch is an incredible fit for the capstone of the 2022 Tech Rodeo. Finishing off Tech Rodeo with CodeLaunch's exciting atmosphere will be a highly anticipated event for the Houston innovation ecosystem after an engaging week of programming."

Here's the income it takes to live among the top 1 percent in Texas

isn't that rich?

Wondering how "the other half lives" is so outdated, especially when we we can easily peek into what life is like for the "one percent." A new report from SmartAsset reveals how much money you'll need to be considered the top one percent in Texas.

With two Houston suburbs landing among the richest cities in Texas in a recent report, it's obvious that the Lone Star State is dotted with pockets of wealth. But how much do you actually need in your pocket to have a top one percent income?

In Texas, an annual income of $641,400 will land you at the top, while $258,400 only gets you to the top five percent.

To come up with those numbers, SmartAsset analyzed 2019 data from IRS tax units and adjusted the figures to 2022 dollars using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For comparison, "the average American household earns a median income of under $70,000," according to the study. And per the latest figures from the U. S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Texas (in 2021 dollars) is $67,321. That leaves plenty of us with a long way to go in our financial striving.

So now we know how we compare to our neighbors, but where does that put the affluent population of Texas in comparison with other states?

For starters, Texas claimed the 10th highest income required to reach top income levels.

The one percent income threshold is hardest to meet in Connecticut ($955,000), Massachusetts ($900,000), New Jersey ($825,965), New York ($817,796), and California ($805,519). Only these five states have thresholds that exceed $800,00, and it's a pretty steep drop down to Texas ($641,400) in 10th place.

The five states where it's easiest to attain one percent status (even though that doesn't seem like good news) are Kentucky ($447,300), Arkansas ($446,276), New Mexico ($418,970), Mississippi ($383,128), and West Virginia ($374,712).

The SmartAsset report also included average tax rates for top earners in each state. There was surprisingly little variance in the top 10 states, with Washington state having the lowest rate (25.02%) and Connecticut collecting the highest tax rate (27.77%).

Texas was in the middle of the pack with a tax rate of 25.71% levied on top one percent incomes.

The 10 states with the highest earnings required to be a one-percenter and their tax rates are:

  1. Connecticut ($955.3K, Tax rate 27.77%)
  2. Massachusetts ($896.9K, Tax rate 26.4%)
  3. New Jersey ($826K, Tax rate 27.36%)
  4. New York ($817.8K, Tax rate 27.48%)
  5. California ($805.5K, Tax rate 26.78%)
  6. Washington ($736.1K, Tax rate 25.02%)
  7. Colorado ($682.9K, Tax rate 25.24%)
  8. Florida ($678.8K, Tax rate 25.23%)
  9. Illinois ($666.2K, Tax rate 26.23%)
  10. Texas ($641.4K, Tax rate 25.71%)
If you're on your way to being a top earner and want to do a deeper dive on those numbers, you can view the full report on the SmartAsset website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How Houston businesses can support employee mental health in 2023, according to expert

guest column

In 2023, it is imperative leaders keep the wellbeing of their workforce at the forefront of their minds.

According to an October 2022 publication from the McKinsey Health Institute, 59 percent of the global workforce report having at least one mental health challenge either now or in the past. These challenges not only threaten employee wellbeing but can also impact performance by a reduction in productivity.

Numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health. Nonetheless, employers can make a difference with a few key steps, such as properly training management to mitigate toxic behaviors, prioritizing inclusivity and providing mental health resources.

Management training

To start, leaders need to prepare their managers to set the tone for employees. Frontline managers can have a large influence on employee wellbeing through their daily interactions with their teams. Even if organizations offer a host of mental health benefits, employees might not take advantage if their managers do not buy in. There is no substitute for the genuine care and concern that a supportive manager offers their employees, and they can tell the difference when they are authentically cared for or not.

Although the vast majority of managers have good intentions toward their employees, managers also may hold themselves and their teams to high standards without realizing the impact on mental health. Managers should receive training in how to respect work-life balance, help employees prioritize their duties, and create and maintain a supportive, positive work environment. These things may not have been on the radar for management in the past, but it is now the norm to lead with the wellness of the whole person in mind.

Beyond helping employees balance their lives, managers also need support in balancing their own, particularly to avoid burnout. Employees and managers may both face pressure to perform, and leaders need to make sure mental health initiatives for junior employees do not simply transfer excessive workloads to their supervisors. To accomplish that, train managers in time- and stress-management techniques and keep the lines of communication open with the executive team. Staying in tune with the pulse of wellness at work requires open communication and the commitment to support work-life balance by all members of the organization.

Prioritize inclusivity

Since 2020, inclusivity has become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation about workplace culture. The impact of a discriminatory workplace on mental health can be profound. When employees experience or indirectly experience discrimination in the workplace, their overall wellbeing suffers, with engagement and satisfaction decreasing as well, according to a 2021 survey from Gallup. The good news is most workplaces already have policies in place to prevent and report discriminatory practices.

However, a truly inclusive workplace will go beyond anti-discrimination policies to create an affirmative environment where employees can fully embrace their identities. Steps to promote inclusivity include celebrating holidays of various cultures, creating opportunities for employees to discuss their heritage and traditions, organizing relationship-focused exercises and offering educational opportunities in the workplace. To promote unity in the workplace, leaders should take care to discourage the formation of cliques and ensure all employees feel welcomed and not judged or mistreated by coworkers. Valuing diversity and honoring the individual drives the culture of tolerance and acceptance, which promotes a harmonious and productive work environment and team.

Provide mental health resources

To promote mental health and wellness, employees need access to the right resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources. In many cases, employees with the biggest mental health challenges may also face the most obstacles in receiving care. For employers offering health care benefits, employees may need training on how to find mental health practitioners in their area. What is more, employees accustomed to inconvenient appointment times or long wait lists for therapists may benefit from learning about online therapy platforms, which can offer care sooner and outside of typical work hours.

Many employers also choose to offer an employee assistance plan, or EAP, which can offer further mental health programs, free of charge. Despite their relevance to employees in need, EAPs are often overlooked and underutilized, making it even more necessary for managers or HR to proactively reach out to employees and educate them about their EAP benefits.

For organizations without the budget to provide health care benefits or EAPs, their leadership should investigate free or low-cost mental health resources in their region. In many cases, local government will provide free access or subsidies for mental health care. Nonprofit organizations may also offer free programs for those meeting eligibility requirements.

Employers should keep in mind employees may feel afraid to use mental health benefits for fear of stigma. While managers should be careful not to intrude on employees’ personal lives, managers can still gently offer caring support to employees who show signs of struggling with mental health, including chronic tardiness, absenteeism, low mood and a sudden change in personality or work performance. The ability to know if a behavior is out of the norm for an employee, the manager needs to have built a relationship with them and to care enough to notice the change.

As employees continue to face mental health challenges in their personal lives, employers can be part of the solution by educating managers, emphasizing inclusivity and offering mental health resources and support. Being a caring human being goes a long way, even at work.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.