Why these Houston founders are gamifying financial literacy education

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 195

Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery, co-founders of Earn Your Freedom, join the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photos courtesy of EYF

Houston co-founders Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery are a team when it comes to building their business — but the two are locked into a very serious competition on their phones.

"Keeley and I are both avid users of Duolingo which is, in my opinion, still the best like best example of gamification for education," Watkins says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Just the simple 'keep your streak alive,'" he explains, adding that he's recently crossed the one-year mark of daily participation, "it keeps me incentivized to keep my street going. I don't even want to learn Spanish anymore. I just want to I just don't want to lose to Keely."

Watkins is inspired by the app — not only to learn a foreign language, but to apply a similar gamification to financial literacy. He learned to code in 2021 and founded Earn Your Freedom, launching the Money Quest game in April after bringing on McEnery, a business student at the University of Houston, as co-founder and COO.

Both Watkins and McEnery have overcome personal finance obstacles, as they share on the show, and they aren't alone. Sixty-seven percent of Americans are considered financially illiterate, McEnery says, and 60 percent lives paycheck to paycheck.

"It's becoming more and more apparent how financially illiterate our country is," she continues. "It's a different mindset. People could be making $100,000 a year but if they don't know how to manage their money, they're still going to be in a cycle of not being financially free."

EYF's solution is a comprehensive, entertaining way for high school students to learn. And the timing is great, since Texas recently passed a bill about providing financial literacy education in high schools.

"Texas is not alone in this. There are actually 23 other states that have recently either passed or in the process of passing financial literacy bills, and most of them are aimed at high schools," Watkins explains. "I do believe high school is kind of the last best opportunity to teach them. When we're traveling around the state and talking to these kids, we're seeing the juniors and seniors in high school very engaged with this information."

The duo, which originally connected at the Ion and volunteering with the G-Unity Foundation, has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to help grow their network and connections to do more of the game's testing in Houston schools. Most recently, EYF announced its first crowdfunding campaign with the support of Impact Hub Houston, a community supporting impact-driven startups and opportunities. The campaign, launched online earlier this month, is seeking $100,000 to further expand its testing in students.

Watkins and McEnery share more about the game, their plans for the business, and more on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Should your business consider launching a podcast? This communications expert says yes. Photo via Will Francis/Unsplash

3 reasons why you should add podcasting to your marketing plan, according to this Texas expert

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As business leaders or marketers, we're always on the lookout for strategic opportunities to reach our target audiences in meaningful ways and move them to action: To like a post, ask for more information, make a purchase and more. When we put a lot of thought, energy and resources into marketing efforts, we want – and expect – a valuable return on that investment. Incorporating podcasting into your strategic marketing plan can help you realize that return.

A few years ago, KGBTexas Communications began producing thePoint, an online video series featuring conversations with innovative leaders from across Texas. The point of ThePoint is for these leaders to share insights into how they are working to create positive consequence in our communities. Our videos feature highlights of these conversations, and given the visual nature, this content is typically short and yes, to the point. However, different platforms engage audiences in different ways, and we saw podcasting as a natural progression to deepen engagement with our audience. We evolved thePoint into a podcast, More to thePoint, which serves as an extension of our video series with the goal of enhancing interaction with listeners by providing more in-depth information and conversation.

Through our experience, we have learned the value of utilizing the platform as an innovative tool to deepen connections with our audience as well as our community. Below are three reasons why businesses should consider incorporating podcasting into a marketing or communications plan.

Showcase your expertise

As a podcaster, you can position yourself as subject-matter expert. Diving deeply into relevant issues can make you a trusted voice that others come to for insight and advice. In this way, podcasting also serves as an organic advertisement for your business services, product, passion or mission. According to Jennifer Moxley, the founder of Sunshine Media Network, "Podcasts can make you relevant; they're a reason for someone to talk about you, share your social media content, invite you to guest panels or highlight you in your community."

Reach listeners authentically

According to Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, nearly 75% of podcast listeners tune in with the intent of learning something new. Listeners are choosing to connect with brands to receive valuable information. Additionally, the platform offers listeners the ability to tune in at their convenience, possibly while doing other things. Now you have the ability to connect with individuals while they drive to work, go for a walk or relax at home, rather than solely while they are visually connected to their computers or phones.

Low barrier of entry

In looking at a return on investment, podcasting can be a relatively inexpensive way to expand your marketing and engagement efforts. All you really need to start a podcast is a perspective, a guest, a microphone, (you can get a really good one for less than $200), and a hosting platform. Most hosting platforms will also provide you with statistics and data to help determine specific details about your audience, including the number of listeners, along with ages and locations. Knowing and understanding your audience is key, and podcasting can help businesses expand reach and track message reception at a low cost.

As a brand's authenticity and ability to connect with consumers becomes increasingly important for attracting and retaining customers, podcasting remains a largely untapped opportunity to build trust and strengthen relationships. When considering the low cost and high return, potential audience reach and boost to website traffic and SEO, it only makes sense to explore the benefits podcasting can bring to your business.

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Katie Harvey is the CEO of KGBTexas Communications, one of the largest woman-owned, full-service agencies in Texas, with offices in San Antonio and Houston.

Houston's own Brené Brown — queen of Ted Talks, impactful books, and Yacht Rock, apparently — is now streaming with Spotify.Photo by Randal Ford

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Lemonada, founded by Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer, wants to air content that takes an unfiltered approach to life. Pexels

Houstonian launches her podcast network to talk about the tough stuff

unfiltered and on air

Even before Stephanie Wittels Wachs' Lemonada Media launched its first podcast on September 25, the network got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times, which listed its "Last Day" offering as one of seven new podcasts to listen to this fall.

The media company, which Wachs built with award-winning podcaster Jessica Cordova Kramer, takes aim at the human experience in all its messiness: addictions, the troubles of raising decent children, how we develop empathy. Its three shows will be distributed by The team has partnered with Westwood One on distribution, and upcoming guests include such star power as Jamie Lee Curtis, comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, and Aziz Ansari, author Reza Aslan, actress Mara Wilson, activist DeRay McKesson, songwriter Justin Tranter and filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack.

None of it, however, is what Wachs set out to do in her life. But she knows it's exactly where life led her.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything."

A part of that everything is her brother Harris Wittels, a creative force in his own right, known for his works on Parks and Rec, who died of a drug overdose (Wachs used her reaction to that to write Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, which not only chronicles Harris' addiction, but also how she processed her grief). He was a podcaster as well, and Wachs says this venture helps continue that legacy.

"But it's also about activism," she says. "About opioids and every other epidemic we're going through that feels so unsolvable. And that's how I roll."

Since her brother's death, Wachs has looked for ways not only to process the grief and anger she felt, but also found herself more and more drawn to finding ways to educate people and advocate for better understanding of addiction and ways to treat it. When her two young children were diagnosed with hearing disorders, she found herself advocating for having hearing aids covered by health care. So, while she may not have wanted to step into an activist role, once she found herself there, she threw herself into it with her characteristic energy and intelligence and not a little humor.

"Our goal is to make shows that help people get out of bed in the morning, that help people deal with the hardest shit in their lives," says Kramer in a press release announcing the podcast launch.

Kramer and Wachs met in 2017. Kramer had heard Wachs on another podcast, and as the two continued talking, they realized they were developing a shared mission. Lemonada takes its name from the idea of taking life's lemons and making them into lemonade – incorporating the bitter and the sweet.

To make the transition from writer and artist to media maven, Wachs drew on her already established strengths of community building and a desire to create high-quality content.

"We really wanted to bring a community flavor into the mix," she says. "And, as a women-run company, it was huge for us to have women's voices."

Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer launched Lemonada this fall. Photo via lemonadamedia.com

The result is a podcast network that brings to bear what Wachs calls incredible talent. The starting lineup includes "Last Day," which launched Sept. 25. Wachs confronts massive epidemics with humanity, wit, and a quest for progress. Starting with the opioid crisis, the show zooms in on a person's last day of life, exploring how they got there and how we, as a society, have gotten here.

Debuting on October 24, "As Me with Sinéad" explores the concept of empathy and how listening brings us closer. Academic, TED alum, and advocate Sinéad Burke leads candid conversations with diverse, notable guests who explain what it's like to be them. They challenge us to confront our biases, deepen our humanity, and feel empowered to impact and change the world around us.

And later in the year, with a debut date of November 26, comes "Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole." For 15 minutes each week, a diverse set of parents, teachers, policy makers, and world shapers grab the mic and offer relevant advice, rants, and reflections. "Think of this as a quasi-manual for how to raise better humans," read the show's description in the press release.

"It feels almost non-profit in flavor," Wachs says of the endeavor. "I mean, we are a for-profit company, but it's mission driven, and that was important to both of us."

That mission, it seems, has also taken over the Wachs household. Over the summer, Wach's husband, Mike Wachs quit his job to work full-time with Lemonada, and Kramer's husband works in Lemonada's leadership, as well. That sense of family is galvanizing to Wachs, who loves that the new venture gives her time and space to watch her children grow. She's also crazy about how technology – everything from audio editing programs to conference calling to texting and FaceTime – has made Lemonada possible. Kramer took a safari as she and Wachs were planning the launch.

"I love that!" says Wachs. "We put everything on Slack and even though she was halfway around the world, it was like she was in my house."

The partnership with Westwood One gave Wachs her own tiny studio at 104 KRBE.

"It's really, truly miraculous," she says of the way the business was built. "And I know we all bring all these great gifts to the table. Mine is that I am able to talk all day," she quips."

Both she and Kramer are baking on the idea that there are a lot of people out there who feel like they do, that it's easier to survive life's challenges when you know you're not alone, who are ready to tune in and listen.

The Oil and Gas Startups Podcast talks to local entrepreneurs who are shaking up the industry. Pexels

Growing Houston podcast is bridging the gap between energy and tech

On air

Collin McLelland and Jacob Corley want you to know that Houston has a whole lot of innovation in the oil and gas industry, and they want to tell you about it.

The two energy professionals launched the Oil and Gas Startups Podcast a few months ago to talk to energy entrepreneurs about oil and gas technology, leadership, and innovation.

"Jake and I really had a mission to shine a light on the oil and gas industry and what was happening in the technology and startup space," McLelland says. "There's a lot of exciting things going on, but not really a medium of content to see it."

The duo interviews a leader or founder of an energy startup — notable ones include Data Gumbo, Blue Bear Capital, and OAG Analytics — on an almost-weekly basis. Corley says he can tell the podcasts are helpful to listeners, because he and McLelland are learning a lot themselves.

"The conversations we have are genuine and authentic. The questions we ask are real," Corley says. "When we schedule something with someone, we purposely try to find out just enough about them to find out if we'll have a good episode with them."

Along with their sincere questioning, the hosts also bring a diversity in industry to the table.

"Collin is the guy who grew up in the field, and I have more of the tech background," Corley says. "From that standpoint, we really compliment each other."

While still new, the podcast has seen a lot of growth — about 1,000 new listeners each week over the past couple weeks — which is surprising to the two hosts since the topic is niche and professional.

"You think thing not many people would listen to a podcast that's so focused on something they do for their job, but that's completely wrong," Corley says.

McLelland says they've seen a shift in the industry. What's been known as a siloed, traditional field is being upended by new technology being introduced into oil and gas companies. A downturn resulted in a need for efficiency and a younger senior-level leadership — that's what's changed in the business, McLelland says, and that's why the podcast is here to document.

"To see the amount of traction the podcast has gotten within oil and gas really validates where the industry is going," McLelland says.

The two want to keep doing what they're doing when it comes to the podcast, while expanding into other media. They've launched a YouTube channel, and are working on regular content for a blog.

"We kind of wanted to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and oil and gas and show the world what was going on in the industry — and specifically in Houston," McLelland says.


Collin McLelland (right) and Jacob Corley are the hosts of Oil and Gas Startups Podcast.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.