Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory on how large human networks can realistically get. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

You go to conferences; you network; you collaborate — all researchers and academics do. But do you need more than 150 contacts? Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter — all of these platforms open us up to the possibility of thousands of acquaintances, though fewer we would refer to as "friends."

Studying the primate brain

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist from England, has been studying and refining his theory of the "Dunbar number" for 30 years. Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of primates. "This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behavior of primates. Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group," wrote Christine Ro in a 2019 BBC.com Future article.

After the group reached approximately 150, it collapsed.

Your network

Is it true that humans based on their brain, and especially pre-frontal lobe size, are only able to connect in an intimate manner with around 150 other individuals? Defined as someone you would make plans to have a drink or coffee with if you bumped into them randomly on the street, Dunbar's claim is that it seems to be a consistent theme throughout history. Says the BBC: "This rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, military organizations, 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists."

The Dunbar number decreases by a "rule of three" where the next step down is the number 50 – those you consider "friends." Then about 15 in a closely knit circle, and four to six only in our familial or closest friend contacts.

Social media and COVID-19

"What determines these layers in real life, in the face-to-face world… is the frequency at which you see people," says Dunbar. "You're having to make a decision every day about how you invest what time you have available for social interaction, and that's limited." So, social media and COVID would seem to be game-changers for this theory.

Dunbar went on to study the process of "grooming" and light touch with astonishing results, which you can read about in the New Yorker. Basically, if a person has a face-to-face encounter with a friend, they are consequently able to withstand unpleasantness right afterwards (their hands stuck into a bucket of ice, for instance!) at a much higher rate.

"It makes sense that there's a finite number of friends most individuals can have," wrote Ro. "What's less clear is whether that capacity is being expanded, or contracted, by the ever-shifting ways people interact online …'It's extremely hard to cry on a virtual shoulder,' Dunbar deadpans."

And how has COVID changed Dunbar's theory? "While our culture has encouraged us to accumulate friends, both on- and offline, like points, the pandemic has laid bare the distinction between quantity and quality of connections," said a New York Times article. "There are those we've longed to see and those it's been a relief not to see."

The Big Idea

Many try to debunk Dunbar's number, by saying that primate and human brains differ and that the calculations are off. Robin Dunbar defends his theory thirty years after first proposing it in The Conversation.

The number of people you can just recognize according to Dunbar, is about 1,500, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are an extrovert and have an incredibly large network of collaborators – both online and offline.

University of Houston's central research department, the Division of Research, has about 100 members. But, your Linkedin network — check the number and see what it sits at. And if it's 600, ask yourself: do you really need that many contacts?

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Rice rises to top of new ranking of Texas colleges and universities

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If Texas had one Ivy League school, it would have to be Rice University.

Time after time, the Houston school ranks as the best college or university in Texas and one of the best in the country. Personal finance website WalletHub just added to Rice's accolades with a No. 1 ranking in Texas and a No. 6 ranking nationally among colleges and universities.

In Texas, Rice appears at No. 1 for admission rate, graduation rate, gender and racial diversity, and post-school median salary. Not every ranking is that stellar, though. Rice ranks 50th for on-campus crime among 55 Texas schools and 52nd for net cost.

More students soon will be able to take advantage of Rice's top-tier education. In March, the school said it would enlarge its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent — to 4,800 — by the fall of 2025, up from more than 4,200 in the fall of 2020.

In a news release, Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, called expansion of the student body "a strategic imperative."

"Expanding the student body now will also expand Rice's future alumni base across the nation and around the world," he added. "Welcoming more students to the Rice campus today will have an impact on the university for generations to come."

Elsewhere on the WalletHub list, the University of Houston lands at No. 10 within Texas and No. 238 in the country.

To determine the top-performing schools, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 institutions in the U.S. across 30 key measures, including student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-school median salary.

Here are the top 15 colleges and universities in Texas, according to WalletHub, along with their national rankings:

  1. Rice University, No. 6 nationally.
  2. University of Texas at Austin, No. 45 nationally.
  3. Trinity University in San Antonio, No. 61 nationally.
  4. Texas A&M University in College Station, No. 127 nationally.
  5. Southwestern University in Georgetown, No. 144 nationally.
  6. University of Dallas, No. 152 nationally.
  7. Southern Methodist University in University Park, No. 178 nationally.
  8. Austin College in Sherman, No. 192 nationally.
  9. LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 231 nationally.
  10. University of Houston, No. 238 nationally.
  11. University of Texas at Dallas, No. 252 nationally.
  12. Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, No. 253 nationally.
  13. Baylor University in Waco, No. 357 nationally.
  14. Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, No. 375 nationally.
  15. Southwest Adventist University in Keene, No. 407 nationally.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 106

If you're operating a business that sells a product online, you have several options for software to support your efforts and needs as a merchant. However, as one group of Houston entrepreneurs realized, there wasn't a streamlined, one-stop-shop for e-commerce software. That is until Cart.com launched just over a year ago.

And it's been a busy year. The startup is led by CEO Omair Tariq, Chief Commercial Officer Remington Tonar, who previously served in a few leadership roles at The Cannon, and a several other co-founders and C-level execs. Following strategic growth and several acquisitions, the Houston e-commerce software provider now employs over 300 people and has raised around $150 million in venture capital. The suite of software services includes everything a company needs — from managing a storefront to collecting important data and metrics.

"Our platform is really geared toward ambitious companies that have their foot in the door, have sales, and have product-market fit, and now need to level up," says Tonar on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "E-commerce as an industry is highly fragmented — you have so many players, but they don't play well together. Through our end-to-end offering, we are bringing all these things together."

Described as a competitor to Amazon, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today."

And business are indeed looking for that help, Tonar says on the show. He describes the marketplace as a bit of a monopoly between Amazon, Walmart, and some other players that are essentially squeezing out small or even mid-market companies that can't compete with these larger companies. Walmart and Amazon have the scale necessary to control the end-to-end marketplace, and very few companies have that, Tonar explains.

"Now Cart.com has done the hard work and spent the money to go out and aggregate all of these capabilities. The difference is, we aren't hoarding them. We're offering them as services," he says.

Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of ecommerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Tonar discusses what else you can expect to see from Cart.com in terms of growth, more fundraising, and more. He also shares how he's observed the Houston innovation ecosystem grow over his years in the business. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


2 Houston startups announce new execs to their leadership

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A pair of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their leadership staff. An e-commerce company has a new chief people officer and a blockchain company named a new president to lead commercialization.

Meet Cart.com's new C-suite hire

Sara Patterson is a human resources veteran. Photo courtesy of Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider, appointed Sara Patterson as chief people officer. She will lead all aspects of the company's talent acquisition and employee experience of the fast-growing startup.

As the company grows its team and its ecommerce-as-a-service platform, it's Patterson job to forge a strong, unified culture and develop a compelling talent acquisition strategy to support continuing growth, according to a press release from Cart.com.

"Sara is one of the most accomplished and experienced HR leaders in the business. She has a real gift for talent management, and unrivaled expertise driving success for fast-growing companies across a wide range of industries," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Her experience and dedication are exactly what we need as we forge a unified workforce to support our end-to-end ecommerce platform. After all, we aren't just growing our workforce at record speed. We're also building a unified culture and delivering incredible employee experiences to ensure that our entire team — from office workers to warehouse pickers — can stay laser-focused on our core goal of helping ecommerce brands to thrive."

She has three decades of experience in human resources, including serving as CPO of Lemonade, which included managing over 500 employees. She also worked as vice president of HR and head of talent management at Walmart eCommerce, which had more than 15,000 employees. She has also held senior leadership positions at Bonobos, Tribune Media, Conde Nast, Coach, and Gilt.

"People are the key to success for any growing company, and I'm thrilled to be joining one of the fastest-growing and most transformative companies in the ecommerce space," Patterson says in the release. "Cart.com's leaders have made it clear that they see a strong culture as the key to lasting success, and I couldn't agree more. I'm delighted to be joining such a talented team, and supporting their continuing mission to unlock scalable growth for ecommerce brands."

Here's who will lead commercialization for Topl

Tim Marx has transitioned from adviser to employee at Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Tim Marx has joined Topl as president, the company recently announced. Marx will lead Topl's commercialization efforts and scaling. He previously supported the blockchain company as adviser.

A Fulbright Scholar, Stanford MBA, and former Boston Consulting Group partner and managing director, Marx has consulted on the ground in more than 20 countries, including those of Latin America, Europe, and Asia. He will continue to support Baird Capital as a venture partner, which he has since 2018.

"My overall thesis for getting involved in Topl is that I finally saw a really solid business use case versus a classic solution looking for a problem to solve," Marx says.

To learn more about him, read his recent Topl team member blog.