Vote now for your favorite 2022 Houston science teacher

Rewarding the Spark

Since 2019, alliantgroup and the Houston Independent School District have been partnering for the SPARK Award, a program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers who are increasing student engagement and achievement through innovative lesson plans that emphasize both the importance and fun aspects of science.

The overall winner receives a $3,500 personal award plus $500 for their classroom, and the other five finalists receive $1,300 each plus another $500 to spend on their classrooms.

Get to know this year’s nominees below and help your favorite SPARK teacher win a visit from a former NASA astronaut next school year.

Be sure to cast your vote once a day here until May 25.

After working for three years as an accountant, Lynell Dillard taught a weekly finance class where her students became her inspiration to pursue a full-time career in the classroom.

She secured her first teaching position in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. For three years now, she has been teaching science and giving her students hands-on learning opportunities they may not experience outside of the classroom.

Dillard explains that for many of her students, her role as a teacher is to give them as many opportunities to interact with the natural environment as possible. She knows many of her students and their families would not have access to these resources if it were not for the school district.

"We all learn in a different way, so we have to be willing to help that other person if they don’t get what I get, and there’s no criticism in it," Dillard says. "I tell them they are my future. Every single part of your education is important."


"Before I went to foster care, I was not doing well in my education," Ruth Giles says. "My foster mom, Nancy, took the time to figure out how I learned. She figured out I’m good with memorization, flashcards, and practicing. I would not be here without her today."

Sadly, Nancy passed away in January from COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it’s important to Giles that she continue sharing her experiences with her students to keep Nancy’s legacy alive.

Giles says the best part of teaching fifth-grade science is helping her students view the world in a different way, just like Nancy did for her.


Melanie Jenkins has been a fifth grade ESL teacher at Katherine Smith Elementary School for three years, but first got started in substitute teaching. She then went on to fulfill her childhood dream of working in finance, but found it wasn’t all she thought it would be.

"I still had in the back of my mind these kids whose lives I touched and who remembered me and understood what I was trying to teach them," she says.

Now she can't imagine doing anything else. It's challenging that many of her students are learning English for the first time, but she focuses on vocabulary and giving them resources in both English and Spanish is key, along with truly forming relationships with them.

“I try to figure out who likes what and how I can bring that into the classroom,” says Jenkins. “If you are a hands-on learner, we have the opportunities to put our hands on things. If you are a project-based learner, you have the opportunity to do projects. So there’s no one size fits all.”


According to science teacher Mimi Muñoz, STEM education is important but learning to be kind should be first in any classroom environment.

She also works hard to get her fifth-grade students engaged in their lessons and understand why science is important to their everyday lives.

“They get so excited to do hands-on activities, experiments, and projects,” Muñoz explains. “One thing I really want them to understand is that you need learning every day of your life. And learning science, as well as the world around us, is their real life. The things I’m teaching you [in the classroom] are important.”

Muñoz has been teaching for three years and spent her entire career at Seguin Elementary. She says the last two years were very tough on her students because of the pandemic, but despite virtual learning, it has only strengthened the way she connects to her students.


An educator of 17 years, Gerjuan O’Neal is following in her family’s footsteps.

"My maternal grandmother was a second and third grade teacher, and my maternal grandfather was a high school government teacher," she says. "My great-aunt was an elementary teacher and then a homebound teacher. My favorite thing is that I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, so every day is different."

She loves teaching STEM to her students because they can see how it applies to the other subjects they are also learning in school.

"I really like for my students to be creative problem solvers, and I like to show them all the different components of STEM," O’Neal explains. "If we are doing a science technology map, everything fits together. If we do a Lego build, we’re doing estimating with numbers. If we are coding, they get to see where math is involved and where they must be critical thinkers."


Although this is her first year teaching at Bonner Elementary School, Leticia Sifuentes is a veteran of the classroom with 24 years of experience.

Her favorite part about teaching is seeing her students become just as passionate about science as she is.

“I tell my students I’m a science nerd. We watch a movie — where’s the science? We go somewhere — where’s the science? They’re able to bring science to everything they talk about. It’s in reading, it’s in math, it’s just the way we can incorporate science in everyday life.”

Sifuentes was named an honorable mention teacher for alliantgroup’s 2019 SPARK Award, but three years later she says she is a better educator after working through the challenges of a pandemic and virtual learning. She now realizes that as an educator it is not only her responsibility to ensure her students are performing well academically but also emotionally, socially, and mentally.

CAST YOUR VOTE ONCE A DAY HERE before May 25.

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

show me the money

A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

guest column

Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.