Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston Exponential leader looks to increase local startup investment through 2022

Q&A

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Houston-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Houston CEO talks augmented reality, diversity, how it will all play a role in the energy transition

Q&A

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns.

InnovationMap talked with Hertzog about the importance of adaptation in the energy industry, new technologies that Sodexo has implemented in that effort, and how a diverse workforce plays a role in all of it.

InnovationMap: Why is it important for the energy industry to continue to adapt and be innovative?

Stephanie Hertzog: Oftentimes, the energy industry gets viewed a bit as being old school. We, as an industry, have really embraced technology for decades now. And I really think that it's what's allowed us to continue to survive during all of the down cycles.

In today's age, where we have renewables growing their percentage of the market, and there's a lot of enhanced enthusiasm around carbon reduction efforts. And technology will be at the forefront of that energy transition. Technology is going to be a big part of how we continue to provide affordable energy for the foreseeable future.

IM: You're originally from the Houston area. How has it changed and what makes you excited for Houston's future?

SH: I'm most excited about Houston and most proud of Houston in that we've always been a very diverse and international city. I think a lot of that has been driven over the years by energy business, bringing in people from all over, but we also have a high immigrant population. And I think that diversity has really led us to be entrepreneurial. Thinking about innovation and technology, having that diversity of thought and opinion has helped us to continue to be a leader in that space over time. We've always been a large city ever since I was young, but we're continuing to grow. And we're seeing more and more people transplanting here from other parts of the country. And I think that's exciting to see us getting more diversity in our economy as well.

IM: Why is it important — from a business perspective — to have a diverse workforce?

SH: There's a lot of research on this topic. It's very clear that businesses that have more diverse leadership teams outperform those that don't, and so having diversity in the room leads people to ask different questions, to have more discussion and to have more questioning of the status quo.

IM: What has been the most impactful adaptation in your industry in recent years?

SH: It's really been embracing software technology. The mobile aspects of being able to get data on your phone has really allowed us to put in a lot of systems that have allowed us to, for example, better track tasks and make sure that things get done to optimize janitorial cleaning schedule. There's a lot of stuff that we used to do on paper at a site that we now do electronically, which allows us to compare site versus site and see not just how well can that site do, but how well is that site doing versus other sites. It's all about doing what we do really well and as efficiently as possible.

We have a recent innovation that we've been working on: augmented reality glasses that allow someone on an offshore platform, for example, to wear the glasses and someone back in Houston in an office tower to see what that person is seeing almost through their own eyes. That is an example being able to get things done faster. I don't have to physically travel someone to the platform, I can just be able to get them in real time. And so there are a lot of things like that. It opens up all new worlds.

IM: Why is augmented reality an especially useful tool in the energy industry? 

SH: We already discussed from an efficiency standpoint of being able to get the expertise on site without physically having to get out there. But another aspect of that is the safety element. We always try to keep as few people on site as possible, just because these environments inherently have some amount of safety precautions that we have to take. Some of the things are as simple as to be able to actually get out to an offshore platform, you have to have been helicopter trained. But also, Heaven forbid, something should happen on that platform you want the least amount of people out there as possible.

IM: Did the pandemic play any role in terms of expediting the adaptation of these technologies?

SH: Yes. We were looking for better ways to do anything remotely that we could. That was everything from these glasses to just straight up video conferencing. We normally do a safety walk in-person, but how can you do a safety walk remotely? So I think any opportunity, we had to try to enhance the experience of being there, but not being there — everything got escalated.

IM: In light of Women's History month, why is it important for the energy industry to focus on inclusion of women as it moves forward?

SH: I think the business case is the same as we discussed earlier: better outcomes, more success if we have diversity at all levels in the energy space. And it's really important in energy, because we've been bad at this. Particularly around the gender dynamic, if we look at the highest levels in the energy space, there's just not historically been a lot of representation of women there. We're starting to make some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of it's been a pipeline issue. A lot of the leaders of energy businesses are engineers. Women are now coming out of undergraduate around 40 percent of chemical engineers, so we're getting we're getting close to having parity there – but overall engineering is still only 20 percent female. And from that first manager position and on up, there are big gaps where we lose women along the way.

We're not keeping up with the pace that we've been putting women into the business for a long time. Companies have got to make some real effort here. Certainly the year that the United States had around some of the racial divide, I think that's an important topic for us to be talking about. And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well. It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry. From a Houston perspective, we continue to be a big part of the economy here. And so if we're not getting it right, then Houston's going to struggle.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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7+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in July

where to be

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

Texas-based dating app sponsors 50 female athletes to honor 50 years of Title IX

teaming up

Bumble is causing a buzz once again, this time for collegiate women athletes. Founded by recent Texas Business Hall of Fame inductee Whitney Wolfe Herd, the Austin-based and female-first dating and social networking app this week announced a new sponsorship for 50 collegiate women athletes with NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Established in 1972, the federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program or activity that receives federal money. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the number of women in collegiate athletics has increased significantly since Title IX, from 15 percent to 44 percent.

That said, equity continues to lag in many ways, specifically for BIPOC women who make up only 14 percent of college athletes. The findings also share that men have approximately 60,000 more collegiate sports opportunities than women, despite the fact that women make up a larger portion of the collegiate population.

With this in mind, Bumble’s new sponsorship seeks to support “a wealth of overlooked women athletes around the country,” according to the beehive’s official 50for50 program page.

“We're embarking on a yearlong sponsorship of 50 remarkable women, with equal pay amounts across all 50 NIL (name, image, and likeness) contracts,” says the website. “The inaugural class of athletes are a small representation of the talented women around the country who diligently — and often without recognition — put in the work on a daily basis.”

To celebrate the launch of the program, Bumble partnered with motion graphic artist Marlene “Motion Mami” Marmolejos to create a custom video and digital trading cards that each athlete will post on their personal social media announcing their sponsorship.

“These sponsorships are an exciting step in empowering and spotlighting a diverse range of some of the most remarkable collegiate women athletes from across the country. Athletes who work just as hard as their male counterparts, and should be seen and heard,” says Christina Hardy, Bumble’s director of talent and influencer, in a separate release. “In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we are so proud to stand alongside these women and are looking forward to celebrating their many achievements throughout the year.”

“Partnering with Bumble and announcing this campaign on the anniversary of Title IX is very special,” said Alexis Ellis, a track and field athlete. “I am grateful for the progress that has been made for women in sports, and am proud to be part of Bumble’s ’50for50’ to help continue moving the needle and striving for more. I look forward to standing alongside so many incredible athletes for this campaign throughout the year.”

“I am so grateful to team up with Bumble and stand alongside these incredible athletes on this monumental anniversary,” said Haleigh Bryant a gymnast. “Many women continue to be overlooked in the world of sports, and I am excited to be part of something that celebrates, and shines a light on, the hard work, tenacity, and accomplishments of so many great athletes.”

Last year, the NCAA announced an interim policy that all current and incoming student athletes could profit off their name, image, and likeness, according to the law of the state where the school is located, for the first time in collegiate history.

The 50for50 initiative adds to Bumble’s previous multi-year investments in sports. In 2019, Bumble also launched a multi-year partnership with global esports organization Gen.G to create Team Bumble, the all-women professional esports team.

To see the 50for50 athletes, visit the official landing page.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.