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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2 Houston suburbs roll onto top-15 spots on U-Haul’s list of growing cities

on the move

More movers hauled their belongings to Texas than any other state last year. And those headed to the Greater Houston area were mostly pointed toward Missouri City and Conroe, according to a new study.

In its recently released annual growth report, U-Haul ranks Missouri City and Conroe at No. 13 and No. 19, respectively among U.S. cities with the most inbound moves via U-Haul trucks in 2022. Richardson was the only other Texas cities to make the list coming in at No. 15.

Texas ranks No. 1 overall as the state with the most in-bound moves using U-Haul trucks. This is the second year in a row and the fifth year since 2016 that Texas has earned the distinction.

“The 2022 trends in migration followed very similar patterns to 2021 with Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and the Southwest continuing to see solid growth,” U-Haul international president John Taylor says in a news release. “We still have areas with strong demand for one-way rentals. While overall migration in 2021 was record-breaking, we continue to experience significant customer demand to move out of some geographic areas to destinations at the top of our growth list.”

U-Haul determines the top 25 cities by analyzing more than 2 million one-way U-Haul transactions over the calendar year. Then the company calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering a specific area versus departing from that area. The top U-Haul growth states are determined the same way.

The studies note that U-Haul migration trends do not directly correlate to population or economic growth — but they are an “effective gauge” of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents.

Missouri City is known for its convenient location only minutes from downtown Houston. The city’s proximity to major freeways, rail lines, the Port of Houston, and Bush and Hobby Airports links its businesses with customers “around the nation and the world,” per its website.

The No. 19-ranked city of Conroe is “the perfect blend of starry nights and city lights,” according to the Visit Conroe website. Conroe offers plenty of outdoor activities, as it is bordered by Lake Conroe, Sam Houston National Forest and W. Goodrich Jones State Forest. But it also has a busy downtown area with breweries, theaters, shopping and live music.

To view U-Haul’s full growth cities report, click here.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based creator economy platform goes live nationally

so clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston expert: Space tourism is the future — do we have the workforce to run it?

guest column

Throughout history, humans have always been fascinated in exploring and traveling around the world, taking them to many exotic places far and away. On the same token, ever since the dimension of space travel has been inaugurated with multiple private companies launching rockets into space, it has become an agenda to make space travel public and accessible to all. We believe that space travel is the next frontier for tourism just like for our forefathers world travel to faraway places was the next frontier, for recreational and adventure purposes.

In a world racing on technology, we can picture flying cars, invisible doors, and international cuisine in space. With this rapid expansion of the land, the idea of space tourism has stirred the space industry to think about running businesses, start trade, and set up universalization beyond the ring of the earth. It is no longer science fiction but our immediate future. However, the true question remains. Who will be responsible for all of it? Are we training the right workforce that is needed to build and run all of this?

Space tourism is an exciting idea in theory, traveling to extra-terrestrial destinations, exploring new planets, all by being in an anti-gravitational environment. Through these diminishing borders and rapid advancements soon we'll be living the space life, all the virtual, metaverse gigs coming to reality. But before that let's explore space tourism and how the solar system will welcome humans.

What is Space tourism?

Ever since 1967, Apollo opened the getaway of space travel and the technological intervention spun to rise. Just like nomad tourism, space tourism is human space travel for commercializing interstellar for leisure or pleasurable adventures of the unknown. Space has different levels of horizons, according to research, orbital space has high speeds of 17,400 mph to allow the rocket to orbit around the Earth without falling onto the land. While lunar space tourism goes into subcortical flights and brings people back at a slower speed.

Studies have shown that in the upcoming years, commercial space exploration will hike up the economical database, by generating more than expected revenue. On these grounds, space tourism won't be limited to suborbital flights but rather take onto orbital flights, this revolutionary expenditure will change the future.

Everything aligns when the right team works together endlessly to reach the stars. The space exploration will only take place with enthusiastic and empowered individuals catering towards their roles.

Astronomers, space scientists, meteorologists, plasma physicists, aerospace engineers, avionics technicians, technical writers, space producers, and more will work in the field to make this space dream come true.

The attraction of Space exploration

Curiosity is the gateway to the seven wonders of the world. Humans are born with novelty-seeking, the drive to explore the unknown and push boundaries. This exploration has benefited society in a million ways, from making bulbs to jets.

The attraction towards exploring the space stems from the same desire for novelty seeking. We want to answer the most difficult questions about the universe, is there only darkness beyond that sky? Can we live on another planet if ours die? To address the challenges of space and the world, we have created new technologies, industries, and a union worldwide. This shows how vital space exploration is to humans. Many astronauts dwell on the idea of seeing the iconic thin blue outline of our planet, the quintessential experience makes the astronaut go back and back. However, are we entering this dimension with the right skills? Is our future workforce ready to take need the best

Who will lead the path?

The main question that still goes unanswered is who will run space tourism. When it comes to the future, there are infinite options. One decision and you will fly into an endless sky.

This expenditure has opened multiple career opportunities for the future workforce to take on for diversification and exploration of space. Currently, we cannot predict how people will find meaning and improve their lives through space tourism, but it will be a soul-awakening experience. According to experts, travelers would prefer a livelihood in space for which companies are working day and night to figure out accommodation and properties. The ideas include having space hotels, offices, research labs, and tents for operations.

Lastly, space tourism is just a start, we are moving into a dimensional field of physics and astronomy to create new opportunities and ground-breaking inventions to explore the untouchable. The new era of more refined and thoroughly accessed careers are on the rise, let's see how the world evolves in the next 10 years.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.