In these highly divisive times, it can be a struggle to curb political discussions in the workplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Politics has always managed to find its way into the workplace. Casually popping up in conversation here and there. Usually reserved for the water cooler. It always managed to seep through the cracks like a gentle breeze. But, what was once just a breeze, has now become a tsunami.

Politics in the workplace doesn't just casually pop up anymore. In many respects, it has consumed it. According to Harvard Business Review writer Rebecca Knight, companies themselves are now taking political stances. With the advent of social media, political grandstanding is more prevalent and even encouraged in the workplace in many places, than ever before.

The problem is obvious. Few things are as divisive as politics. With emotions often running at a fever pitch, you're bound to see tension and friction in the workplace. Once it starts to disrupt business and the flow of work, it's time to rethink your company's approach to political discourse on the boss's dime.

Establish a policy for politics in the workplace

You have a right to free speech, even in the workplace. Read that again. Because it's completely WRONG.

You don't have a right to free speech in most workplaces. A private employer can and usually does establish a set of rules for politics in the workplace. If you're an employer and you don't want to completely ban political discussion, you can still establish policies to prevent the display of political support in the office. The golden rule here is to stay neutral. Don't highlight a specific political view or party or candidate over another.

"Talking politics can be tricky, but, like many things it's an unavoidable part of the workplace. Hold strong, the presidential race will be over (soon), and everyone will be back to talking shop (at least until inauguration)," said Lynze Wardle Lenio, in her article for The Muse.

Handling complaints

This depends on your particular company's policy on politics. Does your company prohibit all conversations about politics? Can your employees talk politics on lunch breaks? If someone is in violation of your policy, the first action should be to confront them privately and remind them of the policy.

"If your policy is more lax, you might want to encourage the complainant to respectfully ask the person engaged in political talk to take their conversation somewhere else," said Macy Bayern of TechRepublic.

"Never discipline an employee for having a different political opinion from another employee. The discipline should only come within the framework of the company's policy," she continued. Are they making someone uncomfortable? Are they wasting company time? Creating workplace hostility? These are all grounds for serious reprimanding.

Handling harassment

Now we're venturing into more serious territory. It's one thing to have complaints about people talking about an election out in the open. It's another to have complaints that someone was attacked for their political beliefs. "You're the employer. You have a responsibility to keep your employees safe above all else. That means protecting them from bullying," Bayern expressed.

This is a situation where you should be more firm in your reprimanding. Although it's not illegal per se, since political leanings aren't a protected class, you still want to nip this in the bud before it compromises the integrity of the entire office. The last thing you want is for employee morale to dip because of bullying. If allowed to go unpunished, this could easily spill over into bullying because of race, sex or religion. Then you have a legal problem.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Reports find that more and more tech companies are leaving the bustling Silicon Valley. But where exactly are they going? Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

If Silicon Valley is experiencing a tech exodus, what does that mean for growing startup hubs like Houston?

houston voices

It started with prunes. Long before Silicon Valley was the innovation capital of the world, it was a giant valley of fruit trees and verdant hills. The primary crop in the then called Santa Clara Valley was the French plum, which was sun-dried to turn into the valley's most popular export and métier: prunes.

By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had produced myriad millionaires, billionaires by the boatload and tons of tycoons. Among them was Leland Stanford, a railroad king. Stanford owned an 8,100-acre ranch in Santa Clara Valley near Palo Alto. That's where he founded and established Stanford University. It was also here that the region transformed into the valley of technology known today as Silicon Valley.

In 1925, Stanford alum Frederick Terman, considered the father of Silicon Valley, returned to teach radio engineering. Over the next decade, Terman noticed something quite concerning. He recognized that Stanford produced elite, highly-educated grads who continually opted to leave town for jobs in New York City. Terman expressed his desire for Stanford alumni to stay in the valley to grow the region's business sector and feed the local economy. The first company to heed this advice was Hewlett-Packard.

Terman encouraged Stanford grads William Hewlett and David Packard to partner up and thus, we saw the first ever "garage-startup" born. Anon this historic partnership, more alumni and faculty at Stanford began to found their own companies in the valley. Soon, a massive network of companies was formed, bound by their shared connection with the university. Terman had essentially built a pipeline through which Stanford grads poured into the valley, a process that is still in full swing today.

In a sense, Silicon Valley was the first academic incubator. One that is stronger than ever today. Or is it?

The great tech-xodus?

According to The Economist, "[In 2018,] more Americans left the county of San Francisco than arrived. According to a recent survey, 46 percent of respondents say they plan to leave the Bay Area in the next few years, up from 34 percent in 2016. So many startups are branching out into new places that the trend has a name, 'Off Silicon Valleying.'"

Business Insider's Melia Robinson writes, "Silicon Valley is on the brink of an exodus" and that "the tech elite are abandoning Silicon Valley in droves."

More tellingly, Kevin Roose wrote in his New York Times article "Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley," that "This isn't a full-blown exodus yet. But in the last three months of 2017, San Francisco lost more residents to outward migration than any other city in the country."

Roose followed 12 venture capitalists on a bus trip throughout the heartland. They were looking for hot startups in lesser-visited areas of America. The venture capitalists were in awe of how inexpensive the home prices were in the Midwest compared to the Bay Area. To add to this, a public-relations firm named Edelman conducted a survey of 500 residents in the Bay Area and found that almost half of all Bay Area residents "said they would consider leaving California because of the cost of living."

Moreover, Eric Rosenbaum wrote in his CNBC article "Silicon Valley Edged Out: Google Employees Aren't the Only Ones Walking Away From Elite Tech Headquarters," that "Silicon Valley is not about to lose its dominant position as the home of billion-dollar technology start-ups and hub for top talent, but there are a growing number of reasons why more workers and new companies are choosing other cities, far from San Francisco."

The common theme in most of the aforementioned articles is that the reason behind this mini-exodus is the high cost of living in the Bay Area. The Economist states that "young startups pay at least four times more to operate in the Bay Area than in most other American cities."

Aside from the cost of living, one often-cited reason why entrepreneurs leave the Valley is groupthink. Again, The Economist sheds light on this stating that, "The Valley does many things remarkably well, but it comes dangerously close to being a monoculture of white male nerds. Companies founded by women received just 2 percent of the funding doled out by venture capitalists last year (2017)." Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss told Business Insider that the tech scene in Silicon Valley can be brutal for people who deviate from the political echo chamber. After ten years in the Valley, Ferriss moved to Austin in 2017. Business Insider also tells the account of Peter Thiel, a billionaire-investor who was all but ostracized from Silicon Valley because of his support for President Donald Trump. He told Insider that "Network effects are very positive things, but there's a tipping point where they fall over into the madness of crowds."

Even if not quite an exodus, there are many accounts like the aforementioned that point to the fact that startups are indeed looking for greener pastures. Just where are these greener pastures? They are located in the business districts and technology parks that are smaller versions of Silicon Valley in cities all over the country. However, one green pasture in particular has taken the startup world by storm in recent years: the rise of the academic incubator.

A tech-splosion of university parks

"In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in public and private investment in university research parks (URPs). URPs are important as an infrastructural mechanism for the transfer of academic research findings, as a source of knowledge spillovers, and as a catalyst for national and regional economic growth," wrote Albert N. Link and John T. Scott in the highly regarded journal Oxford Review of Economic Policy, in their article "The economics of university research parks."

One of the biggest reasons universities have become hotbeds for tech startups is that campuses provide a means for people with multidisciplinary backgrounds to intermingle within the same space. A mechanical engineering student with a great idea might meet an MBA during a startup launch party. Together they can build and market their time-traveling DeLorean, or whatever actually-realistic idea the student has.

In essence, academic incubators are courting tech entrepreneurs because universities offer an ecosystem designed to support and grow startups from conception to commercialization. This ecosystem includes a space where researchers, faculty and students of all disciplines interact and form working relationships. In many cases, it also includes university owned equipment and laboratories for use by startup researchers.

"I feel that organizations working to commercialize university IP realize a great source of off-the-shelf technology that small businesses can use to either augment their own offerings or exploit something not currently found in the marketplace," said Michael Tentnowski, the director of entrepreneurship for Innovation Park of Tallahassee.

"Basically, the potential business can work with university staff to perfect, enhance or create new versions of various innovations to appeal to consumer demands. Taking the technology risk out of the equation helps new businesses focus on customer discovery and market penetration," Tentnowski explained.

Faye Liu, founder and CEO of RevoChem, a hot startup that recently launched out of UH's Technology Bridge, expressed that "one key benefit is the easy access to great talents and research resources from both students, researchers and professors from the university with flexibility."

Liu goes on to explain, "We have successfully hired multiple UH students and alumni through internships to work full time. We have also sponsored UH research that is relevant to our work which is a win-win for both of us."

It is true that universities position aspiring entrepreneurs to network with the right people for building their company from the ground up. Even the Innovation Leadership Forum attests that innovation is born when different ways of thinking clash.

"Providing a high-density area for collisions between thoughts and ideas to occur is driving innovation. Our urban location – adjacent to a Tier One research university – provides the chance for success to increase exponentially," said Carrie Roth, the president and CEO of Virginia Bio Tech Park.

"Our experience demonstrates that startups come here for a competitive advantage – and that is being in an environment where they can keep costs lower and accelerate their startup," she continued.

Academic incubators exude a different aura from non-academic parks. There's a certain sense of prestige they carry because they are based in universities. Perhaps it is the idea of working with professors and using university labs and equipment that resonates. "University research parks offer the opportunity for startups to be at the nexus of technology, talent and opportunities. The UH Technology Bridge, for example, offers a unique setting where companies from a broad range of technology areas can come together and have access to a variety of different resources, including wet lab space," explained Christopher Taylor, the executive director of University of Houston's Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation.

"Locating in a research park near a major university offers startups a chance to engage and collaborate with academic researchers in their field and leverage the vast talent pool of students through internships and part-time employment to develop their technology and grow their company," Taylor proceeded.

Yes, it is no wonder that so many entrepreneurs are choosing to leave Silicon Valley. They actually have options now. There are a ton of alternatives available all over the country now that are just as "top tier" as Silicon Valley, without the drawbacks of living there. Chief among these alternatives are academic incubators. The explosion of university investment in these tech parks has opened, nay, kicked down, the door for startup founders looking to venture outside of the Bay Area.

Say what you will about the mini-exodus from Silicon Valley. The high cost of living, the echo chamber and political groupthink, the lack of diversity. All valid points. But one thing is for certain, there are no academic incubators today without Silicon Valley. Its influence on modern tech parks may be taken for granted, but it is real.

It was once said that as gigantic and unfathomably massive as the sun is, it still manages to gently reach out with its light, millions of miles away, to ripen a vine of grapes as if it had nothing better to do. That's how Silicon Valley's influence is felt. Except instead of ripening grapes, it's drying plums. And today, academic and non-academic incubators merely operate in its shadow. The shadow of the valley of tech.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Startup founders seek answers to how PPP loan funds provide their companies security and support. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

What Houston startups need to know about PPP loans

Houston voices

Unless you've been vacationing on Mars for the past six months, you know that a $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was recently approved by Congress. Business owners are sifting through the fine print to see if they qualify for PPP loans for startups.

The stimulus package carries provisions that will surely assist startups and small business during our current state of national emergency. The most notable part of this legislation is known as the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"Under the PPP, startups can qualify to attain a forgivable loan of 2.5 times the average monthly payroll, with restrictions, of course," explained the vice president of communications for Zeni Inc., Emilie Pires.

Emilie Pires oversees Zeni, a company that helps startups manage financial affairs and helps clients apply for PPP loans.

The federal government has a history of lending to small businesses through the Small Business Administration. The PPP loan differs from past loans, however, because it can be forgiven, and because it doesn't require a personal guarantee.

"Loan forgiveness is the most notable aspect of the PPP. It is significant because if you comply with the requirements, the loan actually functions like more of a grant. It's non-dilutive capital from the federal government to keep your company alive," Pires continued.

Perks of PPP

According to Bloomberg business writer Sara McBride, not requiring a personal guarantee gives startup founders a much needed boost.

"If a loan requires a personal guarantee, the founder would likely be weighed down with heavy personal debt if the startup ended up failing. A loan like this is not very appealing, so it's a big deal that the PPP loan doesn't require a personal guarantee."

Here are the two requirements if you want the loan to be forgiven. Per Bloomberg:

1) You must spend the money within 24 weeks of receiving funds, and;

2) You must use the loan on payroll, rent, mortgage, interest, or utilities.

The affiliate rule

Here's where it gets a little dicey. First off, it's best to consult a lawyer regarding the specifics of the affiliate rule. The affiliate rule essentially states that, if you own multiple startups, you have to count all the employees of all your companies when determining if you qualify for the PPP loan, which requires you to have less than 500 employees total to qualify.

With that said, here is an interpretation given by tech industry venture capitalist and lawyer Ed Zimmerman: "You might be able to skate by the affiliate rule if no one who owns other companies has more than a 20 percent stake in your company, and if no one in your company has enough control to veto any actions from your board."

Qualifying for PPP

Zimmerman also lays out a three-question test that might help you determine if your venture capitalist-supported startup qualifies for a PPP loan. The three questions are:

1) Does your venture capitalist hold 50 percent of your company's equity?

2) Even aside from that, does at least one venture capitalist control the majority of the company's board?

3) Further, does any venture capitalist control large portions of protective provisions, allowing him or her to veto corporate action, giving this venture capitalist control of the startup?

According to Zimmerman, if your answer to any one of the above is yes, you should attain legal counsel. If you answered no to all three, that's great news for you (but should still seek out legal counsel).

It is worth noting that the CARES Act does offer a program for companies with up to 10,000 employees. But those rates will be higher and will come with much bigger caveats.

Again, it's best to consult a lawyer to decide if you qualify to avoid the affiliate rule.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

During a crisis, it's easy for startup leaders to panic and make things worse. Here, we'll discuss how staying grounded will get you through a crisis. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

3 crisis management tips for Houston business leaders

houston voices

The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Customers' shopping patterns have changed during the pandemic. They're likely to have changed forever. Here, we explore how you can keep up. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston expert: How the pandemic has changed SEO

Houston voices

If you're stranded on an island, it's probably not smart to go into hiding and just hope someone finds you. You're better off dedicating your time to making a fire, spelling HELP with logs, or sharpening your hunting skills. During this pandemic, it would best serve your company's future to dedicate your time honing your SEO skills and tracking SEO changes.

"Nobody is going to come and save your business during the national crisis. You're going to have to do it yourself. And focusing on strengthening something as vital as SEO is one big way to keep your company alive while we await a return to normalcy that may never come," says Omi Sido, SEO manager for Canon Canada. Canon is the famous camera company.

Key words are key

During the pandemic and various state shutdowns, many companies have opted to cut their SEO budgets in order to save money. While cutting costs during a national emergency is smart, maybe SEO cost cutting isn't the way to go. Investing in keyword research is vital to the success of any company in 2020.

"Keyword research helps you stay abreast of the ever-changing search habits of people in your space. These habits might change during a crisis and you need to be aware of just how they've changed," Sido says.


"If things go back to normal, you don't want any surprises as to how different your customer base is. You want to have anticipated it."

Behavioral changes

As mentioned above, people change their dispositions and behavior during crises.

"Customer spend differently than they used to. They eat differently. The even browse differently. Some things are less important to them and some things are more important to them. That makes sense. After this pandemic runs its course, investing in emergency kits, face masks, generators, etc. will prove more important than it was a year ago," explains Brian Wood, the former SEO manager for Wayfair.

With SEO research, you can see the changes in real time. You can see how webpages on your site are visited more or less frequently. Which products are people showing more or less interest in. According to Wood, you should certainly take note of which pages people are visiting more and which they're visiting less. This will help you anticipate which changes to expect when things reopen more.

Track algorithmic changes

Search engines like Google will most certainly change the way they crawl the web during the pandemic and after. That's a given. If people change their habits, spending patterns and value certain things differently during a crisis, then it only makes sense search engines will want to keep up with those changes. So these search engines will change accordingly. It's up to you to track those changes and keep your website up to date with the latest algorithmic tune-ups.

The pandemic has surely impacted small businesses like an asteroid. Just remember that "the same tenacity and perseverance that got you to where you are today as an entrepreneur, that's the same fountain you'll have to drink from to get your company through this national crisis," Wood says.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

In these uncertain times, one would be forgiven for low morale in the work place. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help with that. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How Houston startups and small businesses can help improve employee morale during a crisis

Houston voices

Look around you. We have a pandemic pumping paranoia into the public. We have the longest unemployment lines we've seen in 90 years. Tensions with China teetering on the brink of collapse. Sports are cancelled. Concerts are a memory. Parties are forbidden. We live in a time of suffocating anxiety. A time of uncertainty. It doesn't help that we have social media and TV relentlessly flooding us with waves of despair. Here, we'll explore how to boost employee morale.

One would be forgiven to lose a little faith. To become dispirited. It's not your fault. In fact, there has been an increase in cases of depression since March. We're all going through it.

So, now that the economy is slowly opening back up, it's no surprise that many people in the workplace will feel demoralized as they return to their offices. Luckily, there are many tried and true ways to lift the spirits of the workplace and improve employee morale.

Break the monotony

Few things crush the human spirit more than the thought of meaninglessness. A lack of motivation. It's easy to expect someone to self-motivate. It's less easy to get them to find enough reason beyond a paycheck to sit at a desk and stare at a screen for eight hours. We're human. We get tired. We get restless. People want to matter. We aren't designed to sit in a quiet room performing monotonous tasks every day until we are old enough to get those senior discounts at Luby's. Our ancestors hunted mammoths and traveled miles a day for crying out loud.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to help with this. Improving posture is one of them. "Sitting at your desk all day will eventually cause back pain. Encourage employees to use a stand-up desk for at least a little bit throughout the day. Get the blood circulating," advised Meghan Biro, founder of TalentCulture. "Listen to employees that complain about their office chairs, too. These things matter. If you want productivity, you have to provide the tools and establish the right environment for employees to produce," Biro continued.

Super happy fun land

It's also a good idea to create a small activity center in the office. A few quiet games, some puzzles, brain teasers or books. Give employees the option to take their mind off of work for just a few minutes, and they'll return the favor with increased productivity and the wind back in their sails.


"You expect energy from employees. Pep. So it's also smart to keep healthy snacks around the office when ever possible," Biro said. You don't have to stock the office with M&M's and pizza. Although you'd become the world's greatest boss immediately. But keeping trail mix, nuts, fruit cuts, pretzels and the like will go a long way in keeping your workers energized for the daily slog.

Another thing you can do improve productivity is to help relieve stress. "Within reason, listen to the mental health needs of your workers. It should be okay to take a five minute break now and then. To get a change of scenery. Some fresh air. To remind oneself that the sun still exists. Especially those that work long hours," Biro said.

So much room for activities

As mentioned before, we all have tacitly adopted the office as our second home. It almost hurts to read that sentence, but it's true. While you don't have to turn the workplace into Disney World, you should still make it a point to come up with fun ideas for the whole group.

"Maybe every Friday you treat the team to pizza or host a movie night once a month. Game days and days like Hawaiian shirt days are good ideas too," suggested Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work. "Allow workers to personalize their work space. Maybe a bimonthly team outing for bowling or a picnic would work too," he continued. These are all ways to infuse the workplace with enthusiasm and positivity all the while getting some team time in. You'll recharge while you get to know more about one another.

Care to care

In your best Dwight Schrute voice, read this sentence: "FACT, 75 percent of people who quit their jobs aren't actually quitting their jobs, they're quitting their bosses. Beats. Bears. Battlestar Galactica." Thank you, Dwight. It's true. The majority of people who leave their jobs voluntarily do so because they've had enough of their bosses.

That's why it's so important to do the little things to boost employee morale. "Remember birthdays, anniversaries, big milestones and acknowledge terrific performances. You do not want employees feeling like robots or machines that you turn on in the morning and shut off at night when the work is done," said Susan Heathfield, management and organizational development consultant. "Pointing out the mistakes of your employees is necessary to improve performance. But it's equally important to point out good jobs," she continued.

Gain some perspective

We've become so conditioned to the idea of the traditional work week, that we take for granted how grueling it can be. How taxing it is not just on the body, but the soul. Take a step back and look at the typical workplace. Divest yourself and look at it from the outside looking in. Observe how we're just inured to the eight-hour work day. The 40-hour work week. The hour lunches. Staring at a screen and moving our fingers about on a keyboard. Sitting in the same spot. The repetitive sound of a copy machine. The smell of coffee in the break room. The shuffling of papers in a quiet room. The occasional eruption of phone calls. The ticking hands of clocks.

Every. Day.

For some, years. For others, decades. Until retirement. This is the life for millions. In fact, the average person will work 90,000 hours in their lifetime. That's one third of a person's life.

So have a little perspective when it comes to the work your employees do. The sacrifices they make. You've likely been in their shoes. You know what it's like. It's hard to convince someone that this is how we were meant to live every day of our lives. So take it upon yourself to boost employee morale. Show how grateful you are to your employees. Grateful that they come in and do this every day to keep a company going. Show them they matter. Make the workplace come alive every now and then. Listen to their grievances. Provide them with the tools they need to keep going. And in turn, they'll keep the company going.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Early-stage accelerator announces 5 startups to its fall 2021 Houston cohort

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An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

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Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.