Corporations need to leverage customer engagement behavior in an integrative and holistic way. Photo via Getty Images

Every customer-focused CEO wants to know the formula for increasing customer engagement because it can boost sales, expand margins and help their company build a better product or service.

Vikas Mittal, Rice Business J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Management and Marketing, studied the existing data and research about customer engagement. His findings suggest practical ways to support customers, encourage their long-term engagement and perhaps increase sales and margins in the process.

Researchers define customer engagement behavior (CEB) as behaviors that “go beyond transactions, and may be specifically defined as a customer’s behavioral manifestations that have a brand or firm focus, beyond purchase, resulting from motivational drivers.” These behaviors can include word-of-mouth communication, product recommendations, helping other customers, blogging, writing reviews and even engaging in legal action.

Apple is one of the most effective brands when it comes to engaging its customers. Every time customers buy an Apple product — an iPhone, smartwatch, tablet or computer — they engage with an ecosystem of services in multiple ways.

Co-creating a product or service is another CEB strategy. Suggestions, shared inventiveness, co-design and production are all ways that customers can help create a product and service that aligns with their needs and the company’s goals.

CEB can be analyzed through five key characteristics, Mittal’s team wrote. The first is an individual’s ability to significantly affect or react to something. The second and third are form and modality — the different ways in which CEB can show itself. The fourth is its impact, both on the brand and customers. The fifth is purpose: to whom is a company’s engagement directed, how much engagement is planned, and how much are the customer’s goals aligned with the firm’s goals?

As in any relationship, a customer’s attitude about a particular brand may change over time. To encourage CEB that evolves with the company, corporations should take a holistic approach, Mittal’s team advised.

To do this, they proposed a 3-step process: identify, evaluate and act.

Step one: Identify where CEB is occurring. This may be online or in real life. Step two: Evaluate your company’s CEB and your short- and long-term objectives for it. You may find, for example, that your company’s CEB affects the customer more than your company or visa-versa. Step three: Act or react, by creating internal AND external resources to effectively manage CEB.

One example: creating and managing an appealing feedback or review portal. When a firm offers processes and platforms that allow customers to engage, it encourages CEB that lasts beyond the actual purchase. Customers who feel their interaction with the company is successful, Mittal noted, will engage more frequently and intensely. If the interaction doesn’t seem to be effective, the customer may try another engagement approach — or they may just drift away.

That’s why businesses need to remove any barriers to CEB by making it simple, easy and pleasant to interact with the brand.

Marketers who learn how to engage customers using a holistic and integrative approach can harness CEB for their company’s advantage. In addition to investing in tools that facilitate customer-generated reviews, blogs, word of mouth and referrals, companies can invest in ways to make the consumption process more meaningful.

Managers focused on making the best use of CEB, Mittal’s team concluded, should follow these steps.

  1. Listen to customer feedback and complaints. Use this information to improve your goods and services.
  2. Invest in processes and platforms where your customers can express themselves.
  3. Don’t make the mistake of letting customer feedback vanish into a virtual vacuum. Create a system to ensure these manifestations of engagement reach the right department — then make sure they’re resolved or acted on quickly.
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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business. Other researchers included: Jenny van Doorn and Peter C. Verhoef of the University of Groningen, as well as Katherine N. Lemon of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, Stephan Nass of the University of Münster, Doreén Pick of Hochschule Merseburg, and Peter Pirner of Petlando, i-CEM and www.CX-Talks.com.

People who accurately perceive social hierarchies are also typically high performers, in part because of their high-status connections. 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Houston research: Understanding social hierarchy is key to professional success

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Social climbers get on people's nerves by constantly vying to be close to whoever is in charge. No wonder disparaging names for them abound: opportunists, social climbers, clout chasers. To those around them, the climbers' motives are transparent and their undignified antics laughable – until they succeed.

In a recent paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu and Gavin Kilduff of the NYU Stern School of Business looked closely at social climbers' habits and their outcomes. The researchers concluded that these industrious networkers get a (partially) bad rap. In fact, the rest of us could learn from them.

To conduct their research, Yu and Kilduff launched four separate studies with a total of 1,334 people in university and corporate settings in China and the United States. Participants were asked to identify individuals in their study or workgroups who were especially "respected, admired or influential." The respondents whose choices were also deemed high-status by the rest of the group were labeled accurate perceivers of "perceived status hierarchy" (PSH). The respondents whose choices were deemed low-status by the others were labeled inaccurate perceivers of PSH.

The researchers then asked participants whom they sought out for advice and assistance. Those who previously tested accurately for PSH, they found, had more high-status contacts than those who tested poorly.

PSH accuracy was also found to be positively associated with performance, the researchers wrote. There's a logic to this. People with an accurate understanding of PSH are more likely to seek out high-status members in their social or professional group for mentorship and advice. They may also model the high-status colleagues' behavior. Through these connections, they're able to learn habits and strategies. Their alliances with high-status individuals have the power to improve their performance, gleaned from the individuals' best practices, knowledge and skillsets.

People who are less accurate status perceivers, the researchers said, typically build rapport with individuals who are lower on the totem pole. Through these lower-status members, they may learn inefficient and detrimental work habits, limiting their chances for success. To rise in any competitive hierarchy, it is imperative to identify, align and imitate high-status individuals.

But who exactly are these coveted high-status allies – and what makes them so valuable to others? Our species evolved to seek proximity and prolonged interaction with high performers, Yu and Kilduff noted. Within homogeneous units, prestigious individuals are typically more competent than lower-status group members. High-status individuals are often generous and group-motivated, so lower-status members benefit from their superior prowess.

Important as status associations are, the researchers argued, opportunities to interact with high-status individuals are involuntarily limited for people in marginalized groups. No matter how accurate a worker's PSH discernment may be, systemic forces may keep her from ever speaking – or being listened to – by someone with a high enough status to guide or advocate for her.

At the same time, research shows that diverse opinions are important for growth and decision-making. To improve efficiency and overall functioning, Yu's team argued, schools, businesses and other institutions need to create established paths for those perceived as low-status to have access to those higher in status.

One important tool, the team wrote, is the creation of well-rounded mentorship programs. Another is a process for scouring biases from selection and hiring processes.

Want to get to the top? Being nice to the receptionist and every other employee up and down the ladder makes a difference. But you'll also need to seek out colleagues with power and prestige. So the next time you see a status-chaser in action, stifle the righteous sneer. You may even decide to swallow your pride and try to curry some favor yourself.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, assistant professor of management – organizational behavior at Jones Graduate School of Business, and Gavin J. Kilduff, associate professor of management and organizations at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Even a simple loyalty program can woo customers into visiting more or prevent them from straying. Photo via Getty Images

Houston research: Customer loyalty programs are effective — but not in the way you might think

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Almost everyone who has shopped at a supermarket or hopped on a plane has been invited to join a customer loyalty club. But even the businesses that offer these programs are sometimes unsure of who uses and benefits from them most.

Rice Business Professor Arun Gopalakrishnan joined Zhenling Jiang from the University of Pennsylvania and Yulia Nevskaya and Raphael Thomadsen from Washington University in St. Louis to study non-tiered loyalty programs (these differ from tiered loyalty programs, which offer more benefits and exclusivity to customers who spend more).

These simpler programs, the researchers found, can have a striking value: the program they studied increased customer value by almost 30 percent during a five-year time frame, they found. That's considerably higher than previously found in this type of loyalty program. Almost as surprisingly, the program's effect on moderately loyal customers – seemingly among the likely beneficiaries – was minimal. Instead, it had the most dramatic impact on customers who had previously showed either great engagement with the firm or almost no engagement at all.

"The main upside of the program was that it got people to stick around with the firm, preventing defection," Gopalakrishnan said on the podcast INFORMS. At the company he studied, more than 80 percent of the total lift came simply from keeping customers in the fold.

Typically, he added, loyalty programs are assumed to be most worthwhile to frequent or high-spending customers. But the researchers found that very low-frequency customers who joined the program were also more likely to stick around, even though it didn't make much economic difference for them. "There may be some psychological benefit, just from being part of the program, that helps keeps these less frequent customers from walking away," Gopalakrishnan suggested.

Researchers have found it fairly easy to study tiered loyalty programs. But the exact value of the simpler, non-tiered programs is more obscure. That's because the previous studies typically included customers who had self-selected by joining a loyalty program.

Gopalakrishnan's research took a different approach. To address the imprecisions of past research, he and his team built a data collection model that let them examine consumer behavior both before and after customers joined a loyalty program. Importantly, the model also distinguished between program members (some of whom had been automatically signed up for the program) and nonmembers.

Using this more detailed model, the research team studied the behavior of more than 5,500 men's hair salon clients over 30 months. The research was possible because the team had already been following these clients to track how much money they spent during each visit, their frequency of visits, the types of services and products they used and if they used any type of discounts.

Then, ten months into the study, the hair salon chain created a non-tiered loyalty program. Customers who joined received a coupon via email for $5 off for every $100 they spent. Other customers chose not to join. That allowed researchers to compare the behavior in the two groups, with non-members as the control group.

The loyalty program had no impact on the amount of money clients spent during each visit, researchers found. Gopalakrishnan's team speculated that this might be because industries like hair salons have only a limited ability to increase sales of goods and services. Hair, after all, only grows so fast. On the other hand, the loyalty program did appear to influence how often customers visited.

Rather than increasing the frequency of visits for moderate clients, however, non-tiered loyalty programs changed the behavior of customers who were at the two poles of engagement: those who rarely showed up and those who visited so often they were practically on a first-name basis with their stylist.

At a time when consumers are overwhelmed with marketing ploys to lure their time and dollars, a thoughtful loyalty program can indeed be a good business investment, Gopalakrishnan's team concluded. However, managers should bear in mind that the benefit may not be exactly what they expect. Instead of giving a gentle nudge to turn steady customers into bigger spenders, good loyalty programs seem best at corralling outliers into the herd.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Arun Gopalakrishnan, assistant professor of marketing at Rice Business; Zhenling Jiang, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; and Raphael Thomadsen and Yulia Nevskaya, professor of marketing and an assistant professor of marketing, respectively, at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis.

The organizations most likely to benefit from a competitor's scandal are ones that offer similar services, but are seen as having stricter ethical policies. Photo via Getty Images

Houston research: Innovating a way out of corporate scandal

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When scandal tears through an institution, it can hurt innocents in the same field. But even the darkest scandal can sometimes benefit a similar organization ⁠— if, that is, the public sees it as far more ethical, says Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza.

In a recent paper, Piazza collaborated with Julien Jourdan of the Université Paris-Dauphine, PSL Research University, to study the effects of the sex crimes scandal that embroiled Catholic priests and other clergy on membership in not just the Catholic Church itself, but also 16 other U.S. Christian denominations. The researchers analyzed the 16 denominations between 1971 and 2000 in an attempt to track any flight of Catholics to other churches. The findings offer insights for secular organizations in scandal-stricken fields.

To reach their conclusions, Piazza and Jourdan studied data sets from the Religious Congregations and Membership Study and the Churches and Church Membership Study, maintained by the Association of Religion Data Archives. The data included county-level statistics on congregations of 149 religious bodies.

Using this data, Piazza and his coauthor first tallied county by county church membership, coding for variables such as ethnicity and economic status. Next, they created a model to rate churches on issues such as strictness, mandatory commitment and evangelism. Finally, they compared the changes in membership figures for non-Catholic churches to explore whether former Catholics might have joined other churches as a result of the clergy scandal, and if so, which ones.

Scandal, broadly defined as publicized transgressions of established norms, can indelibly mark the collective imagination. Media amplify the effect with their investigations of the disgraced organizations, whether it be the Catholic Church, Enron, WorldCom or the British Parliament. Research shows that a scandal can tarnish individuals, organizations and, by indirect association, even entire industries.

At the same time, it's possible for members of a scandal-plagued group to prosper. When, for instance, Nike was accused of using slave labor in the developing world to make their products, rival companies that could showcase better labor practices benefited. Past studies, however, have not shown how these consequences occur, or how they affect people on the inside of the implicated organizations.

Piazza and Jourdan found that scandals can improve business for rival organizations under key conditions, the most important one being if they offer close alternatives to the services once supplied by the disgraced organizations. This kind of swap is most likely to happen when a service is still needed. After the Enron scandal, for instance, clients of its disgraced auditor, Arthur Andersen, still required auditing services, so took their business to rival auditing firms.

The researchers also analyzed the responses of people within an organization disrupted by scandal. Unlike investors, who may react to a scandal quickly and coldly, an organization's members are more likely to reflect on options before leaving.

In the case of the Catholic Church, disillusioned members gravitated to denominations that shared certain traits with Catholicism, but were perceived to enforce stricter norms. For these Catholics, religious participation and commitment to religious activity were the most compelling aspects when choosing a new church. Theology mattered less.

Most of the disillusioned Catholics, in fact, moved to Protestant denominations seen as strict and ethically austere, such as the Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptists. Far fewer turned to more liberal mainline churches such as the Presbyterian or Episcopalian churches, even though the latter is theologically close to Catholicism.

The stricter churches were more likely to draw ex-Catholics who were poorer and less educated, had contributed more money and attended more services, held stronger beliefs and belonged to more church-related groups.

Though the Catholic Church scandals unleashed enormous spiritual anguish, the practical effects also apply to secular organizations, Piazza and Jourdan write. Certain firms, like certain denominations, can gain tangibly from a rival's disgrace. The caveat: They must offer similar services, and appear to be more virtuous.

Surprising as it may sound, in other words, an industry-wide scandal can sometimes mean opportunity. When a large institution falls to rubble, its survivors resolve not to make the same mistake twice. Looking for similar services, they'll choose the most austere organizational culture they can find.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Most workers surveyed visualize their organization as either a ladder structure or a pyramid, and the quality of relationships in pyramid-structured workplaces is higher than in ladder-structured workplaces. Photo via Pexels

The way a workplace is structured can make or break business, Rice University research finds

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It's a paradox of power: research shows that hierarchies often undermine the very structures they are designed to uphold. Within organizations, conflicts between members can erode entire systems. In a groundbreaking paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu shows that even visual perceptions of the hierarchy can influence its success.

In the first study of its kind, Yu joined a team of colleagues to explore how humans visualize the hierarchies to which they belong – and how that thought process influences group processes and outcomes.

The researchers found that most of the people they studied thought of hierarchies in terms of pyramids or ladders (a tiny minority visualized them as circles or squares). In a ladder hierarchy or stratified structure, each member occupies a particular rung. A pyramid hierarchy is more centralized, with one person at the top and multiple people on the lower levels. Think of corporate giant CISCO, a typical pyramid, versus a mid-size dry cleaning business, with the owner at the top and one person on each rung below, down to the entry-level cashier.

These are far more than fanciful images, the researchers argued. Psychological research has long shown that individuals think, feel and act in response to mental representations of their environment. Intuitively, the link between perception and behavior has been articulated as far back as biblical times: "As a man thinketh, so is he" – or, for that matter, she or they.

To better understand the practical effects of these visualizations, Yu's team conducted five studies with 2,951 people and 221 workplace groups. They chose from nationwide pools monitored by West and East Coast American universities. The studies took place in the United States and the Netherlands and included multiple ethnicities, men and women, and income groups ranging from college students to seasoned professionals earning upwards of $90,000 annually.

In the first study, the team asked participants to indicate the shape that best reflected how they thought about hierarchies: pyramid, ladder, circle or square. In the second study, the researchers measured social relationship quality within different groups: participants were asked to rate their answers to questions such as, "Are your needs met at work? Do you feel socially supported?" In the third study, the researchers focused on professional workgroups, measuring relationship quality, group performance and the likelihood that individuals compare themselves to others in the group.

Subjects who perceived their working group as a ladder, the researchers found, were more likely to compare their rank and station with others. Their relationships were also weaker: when asked whether they trusted their team members, most subjects disagreed or strongly disagreed. When asked whether they thought about if they were better or worse than their colleagues, they agreed and strongly agreed. These comparisons and lack of trust indirectly correlated with lower performance levels, the research showed.

Perceiving one's organization as a ladder structure, Yu's team argued, undermines group members' relationships with each other and hinders collective performance. In contrast, participants who visualized the same company as pyramids rated radically higher on all three quality measures.

Interestingly, the impact of these visualizations is similar, whether the visualizations reflect an actual company structure or simply an individual's perception of that structure. "It can be created by both perception and actual rank, for example, job titles," Yu said in an interview. "So, as a practical implication, companies should think about ways to reduce the ladder system, such as with a promotion system that seems more like a pyramid, or by creating the mutual belief that upward mobility within the company is not a ladder or zero-sum."

Managers, in other words, need to pay close attention to how subordinates see their workplace. Even if your firm is structured as a pyramid, your team members could perceive it to be a ladder – with a cut-throat climb to the top. For the sake of both work performance and quality of life, Yu said, managers, human resources directors and C-suite members should do their best to discern how their workers visualize the company – and, if the paradigm is a ladder, work hard to reduce the workplace vertigo that goes with it.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business Rice University.

In business, affiliating with high-status colleagues often gives newcomers a professional boost. But less so in the creative industries. Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

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In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

Houston Zoo delays new, immersive island exhibit due to supply chain issues

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Houstonians eager to meet sea lions, giant tortoises, sharks, and Humboldt penguins at the Houston Zoo will have to wait a bit longer, the zoo announced.

Galápagos Islands, the highly immersive Houston Zoo experience showcasing one of the most pristine, ecologically rich areas in the world, will not open until early 2023.

The Galápagos exhibit is part of the zoo’s 100th anniversary celebration and was slated to open fall of this year. Zoo officials cite supply chain issues for key construction materials — such as acrylic viewing panels for the state-of-the-art sea lion habitat — as the reason for the delay.

This planned exhibit is the first of its kind to showcase the wildlife of the legendary island chain that Charles Darwin studied and made famous.Guests can dive into an environment evoking the archipelago’s unique landscapes and oceanic habitats — all meant to inspire intrigue and preservation.

One major draw should be the Galápagos penguins, which are threatened by overfishing, ocean pollution, and climate change and are highly protected by the Ecuadorian government. It is the most threatened penguin species in the world, the zoo notes, with an estimated population of less than 2,000 individuals.

The Galápagos is often heralded as the planet’s ultimate area spotlighting unique species, the delicate balance of ecosystems, and the pressing need for conservation action, the zoo notes.

“We’re disappointed that the project has been delayed, but we know we’re not alone in experiencing supply chain problems,” said Houston Zoo president and CEO Lee Ehmke in a statement. “Our commitment to conservation in the Galápagos Islands, our animal residents, and our guests here in Houston remain unwavering. A short delay in our exhibit opening will not deter us from our mission of connecting communities to animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas named No. 2 state for women-led startups thanks to increased VC investment

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A more than 120 percent surge in female-focused venture capital investments helped push up Texas’ ranking in an annual study of the best states for women-led startups.

In Merchant Maverick’s 2021 report on the best states for women-led startups, Texas lands at No. 2, up from No. 6 the previous year. Colorado retains its No. 1 ranking from last year. Merchant Maverick judged each state based on several gender-specific metrics, such as VC funding.

Contributing to Texas’ better showing this year is the increase in female-focused VC investments. Merchant Maverick says the state’s five-year total for female-focused VC investments grew from the $365 million reflected in the 2020 report to $814 million in this year’s report. That’s a jump of 123 percent.

The $814 million total puts Texas in fourth place among the states in terms of female-focused VC investments over a five-year span. California leads this category ($6.7 billion), followed by New York ($4.7 billion), and Massachusetts ($1 billion).

The Lone Star State “has cultivated a business-friendly reputation that appears to be attracting a high volume of women-led organizations and startups,” says Merchant Maverick, a product comparison website for small businesses.

The state doesn’t do as well when it comes to average income, according to Merchant Maverick, but with no state income tax, women business owners can expect an average $62,945 yearly income to go further in Texas than it would in most other states.

Across the country, Merchant Maverick says that thanks to rising startup hubs like Houston, Miami, Phoenix, and Boulder, Colorado, “more funding opportunities are available to female entrepreneurs than ever before.”

Here are some of the Texas statistics cited in this year’s report:

  • 27 percent of businesses with employees are led by women, putting Texas at No. 13 among the states.
  • At 1.55 percent, Texas sits at No. 22 for the share of women business owners.
  • Texas ranks 19th for the average yearly income of women business owners ($62,945).