Softeq has named three members to its executive team. Photos courtesy of Softeq

A tech development company has expanded its executive suite with three new additions to its team.

Softeq Development Corp. has hired Craig Ceccanti as COO, Albert Esser as chief delivery officer, and Edwin Lemus as chief people officer. The new hires' roles were effective as of June 1. The Houston company, founded in 1997, creates hardware and software solutions for its clients. Softeq also runs a venture fund and studio for startups from around the world.

“With the significant growth of our engineering services business plus the addition of our Venture Studio and $40 million Venture Fund, we saw an opportunity to welcome new leaders with global experience and fresh thinking to continue evolving our business and scaling for the future,” says Christopher A. Howard, founder and CEO of Softeq, in a news release. “This is a huge investment in our team, and with the addition of these three leaders to our C-suite we will centralize our global leadership team in Houston while providing support and expertise to our team across 22 countries and clients worldwide.”

About the new executives:

  • Craig Ceccanti is a serial entrepreneur. He founded Pinot’s Palette and oversaw its franchise growth and exit before joining the founding team of sEATz — now Rivalry Technologies. The sports tech startup provides a mobile ordering software for stadiums, as well as hospital and hospitality destinations. Most recently, he founded and ran T-Minus Solutions, a custom software development company. As COO, Ceccanti will oversee the day-to-day operations of Softeq and work to improve internal and external processes.
  • With three decades of experience in tech and consulting at Daimler AG, GE, Emerson, Hilti, and Dell, Albert Esser will lead the delivery organization, which includes including solutions engineering, project management, and resource management. As chief delivery officer, he's tasked with expanding "the team’s capabilities and agility by adding to the global network of consultants," per the release, as well as leading Softeq's adoption of emerging new technologies like IoT, AI/ML, vision systems, industrial automation, robotics, cloud applications, and cyber security.
  • Edwin Lemus has 22 years of talent-related experience, and, as chief people officer, he will continue to grow the Softeq team and build a company culture for the workforce that stretches across 22 offices around the world.

Softeq Venture Studio launched over a year ago with its inaugural cohort in 2021, and the fund was launched last year. The latest cohort was announced in March.

Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

3 Houston startups join accelerators, PE-backed biz names new execs, and more innovation news

short stories

It's been a busy month so far with plenty of Houston startup news, major ecosystem events, and more — and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three startups join three different accelerator programs, a Houston innovator publishes a book, and a PE-backed tech company makes changes to its C-suite.

Rivalry Tech snags spot in Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator

Rivalry Tech, the parent company for stadium mobile ordering platform sEATz, was selected for a prestigious program. Photo via rivalrytech.com

A Houston-based startup has been selected for the third cohort for the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator. Rivalry Tech, a software company that provides mobile ordering technology platform sEATz to stadiums, is one of 10 startups in the program.

The new cohort was selected from over 920 applicants across 40 countries. The six-month program — expanded from its previous 12-week format — allows access to access to leaders and decision makers from across the partner consortium, including NBC Sports, Sky Sports, Comcast Spectacor, Golf, NASCAR, WWE, PGA TOUR, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, USA Swimming, and USA Cycling.

Since the first class in 2021, SportsTech startup alumni have participated in 90 pilots, partnerships, and commercial deals with consortium partners.

"Our alumni from the first two classes of the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech accelerator continue to display a prowess for delivering impactful technology while unlocking new revenue opportunities, and I look forward to seeing what powerful innovations and unique partnerships emerge from this year’s program,” says Jenna Kurath, vice president of Startup Partnerships and Head of Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech, in a news release. "As we evaluated how to bring even more value to our startups and SportsTech partners, a clear need emerged - more time collaborating to tackle complex business challenges. The new six-month format creates additional space for focused testing and experimentation with a curriculum designed for business refinement while allowing the enterprise-ready startups we've selected to continue serving their existing customers.”

PE-backed HungerRush names new execs

HungerRush has a handful of new execs. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based HungerRush, a cloud software provider for the restaurant industry, announced new leaders within its C-suite. The company, recently backed by New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital, announced three new executives.

  • David Tabachnick has been named CFO. He joins the company from Acoustic where he most recently served as CAO. He brings more than 20 years’ experience to his new role as CFO, including extensive private equity experience through Vista Equity Partners.
  • Patrick Hughes joins as vice president of finance. He will focus on emphasizing longstanding partnerships, reporting, automation, and environment of controls and advise on growth paths for HungerRush. With more than 15 years’ experience in both accounting and FP&A, he excels in high growth environments focused on technology advancements.
  • Jim DaBroi has been appointed COO. He has more than 25 years of experience in developing and growing customer support operations for various SaaS and payments companies. In his role at HungerRush he will be focused on leading the deployment and installations of customer success and technical support efforts.
  • Ashishh Desai has been named vice president of independent operators sales following the company's acquisition of Menufy acquisition. He was previously a co-founder of Kansas City-based Menufy, an industry-leading online food ordering platform acquired in October 2021 and will continue to build and grow HungerRush’s I/O sector.

“We are excited to attract this caliber of world-class Fintech and PE-based talent with the addition of David and Patrick, who together will be key to our rapid growth strategy. In addition, the appointments of Jim and Ashishh bring deep experience in SaaS, payments and sales to our team that is unmatched," says HungerRush CEO Perry Turbes in a news release. "With our now robust leadership team, we will continue to accelerate our commitment to elevate the restaurant technology space and meet the evolving needs of our customers to help them achieve their own goals in the restaurant industry.”

Heroshe named to nonprofit accelerator's spring cohort

The Heroshe team will participate in a hybrid accelerator program. Photo via heroshe.com

A Houston-based tech startup called Heroshe has joined Virgina-based hybrid accelerator Lighthouse Labs for their spring 2023 cohort. Heroshe, according to its website, is a purpose-driven technology company solving the problem of access to global commerce for African businesses.

"We are on a mission to bridge the commerce gap, simplify imports and empower Africans to access global markets," reads the website.

Its eleventh year, Lighthouse Labs, a nonprofit organization, named eight companies to its Batch 14, which begins March 13 in Richmond, Virginia, and ends with Demo Day on May 23.

“This cohort’s companies offer bold solutions to address current-day problems in industries ranging from logistics to cybersecurity, health/wellness to retail, and real estate to software,” says Paul Nolde, managing executive director at Lighthouse Labs, in a news release. “This group of startups represents the best of innovation and entrepreneurship across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

Around 200 companies applied and were evaluated. Of the applications, 49 moved forward to the first round of reviews, and 17 participated in interviews. All companies will receive $20,000 in equity-free funding, participate in weekly educational programming, get mentorship from Lighthouse’s extensive mentor network, and connect directly with local partners and investors.

Houston innovator publishes first book

Kara Branch's book is available on Amazon. Image via Amazon

A Houston innovator — an award-winning one at that — has published a book Kara Branch is the CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer, an organization on a mission to inspire future women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.She released her first book, “What is S.T.E.M.?”

"Many are familiar with the acronym S.T.E.M. but don’t necessarily understand what the term means," reads the book's description. "This book will help you understand what is S.T.E.M. and introduce you to S.T.E.M. careers that falls under each letter."

IncentiFind finds spot in growth-focused program

IncentiFind was selected for a new program. Photo courtesy of IncentiFind

IncentiFind, a Houston-based startup that helps the real estate industry find grant opportunities, has joined Chicago-based Moderne Ventures' inaugural "Passport Class," which is a six-month program providing its participants education, exposure, insight, and relationships to drive customer growth.

"Unlike a traditional accelerator, Moderne Passport is a comprehensive industry immersion program that helps companies of all stages – seed through pre-IPO – hone their go-to-market strategies in the real estate sector, build relationships with industry leaders and execute pilot programs and customer relationships with some of the largest companies in the world," says Carolyn Kwon, Moderne Passport director, in a news release.

IncentiFind, founded by Natalie Goodman, is one of six companies selected for the first batch of startups. Moderne Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on the industries of real estate, finance, insurance, ESG, and home services.

"Moderne most often looks outside its industries to find technologies that can be applicable within them," says Constance Freedman, founder and managing partner at Moderne Ventures. "This latest Passport cohort was curated to include innovative solutions that are highly applicable to some of our industry's most pressing challenges. We look forward to helping these companies optimize their products and services and connect with partners in the Moderne Network who can benefit most from them."

A Houston startup is making mobile food ordering a whole lot easier within health care facilities. Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Houston tech company launches app to upgrade mobile ordering

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A Houston tech company has launched its mobile ordering app, the company announced last week.

Rivalry Tech, which created sEATz, an in-seat food delivery platform for sports and entertainment venues, has launched myEATZ in the App Store and Google Play. The platform is designed for facilities with 24/7/365 dining needs, and the app's initial focus is on the health care industry.

Health care employees work long shifts and have to optimize their break time. With the myEATZ app, these workers can order ahead and skip the line at nearby eateries. For Rivalry Tech's co-founder and CEO, Aaron Knape, being able to provide this tool to health care workers is a personal win for him.

“Being married to a nurse, and living next door to the largest medical center in the world, I’ve seen the challenges faced by healthcare workers the past few years," he says in a news release. "To offset long hours and short breaks, the myEATz platform can truly give time back to healthcare workers by letting them skip the line.”

Outside of health care, myEATz has also identified opportunities within the hospitality industry. Last year, myEATz launched at Margaritaville Lake Conroe to allow guests to mobile order food and beverage directly to their pool chair. The expansion is in its second phase with plans to rollout into other hotels.

Originally founded as sEATz in 2018 by Knape, Marshall Law, and Craig Ceccanti, Rivalry Tech raised $3.5 million in November. The round was led by Houston-based Sightcast, with participation from Houston-based Softeq Venture Studio, Rice University’s Valhalla Investment Group, and more.

The myEATz app is available now. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Betsy Furler of For All Abilities, Marshall Law and Aaron Knape of Rivalry Tech, and 11 Houston Innovation Awards winners. Photos courtesy

3+ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to over a dozen local innovators across industries — from cognitive tech to mobile ordering — recently making headlines in Houston innovation. That's right it's a special edition of this Monday feature. Scroll to see the 11 honorees from the Houston Innovation Awards Gala.

Betsy Furler, co-founder and CEO of For All Abilities

Betsy Furler, co-founder and CEO of For All Abilities, joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of For All Abilities

The fact that people's cognitive abilities differ widely is not exactly new information, but with new technologies and information about the subject, communities are able to learn better and more efficient ways of coping with neurodiversity — especially in the workplace. Betsy Furler, founder and CEO of Houston-based For All Abilities, is working on a unique approach to these challenges.

After its initial assessment, For All Abilities, which operates as a subscription software model for businesses, provides employees with curated low or no-cost apps and efficiency tools. While her work is mission-driven, Furler says on the show she was very intentional on starting her organization as a for-profit tech startup.

"It really makes sense from a business perspective to support your employees this way," she says. Click here to read more.

Marshall Law and Aaron Knape of Rivalry Technologies

Rivalry Tech's co-founders — Marshall Law and Aaron Knape — share news of the company's latest round of investment. Photo courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Rivalry Tech, originally founded as sEATz and tackling mobile ordering in sports venues, has raised $3.5 million following expanding with a new product, myEATz, that targets the health care, leisure, and business industries. The round was led by Houston-based Sightcast, with participation from Houston-based Softeq Venture Studio, Rice University’s Valhalla Investment Group, and more.

Co-Founders Aaron Knape, Marshall Law, and Craig Ceccanti launched the company in 2018. The idea came to Law after he missed catching a home run ball in the 2017 World Series because he was stuck in a long line waiting for concessions.

“We have built an amazing mobile ordering platform over the last four years for some of the best teams in professional and collegiate sports. It is exciting to see our success in sports and entertainment translate into opportunities in other industries. People want the best mobile ordering experience no matter where they are. That is exactly what we provide,” says Law. Click here to read more.

Meet the startup founders, mentors, investors, and other innovation leaders honored at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala

The 2022 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 11 categories. Photos courtesy

Last Wednesday, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential announced the winners of the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala. Eleven founders, mentors, investors, and more took home wins. Click here to read more.

Rivalry Tech's co-founders — Marshall Law and Aaron Knape — share news of the company's latest round of investment. Photo courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Houston tech startup raises $3.5M following industry expansion

money moves

A Houston-based company that optimizes mobile ordering for large venues has closed its latest round of funding.

Rivalry Tech, originally founded as sEATz and tackling mobile ordering in sports venues, has raised $3.5 million following expanding with a new product, myEATz, that targets the health care, leisure, and business industries. The round was led by Houston-based Sightcast, with participation from Houston-based Softeq Venture Studio, Rice University’s Valhalla Investment Group, and more.

“Sightcast Capital Partners looks to invest in strong, founder-led companies that bring a forward-thinking solution to everyday problems," says Neal Simpson, managing partner of Sightcast Capital Partners, in a news release. "In Rivalry Tech, we saw a team that recognized an opportunity to streamline the way in which food and beverage transactions occur in the healthcare, leisure, sports, and entertainment markets. Their two-sided approach of using technology as a tool to increase vendor profitability and also positively influence consumer experience is what immediately attracted us to this opportunity."

The company also recently announced it joined Softeq Venture Studio's latest accelerator cohort that was unveiled last month.

“As we begin scaling our customer base, Softeq was the perfect choice as both an investment and development partner. With their focus on innovation combined with their extensive experience in enterprise software and hardware, we believe they can strategically elevate us to the next level,” says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of Rivalry Tech.

Knape and his co-founders — Marshall Law and Craig Ceccanti — launched the company in 2018. The idea came to Law after he missed catching a home run ball in the 2017 World Series because he was stuck in a long line waiting for concessions.

“We have built an amazing mobile ordering platform over the last four years for some of the best teams in professional and collegiate sports. It is exciting to see our success in sports and entertainment translate into opportunities in other industries. People want the best mobile ordering experience no matter where they are. That is exactly what we provide,” says Law.

Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? These ones are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Here's which of the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

Growing biz

After scouring Houston for the best of the Houston innovation ecosystem and evaluating dozens of companies, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential have announced the finalists that will be honored at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards. But which of these companies are growing their teams?

Turns out, almost all of them have open positions — some planning to double their teams over the next year. In fact, the 30 companies that make up the cohort of finalists are looking for over 150 new employees — some have these positions open now and others are seeking these new team members over the next 12 months.

Click here to get your tickets to the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala.
Let's look at how many new hires these top startups are looking for.

Double-digit growth

When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new employees, five companies are looking to enter this type of hiring spree. Blue People, a finalist in the BIPOC-Founded Category, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for tis clients, has over 150 employees — seven of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

Another company that's also relocated its operations to Houston recently and is growing its team significantly is Venus Aerospace, creator of a hypersonic spaceplane capable of one-hour global travel. Venus, a finalist in the New to Hou category, currently has a team of 60 people and is based out of the Houston Spaceport. The company is hiring an additional 20 people.

Fast-growing B2B Software finalist Solidatus — a data management software solution — has 16 open positions, including five in the US. According to the company, they hope to have reached a headcount of about 140 within the next 12 months — up from their current 110 employees.

NanoTech, a Green Impact finalist and materials science company, is looking to nearly double its team of 20 to add an additional 15 new employees.

Competing in the People's Choice category, LevelField Financial — a financial service platform that serves customers interested in the digital asset class — is looking to hire 10 people to join its team of 19 employees.

Steady as she grows

Six Houston Innovation Awards finalists are in the process of adding more than a few new team members. Rivalry Technologies, a finalist in the B2B Software and People's Choice categories, is hiring seven people to join its team of 13. The company created a mobile ordering solution — called sEATz — for arenas and recently rebranded and expanded to provide the technology to other industries.

Founded in New Orleans and relocated to the Houston area last year, Fluence Analytics has a total of 30 employees and is looking to hire an additional six new team members. The company, which created a real-time analytics solution for the chemicals industry, is also a finalist in two categories: Hardtech and New to Hou.

Biotech company Cemvita Factory — both a Green Impact and People's choice finalist — has already scaled to employ 75 team members. Now, the company is hiring an additional five more.

Encina Development Group — circular chemicals company for the consumer products and packaging, pharmaceuticals, construction, and other industries — is also looking to add five more team members to its 30 employees. The company is a finalist in the Green Impact category.

Another Green Impact finalist is IncentiFind, a database for green building incentives that's transforming real estate, is hiring five new employees to almost double their team of eight.

INGU, a New to Hou finalist, is a pipeline inspection solution to achieve Net Zero and ESG compliance for the water and oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. The company is seeking five new team members to join its 19 employees based in Houston and Canada.

Seeking selectively

The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and four — of new hires:

Find out which of these employers take home the win at the November 9 gala at the Ion. Click here to RSVP.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).