Houstonian fosters collaboration and mentorship for women in venture capital

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 46

Sandy Guitar — along with other Houston female venture capitalists — are gathering virtually to promote networking and friendship amid the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sandy Guitar

When Sandy Guitar saw that Austin had a group of women in venture capital group that promoted collaboration and networking, she knew Houston had to have one too.

Guitar, who is the managing director of the HX Venture Fund, connected with the Austin group, picked their brains and asked for advice on starting a local iteration, and recruited a few fellow female VC experts in town — and the rest is history.

"There's a part of us as women that understands necessarily that work and life combine," Guitar says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our lives as women don't allow us to segment our lives. The truth is those parts of our lives come together. The more we can do that, the more we can build networks that help us achieve everything we want both professionally and personally."

Now, over a year later, the Women Investing in VC in Houston group has grown to over 30 members — so much that their virtual visits are broken into smaller groups. The group boasts diversity and has representatives across types of funds. To join, women must simply live in Houston and be a venture capital investor. Other than that, the group is unstructured and casual, which fosters an environment where members are allowed to ask a stupid question or speak up on something personal, as Guitar says.

"When you have no dues and very little formality, no structure, no pressure to attend — it's in that setting that you actually build trust. Organically, the friendships come together," she says. "That's what it's really about."

While the group had pre-pandemic beginnings, the model of mentorship and networking is more relevant now than ever. Men and women alike, Guitar says, are not able to silo work and life as we work from home and practice social distancing.

"COVID has made us vulnerable in an entirely new set of ways," she says. "We use our support groups — whatever they are — to help us."

Guitar discusses the group and how what the venture capital industry needs to do to evolve into a more welcoming space for women in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The Women Investing in VC in Houston group has pivoted to virtual events since the start of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Sandy Guitar

HX Venture Fund recently hosted a virtual panel on how the tide has turned in Houston when it comes to tech investment. Getty Images

Overheard: Experts discuss why Houston is the next hub for tech investing

eavesdropping in Houston

When Joe Alapat, co-founder and CEO of Liongard, was first getting started on his company, he says a few people recommended he go to Austin or one of the coasts to give his software company a better chance.

"For me, the thought process never really entered my mind that Houston was a place where I would be challenged in doing what I do well. My network is here," Alapat shared on a virtual panel hosted by the HX Venture Fund.

Turns out, it was a good decision. Liongard recently closed a $17 million series B round led by Updata Partners, a portfolio fund of HXVF. Moderated by Brian Richards of Accenture's Houston innovation hub, the panel asked Alapat, Sandy Guitar of HXVF, and Carter Griffin of Updata why Houston is the next hub for tech investing. Here are some key moments from the discussion.

“We’re cautious when we go into places — like Austin and Boston — where there’s a lot of activity both on the company side and the investor side. We’d rather find the opportunities where things aren’t as competitive and frothy, and you’re really dealing with people trying to build a real business, serve customers, and build value in the right way, and not just catch lightning in a bottle and build the next unicorn.”

—says Griffin about Updata's strategy of looking at cities like Houston in the middle of the country.

“A lot has changed in the past couple of years — the thought process, the awareness, as well as the willingness for folks to think about Houston as a place where you can build a startup.”

— says Alapat about how Houston's startup ecosystem has evolved since he started Liongard in 2015. He later notes that Houston's innovation leaders have done well to not copy other metros, but listen and learn from the successes and mistakes of other innovation cities.

“There was this feeling that we needed to be uniquely Houston — we couldn’t replicate Silicon Valley or Austin, we needed to be us. But we were going to have to do things differently. We couldn’t keep doing the same things and expecting this [change.]”

— Richard says, noting the corporate mindset, among other aspects of the ecosystem, shifted to be more focused on startups.

“The VCs are very interested in engaging in this model. So, we’re spoiled for choices is one way of saying it.”

— Guitar says on interest from venture funds in HXVF, noting that the VCs see an opportunity for their portfolio startups to connect with HXVF's corporate partners.

The HX Venture Fund reached a proof point of its model — one that arrived much earlier than expected. Getty Images

Houston's fund of funds expands its portfolio and team after reaching benchmark with local investment

money moves

When a Houston software startup closed a $17 million series B funding round, it was a big win for more than just the startup. Not only was the deal among the few Houston venture capital deals to happen amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but it represented a proof of concept for Houston's fund of funds.

The HX Venture Fund was founded in October of 2018 to encourage investment into local startups by raising corporate funds and investing into a portfolio of non-Houston venture capital funds that show an interest in Houston. HXVF hit a milestone last month when Liongard, a software-as-a-service company based in Houston, closed its fundraising round led by Updata Partners — one of HXVF's portfolio funds.

To date, the HXVF has reviewed over 150 venture capital funds and invested in eight: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, San Francisco-based VenBio, and Boston-based .406 Ventures, OpenView Venture Partners, and Material Impact Fund. Since each investment, those funds have invested in over 30 startups that are also included in the greater HXVF portfolio.

These HXVF portfolio funds represent various stages — from seed to growth stages, like Liongard — and across industries, from software and hardware to life sciences — "the whole gamut," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HXVF.

"What that means now is there is over $2 billion of venture capital that actively has Houston on its radar right now," Guitar tells InnovationMap.

The Liongard investment represents a proof point for the fund of funds — one that comes earlier than expected. HXVF invested in Updata less than six months before Liongard closed its round with Updata's lead investment. Guitar says she expected to get to this milestone within 18 to 24 months of the fund of funds deploying capital — and it's happened in just nine months.

"You have this trickle down effect, where it can easily take two to three years to get your capital at work," Guitar says, explaining that HXVF first has to raise funds from its corporate partners, then vet and invest in the VCs, and, finally, wait to see how those funds invest.

Of course, the pandemic has not exactly helped the growth of Houston's startup and venture capital sectors. While COVID-19 has allowed growth in some sectors — telemedicine, for instance — it has limited the opportunities for startups to test the market.

"To build great startups, a startup has to do what I call 'run into walls.' They have to test the market, get it wrong, and pivot. The problem right now is there are no walls to run into," Guitar says. "You have to have an actively running economy and market for proof points of what's working and what's not working."

Meanwhile, Guitar observes, VC investors have limited their activity to their own networks due to the inability to meet face-to-face with unfamiliar startups. Comparing the VC-startup relationship to a marriage, you wouldn't meet and marry someone you've never met in person just like investors wouldn't fund an entrepreneur they have only ever met via Zoom.

"A lot of VCs are staying in their known networks in the short term," says Guitar, while, in the long term, VCs are going to rely on introductions to entrepreneurs from their network.

With this benchmark secured, HXVF is continuing to grow its portfolio — as well as its team. Recently, Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston."

Guitar says HXVF is also growing its limited partners with the addition of Rice University, which joins the likes of HEB, Shell, Chevron, and Houston Methodist — to name a few.

"We're going to be getting even closer to our limited partners' needs and introducing them to the 34 portfolio companies," Guitar says "and creating meaningful collisions between those two groups."

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund, has seen investing in Houston change over her 20-year career. Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

HX Venture Fund leader talks investment trends in Houston and plans for 2020

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 13

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well.

Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis is playing the long game. The fund of funds acts as a broker to other venture funds, raising money from limited partners and then strategically doling out investments to non-Houston venture funds, with the hope that those funds circle back into the Houston innovation ecosystem with a multiplier effect.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies."

The HX Venture Fund is aiming to raise between $50 million and $70 million for its first fund. Last year, HXVF made six investments, and Wallis says she expects another three to five investments in 2020. Ultimately, Wallis says, HXVF is looking to get a wide range of of firms involved — from early stage to later, growth stages — as well as a diversity in industries of focus.

Beyond the money, HXVF is opening up the discussion on a national scale, with visiting VCs and potential investors.

"We are getting a lot of interest in coastal VCs who want to invest here," Wallis says on the podcast.

Wallis, who is a co-founder of Weathergage Capital, got her MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, but has been in Houston for most of her career — traveling to each coast for business. Wallis shares her expertise, discussing everything from why the IPO process has slowed to what startups need to know about venture capital.

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston expert: 5 things to consider when tackling DEI at your organization

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Houston is often touted as the most diverse city in the country, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we are creating inclusive and equitable opportunities that reflect the communities we serve.

With the current state of our country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social and political issues, employers across the city have searched for the right thing to say and do to help their employees and customers during this time when personal feelings and beliefs impact the workplace more now than ever. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing DEI across an organization, here are a few steps and considerations companies can take to ensure DEI is a priority moving forward.

Understand your audience

It's important to understand the perspectives of those you serve. Identifying your audience will help develop a DEI strategy that addresses concerns from multiple lenses. At Houston Methodist, we focus on our patients, employees and the communities we serve. Anyone building a DEI program needs to not only be cognizant of their audience, but also understand their needs in today's climate before spending time and resources to develop initiatives that will address those needs. Ultimately, this will help shape a more impactful approach to DEI within your organization.

Define success

When developing a DEI strategy, success may seem overwhelming or lofty. But, viewing success as progress will help your organization accomplish your goals in a way that employees and other stakeholders will benefit from in the long run.

Set strategic and measurable goals that clearly state what your organization wants to achieve through its DEI efforts. These goals need not be big at the onset; make sure they are attainable. Most importantly, it's critical to revisit your goals on a regular basis and identify gaps, and be willing to pivot, if needed, along the way so your organization eventually reaches its goals. At the hospital, we've developed a DEI dashboard for all departments in our hospitals to help us with setting those measurable goals. Once measurable goals are identified, a DEI scorecard will be used to identify progress for departments and our organization year over year. When people are able to easily track and see progress or gaps, it will make it easier to reach desired goals.

An organization can't be successful with any new type of program if everyone within the organization doesn't understand the importance of DEI in their department and within the company as a whole. Progress often starts with one person. Providing training to employees about the impact that DEI can have on their day-to-day work will help them champion that within the organization. For example, we've launched something at our hospital called "Together We Grow," a training program aimed at building a foundation for what DEI is by exploring everyday scenarios employees may encounter. This program first started with leadership and is now available to all employees within the hospital system.

Establish a timeline

Once measurable goals have been established, develop a timeline for accomplishing those goals. By selecting two or three goals that can be focused on over a particular time period (i.e., six months or one year), your organization can implement targeted programs and best practices to drive the success of DEI for a more long-term plan. It's ok if not every program is up and running within the year; creating milestones along the way will give your organization time to grow its DEI efforts and aspire to something meaningful for your employees, customers or community. The need for DEI doesn't go away, so it's important to continue efforts year-round with a growth mindset.

Evaluate how DEI holistically fits into your business

A DEI department, team or individual can't be successful if the work isn't aligned with the mission of the organization. It does not help if an organization has competing priorities, so DEI goals must be embedded in your organization's business goals.

Additionally, it's also important to have leadership set the tone for the rest of the organization to follow. Executive leaders that fully commit to the organization's DEI efforts and promote transparency, feedback and accountability for those programs will yield the most meaningful and lasting results.

Recognize your ‘why’

As a business, it's important to understand why DEI is important for your organization's success. You need to both be able to understand and articulate the business case for why diversity matters in your organization. Studies like this one from Boston Consulting Group continue to show a positive correlation between workforce diversity, innovation and overall company performance. The workforce is constantly changing and becoming more diverse, so making sure your organization is adapting to those different perspectives and taking into consideration why this work is vital to your employees, customers and your community will help turn DEI ideas into action.

For many health care organizations, health equity has shaped community engagement efforts and programs. Addressing health equity for racial, ethnic and social minorities in the Greater Houston area has been a priority for Houston Methodist for nearly 30 years, and this work has also informed and strengthened our DEI efforts in the communities we serve.

In conclusion, remember progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. For these initiatives to be effective, everyone within your organization must understand that each person plays a role in shaping the success of DEI efforts.

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Arianne Dowdell is vice president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist.

Google grants Houston founders funds, The Ion looks for artists, and more local innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with news, and for this reason, local startup and tech updates may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Comcast RISE program expands to grant more funds, Google names Houston-area recipients from its Black Founder Fund, The Ion is looking for artists to participate in a new initiative, and more.

Google cohort awards Black founders $100,000 each

Google has granted funds to two Houston companies. Photo via Pexels

DOSS and SOTAOG, two Houston-based startups, have received $100,000 each as a part of the second cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, a $10 million initiative for Black founders. Originally reported to be a part of Google's accelerator early this summer, DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and SOTAOG is an enterprise solutions provider within the oil and gas and heavy industrial industries.

"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund embodies our mission of helping underrepresented founders grow their businesses. We are excited to continue the fund and contribute funding to Black founders, with no strings attached. Black founders currently receive less than 1 percent of total VC funding," says Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, in a news release. "We heard loud and clear from the 2020 fund recipients that Google for Startups and Goodie Nation have been crucial to their success not only through funding, but through community, mentorship, network connections and technical expertise."

Last year, Google for Startups awarded 76 Black-led startups up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, as well as technical support from tools and teams across Google, including as much as $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, according to the release.

In addition to the two companies from Houston, eight companies from Austin and Dallas were also chosen for the second program.

The Ion calls for local artists

The Ion is looking for local artists to create innovative window displays. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, a Midtown innovation hub that's owned and operated by Rice Management Company, is looking for local artists to work on two prominent display windows at the front of the newly renovated historic Sears building.

"As a nexus for creativity of many different kinds, The Ion welcomes Houston's talented artists to tap into their unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds to submit inventive proposals that will ultimately comprise two different art installations. Each installation will contribute to Houston's innovation ecosystem by inspiring the growing community of creators who will see the building's display windows on a daily basis," says Artistic Consultant Piper Faust in a news release.

The two art installations will reside for six months — from February to August of next year. The submissions will be evaluated by a team of experts identified by Rice Management Co. and Piper Faust. The budget for each project will be $20,000.

According to the release, the submissions are open to Houston-area artists and should be in line with The Ion's "vision and mission of accelerating innovation, connecting communities and facilitating partnerships to create growth and opportunity in Houston."

Artists can apply online until October 1 at 5 pm.

Comcast RISE announces additional $1 million for Houston founders

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

The Comcast RISE program will give out another batch of $10,000 grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which announced funding for 100 small businesses in Houston earlier this year, has expanded to provide an additional $1 million in support. The program is focused on BIPOC-owned small businesses in Harris and Fort Bend Counties that have been in business for three or more years with 1 to 25 employees.

Eligible businesses can apply online at ComcastRISE.com beginning October 1 through October 14 for one of the one hundred $10,000 grants.

Houston startup wins $25,000

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, won $25,000 for her company. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Dallas-based Impact Ventures, a nonprofit startup accelerator focused on empowering women and communities of color, hosted its bi-annual event, The Startup Showcase. A Houston-based company, Church Space, took the top prize of $25,000.

Billed as the "Netflix of churches," Church Space originally started as a way to allow groups to rent spaces for worship. But, in light of the pandemic, the company is pivoted to launch Church Space TV, a streaming program that allows churches and ministries to stream worship services for free.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, previously told InnovationMap. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time."

The company is also one of MassChallenge Texas's 2021 cohort.

Houston health care leader receives prestigious award

Dr. Peter Hotez, a leader in the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, has been named the recipient of a prestigious award. ​Photo courtesy of TCH

Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children's Hospital Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, has been awarded the 2021 David E. Rogers Award. Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The annual award, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, "honors a medical school faculty member who has made major contributions to improving the health and health care of the American people," according to a news release.

"I am thrilled to be honored with the David E. Rogers Award," Hotez says in the release. "As we continue this fight against COVID-19, having the additional support from the AAMC will amplify our efforts to improve public health nationally and globally."

The award will be presented to Dr. Hotez at the 2021 AAMC Awards Recognition Event on Wednesday, October 27.

Hotez is leading the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, according to the release, and he has dedicated much of his time to vaccine advocacy efforts, countering rising antivaccine and anti-science sentiments in the United States while promoting vaccine diplomacy efforts globally.

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board

big news

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX."

According to the release, the organization is also "sharpening its focus and governing structure." HX's current board of directors will transition into a "convening board." In this new structure, Houston innovation leaders will come together to support one another and share advice and opportunities, as well as launch working groups to address emerging tech ecosystem challenges. An executive committee made up of five to seven members will oversee HX's operations and staff. These changes will be in effect on October 1.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem has been on an incredible run over the last four years as evidenced by the tripling of venture capital funding for local startups and the sharp increase in the number of startup development organizations supporting our emerging companies and founders," says HX Chair Barbara Burger, who is the vice president innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. "Houston Exponential has been a key catalyst for building momentum, and it's important for the organization to adapt to best meet the needs of the maturing ecosystem."

Moving forward, HX will have a strengthened focus on key efforts, like convening a startup development organization roundtable, the VC Immersions program, monthly networking events, and the annual Houston Tech Rodeo.

Additionally, as the organization's new leader, Lalany will spearhead HX's goal for Houston-based startups raising $10 billion in venture capital annually by 2030, per the release.

"Serafina has been a steadfast leader of the HX team, and we believe she is the right person to take the organization through this next chapter in its evolution," Burger says. "I'm excited to see what's next for HX under her guidance."