Houston Exponential released a new report on venture capital activity in the Bayou City. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

In the startup world, small funding deals are a big deal in Houston.

A new Houston Exponential analysis based on data from PitchBook shows early-stage and angel rounds accounted for 151 venture capital deals under $5 million last year. Nearly two-thirds of those VC deals were less than $1 million.

Thanks to that robust activity, Houston now ranks as the third-fastest-growing tech ecosystem for early-stage companies in the country, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, last year’s overall VC deal count exceeded 200 for the first time, “a harbinger of future growth potential as new company creation continues to explode,” the analysis says.

Texas Medical Center is contributing to that explosion. It recently raised the size of its TMC Venture Fund to $50 million. TMC says the fund now will be able to back a wider range of early-stage startups.

“When we launched the TMC Venture Fund, our goal was to drive collaboration and entrepreneurship, and establish Texas as a life science hub,” William McKeon, president and CEO of TMC, says in a news release. “Our initial investment was extremely successful, and this influx of capital creates a unique opportunity for TMC to invest in companies in the earliest stages of commercialization, further bolstering Houston’s thriving life science community.”

Although Houston’s average early-stage deal size of $18 million remains shy of the national average of $21 million, that still represents a 68 percent growth rate since 2019, according to the analysis from Houston Exponential, an entrepreneurship hub. Compared with the national growth rate of 23 percent, “this demonstrates the broader expansion and maturities within the Houston ecosystem,” the analysis says.

The size of deals at the Series A and Series B levels also is on the rise. According to the analysis, the median Series A round in Houston grew from less than $3.2 million in 2020 to more than $10 million in 2021. The size of Series B rounds rose 35 percent, from a median of $13.6 million in 2020 to $21 million in 2021.

While those numbers are impressive, mega-deals stole the spotlight in 2021. Six Houston companies raised at least $100 million last year, with three of those deals surpassing $300 million. Collectively, Axiom Space, Cart.com (now based in Austin), HighRadius, Lancium, Solugen, and Vyripharm Biopharmaceuticals raised $1.3 billion last year.

Last year’s mega-deals brought the number of Houston unicorns, including Cart.com, to five. Unicorns are startups valued at $1 billion or more. In Houston, the newest members of that club are Solugen, with a $357 million Series C round in 2021, and Cart.com, with a $240 million Series B1 round last year.

“That VC-backed companies were able to generate such enormous value in 2021 during a time characterized by great uncertainty and extraordinary circumstances highlights the continued importance of VC-backed companies to the resilience of Houston’s economy,” says Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential.

HX's Serafina Lalany shares what to expect at Houston Tech Rodeo this year. Photo courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential's tech rodeo returns revamped and re-energized

Q&A

It's that time of year, Houston innovators. The third annual Houston Tech Rodeo starts next week, and the format is going to look different from its initial pre-COVID version as well as the last two years of virtual programming.

HTR, hosted by Houston Exponential, kicks off Sunday, February 27, with the bulk of the programming taking place during the work week, before it concluding Saturday, March 5. The full schedule is available online upon registration, which is free.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of HX, shares what attendees can expect from this year's events.

InnovationMap: HTR has a whole new format this year. What led to the evolution of the event and what are the most significant changes?

Serafina Lalany: This year's event series is concentrated along the METRO Red Line and we have two to three "Saloons" each day around thematic focus areas such as HealthTech, ClimaTech, CPG, and moree. This year, we were seeking to drive more density — with 20 events (versus 170 in previous years) all centralized downtown. It will look and feel a lot like SXSW. Our goal was to optimize for more engineered serendipity.

IM: Who should attend HTR?

SL: Tech Rodeo Roadshow is our annual event for all Houstonians who are seeking to get plugged into the startup community — whether you are an entrepreneur, investor, talent — or have ambitions to launch and scale a startup this event seeks to lower the barrier of entry.

IM: What are the central topics/industries that HTR is organized around and how did y’all decide on what these topics/industries would be?

SL: The thematic focus areas are related to Houston's core strengths and emerging startup areas: HealthTech, ClimaTech, AeroSpace, CPG, Industry 4.0, Esports, and B2B Saas.

IM: HTR returns in the fall for a summit. What can you tell us about that event and how is it different from its spring counterpart?

SL: The Summit was born out of our findings from last year's event series. When we pivoted to the hybrid event model, we captured a global audience for the first time — 47 countries, to be exact.

The Summit will bring the global tech community to Houston. Leading entrepreneurs, executives, and investors will address and debate issues facing core industries in this current moment — all in the heart of America’s most diverse city. It's four tracks (HealthTech, ClimaTech, Aerospace, and DEI) across two days at the POST.

The Houston Exponential team has a new look to their branding and website. Photo via houstonexponential.org

Houston Exponential enters a new era with rebrand

makeover

The future of Houston Exponential is here. The organization rolled out its new branding today that was designed and created in partnership with a Houston agency.

HX tapped Houston-based NUU Group to ideate and design a new brand that fits the evolving organization's ambitious plans. HX is like a startup itself, the company explains in a statement, and is shifting to accomodate the needs of the ecosystem and community it's served since 2017.

"The challenge lies in evolving the HX brand to be more than a two-letter acronym, bringing it off the page and into culture," HX Executive Director Serafina Lalany tells InnovationMap. "We need to create a framework and strategy that allows HX to communicate effectively across audiences, platforms, and geographies."

The goal of the new branding is to clearly communicate HX's vision and value to both local entrepreneurs and the global innovation community.

"After a national search for a brand development partner that understood the impact we were seeking to drive not only for our startup community, but for the city of Houston we identified NUU Group," Lalany says. "NUU has been helping companies ideate, design and launch innovative solutions for almost a decade and is a champion for our city with groups across the country and around the globe."

NUU Group, founded by CEO Jez Babarczy in 2013, works with emerging and established companies to design branding that moves both business and culture forward.

"The theme for HX’s new identity is anchored in the idea that the path of entrepreneurship is tough, but with the right support founders can succeed," says Garrett Herzik, head of projects at NUU. "HX exists to help make that path less opaque and easier to navigate, to build a robust community of support that backs up Houston’s uncompromising founders."

HX's new website features interactive graphics and video, as well as highlighting Houston founders on the homepage. The new tagline for the organization is "building the future backed by community," which resonates with HX's mission to represent the diversity of the city.
"We're helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," the website reads.
In a recent interview with InnovationMap, Lalany says a key focus of that accessibility is to venture capital opportunities, which is why HX will be scaling its VC Immersion days in partnership with Republic, an investment tech company.
The branding changes come just ahead of HX's Houston Tech Rodeo Roadshow, which begins later this month. The new design will be worked into a part of the week-long event and meetup programming, which is aimed at showcasing Houston innovation.
"We hope to see the new branding give current and future founders confidence in their entrepreneurial journey," Herzik says. "We hope to see HX’s commitment to providing a robust community of support owned and adopted by the entirety of Houston. Transformation will move as fast as our community allows, which requires that we all adopt one vision of an innovative future. One that is possible for anyone."

Houston Exponential's website has a whole new look to it. Graphic courtesy of HX

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Winston Wright of Alto, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Zeev Braude of SiteAware. Courtesy photos

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 three local innovators across industries — from startup development to construction technology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Winston Wright, Houston general manager at Alto

Winston Wright leads Houston operations for Dallas-based Alto, which is taking on the likes of Uber and Lyft. Photo courtesy of Alto

As any Houstonian knows, the city is quite large. While Dallas-based Alto, a luxury rideshare service, rolled out in Houston a while ago, Winston Wright has plans to make sure the company is covering the entire greater Houston area.

Wright, who's the Houston general manager for Alto, joined last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. He shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

It's a new era for Houston Exponential, and Serafina Lalany, named the organization's executive director last September, is leading HX into its new phase.

"The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves," she tells InnovationMap. "Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that."

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview. Click here to read more.

Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $15 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

SiteAware, a Houston construction software startup, raised $15 million in its series B round, which was led by Singapore-based Vertex Ventures Israel. Existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Axon Ventures, Oryzn Capital, The Flying Object, and lool Ventures also contributed to the round.

The company's digital construction verification, or DCV, platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"SiteAware's DCV error prevention technology is disrupting the construction industry by dramatically accelerating schedules and streamlining work processes for all parties. In the next few years, everyone from contractors to developers will be using DCV to build without rework," says Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware, in a news release. "DCV gives the construction ecosystem access to data they've never had before, data that holds the key to the next jump in productivity for the industry." Click here to read more.

Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston Exponential leader looks to increase local startup investment through 2022

Q&A

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ivery Boston III joins HX to lead inclusive efforts. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Exponential hires new exec to promote inclusive innovation

new to hou

Houston's considered one of the most diverse cities in the country, and Houston Exponential is focused on building an innovation ecosystem that's reflective of that.

The nonprofit organization announced a new hire that will lead this initiative. Ivery Boston III started this week as HX's director of inclusive innovation. He will be tasked with leading prototyping and testing new inclusive ideas and ways of operating, according to a news release from HX. He will also be responsible for creating opportunities for underrepresented founders to succeed in Houston.

"Other cities, in their dogged pursuit of being the next 'Silicon Valley,' followed the coastal playbook and weren't deliberate to support underserved entrepreneurs," says Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential, in the release. "There is still much work to be done to address subtle and persistent forms of bias in the ways underrepresented founders access the resources, capital, and talent needed to thrive here in Houston. This move, for Houston Exponential and for the City of Houston, is part of an intentional strategy to foster a more inclusive, accessible ecosystem."

Boston joins HX from Miami, where he led research, strategy, recruitment of high-growth startups, and impact reporting for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

"I am excited to serve the Houston community as the director of inclusive innovation at Houston Exponential," says Boston in the release. "I'm a massive fan of HX's work advocating for, connecting, and raising the profile of the Houston innovation ecosystem while linking local founders to funding. It is a privilege to join this exemplary team and provide additional attention to underrepresented and under-encouraged founders within the city."

Boston has also worked with Indeed.com, Zipcar, Sodexo, and other companies within market reporting. He attended Temple University.

"I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and ensuring that all Houstonians can see a viable path to entrepreneurship," he continues. "It's time to leverage Houston's diversity to bring in additional funding sources, create jobs, and use the profound local awareness of the world to launch businesses, services, and products that serve the global market."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Early-stage startup accelerator names latest Houston cohort, new local leader

new to Hou

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class.

Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor has announced today the five participating startups in gBETA Houston. The program will be led by Muriel Foster, the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which originally launched in Houston in 2020 thanks to a grant from from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The program, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more, is based in the Downtown Launchpad, and is free and does not take equity in the participating companies. The cohort kicked off on April 21 and concludes on June 10.

The new cohort includes:

  • Founded by CEO Steffie Thomson a year ago, Getaway Sticks has designed a shoe that gives women the painless support they need using athletic foam to create a shoe that gives women the painless support they need. Getaway Sticks provides the solutions to women’s #1 wardrobe complaint of high heel pain. Since launch, the company has earned over $35,000 in revenue from over 150 customers.
  • Through a combination of software and hardware technology, LocBox is rethinking the shopping experience for online and local purchases. If you shop, ship, or have food delivered to your house, LocBox will make your life easier. Led by CEO Sterling Sansing, LocBox has previously participated in the Texas A&M MBA Venture Challenge.
  • SpeakHaus is focused on equipping young professionals and entrepreneurs with public speaking skills through its on-demand training platform and group coaching program. Since launching in October 2021, SpeakHaus has facilitated 6 corporate trainings and coached 61 business leaders generating over $49,000 in revenue. The company is led by CEO Christa Clarke.
  • Led by CEO LaGina Harris, The Us Space is creating spaces intentionally for women of color, women-led businesses, and women-centric organizations. Since launching in June 2021, The Us Space has created partnerships with more than a dozen community organizations, sustainable businesses, and organizations creating positive economic impact in the City of Houston.
  • Founded in August 2021, Urban Eatz Delivery is a food delivery service app that caters to the overlooked and underrepresented restaurants, food trucks, and home-based food vendors. Urban Eatz Delivery has earned over $88,000 in revenue, delivered to over 2,000 users, and worked with 36 restaurant and food vendors on the app. The company is led by CEO D’Andre Good.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

it's Foster's first cohort at the helm of the program. A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor.

The program is housed at the Downtown Launchpad. The five startups will have access to the space to meet with mentors, attend events, and run their companies.

"Creating (the hub) was a little like a moonshot, but it’s paying off and contributing enormous impact to the city’s economy. The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Spring cohort will continue that legacy,” says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. “As these entrepreneurs chase their dreams and create something epic, they will know Downtown Houston is standing behind them. I am so proud of what Downtown Launchpad is already, and what it will become.”

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

Vote now for your favorite 2022 Houston science teacher

Rewarding the Spark

Since 2019, alliantgroup and the Houston Independent School District have been partnering for the SPARK Award, a program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers who are increasing student engagement and achievement through innovative lesson plans that emphasize both the importance and fun aspects of science.

The overall winner receives a $3,500 personal award plus $500 for their classroom, and the other five finalists receive $1,300 each plus another $500 to spend on their classrooms.

Get to know this year's crop of nominees below, then be sure to cast your vote once a day here until May 25.

After working for three years as an accountant, Lynell Dillard taught a weekly finance class where her students became her inspiration to pursue a full-time career in the classroom.

She secured her first teaching position in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. For three years now, she has been teaching science and giving her students hands-on learning opportunities they may not experience outside of the classroom.

Dillard explains that for many of her students, her role as a teacher is to give them as many opportunities to interact with the natural environment as possible. She knows many of her students and their families would not have access to these resources if it were not for the school district.

"We all learn in a different way, so we have to be willing to help that other person if they don’t get what I get, and there’s no criticism in it," Dillard says. "I tell them they are my future. Every single part of your education is important."


"Before I went to foster care, I was not doing well in my education," Ruth Giles says. "My foster mom, Nancy, took the time to figure out how I learned. She figured out I’m good with memorization, flashcards, and practicing. I would not be here without her today."

Sadly, Nancy passed away in January from COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it’s important to Giles that she continue sharing her experiences with her students to keep Nancy’s legacy alive.

Giles says the best part of teaching fifth-grade science is helping her students view the world in a different way, just like Nancy did for her.


Melanie Jenkins has been a fifth grade ESL teacher at Katherine Smith Elementary School for three years, but first got started in substitute teaching. She then went on to fulfill her childhood dream of working in finance, but found it wasn’t all she thought it would be.

"I still had in the back of my mind these kids whose lives I touched and who remembered me and understood what I was trying to teach them," she says.

Now she can't imagine doing anything else. It's challenging that many of her students are learning English for the first time, but she focuses on vocabulary and giving them resources in both English and Spanish is key, along with truly forming relationships with them.

“I try to figure out who likes what and how I can bring that into the classroom,” says Jenkins. “If you are a hands-on learner, we have the opportunities to put our hands on things. If you are a project-based learner, you have the opportunity to do projects. So there’s no one size fits all.”


According to science teacher Mimi Muñoz, STEM education is important but learning to be kind should be first in any classroom environment.

She also works hard to get her fifth-grade students engaged in their lessons and understand why science is important to their everyday lives.

“They get so excited to do hands-on activities, experiments, and projects,” Muñoz explains. “One thing I really want them to understand is that you need learning every day of your life. And learning science, as well as the world around us, is their real life. The things I’m teaching you [in the classroom] are important.”

Muñoz has been teaching for three years and spent her entire career at Seguin Elementary. She says the last two years were very tough on her students because of the pandemic, but despite virtual learning, it has only strengthened the way she connects to her students.


An educator of 17 years, Gerjuan O’Neal is following in her family’s footsteps.

"My maternal grandmother was a second and third grade teacher, and my maternal grandfather was a high school government teacher," she says. "My great-aunt was an elementary teacher and then a homebound teacher. My favorite thing is that I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, so every day is different."

She loves teaching STEM to her students because they can see how it applies to the other subjects they are also learning in school.

"I really like for my students to be creative problem solvers, and I like to show them all the different components of STEM," O’Neal explains. "If we are doing a science technology map, everything fits together. If we do a Lego build, we’re doing estimating with numbers. If we are coding, they get to see where math is involved and where they must be critical thinkers."


Although this is her first year teaching at Bonner Elementary School, Leticia Sifuentes is a veteran of the classroom with 24 years of experience.

Her favorite part about teaching is seeing her students become just as passionate about science as she is.

“I tell my students I’m a science nerd. We watch a movie — where’s the science? We go somewhere — where’s the science? They’re able to bring science to everything they talk about. It’s in reading, it’s in math, it’s just the way we can incorporate science in everyday life.”

Sifuentes was named an honorable mention teacher for alliantgroup’s 2019 SPARK Award, but three years later she says she is a better educator after working through the challenges of a pandemic and virtual learning. She now realizes that as an educator it is not only her responsibility to ensure her students are performing well academically but also emotionally, socially, and mentally.

CAST YOUR VOTE ONCE A DAY HERE before May 25.

Houston ranks as No. 3 city for Asian American entrepreneurs

diverse city

Known for its diversity, Houston ranks as the third best major metro area in the U.S. for Asian American entrepreneurs, according to a new study.

Personal finance website SmartAsset analyzed data for 52 of the largest metro areas to come up with the ranking. The analysis looked at nine metrics in three categories: prevalence of Asian-owned businesses, success of new businesses, and income and job security.

About 9 percent of the Houston metro area’s residents identify as Asian.

The SmartAsset study puts Houston in fifth place for the number of Asian-owned businesses (nearly 19,900) and in fourth place for the share of Asian-owned businesses (almost 17.9 percent) among all businesses. Furthermore, Houston ranks 14th for the increase (nearly 9.6 percent) in the number of Asian-owned businesses from 2017 to 2019.

Leading the SmartAsset list is the San Francisco metro area, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth. Austin comes in at No. 11 and San Antonio at No. 14.

The largest minority-owned business in the Houston area, as ranked by annual revenue, is Asian-owned private equity firm ZT Corporate.

Founded in 1997 by Chairman and CEO Taseer Bada, who was born in Pakistan, ZT Corporate is valued at more than $1 billion. ZT Corporate generates more than $600 million in annual revenue and employs over 3,000 people.

“As we look ahead, the vision for ZT Corporate is limitless. Our team will continue pushing boundaries and finding the bright spots in the economy that produce consistent financial gains for our investors,” Bada says in a news release marking his company’s 25th anniversary.

ZT Corporate’s flagship businesses are:

  • Altus Community Healthcare, a provider of health care services.
  • ZT Financial Services, a wealth management firm.
  • ZT Motors, which owns and operates auto dealerships. Last year, ZT Motors bought three Ron Carter dealerships in the Houston area.

“ZT Corporate is a vital asset to our citizens as a longtime local employer,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says, “and has positively affected many lives through their health care organizations and philanthropic efforts.”