Houston-based PolyVascular has invented a polymer-based heart valve for children with congenital heart disease. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

A $2 million federal grant will enable Houston-based PolyVascular to launch human trials of what it hails as the first polymer-based heart valve for children.

In conjunction with the grant, Dr. Will Clifton has joined the medical device company as chief operating officer. He will oversee the grant as principal investigator, and will manage the company's operations and R&D. Clifton is president and co-founder of Houston-based Enventure, a medical innovation incubator and education hub. He previously was senior director of medical affairs at Houston-based Procyrion, a clinical-stage medical device company.

PolyVascular's Phase II grant came from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which promotes technological projects.

The PolyVascular heart valve will help treat congenital heart disease affecting more than 1 million around the world. PolyVascular plans to launch clinical trials of the valve in children 5 and over within two years.

"Congenital heart disease remains the most common category of birth defect and a leading cause of childhood death in the developed world," reads a March 30 news release from PolyVascular, founded in 2014.

PolyVascular says the valve can be implanted without surgery, and can avoid the use of valve replacements from humans or animals. Those valve replacements are difficult to find and often don't last too long, leading to frequent follow-up surgeries.

"Our aim at PolyVascular is to transform the care of children with congenital heart disease by developing an entirely new generation of valves made of medical-grade polymer devoid of any biological tissue," Dr. Henri Justino, chief medical officer at PolyVascular, says in a release. "The valves in use so far for children have been made of biological tissue. Unfortunately, our immune systems target and destroy this biological tissue, sometimes rapidly, rendering the valve ineffective."

The SBIR grant isn't the only win for PolyVascular in recent years.

In 2019, the startup came away with several honors in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. It won the pitch competition (complete with a $5,000 cash award), and received the Biotex Investment Prize, Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Also in 2019, PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won in the medical device and health disparities and equity categories at the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

Last year, MedTech Innovator, a nonprofit accelerator in the medical technology sector, announced PolyVascular was one of 50 companies chosen to participate in the organization's flagship four-month accelerator program.

"During these uncertain and challenging times, the need for health innovations — specifically those that promise to deliver long-term value to the health care system and patients — is more critical than ever," said Paul Grand, CEO of MedTech Innovator.

Another Houston startup, Vivante Health, also was picked for the MedTech Innovator program. Vivante is a digital health company that helps people address digestive health and wellness.

Following Winter Storm Uri, the United States Small Business Association has launched recovery resources for Texas small businesses. Photo via Getty Images

SBA launches Virtual Business Recovery Center to assist Texas loan applicants after winter storm

funds for small biz

Texas small businesses impacted by Winter Storm Uri are now eligible for up to $2 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration as a result of President Joe Biden's major disaster declaration last week.

"Getting our businesses and communities up and running after a disaster is our highest priority at SBA," says SBA's acting Administrator Tami Perriello.

According to a release from the SBA, businesses in 77 counties are covered under the declaration for damages incurred during the storm, starting February 11. Loans can be used to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets. The funds can also be used to make improvements that will protect, prevent, or minimize damage from any future freezes.

Interest rates for businesses start at 3 percent. Loans to private nonprofit organizations will start at 2 percent and homeowners and renters will incur interest at 1.25. All loans are set with 30 years terms.

Loan amounts and terms are determined by the SBA based on each applicant's financial condition.

The SBA will also launch a Virtual Business Recovery Center on February 23 — similar to the Women Business Centers it launched across the country in 2020, but all virtual due to COVID-related health concerns.

Applicants can call or email the virtual center to receive personalized assistance in their online loan applications at 800-659-2955 or FOCWAssistance@sba.gov, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Assistance will also be provided to help homeowners and renters through a similar Virtual Disaster Loan Outreach Center, which applicants can reach through the same number and email address.

Homeowners are eligible for up to $200,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate.Renters and homeowners are also eligible for up to $40,000 for destroyed personal property.

To get started, applicants must contact FEMA at disasterassistance.gov. To download an application visit disasterloanassistance.sba.gov. Individuals who are deaf or hard‑of‑hearing can call 800-877-8339.

Re:3D is one of two Houston companies to be recognized by the SBA's technology awards. Photo courtesy of re:3D

2 Houston startups win national technology award from SBA

winner, winner

A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

"I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

"We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

"We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

The SBA announced plans to open 20 new centers to serve female entrepreneurs — and one is coming to the Houston area. Photo via Getty Images

SBA grant to open new centers to support women in business — and one will serve the Houston area

coming soon

The Houston area is benefitting from national funding that will be dedicated to creating female-focused resource centers across the country.

The United States Small Business Administration announced grant funding to launch 20 new Women's Business Centers (WBC) across the country. The centers, which are slated to go into rural and underserved markets, will also be partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

With the funds from the grant and through a partnership with the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce, the new center will rise in Northeast Houston to serve the Montgomery, East Harris and Chambers' Counties.

"We are incredibly excited that an organization as prominent as the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce is joining the SBA team," says Tim Jeffcoat, director if the SBA in Houston. "We are looking forward to working with them to empower women-owned businesses in Houston to reach new heights of success."

These new efforts represent the largest expansion of the WBC program in its 30-year existence.

"We are thrilled to partner with the SBA in opening another Women's Business Center, providing resources and tools for our region's women-led organizations to launch and expand," says Suzan Deison, CEO, president and founder of the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce. "We are honored the SBA chose to partner with us to expand needed services in Montgomery, East Harris & Chambers' counties, especially during these challenging times."

The SBA has 136 centers open across the country, and each offers business counseling, training, networking, workshops, and more to area female entrepreneurs.

"Opening the doors to the new Women's Business Centers is crucial to the vitality of women-owned small business owners. This network expansion will provide female entrepreneurs with the resources they need to start, grow, and expand their businesses," says Associate Administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development Allen Gutierrez. "We look forward to the continued success of the WBC program as it contributes to the overall health of our economy and creates jobs in their local communities."

According to the release, the timing of these new centers is especially important as entrepreneurs continue to be challenged amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Over the past several months, we have seen Women's Business Centers provide aid to our nation's innovative and determined entrepreneurs, allowing countless small business owners to pivot with confidence to stay afloat during the pandemic," says SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. "Expanding the WBC program is part of this Administration's longstanding commitment to the success of female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses. Adding these new Women's Business Centers to the already existing network of centers across America will boost timely resources to our nation's female economic drivers, providing them with local training and counseling."

Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund discuss their advice for startups looking for federal grants. Courtesy photos

Houston experts give advice for startups seeking financial aid from the CARES Act

from the profesisonals

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

"There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.

Small businesses and startups are likely to hurt — and hurt bad — from COVID-19's affect on the economy. Here are some resources to get support. Photo by Hero Images

Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and small businesses during COVID-19 shutdown

here to help

It's a trying time for the world, and Houston small businesses and startups have been put in a difficult spot. From having to work remotely or being forced to close or scale back operations due to mandates from the government, entrepreneurs are having to figure out their new normals.

However, organizations have leapt at the chance to help their fellow Houstonians, and a number of resources have appeared to provide aid to startups, from advice and resources to grants.

Editor's note: This article originally ran March 25, 2020, but has been updated and republished with more resources.

The Cannon's CERT Program

The Cannon released information about their Cannon Emergency Response Team Program, and Houston startups can apply online. The multi-week program is intended to provide aid and support for startups and small businesses experiencing a crisis caused by external forces — namely COVID-19 and its repercussions, but also natural disasters, market disruption, legislative actions, civil unrest, fraud, or theft.

Click here to apply and learn more.

The Ion's resource center

The Ion has also rounded up resources for its members and the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. It's available online, and has everything from links to national and local resources and financial assistance information to virtual events.

"While we all try and adjust to this new way of life, The Ion will continue to be a resource to our entrepreneurial community the best way we know how, by connecting our community and providing you with opportunities that you need to be resilient during these unstable times. ... We hope this page serves you well and we promise to keep you all up to date on everything innovation taking place in our community," writes Gaby Rowe, executive director of The Ion.

Rowe has also started a video series of interviews with Houston startups — the videos are also available on the webpage.

Click here to access the resource center.

Houston Exponential's virtual event calendar

Houston Exponential worked quickly to turn their online calendar featuring events across the innovation ecosystem in Houston to helpful virtual events. Anyone can submit an event for consideration.

Click here to find the calendar.

To find InnovationMap's curated list of events for April, click here.

The GHP's Greater Houston Business Recovery Center

The Greater Houston Partnership has released a one-stop shop for business help for companies large and small. The amalgamation combines several national and local options, including relevant information about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

"We know many Houston companies are hurting and do not have the resources to sustain themselves for weeks without help," said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Partnership. "The funds provided through the CARES Act are essential to ensure Houston businesses can meet payroll and cover other expenses during this difficult time. "

Click here to visit the Greater Houston Business Recovery Center page.

Fat Finger's procedure app

In an effort to help businesses organize their response, Houston-based tech company Fat Finger has released a procedure app that is available for free. It offers employee agreements, important protocol checklists, and more.

"Our intention is to help teams of all types operate as safe and effective as possible to overcome what we are all going through," writes James McDonough, founder and CEO of the company.

Click here to learn more about the app here.

Houston PR firm to offer free services

Houston-based Paige PR is offering up $5,000 worth of its services to help out a company affected by COVID-19., which includes media relations, influencer relations, media training, employee communication, content development, social media management, corporate event planning, campaign measurement, brand management, community engagement and crisis communication, according to a news release.

"Paige PR's mission is to empower and help businesses tell their unique stories and amplify their messages," says Paige Donnell, Paige PR's founder and CEO, in the release. "Our team wanted to give back and honor a company making a positive difference, despite these uncertain times. Now is not the time to halt your company's marketing and communication efforts. However, we understand that this may be the only option for some businesses. We're in this together, and all of us at Paige PR look forward to offering our services free of charge to one deserving company."

Click here to learn more and enter your company.

Gener8tor's free 1-week response program

Just like most accelerator programs, cohort schedules and plans have been affected by COVID-19, but one new-to-Houston program is making some lemonade out of the lemons they were served. Gener8tor, along with the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, announced a partnership for one week of virtual programming for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. It's free and an extension of the gBETA program, which launched in Houston in January.

Interested entrepreneurs must apply to be enrolled by Friday, May 27. The week of virtual assistence begins March 30 and goes until April 3. Participants will have access to virtual office hours with experts.

"We have seen firsthand the impact that entrepreneurs have on a community and we hope to call on our network of mentors, investors, and partners to support these new Emergency Response Programs," says Joe Kirgues, Co-Founder of gener8tor, in a news release.

Click here to learn more and sign up.

Hello Alice's business center

Houston-based Hello Alice is a great digital resource for startups locally and beyond. The organization recently announced its grant program that will focus on funding minority-founded startups and quickly snapped into action to create a COVID-19 Business Center free for entrepreneurs to use.

Alice is offering emergency grants to businesses affected by COVID-19 and has also gathered other resources like mental health information, tips for running a remote workforce, and more.

Click here to access the business center.

The Small Business Administration's webinars and disaster loans

Startups, nonprofits, and small businesses can apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loans for up to $2 million. For small businesses, the interest rate is 3.75 percent, and for nonprofits, the interest rate is 2.75 percent. The SBA's Houston chapter is available for help as well.

Click here to learn more about the EIDLs.

Impact Hub Houston's comprehensive list

If this list here isn't exhaustive enough, Impact Hub Houston has gone the extra mile on their blog, creating a comprehensive and updated list of resources for small businesses and startups, as well as for people in general. There is everything from information on small business financial help and online education to tips for parents and health-related resources.

Click here to access the guide.

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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.”