3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Chris Howard of Softeq, Stephanie Hertzog of Sodexo, and Moody Heard of Buildforce. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — oil and gas, tech development, and construction staffing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Chris Howard, CEO of Softeq

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Softeq Founder and CEO Chris Howard shares how he's focusing on supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A sign of a blossoming innovation ecosystem is when experienced and successful founders turn their focus to supporting emerging startups. That's what Chris Howard, who founded his tech company over 20 years ago, is looking to do with a new innovation lab and more in the works.

"I want to give back as an entrepreneur and a Houstonian," Howard says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I really want to leverage Softeq's expertise in order to help these companies grow in the same way that we've been doing for a couple of decades now."

Howard shares more about the Softeq Innovation Lab and how COVID-19 has affected his business and technology in general on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Sodexo

Stephanie Hertzog is hoping the future workforce of her company and others within the energy industry better reflects the city's diverse populations. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Ever since taking the helm at Houston-based Sodexo Energy Resources North America, CEO Stephanie Hertzog has been intentional with prioritizing diversifying the workforce of the company. In a Q&A with InnovationMap, she notes on how the energy industry has been known as pretty homogeneous, especially within the gender divide. But things are changing.

"And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well," she says. "It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry." Read more.

Additionally this week, Hertzog expands on her call for the energy industry to diversify in a guest column for InnovationMap. Click here to read it.

Moody Heard, CEO of BuildForce

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

A Houston innovator is tapping into tech to disrupt a booming industry in Houston, Texas, and beyond .Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and is led by CEO Moody Heard.

"Our key insight is that providing a superior service to construction employers starts with providing a superior experience for tradesmen and women," Heard says in a news release. "Talent is the greatest finite resource in construction in Texas. In order to deliver talent to our contractor partners, we've created a job placement experience that is simple, friendly, and transparent. That's something people in the construction trades aren't used to, and has helped us grow incredibly quickly over the past several months." Click here to read more.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Hosuton-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Houston CEO talks augmented reality, diversity, how it will all play a role in the energy transition

Q&A

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns.

InnovationMap talked with Hertzog about the importance of adaptation in the energy industry, new technologies that Sodexo has implemented in that effort, and how a diverse workforce plays a role in all of it.

InnovationMap: Why is it important for the energy industry to continue to adapt and be innovative?

Stephanie Hertzog: Oftentimes, the energy industry gets viewed a bit as being old school. We, as an industry, have really embraced technology for decades now. And I really think that it's what's allowed us to continue to survive during all of the down cycles.

In today's age, where we have renewables growing their percentage of the market, and there's a lot of enhanced enthusiasm around carbon reduction efforts. And technology will be at the forefront of that energy transition. Technology is going to be a big part of how we continue to provide affordable energy for the foreseeable future.

IM: You're originally from the Houston area. How has it changed and what makes you excited for Houston's future?

SH: I'm most excited about Houston and most proud of Houston in that we've always been a very diverse and international city. I think a lot of that has been driven over the years by energy business, bringing in people from all over, but we also have a high immigrant population. And I think that diversity has really led us to be entrepreneurial. Thinking about innovation and technology, having that diversity of thought and opinion has helped us to continue to be a leader in that space over time. We've always been a large city ever since I was young, but we're continuing to grow. And we're seeing more and more people transplanting here from other parts of the country. And I think that's exciting to see us getting more diversity in our economy as well.

IM: Why is it important — from a business perspective — to have a diverse workforce?

SH: There's a lot of research on this topic. It's very clear that businesses that have more diverse leadership teams outperform those that don't, and so having diversity in the room leads people to ask different questions, to have more discussion and to have more questioning of the status quo.

IM: What has been the most impactful adaptation in your industry in recent years?

SH: It's really been embracing software technology. The mobile aspects of being able to get data on your phone has really allowed us to put in a lot of systems that have allowed us to, for example, better track tasks and make sure that things get done to optimize janitorial cleaning schedule. There's a lot of stuff that we used to do on paper at a site that we now do electronically, which allows us to compare site versus site and see not just how well can that site do, but how well is that site doing versus other sites. It's all about doing what we do really well and as efficiently as possible.

We have a recent innovation that we've been working on: augmented reality glasses that allow someone on an offshore platform, for example, to wear the glasses and someone back in Houston in an office tower to see what that person is seeing almost through their own eyes. That is an example being able to get things done faster. I don't have to physically travel someone to the platform, I can just be able to get them in real time. And so there are a lot of things like that. It opens up all new worlds.

IM: Why is augmented reality an especially useful tool in the energy industry? 

SH: We already discussed from an efficiency standpoint of being able to get the expertise on site without physically having to get out there. But another aspect of that is the safety element. We always try to keep as few people on site as possible, just because these environments inherently have some amount of safety precautions that we have to take. Some of the things are as simple as to be able to actually get out to an offshore platform, you have to have been helicopter trained. But also, Heaven forbid, something should happen on that platform you want the least amount of people out there as possible.

IM: Did the pandemic play any role in terms of expediting the adaptation of these technologies?

SH: Yes. We were looking for better ways to do anything remotely that we could. That was everything from these glasses to just straight up video conferencing. We normally do a safety walk in-person, but how can you do a safety walk remotely? So I think any opportunity, we had to try to enhance the experience of being there, but not being there — everything got escalated.

IM: In light of Women's History month, why is it important for the energy industry to focus on inclusion of women as it moves forward?

SH: I think the business case is the same as we discussed earlier: better outcomes, more success if we have diversity at all levels in the energy space. And it's really important in energy, because we've been bad at this. Particularly around the gender dynamic, if we look at the highest levels in the energy space, there's just not historically been a lot of representation of women there. We're starting to make some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of it's been a pipeline issue. A lot of the leaders of energy businesses are engineers. Women are now coming out of undergraduate around 40 percent of chemical engineers, so we're getting we're getting close to having parity there – but overall engineering is still only 20 percent female. And from that first manager position and on up, there are big gaps where we lose women along the way.

We're not keeping up with the pace that we've been putting women into the business for a long time. Companies have got to make some real effort here. Certainly the year that the United States had around some of the racial divide, I think that's an important topic for us to be talking about. And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well. It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry. From a Houston perspective, we continue to be a big part of the economy here. And so if we're not getting it right, then Houston's going to struggle.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As Women's History Month wraps up, it's time to reflect on the enabling diversity and inclusion in the workplace as a driver of innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Now is the time to diversify your workforce in the name of innovation

Guest column

Pop quiz: What's the best way to introduce and nurture a culture of innovation in your organization?

  1. Give all employees a VR headset
  2. Mandate every team leader offer one new idea per quarter
  3. Add the word "innovate" to the organization's mission statement
  4. Actively recruit, hire and support a more diverse workforce

If you didn't answer D, you have some research to do. A trove of recent research shows an undeniable link between workforce diversity and innovation, not to mention better overall results. From McKinsey to the Boston Consulting Group to HBR the data keeps coming.

For instance, Deloitte found organizations with more inclusive cultures are both significantly more innovative and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets than their counterparts. My own company, Sodexo, commissioned a study that found gender-balanced teams contribute to better outcomes across the board, including innovation.

Beyond the hard evidence, pure common sense tells us when we open our doors to people with different perspectives and life experiences, we also welcome new ideas. Diverse teams encourage diverse thinking, new solutions and agile implementation. There's a reason that Great Place to Work calls diverse and inclusive teams "the engines of innovation."

At the same time, innovation has become essential in our current economic climate. If this past year has taught us anything, it's that we need to be nimble and ready to think differently at a moment's notice.

As we close out another Women's History Month, we are rounding out a year that has been a collective setback for women in the workplace, in particular. Millions of women have left the labor market during the global pandemic and it's unclear how many will return and what professional repercussions they will face.

This comes as our industry was already woefully lacking gender parity. According to a 2019 Catalyst study, there were fewer women in oil and gas than almost any other major industry. The group found women accounted for only 22 percent of employees, 17 percent of senior level roles and one percent of top leadership.

In other words, the pandemic has given us even more work to do — both in recruiting women and a more diverse employee base in general. We need to do so if we are to transform into the future-oriented industry our customers need us to be.

The news is not all doom and gloom, however. An eye-opening McKinsey report about our industry, "Oil and gas after COVID-19" argues that the global pandemic "will be a catalytic moment and accelerate permanent shifts in the industry's ecosystem, with new future opportunities." The authors lay out several potential avenues for successful organizations, including the ability to "create the organization of the future," by recruiting a new blend of talent that will bring innovative ideas.

This is a watershed moment to rethink how we recruit and hire. We can look more broadly at what we look for and from which fields we recruit. We can consider how different ideas and perspectives can help us forge paths toward our future.

We have the data to fuel the changes we need. We also have the data to offer us the cautionary tale of not changing. As the McKinsey report put it: "The opportunity to lead has never been better—separation between market leaders and laggards will be increasingly sharp."

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Stephanie Hertzog is the CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America.

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H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

money moves

A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

houston voices

Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.