The University of St. Thomas has opened its esports center on its campus. Photo courtesy of UST

Houston's University of St. Thomas has taken a big step into the esports arena.

On August 31, the school held a grand opening for its on-campus esports facility. The facility features 13 gaming stations decked out with high-end tech equipment, including three 70-inch TV screens and Alienware monitors. The university recently gained an esports sponsorship from Monster Energy.

Beena George, chief innovation officer at UST, introduced esports to the school. It's the first university in Houston to launch a competitive esports team and esports academic program. UST teamed up with Houston-based Mainline, an esports platform and media company, to develop the curriculum.

"Our university is educating youth to take advantage of the tremendous career opportunities that are presented by esports," George says.

Esports is one of the world's fasting-growing industries, with global revenue projected to hit $1 billion this year and $1.8 billion in 2022. North America accounts for nearly one-third of this year's projected revenue.

According to Next College Student Athlete, UST joins about 175 colleges and universities that are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports. The website lists eight schools in Texas with esports programs:

  • Concordia University - Texas in Austin.
  • McMurry University in Abilene.
  • Schreiner University in Kerrville.
  • Texas A&M University - San Antonio.
  • Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.
  • University of North Texas in Denton.
  • University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson.
  • Wayland Baptist University in Plainview.

Anthony Dominguez, a 20-year-old computer science major from Puerto Rico, competes on UST's varsity esports team, which started last year. He's pondering a career in esports after earning his degree.

"After college, I see myself pursuing a future in one of the two fields, either computer science or esports," Dominguez says in a UST news release. "As a competitive esports player, I consider myself to be very good. I may consider pursuing gaming as a professional."

Justin Pelt, UST's esports coach and program director, says the academic element of the esports initiative offers an array of professional opportunities for students like Dominguez. A UST student currently can receive a minor in esports coaching, an academic specialty that launched this fall. In the near future, UST plans to introduce more esports minors (in communication and business).

The North America Scholastic Esports Federation partnered last year with UST to enable high school students to earn college credit while learning about the business of esports.

"UST provides students with the foundational pieces of the industry, the production, the business aspect, and the professional side," Pelt says in the news release.

Potential jobs in esports include broadcaster, player, coach, entrepreneur, events manager, sales professional, social media coordinator, talent manager, and contract attorney.

Some UST graduates may be able to stay in Houston to pursue esports careers, as the industry is expanding here. The Houston Outlaws esports team was founded in 2017, and Belong Gaming Arenas said in June that its first U.S. esports location will be in Houston. In addition, several esports startups are based in the Houston area, including Mainline, Enterprise Gaming, and Uconnect Esports.

"The more Houston innovates and grows in the esports space and starts hosting big events, people around the world in the esports demographic will inevitably take notice and potentially create more interest in our city," Pelt says.

UST is one of about 175 colleges that has an esports team. Photo courtesy of UST

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston names 3 new execs to its team

new hires

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

Houston-based Mainline has announced new partnerships with a few universities. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company taps nearby universities for partnerships

Game on

A Houston esports platform has announced that four universities — including one in town — have made moves to optimize the company's technology.

Texas A&M University, the University of Texas - Austin, Louisiana State University, and Houston's own University of St. Thomas have made a deal with Mainline. The company, which just closed a $9.8 million series A round, is a software and management platform for esports tournaments.

The four schools will use the software to host and grow their on-campus esports communities, according to a news release.

"These are top universities seeing the value of esports on-campus and making a choice to support their students' desires to play and compete — much like in traditional sports," says Chris Buckner, CEO at Mainline, in the release. "Adoption of Mainline is validation of the opportunity to engage students and the broader community with a compelling esports platform, as well as strengthen a school's brand, provide additional partnership opportunities and market their initiatives"

While UST has is still in the process of utilizing Mainline for its esports platform to grow its program and will use the software for its first tournament in 2020, A&M first used Mainline's software this past spring, but has doubled down on its commitment to esports.

"Texas A&M recognizes the significant esports presence on campus and the importance of supporting this thriving student community. Mainline allows us to maintain the brand continuity of the university, and to drive incremental inventory and value for sponsors," says Mike Wright, director of public relations and strategic communications at Texas A&M Athletics, in the release.

The platform provides its clients with an easy way to manage, monetize, and market their tournaments.

At UT, the school's administration, along with its Longhorn Gaming Club, is currently running two tournaments on Mainline: Rocket League and League of Legends.

"Texas has had a long established esports community on campus, and our partnership with Mainline will enable us to more closely work with Longhorn Gaming to better support this audience to benefit our students and partners," says Mike Buttersworth, director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at UT, in the release.

Meanwhile at LSU, the university is running an esports Rocket League qualifying tournament on the Houston company's platform to select a three-student team to represent the school at the inaugural "Power Five Esports Invitational" in New York in January, according to the release.

"This kind of tournament is a first for our campus, and Mainline is making it easy for us to be able to host this qualifying tournament for our students to ultimately represent our university at the Power Five Esports invitational," says Robert Munson, senior associate athletics director at LSU.

As for Mainline, these four schools are just the beginning for universities using the platform.

"Mainline is continuing this collegiate momentum with another 10 powerhouse universities expected to come aboard our platform by the end of 2019, and 50 more by the spring 2020," says Buckner.

Rice University is one of the best colleges in the U.S. for your money. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 Houston schools highlighted on new ranking of best colleges

Report card

College tuition is a concern for many Americans, but here in Houston, there are options that make it a little easier on the wallet. Money magazine recently unveiled its Best Colleges for Your Money for 2019-20, and three local universities made the cut.

Money's annual report is an analysis of the country's institutions of higher education, "ranging from elite colleges and public universities to smaller specialized colleges."

In order to determine the best colleges, Money compared each school based on three points, all weighted equally to find the final score:

  • Quality of education: Graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, Pell Grant recipients, etc.
  • Affordability: Net costs, time it takes to earn a degree, amount of money borrowed, and student-loan default and repayment rates after graduation.
  • Outcomes: Post-graduation salaries, socioeconomic background of the student body, and mix of majors.

Houston schools
Topping the local list is Rice University at No. 24 out of 744 schools. On average, tuition at Rice will cost $66,000 for the 2019-20 school year, but students will only pay an average of $25,800 after grants.

The school also has an outstanding ratio of debt ($11,200) to early career earnings ($69,200).

In the 236th spot is the University of Houston. UH's tuition is estimated to be $26,100 for the upcoming year, but students pay an average of $16,700 after financial aid.

UH's students have a reasonable ratio of debt to early career earnings: $19,250 to $55,000, respectively.

University of St. Thomas was the only other local school to appear on the list. At No. 431, St. Thomas has an estimated tuition of $48,600 for the upcoming year, but students pay an average of $20,500, thanks to grants.

The school's ratio of debt to early career earnings is similar to UH's: $22,500 to $49,500, respectively.

Texas and beyond
Texas A&M ranked best in Texas at No. 18. On average, tuition will cost $29,700 for the 2019-20 school year, but Aggies will only pay an average of $20,900 after grants.

The College Station school also had a solid ratio of debt ($18,520) to early career earnings ($59,000).

In total, Texas has 21 institutions on the list, including The University of Texas at Austin (No. 28), The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (No. 193), and The University of Texas at Dallas (No. 271).

Meanwhile, the top five best colleges for your money are: University of California - Irvine, City University of New York - Baruch College, Princeton University, University of California - Los Angeles, and University of California - Davis.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This week's innovators to know are all female leaders in different industries within Houston innovation. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Female leaders play a huge role in the Houston innovation ecosystem. This week's innovators to know are all women — and are each representatives for different industries. From health care and nonprofits to education, meet this week's who's who of Houston innovation.

Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest

Courtesy of Urban Harvest

For the first time — thanks to Houston nonprofit Urban Harvest — Houston has caught up with the times for providing access to healthy foods in exchange for government subsidies.

"Double Up is new to Houston, this is the first time we have had a Double Up kind of program here in the metroplex, ever," says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest. "It is something that is very common in a lot of states."

Read more about the organization here.

Beena George, chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas 

Courtesy of UST

Beena George is the inaugural chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas. The former UST business school dean takes on the role at an interesting time for higher education. In the next few years, the industry expects a sizable drop in enrollment, which means UST is tasked with positioning itself in a way that creates value for its students.

"There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way," she says. "Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase."

Read more about Beena George here.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network

Courtesy of Ignite

It's astounding to Ayse McCracken that, while so much of the health care industry is comprised of women, the C-suites of medical companies were mostly male. She wanted to create an organization that helps women climb those corporate ladders — and innovation and startups were a way to do it.

"As we saw this innovation economy and startup space begin to evolve in the city, it seemed that our contribution to this was that we could help incubate and find companies that had high likelihood of success," says McCracken, who is the founder of Ignite Healthcare Network — a group of female health care executives who, among other things, hosts an annual pitch competition.

Read more about Ayse McCracken here.

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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.”