Houston experts: Diversity is key to venture capital success

force multiplying investments

Two Houston venture capitalists — Heath Butler and Stephanie Campbell — discussed how diversity and inclusion are force multipliers for investors and factoring that in is increasingly important. Photos courtesy

Venture capital firms across the board have a goal of driving a return on their investments, but getting a good ROI and factoring in diversity and inclusion into the equation are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, on a panel at the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, two investors focused on diversity and inclusion made the point that diversity is a key ingredient to successful investing. The panel, hosted by Michael Lipe, managing director at Insperity, consisted of Stephanie Campbell of The Artemis Fund and the Houston Angel Network and Heath Butler of Urban Capital Network and Mercury Fund.

"If you don't believe that diversity outperforms or that having diverse perspectives coming to the table helps your business outperform, then you probably have not been exposed to diverse thought," Campbell says on the panel.

And, as she continues, the proof is in the data "that diversity does outperform and can be a real force multiplier for your portfolio."

"In terms of returns, the Kauffman Fellows found that women-led teams generate 35 percent higher returns on investment than all-male-led teams," Campbell sites. "Pitchbook and All Raise found that women-led teams exit faster and at higher multiples than their all-male counterparts."

Butler recognizes that there's an emotional side of the discussion of diversity and inclusion — especially in this day and age — and that's nothing to disregard. But, he says, building onto that, VC is about discovering new opportunities — it's what VC funds' limited partners are expecting.

"From a more tangible perspective, we are in the business of finding untapped markets and opportunities to invest in and I believe our LPs expect us to leave no stone unturned," he says. "Ultimately you have to recognize that the hockey puck is moving in a direction where your LPs will require you to be looking under every stone to deliver a superior return."

Butler gives Mercury Fund as an example. At its founding, the team saw the middle of America as an untapped opportunity. The challenge is that investors tend to gravitate to ideas and people they know.

"So much of investing in early-stage innovation is intuitive, and investors will usually invest in what they know and resonates with them," Butler says. "But we have to recognize that there's a natural inefficiency in trying to relate intuitively to someone who's different from you."

The key is creating a team and mission with a clear intent and focus on measuring the impact. This goes down to hiring the right people with in your VC team as well as setting up a culture for diversity to succeed.

"If two hiring managers with similar needs," Butler says, "and one has a naturally inclusive mindset and the other feels pressure to meet a diversity quota — in the long run, which team will truly leverage and profit from a diverse perspective?"

Campbell says now is the time to invest in diversity — especially in Houston. During the pandemic, overall seed funding went up but funding for female founders reached a three-year low. Houston has a population doesn't have a racial majority — and that's what the entire country will look like in 2055, Campbell says.

"The opportunity we have in Houston to capitalize on diverse talent can really be a great opportunity to show the nation what can be done with that diverse talent pool," she says.

Houston also has an opportunity to support and invest in women or people of color who have been overlooked but have innovative solutions for society's most urgent problems.

"The more that we invest in diverse perspectives and diverse founders the more solutions, products, and services are going to come into the market for a broader populations and empower those economies to solve some of our deepest problems," Campbell says.

Both experts end on a call to action for their fellow investors: take inventory of the impact you have now and make intentional moves toward inclusion and equity — otherwise you're leaving money and talent on the table.

"If you don't have a diverse team, you don't have a diverse perspective, which means you have an incomplete perspective," Butler says. "You're missing out on opportunity to connect with people, purchasing power, and ultimately profits."

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of January. Photo via Getty Images

8+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events online in January ​

where to be online

It's a whole new year, but Houston is cranking out the same great business and innovation-focused events.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — from workshops and webinars to summits and pitch parties. Note: This post will be updated to add more events.

January 6 — The New Relief Package - Explained by SBA

With the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, a $2.3 trillion spending bill, a new round of stimulus funding will soon be available. Join the Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce for a discussion with Tim Jeffcoat, Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Houston as we navigate what this means for small businesses and how you can apply for Paycheck Protection Programs and Economic Injury Disaster Loans as well as other SBA loans.

The event is on Wednesday, January 6, at 10 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 13 — How to Change Careers: Oil and Gas

The way we work is changing. Some might feel a stronger push to make a change. If you are looking for a career transition, I invite you to explore innovative career paths in energy and Oil & Gas. How can you pursue a career change during uncertainty? By leaning into the changes happening in the world. We are at a crossroads and many things will now evolve - let's contribute our skills, passion and drive to participate in this evolution.

The General Assembly event is on Wednesday, January 13, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 13 — Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures - Investment Directions in the new Energy Landscape

As 2021 begins, the world has seen dramatic volatility in the entire energy landscape, with demand for hydrocarbons seeing precipitous drops, while renewable energy investment has increased, as many countries across the world prioritize meeting the COP21 agreement and other ESG concerns. Jim Sledzik is the Managing Director of the North America team of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures will discuss current and ongoing investment directions and themes for SAEV. He'll give insight to aspiring entrepreneurs on what are investable propositions for SAEV across the entire energy landscape.

The event is on Wednesday, January 13, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 14 — Plaza Tec: How We Made it Big

Learn from Latinx founders about their experiences accessing funding, using technology to grow/pivot, and hurdles they have overcome. This event is designed by The Ion to give you a set of tools and pathways to help you navigate your business and take advantage of technology to help you grow. Every business has failures. No business succeeds without some change of plan. Join us for a founders focus event on "How We Made It Big" to learn how to use resources available in the tech and innovation ecosystem to help your business grow.

The event is on Thursday, January 14, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 14 — Intro to Fundraising & Ask Me Anything: Defense Edition with Craig Cummings

Join Capital Factory virtually to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and angel investors at Intro to Fundraising & Ask Me Anything: Defense Edition. Get a chance to introduce yourself and ask any questions on funding and other related topics.

The event is on Thursday, January 14, at 2 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 16 — Enventure Basecamp - Business Building Workshop

Enventure's community-driven business building Basecamp series returns this October to support a local innovator with their healthcare venture. This event will be virtual. All experience levels are welcome, this is an excellent learning and networking opportunity.

The event is on Saturday, January 16, at 9 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 22 — The Village School's Innovation Day

The Village School's annual Innovation Day is a celebration of ideas and solutions created by students to tackle today's most pressing problems — such as designing solutions to live on Mars in zero gravity, composing and scoring music through computer software and high school entrepreneurs who are running their own businesses.

The event is on Friday, January 22, at 9 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 21 — Angel Investing 101 Series | Urban Capital Network

Join Urban Capital Network (UCN) and their special guest(s) who will talk about and share their experiences in early-stage investing. Target audience includes current and future investors interested in learning about early-stage angel investing and hearing first-hand experiences from talented and seasoned panelists, as well as entrepreneurs interested in learning more about the capital raising process and lifecycle.

The event is on Thursday, January 21, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 27 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a flagship event from The Ion, formerly known as Demo Day. This event will allow for developing companies to receive feedback from subject matter experts and showcase their successes thus far. The event is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions, and results in a final winner to close the series in November. Companies are encouraged to apply online to pitch.

The event is on Wednesday, January 27, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

January 28 — Building a More Inclusive Startup

Starting off with the first of a series of four DEI workshops, this interactive event, co-hosted by Greentown Labs and Aleria Research, will provide you actionable frameworks, tools, and resources to empower your team to build a more inclusive startup.

The event is on Thursday, January 28, at 11 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Lenny Saizan of Urban Capital Network, Katie Eick of Rollin' Vets, and Tony Loyd of AECOM. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: This year has made for some pivotal moments for various Houston companies across industries. For some, the pandemic has meant reevaluating their business plans or increased a need for their product or service. For others, social unrest has called for systemic change. Technology emerges for these needs. This week's Houston innovators are addressing these needs with their innovative efforts.

Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

While venture capital firms usually operate in a similar structure, Lenny Saizan and his co-founders wanted to set up Urban Capital Network differently in order to "democratize access to premium VC-backed investments," Saizan says. UCN invests into VCs that meet their diversity and inclusion requirements as a limited partner, but then also invests directly into startups as a sort of hybrid investor.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan shares more about the group in the podcast episode and discusses what they've already accomplished in just a few months. Read more.

Katie Eick, founder of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick founded her mobile vet company in 2016 after years of wanting to be able to provide the type and level of service she has now at Rollin' Vets. While convenience technologies like delivery apps buoyed her company's steady growth, the pandemic really established market need for her business model.

"We were continuously growing slowly — then COVID hit. It really cemented that … all the convenience services are in the forefront of people's minds." Eick tells InnovationMap. "COVID made it clear that this was a necessary service."

Now, she plans to adopt a franchising model and is planning an expansion into San Antonio and Dallas before going national. Read more.

Tony Loyd, vice president at AECOM

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Courtesy Photo

COVID-19 is affecting the evolution of technology — it's as simple as that, according to Tony Loyd. And it's not the first time — nor the last — that consumer needs affect tech innovation.

"Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first," writes Loyd in a guest column for InnovationMap. "We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered." Read more.

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

This investor is democratizing access to venture capital deals in Houston while promoting inclusion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 47

The Urban Capital Network, which launched in Houston earlier this year, gets the best of both worlds. Not only is the group working with venture capital firms as a limited partner, but, operating as a hybrid investor, UCN also is funding startups directly — using both avenues to promote diversity and inclusion.

"We can be described as a hybrid between an angel investment group and a small VC firm," says Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner of Urban Capital Network. "Our mission is to democratize access to premium VC-backed investments."

By forming relationships with VC funds — specifically ones that value UCN's diversity and inclusion platform — the group's network of investors can form syndicates, or group investments, to work with these funds on deals they otherwise couldn't afford to invest into. The VCs benefit in that they have access to new limited partners.

Saizan says UCN has raised $3 million in six months, and all that's been invested.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan has three business partners, who each provides their own expertise to UCN: Heath Butler, network partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund; Felix Chevalier, founder of The Chevalier Law Firm; and Dr. Eric S. Tait president of Vernonville Asset Management.

Saizan discusses some of the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has provided UCN and where he and his co-founders are planning to take the investment group in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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 — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.