Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Last March, school districts abruptly closed as the threat of the coronavirus grew. In-person classes were cancelled, graduation ceremonies were held virtually, and the future career plans of new graduates were suspended in uncertainty. Through the incertitude, a Houston-based company formed to offer a path forward for young professionals impacted by a newly changed world.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Allie Danziger sat down with her husband and tried to imagine what she would tell her children to do if they were graduating college. The University of Texas graduate relished her college experience before founding Integrate, an award-winning marketing firm in Houston.

"I wouldn't want them to go to virtual college and not have the same type of experience we were all fortunate to have," she explains.

Simultaneously, Danziger's email began to overflow with young people looking for advice on how to move forward or questioning a gap year. "I've always loved coaching and mentoring young professionals right out of college," she says.

In her 11 years at Integrate, she had mentored more than 100 interns and first-year employees. After researching gap year programs, Danziger launched a new career training program, Ampersand.

Danziger and her co-founder Scott Greenberg created Ampersand with a mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities by providing mentorship and three one-month internships to young professionals. (Disclaimer: InnovationMap is a part of the Spring 2021 Ampersand program.) The curriculum includes personality assessments, career mapping, one-on-one training, and basic career skills to know as an entry-level employee.

The flexible program includes five hours of curriculum-focused learning and 15 hours of interning, allowing participants with outside engagements and college classes to also participate.

"When I speak to universities all over the country, I always tell them that while I valued my college undergraduate experience, I got so much more out of my internships," she says.

The beta launched in August with a group of ten professionals and ten businesses. Each month, the participants rotate to a position at a different business, allowing them to be exposed to new industries and departments. The program is a flexible 20-hour commitment — five hours of curriculum-based learning and 15 hours of interning — done remotely. While Danziger created the program to serve as a way to be productive during a "gap year" or "gap semester," Ampersand can be balanced with outside activities or college classes.

During Brené Brown's 2020 commencement speech for the University of Texas graduation, she predicted that interviewers would soon tell them, "I see you're a 2020 graduate. That was tough. How did you handle it?"

The quote struck Danziger and "was probably the overall inspiration for this business," she reflects. She feels Ampersand is "a way to put that anxiety into a productive place and actually use the downtime, or use the time that you're considering your options, really mindfully."

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains.

Textbooks and classroom learning are important, but to Danziger, "real-world experience is invaluable." In her research and through first-hand experience, she notes there are "big issues with the higher education industry as a whole not really preparing their students for careers."

At Integrate, Danziger noticed newly-hired graduates would sometimes struggle with "basic things to know for day one," like how to ask for time-off or schedule a calendar invitation. "It ends up frustrating managers while also frustrating the entry-level employees because they're not able to succeed at the pace that they expected to," she says. "These students are graduating with tons of student debt, great skills focused in the major that they chose, but very few of the soft skills that they need in order to be successful professionally," she continues.

Student loan debt in the United States reached $1.7 trillion last year with more than 44 million borrowers; the crisis has exceeded the nation's credit card debt by more than $900 billion. A 2015 study from the University of South Carolina linked student loan debt to poor psychological functioning and stress.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in 10 students have changed their major more than once—a figure that can be correlated to the increasing student loan crisis.

"People are taking fifth and sixth years because they had to change their major, or they move careers after a year of their first job, which then costs them and the company significant dollars in lost wages," says Danziger.

Danziger feels Ampersand also answers the prominent issue of diversity in the workplace.

"If businesses get a more diverse workforce at that very entry-level space, who are prepared and ready to take on the jobs just like anyone else, these interns will grow through the ranks and have significantly more opportunities in management and in the boardrooms," she says.

Young professionals aren't the only beneficiaries of Ampersand. Businesses, too, have reaped the perks of interns hungry for new experiences and a resume boost. From competitive analyses to marketing plans, interns are contributing tasks companies "didn't have time to make it a priority, especially amid the pandemic," says Danziger.

Through weekly one-on-one virtual sessions, the Ampersand team works with the professionals to go over their to-do lists and act as their project managers.

"We do all the mentorship and coaching, so that the business just has to receive the end product," she explains.

"This definitely beats the option of a career day and sets them up to make more informed career choices," Liz Cordell, co-founder and COO at Mak Studio. Cordell, who participated in the first cohort, assigned interns to social media marketing projects her company didn't have the capacity to work on. Knowing the Gen Z and millennial-aged professionals excel social media, she has enjoyed working with interns who've "become a part of the team," despite a remote work environment.

"The training the interns receive with Ampersand prior to joining your team gives them access to fundamental skills, concepts, and tools used in business today. This levels up your interns to be able to meaningfully contribute to your company from day one," says Cordell. As a business owner, she feels the program provides "a unique opportunity to have an intern with professional support."

One Louisiana State University student used Ampersand to discover his creative strengths and land a job offer from one of his internships. At the beginning of the program, he confided in Danziger that he "wasn't feeling motivated to pursue this career accounting," and didn't find enjoyment in his classes.

The student's Ampersand personality assessment identified his inclination to creativity; he participated in a series of internships that included an architecture firm, furniture company, and a finance startup. "He's able to really see how he can keep his accounting degree and apply it to these other career paths. It's just amazing to see how he's blossomed from this," says Danziger.

While the nation prepares for a shift in power, the incoming president has outlined support for workforce training programs that aligns with Ampersand's mission. President-elect Joe Biden plans to make a $50 billion investment into workforce training programs when he takes office. The proposal announces that money will fund partnerships between community colleges, businesses, unions, state, local, and tribal governments, universities, and high schools to identify in-demand skills in and modernize training programs.

Ampersand kicked off its second cohort with 30 professionals and 30 participating businesses from around the country on Jan. 5, and is currently accepting applications for its summer program. She anticipates the growing startup will begin raising a seed round during the first quarter. While Danziger emanates with excitement about the launch and balances her role as President of Integrate, she has big plans for the future of Ampersand.

Danziger dreams of scaling Ampersand to serve as many young professionals and businesses who are interested in participating.

"With that, I really want to be able to bring this to the low-income community so we can fulfill the mission of democratizing access to internships and professional development to everyone," she says.


Ampersand // Professional Development & Internship Program www.youtube.com

Young professionals can dive into fun travel with this Houston-based company. Photo courtesy of Here and Now Travel

New travel startup plans the perfect vacations for Houston's busy young professionals

GET THERE NOW

Work-life balance for a young professional is hard. There's the dream of travel but the nightmare of planning. Then there's the challenge of working with limited vacation days and finding a friend whose schedule lines up.

To the rescue comes Houston-based Here & Now Travel, which aims to create a vacation free of stress and full of memorable experiences and offers adventurous group travel specifically for young professionals.

When discussing the inspiration for starting their company, cofounder Alex Coleman tells CultureMap that he and his wife and fellow cofounder, Elise, were caught between the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus group travel.

They loved the freedom of solo traveling but not the potential feelings of isolation and vulnerability. When it came to traveling with friends, they enjoyed the bonding and security in a group but not all the work involved with navigating everyone's schedules and preferences during planning.

"We decided to create a travel company that combined the best of both worlds," Coleman says. "A company that gave people the flexibility of going to their desired destinations at their desired time, without losing the experience of traveling with a group of awesome people."

As young professionals themselves, the Colemans also wanted their company to consider the typically low number of vacation days their target clients have. That's why Here & Now trips take advantage of weekends and holidays so participants only have to take a maximum of three days off from work.

Here & Now Travel currently has six trips planned for 2020: two to Costa Rica, two to Colombia, and two to Mexico. On these trips, the itineraries lean towards adventure activities and cultural experiences.

For example, their next trip scheduled for January 9 to January 13 to Costa Rica includes exploring Juan Castro Blanco National Park, zip lining through the rainforest, learning how to make tortillas with a local family, and more.

"We shy away from crowded tourist attractions. We pride ourselves on showing travelers hidden gems of our destinations, be it the hidden Mayan cenote in Tulum where we have to be blessed by the community's Mayan Shaman before entering, or one of the region's largest waterfall in Costa Rica which sits on the land of a small farming family," says Coleman. "Through these tucked away, amazing places, we get to see things others typically don't, and have true interaction with the communities we are visiting.

Each Here & Now package includes private transportation to and from the airport and for the duration of the trip, shared three or four-star accommodation, all breakfasts and lunches, and all entrance fees and itinerary activity costs. Flights, dinners, and the required travel insurance are not included.

If you decide to join one of their trips, you can expect to be in a group of between six and 14 young professionals — with 14 being the absolute max as Here & Now Travel doesn't want to overrun the visited communities or contribute to the overuse of their resources.

"Large groups in charter buses feel clunky and seem like you are trampling or disrupting the destinations you are visiting," says Coleman. "We cap our trips at 14 people, allowing us to be good stewards of the communities we visit, and maintain our feel as a small group of travelers...and not tourists."

Each travel group is also accompanied by a Here & Now host who handles all the logistics as well as a local guide, which is a feature that Coleman believes sets their company apart from others.

"Travelers on Here & Now trips are always led by someone who calls that destination home," he explains. "Our guides have an emotional bond to the places we explore. Their passion and connection to their homes is something that can't be replicated."

Along with employing these local guides, Here & Now Travel works with local drivers, restaurants, and lodging as a way to ensure the money they spend in each community stays in that community.

As a further testament to their commitment to sustainable tourism, Here & Now Travel plans to offset their carbon footprint, which is mainly caused by airline travel, by donating to the nonprofit Trees for Houston in 2020.

The company also has plans to increase their number of trips to once per month and to eventually include European destinations.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Three Houston companies made Fortune's list of best places for millennials. Photo by Katya Horner

Houston energy company with big perks named among best workplaces for millennials

Young life

When it comes to keeping young professionals happy in the workplace, Houston is doing a bang-up job — some companies more than others. A new report released by Fortune magazine and Great Place to Work finds three Houston companies, and a total of 11 Texas companies, among the top 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials 2018.

Making the national list is Hilcorp Energy Company, an organization known for giving its employees huge bonuses, such as $100,000 in 2015 and $50,000 toward a new car in 2010. The Houston-based company has 93 percent of employees saying their workplace is great, likely because of these aggressive financial incentives, which include a revenue sharing program, a bonus program, "helping hands" community assistance programs, and a generous referral incentive, according to the Fortune piece.

Hilcorp, even with its big perks, isn't actually the top Houston company on the national list. That distinction goes to Houston-based David Weekley Homes. The construction and real estate powerhouse, leads the Texas pack at No. 19. Houston's construction/real estate company Camden Property Trust comes in at No. 94, and manufacturing/production firm Hilcorp appears at No. 95.

More than 434,000 survey respondents from Great Place to Work-Certified companies provided input into this annual list. The study analyzed how millennials rated their organizations on more than 50 different metrics defining great workplaces, such as managers' competence, respect and fairness in the workplace, opportunities for meaningful work, executive leadership, and opportunities to innovate and contribute to the organization's success.

The report also analyzed an index of factors where millennials often lag behind other workers, such as access to meaningful work, fair pay, and plans for a future with their organizations. Companies were evaluated as to whether they were creating great workplaces for all millennials — regardless of who they are or what they do for the organization.

Surveys were anonymous, and companies needed to employ at least 50 millennials to be considered. Employees rated the companies on challenges, atmosphere, rewards, pride, communication, and bosses with a numerical ranking. Here's what made the other Houston companies shine:

David Weekley Homes, where 96 percent of employees say their workplace is great, was lauded for offering an employee's children's scholarship program, product discounts, profit sharing, sabbaticals, and even spiritual assistance.

At Camden, where 92 percent of employees say their workplace is great, employees are given apartment discounts, holiday suites, scholarships, tuition assistance, an aggressive stock purchase plan, and even tickets to hot sporting events.

Elsewhere In Texas, familiar San Antonio insurance/financial service brand USAA (United Services Automobile Association) comes in at No. 40, followed by Dallas professional services firm Ryan, Inc. at No. 44 and Dallas' Prime Lending at No. 58.

Austin is represented by tech firm WP Engine, Inc. at No. 61. Dallas' Encompass Home Health checks in at No. 66, while San Antonio transportation company NuStar Energy L.P. follows at No. 69. Abilene makes an appearance with Funeral Directors Life Insurance Company at No. 92, and rounding out the Texas representation is Arlington's Texas Health Resources, Inc. at No. 96.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston is poised to lead 5G growth in Texas, according to a new report

leading the stream

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

Houston lands on list of nation's top spots for millennials on the move

migration destination

The Bayou City is shining as an attractive destination for young people on the move.

According to the fifth-annual study from SmartAsset, millennials are fleeing cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and migrating to other areas in search of work and a better quality of life, with Houston landing as the No. 18 spot for young professionals age 25 to 39.

In order to compile the list, SmartAsset dug into U.S. Census Bureau data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 180 specific cities. According to the findings, 18,035 millennials moved in to Houston in 2019, while 15,838 moved out. That makes a net migration of 2,197, per the study.

When it comes to migrating millennials, the Lone Star State is tops, landing at No. 1 for states where millennials are moving, with more than 187,000 young people heading to Texas in the pre-pandemic year. Though some 154,000 millennials left Texas during the same time period, this results in a net gain of more than 33,000 millennial residents, the biggest net gain for the group in the country, giving Texas the lead in millennial migration for the second year in a row.

In news that is hardly shocking, Austin landing as the No. 4 hot spot overall.

While Austin ranks as the top Texas city where millennials are moving, one other Texas spot landed in the top 10, the Dallas suburb of Frisco (No. 6), with a net migration of 3,516 out-of-state millennials in 2019.

Dallas just missed the top 10, landing at No. 11 on the list, with a net millennial migration of 2,525 in 2019. San Antonio (No. 22) showed a net migration of 1,865 millennials.

The top city overall for millennial migration in 2019 was Denver, followed by Seattle.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.