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Meet the Houston entrepreneur behind the 'Uber of design'

Lisa Pope Westerman has created LUCID, a network of architects that's flipping the script on how architecture projects go. Courtesy of LUCID

What if retaining one architecture company gave you access to dozens more? That's the idea behind LUCID, an architecture and design collective that Lisa Pope Westerman, formerly of San Francisco-based Gensler and New York City-based rockwell group, launched in Houston this year.

LUCID is a collective of architects and boutique architecture firms that specialize in at least one of the following property types: hospitality, retail, mixed-use developments, high-rise residential, and wellness developments. When clients retain LUCID as their designer or architect, they're given access to the firms and individual architects who are best suited for the job. Currently, LUCID is composed of roughly 40 total architects coming from several architecture and design firms, including Chicago-based PinPoint Collective, Houston-based gin design group, and New York-based Glen & Co. architecture.

"People have referred to us as 'the WeWork of architecture,' or 'the Uber of design,'" Pope Westerman says. "We think that in 10 years, this is how the world will just be working."

Pope Westerman spoke with InnovationMap about launching LUCID, Houston's unique design community and how the architecture industry continues to innovate.

InnovationMap: When did you start planning LUCID?

Lisa Pope Westerman: I really started thinking about it in beginning of 2018, and working on it middle of 2018, and making sure the initial groups we started with are a good fit. It's been nothing but wonderful. Everyone's smarter than me, and brings such a unique perspective to the group for various reasons. Not everyone is an architect or an interior designer ­– the intent is to be really nimble and flexible. We're bringing a lot of unique specialists. We have branding, graphic design, and a strategy group that is just amazing.

We're looking to, as a group, not just be innovative, but have innovation in all the different types of things [we offer], including our process. We believe that the world of design is going to be much more than visual, and that we really need to be thinking about all the senses, like touch and smell and [hearing]. Just typically, everything's visual, and [the other senses] have been secondary.

IM: How did LUCID find the architects and architecture firms that compose the collective?

LPW: The original of roughly 40 people are people I've worked with over the past 20 years. That's how we got things started. I've basically been involved in every size company imaginable: from a one-man show, to the largest design firm in the world, Gensler. The intent of the model is to create something where there's a parent brand that feels like a very large company, and we're essentially an umbrella, and within us are all the other wonderful boutique specialty brands.

IM: What kinds of architecture firms does LUCID work with?

LPW: Most of the firms affiliated with us are around a dozen people. We find that's the right size of people that are highly specialized, super talented, and able to maintain the [high] quality level.

IM: Tell me a bit about LUCID's business model.

LPW: So, we facilitate everything, and that's how [LUCID] is compensated. So, we essentially facilitate in bringing the companies to the client, which is the business development aspect of things. We collaborate on the client management side, so we're still very involved with the clients and the projects. We carry everybody. We help manage all of it, and all of the companies' [projects]. It's a true collaboration.

People truly believe that by being associated with LUCID, they're going to be able to elevate what they've been doing even more. It's important that the companies that want to be affiliated with LUCID are really interested in that.

IM: Can the architecture firms that are a part of LUCID still do work outside of the LUCID collective?

LPW: All the firms connected to LUCID still do their own business. They haven't folded into LUCID and then given up their brand. The intent is that we're celebrating the brands. We like the diversity.

IM: LUCID is currently working on its first project. What information can you share?

LPW: It's in the hospitality industry, and it is a restaurant, bar, event space, and it's for a private club outside of Houston. We started at the beginning of [2019], and we'll be done at the end of the year.

IM: Did LUCID launch with a fund raise? Are you planning a fund raise?

LPW: The front end is really just a shared passion among the companies and individuals that are connected. Longer term, we are interested in even partnering with investors in creating new and different kinds of projects. There are some other firms out there, but not many, that are starting to do that sort of thing … where [the design firm] collaborates with investors and projects, rather than just being hired on as the designer for a project.

IM: How is the Houston design scene different from design scenes around the world?

LPW: Well, I think it's an exciting time for Houston. Especially in our world of lifestyle design, it's the overarching [theme]. We do everything for lifestyle. In Houston, we're really starting to be at the height of this renaissance of bringing just a higher level of appreciation for design. From a lifestyle standpoint, things have been percolating for a while now.

IM: What's a foundational project you've worked on that taught you an essential lesson about design?

LPW: In terms of my Houston project base, certainly the ExxonMobil project was really impactful, because of the scale of the project and all the different participants in it. We collaborated with several other design firms, both in Houston and out of Houston, and not only design firms, but also globally acclaimed artisans. Just at a worldwide level, the caliber of the clients was amazing. It was an incredible experience because of the scale and the success of it. … It was building a city.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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