Featured Innovator

This entrepreneur is changing the landscape of Houston's innovation ecosystem

Grace Rodriguez is the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

It's been a winding road for Grace Rodriguez to get to where she is today, but she wouldn't have it any other way. Rodriguez's career has spanned from managing a collective of DJs called Kracker Nuttz and consulting to one of the co-founders of Station Houston — and now the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

Impact Hub is a worldwide collaborative of resources for entrepreneurs, thought provokers, and supporters, and Rodriguez has been working for a while now to get Houston's chapter off the ground. As of April 17, Impact Hub Houston has launched its first popup location at Sharespace (1120 Naylor) where the organization will be until May 17. The popup concept is so that the nonprofit can really get to know all corners of Houston's innovation ecosystem, Rodriguez says.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston announced last month that it has launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact. The money donated will go to the programming, events, and development of the organization.

Rodriguez spoke with InnovationMap about her goals for the organization and her thoughts on the ecosystem as a whole.

InnovationMap: When you say you want to help "do gooders do greater," what does that mean for you?

Grace Rodriguez: For me, I want to help people at the idea stage — people who are beginning to build something. Talking to entrepreneurs, they say that's usually the hardest part. Once you get something going and you have some traction, it's easy to keep improving that. But, getting started is where people need the most help. With Impact Hub, we want to figure out how do we intentionally approach the problem of helping an entrepreneur go from 0 to 1, and 1 to 2, and then 2 to 10, and so on. And respond to their actual problems — versus what we think they need. There's a lot of personalization that needs to happen for early-stage entrepreneurs, and I'm hoping that this is the role in the Houston ecosystem that Impact Hub Houston can provide.

IM: What's Impact Hub's bigger picture goals?

GR: Our real vision is to help Houston become a role model for how the world solves the most pressing issues. We want to show the rest of the world that Houston has the talent, expertise, insight, and resources to solve issues around the world. Within that is the idea that Houston is an international city. A lot of times when people get together and talk about improving the perception of Houston, but honestly outside of the United States, Houston is seen as a major player on the world stage.

Another part of our mission is to move beyond discussing diversity toward actually creating equitable environments where people plug in and actively advocate for each other. A lot of people talk about how Houston is the most diverse city in the country and how it's a strength of Houston, but when you go to meetings with decision makers from the innovation ecosystem, you don't see that diversity represented. We want to make sure we are intentional about creating equitable environments and that diversity is included in the shaping of policy and institutions moving forward.

IM: How do the hubs work together?

GR: The interesting thing about Impact Hub is it isn't a franchise or like WeWork. It functions a lot like the United Nations. Each organization opts into the network, and you can form it anyway you want to — nonprofit or for-profit or a hybrid — and as large or as small you want to be. We are all connected by the common guideline of working alongside the United Nations to help advance the 17 sustainable development goals.

IM: What pain points do you see Houston entrepreneurs struggling with and how can the city address them?

GR: Over and over again, access to funding is a big issue — and access to someone who has the answers they need is another issue too. I feel like a lot of the conversation within the Houston innovation echo chamber has been around venture capital funding, but there's so many more types of capital that entrepreneurs can have access to. There's bootstrapping, angel investment, lending groups, and crowdfunding.

I've met a lot of Houston entrepreneurs who had to go to Austin for MassChallenge or Capital Factory and who didn't find that support or money here in Houston. And because they found it in Austin, they're considering moving there. This is how we lose our best and brightest. It's been happening and it keeps happening because we haven't focused on our city. Instead of being Austin, we need to figure out how to be Houston better. Until we start some really rough self reflection, then I don't think we'll ever be a better Houston. We'll continue trying to be "Silicon Bayou" versus being whatever Houston needs to be.

IM: I know with Impact Hub, you're trying to be transparent. But overall, do you feel like Houston's innovation ecosystem has a hard time being transparent?

GR: The challenge in Houston is trying to be shiny and polished. And, to me, shiny and polished is Dallas. No one in Houston wants to be Dallas. Let's accept the fact that we are an R&D city. We are a city that researches and develops and experiments new things. Let's lean hard into that and not say we're going to be perfect, and if we do that, then the need to try to appear perfect can go away. Being transparent on the things we are trying makes us become a role model for other cities. I feel like the feeling that we have to be polished and perfect for the rest of the world to be interested in us is the biggest hindrance to our progress. I already know the rest of the world is interested in us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston in May. Getty Images

The month of May has business and innovation events aplenty to offer local entrepreneurs and movers and shakers. Scroll through this month's event roundup to find workshops, pitch nights, and more — and stay tuned, as more events will be added.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

May 2 — SGWomen The Many Shades of Entrepreneurship Celebrating Houston

Startup Grind Houston is recognizing the women behind some Houston startups.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Thursday, May 2, at TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

May 7 — Innovative Drug Discovery and Development Kickoff Mini-Symposium

Gulf Coast Consortia for Quantitative Biomedical Science's new program and focus on supporting therapeutics advancement from discovery, through development, and to the clinic.

Details: The event is from 8:45 am to 1 pm on Tuesday, May 7, at Bioscience Research Collaborative (6500 Main Street). Learn more.

May 7 — Startup Co-Founder Matching: Find the Right Partner in Houston

Network and speed pitch with fellow entrepreneurs in town as Founder Institute Houston plays matchmaker.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 10 pm on Tuesday, May 7, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin St., suite 2440). Learn more.

May 8 — Fireside Chat with Silicon Valley Bank

Explore the journey of a healthcare startup when it comes to investment and take a look back on 2018 investment trends and try to predict what the future of 2019 holds for healthcare companies raising money.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 8 pm on Wednesday, May 8, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

May 9 — High Impact Paid Marketing: Leah Faul, Ameritex Movers

Learn the difference between organic and paid marketing efforts. And learn how what CPC vs CPM means. With these two fundamental concepts learn 5 targeted, high-impact, low-cost digital marketing tactics to reach your growth goals.

Details: The event is from 5 to 6:30 pm on Thursday, May 9, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin St, suite 2440). Learn more.

May 10 — Eternal Energy Lunch n' Learn: SME’s Growth & Technology Commercialization

Led by Eternal Energy's Ashraf Zeid, the session will review key factors in ascertaining technology readiness levels and associated commercialization strategies for oil and gas startups and small businesses.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Friday, May 10, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

May 10-12 — Comicpalooza

Celebrities, esports, and more will take over downtown Houston for a weekend full of activities.

Details: The event is from Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12, at the George R. Brown Convention Center (1001 Avenida de las Americas). Learn more.

May 15 — Fuckup Nights Houston: Momtrepreneurs

Failure is just part of the process. Impact Hub Houston brings this global speaker series to Houston to focus on entrepreneurs that also hold the title of "mom."

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday, May 15, at Oakmont Houston (1916 Baldwin St). Learn more.

May 15-16 — Texas A&M New Ventures Competition

The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and the Texas A&M University System along with a growing number of sponsors are working to ensure today's innovative ideas become a reality through the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition.

Details: The event is from Wednesday, May 15, to Thursday, May 16, at Texas A&M University (College Station). Learn more.

May 18-19 — Houston Hackathon

Do you have what it takes to solve the city's problems? Share your expertise with like-minded individuals to make Houston's tech city safer and more efficient.

Details: The event is from Saturday, May 18, to Sunday, May 19, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

May 22 — 2019 SEEchange Conference

Network with like-minded businessmen and women looking to propel innovation and business success in Texas.

Details: The event is from 8 am to 8 pm on Wednesday, May 22, at TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

May 22 — Nuts and Bolts of Early Clinical Research

JLabs has tapped into an expert in study designs and trial protocols in early clinical research to help you prepare for the lab to clinic leap.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 2 pm on Wednesday, May 22, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.).Learn more.

May 22 — A-CON

Calling all data scientists, engineers, analysts, and more — the Analytics Conference Houston focuses on the latest news and updates in the world of analytics today.

Details: The event is from 8 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, May 22, at D&B (7620 Katy Freeway).Learn more.

May 22 — WeWork's Fireside Chat and AMA with Ryan Merket

Join WeWork Labs for a fireside chat with Ryan Merket. Ryan will share lessons, and strategies learned throughout his entrepreneurial career. Now an angel investor, he will share the approaches taken when investing in startups.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday, May 22, at WeWork Labs (708 Main St., 10th Floor). Learn more.

May 28 — Open Project Night

Bring your own idea or just come to listen at this monthly Impact Hub Houston event.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, May 28, at Black Sheep Agency (611 West 22nd Street). Learn more.