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.

From the rise of freelancers to Houston's data-driven future, here's what the Bayou City can expect to see when it comes to the future of the workforce. Pexels

As the new decade approaches, there are a lot of questions about the future of the workforce in Houston. Will automation revolutionize jobs? Is technology evolving too quickly for training and education to keep up? And, can corporations adapt their work environments to account for the rise in freelancers?

At the launch of Houston's new General Assembly location, a panel of Houstonians moderated by Joey Sanchez of Houston Exponential addressed these questions and more earlier this month. The global digital skill development organization will launch a three-month software engineering program in January along with workshops and introductory courses before rolling out other part- and full-time courses in 2020.

One of the big focuses of GA is increasing accessibility for these programs, and the organization will have several options for courses, including some that will be available online.

"People are getting left behind, and I think that's one of the things GA has put a lot of pride behind as we've gone into new markets is just increasing the diversity and accessibility into these opportunities," Eric Partlow, says regional director at General Assembly in Texas.

From the rise of freelancers to Houston's data-driven future, here's what the Bayou City can expect to see when it comes to the future of the workforce.

“Automation can be scary, and it can automate a plethora of repetitive tasks, but that frees people up to create new jobs that require more critical thinking and creativity.”

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. Rodriguez gives the example of how automation affected the banking industry. As ATMs were installed, it made it easier and cheaper for banks to open more branches, which ultimately led to hiring more tellers. "Rather than be afraid of automation, we should see it as augmentation," Rodriguez says.

“We have more access to data than we’ve ever had, and we still are trying to figure out what to do with it, and we don’t know yet. I think Houston’s set up to do a lot of really special things.”

Eric Partlow, regional director at General Assembly in Texas. When asked about the future of the workforce in Houston, Partlow says it's all about the data. Partlow also wants to set up GA so that its providing the right education for Houston jobs — every market is different, he says. "If we're not teaching what businesses here are needing, then we need to pivot to adjust that."

“We’ve been working in the background to help make Houston a hub for serious gaming."

Chad Modad, chief technology officer of Accenture's Houston Innovation Hub. Modad explains that serious gaming is taking the engaging aspects of mobile design and video games and applying this technology — along with AI and machine learning — into the things you have to do everyday at work. "We'll always be a hub for industrial enterprises, so applying this across that spectrum of problems, that's where I think we're headed," Modad says.

“The more I get into the democratization of work, the more I get really excited about the possibility of the future and where we can go.”

Steve Rader, deputy director for the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation at NASA. When asked about what he wants to see in Houston, Rader advocated for the city to be a more welcoming environment for freelance workers, since more and more people are leaving the corporate structure for these types of positions. Houston can set itself up to be a great ecosystem for this, Rader says.