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 September. Getty Images

The busy fall event season is kicking off this month with tons of Houston innovation pitch events, educational panels, and networking opportunities.

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.


September 5 — MassChallenge Texas in Houston Finale and Startup Showcase

The top startups from the inaugural MassChallenge Texas cohort in Houston will be recognized by community leaders to a room full of potential investors and customers, MassChallenge mentors, VIP community leaders, and their loved ones.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, September 5, at House of Blues Houston (1204 Caroline St.). Learn more.

September 5 — Frost Bank: Fail Forward Series

Join Impact Hub Houston for an evening of #FailForward — behind-the-scenes stories straight from entrepreneurs on the challenges they faced trying to access and raise funding for their small business or startups. And, learn from bankers and financial experts what those entrepreneurs could have done to make their journey easier and more successful.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, September 5, at BakerRipley Leonel Castillo Community Center (2101 South Street). Learn more.

September 6 — Finding your Product-Market fit via the W3 method

Amos Schwartzfarb, Author of Sell More Faster - The Ultimate Sales Playbook for Startups and Managing Director of Techstars Austin will deliver a hands-on workshop for founders (seed through Series A) that will enable you to identify the path to achieving product-market fit. Included in the $25 workshop is a signed copy of Sell More Faster.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 12:30 pm on Friday, September 6, at WeWork Labs (708 Main St., 3rd floor). Learn more.

September 10 — Founder Institute's inaugural cohort graduation showcase

The fresh (and first) graduates of the Founder Institute in Houston are celebrating the completion of their program. The graduation celebration will consist of a leadership focused commencement speech, hearing from the graduates (remarks and pitch), and showcase where each company will have a display table and be able to be speak one-on-one.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Tuesday, September 10, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 11 — Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum XVII

The Rice Alliance's Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum is the largest energy and clean technology venture capital conference in the U.S. open, to all emerging energy technology companies (both traditional energy and alternative energy).

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, September 11, at Jones Graduate School of Business (Rice University, 1900 Rice Blvd.). Learn more.

September 12 — HX Capital Summit 2019: Presented by JPMorgan Chase

Join Houston Exponential for its 2nd Annual Capital Summit, which will focus on the latest activity amongst Houston investments. This one-day event will highlight panel discussions from all aspects of Houston's innovation scene.

Details: The event is from 7:30 am to 3 pm on Thursday, September 12, at the Shell Auditorium (Rice University). Learn more.

September 12 — Cooley x JLABS @ TMC: Medtech Startup Fundamentals

Join Cooley, JLABS, and TMC Innovation for a half-day seminar gathering leading executives, investors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in the medical technology industry. Speakers will explore market trends and share strategies on how to position your startup for growth and success.

Details: The event is from 12:30 to 5:30 pm on Thursday, September 12, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 17 — Raising Capital with Investment Crowdfunding

Station Houston, NextSeed, and the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce are putting on a discussion about fundraising online.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm on Tuesday, September 17, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 19 — The Cannon Grand Opening

The Cannon, an entrepreneurial hub in West Houston, is celebrating its new digs. Join the party to learn about coworking at The Cannon, to network with Houston's innovation ecosystem, and more.

Details: The event is from 4 to 9 pm on Thursday, September 19, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Invite only.

September 19 — JLABS x UH: Startup Pains: From Academia to Startup

JLABS and the University of Houston Technology Bridge present a special installment of the university's monthly Startup Pains. This month the focus is on licensing and technology transfer.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Thursday, September 19, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 24 — The Future of Payments: How Fintech, Crypto, and Blockchain are Transforming E-Commerce

The global economy is powered by 125 million business and payments between those businesses transacted over a variety of technologies. In the US, $2 trillion of the $58 trillion in payments generated by small business are "other" — new digital payment technologies including cryptocurrency and blockchain created by fintechs, banks and large players like Facebook and JP Morgan. Over time, the remaining $56 trillion will shift from paper checks to more digital forms. A change in the payments landscape is imminent, and in many ways, the US is behind in digital acceptance. What will this change look like? Join Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Bill.com, as he discusses.

Details: The event is from 4 to 5 pm on Tuesday, September 24, at Duncan Hall (Rice University). Learn more.

September 24 — The Eco-System of the Language Industry: Panel and Networking Event

Introducing the first Women in Localization Texas Chapter Houston Event. Winnie Heh, associate chapter manger - mentoring for the Silicon Valley Chapter, and Middlebury Institute of International Studies Career Advisor, Translation, Interpretation & Localization Management, will be presenting on importance of localization and various localization job functions available in our rapidly globalized world.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, September 24, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 24 & 25 — Innovation Engineering Quick Start Class

Bruce G. Hall, CEO and president of eureka! inventing is teaching an abridged version of his innovation engineering course that's offered at the University of Houston. InnovationMap readers can get half off by registering through this link.

Details: The course is on either Tuesday, September 24, or Wednesday, September 25, at Energy Corridor Marriott (16011 Katy Fwy).Learn more.

September 25 — Third Coast Innovators Mixer

Calling all innovators and entrepreneurs in the Third Coast. JLABS @ TMC is hosting a networking event with fellow innovators and entrepreneurs in the ecosystem as well as current JLABS residents and the JLABS @ TMC team.

Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Wednesday, September 25, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 25 — Energy Tech Night

Energy Tech Night offers insights from energy digitalization/innovation/emerging tech experts and rapid-fire pitches from the cutting edge in startups offering solutions for the energy challenges of today & tomorrow.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday, September 25, at Saint Arnold Brewery (2000 Lyons Ave) Learn More