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 enlightening talks to networking opportunities, here's where you need to be in July. Getty Images

If you were hoping that business events would slow down for the summer, keep hoping. While you're probably getting plenty of OOO emails during your daily communications, there's no shortage of face-to-face opportunities within Houston business and innovation.

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.

July 3 — Is Venture Capital Right for My Business?

Venture Capital is a path that every startup has to evaluate. In this panel-led event the intent is to form a foundation for answering the question: "Is VC right for me?"

Details: The event is from noon to 1:30 pm on Wednesday, July 3 at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

July 10 — Smart Cities: How Smart is Houston?

The Center for Houston's Future presents this event with support from graduates of its Leadership Forum program and in partnership with Station Houston, City of Houston's Innovation Office, and Houston Exponential.

The City of Houston is using data and emerging technology to improve the quality of life for citizens, share information with the public, drive economic growth and build a more inclusive society. Two key Smart City initiatives will be discussed at the event, one focused on transportation and one focused on resiliency and sustainability.

Details: The event is from 7:30 to 9:30 am on Wednesday, July 10, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

July 10 — Social Advertising 101: Training by The Black Sheep Agency

Learn the basics of Facebook and Instagram advertising as Black Sheep professionals walk through the best type of #ad for your campaign! The team will also talk you through formulating a budget, targeting your audience, optimizing your efforts, and other creative options to execute your social advertising needs.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Wednesday, July 10, at Impact Hub Houston #PopHUB @HX (410 Pierce Street). Learn more.

July 11 — Startup Pains: What I Wish I Knew

This monthly series hosted by the University of Houston lets you learn from someone else's mistakes and successes. This month's speaker is Carlos Genty, CEO & CTO of Critical X Solutions.

Details: The event is from 4 to 5 pm on Thursday, July 11, at the UH Technology Bridge (Innovation Center, building 4, floor 2, 5000 Gulf Fwy). Learn more.

July 13 — Enventure Basecamp - Business Building Workshop

Basecamp is an inclusive environment for those who are interested in adapting their life science experiences to real business applications. All are welcome, and the event is free.

Details: The event is from 9 am to noon on Saturday, July 13, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

July 15 — Enventure Innovation Stories: Dan Harrington, PhD (Polyvascular)

Enventure welcomes Daniel Harrington, PhD for its Innovation Stories speaker series. Dr. Harrington is a co-founder and the chief scientific officer of Polyvascular, and an assistant professor at UTHealth.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8:30 pm on Monday, July 15, at the CUBIO Innovation Center (7707 Fannin St.). Learn more.

July 16 — Is My Idea Lucrative? A Small Business Success Series Workshop

Figure out if whether your business idea is crazy — or perhaps just crazy enough to work. Featured presenters include Ned Mueller, entrepreneur in residence at HCC Center for Entrepreneurship - Southeast, and Austin Tenette is a certified business coach with the Focal Point Coaching organization.

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm on Tuesday, July 16, at the HCC Alief Hayes (2811 Hayes Road). Learn more.

July 16 — GCxN Clean Tech Start-up Pitch Competition

The Shell GameChanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL, GCxN, is a collaboration between Shell and the National Renewable Energy Lab to identify and advance the next generation of transformative energy technologies. GCxN addresses market gaps by providing clean tech startups with technical and business development support to move their technologies from early stage prototypes to commercially viable energy solutions.

Details: The event is from 3 to 8 pm on Tuesday, July 16, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin St., suite 2440). Learn more.

July 16 — Workshop: Mastering the Brain Dump to Reduce Business Frustrations

Christina Wright, founder of WrightNow Results, will guide you through her method to help you get clear on — and develop a plan for — your biggest challenges surrounding business and managing "it all."

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Tuesday, July 18, at Impact Hub Houston #PopHUB @HX (410 Pierce Street). Learn more.

July 17 — Fuckup Nights Houston

Failure is a part of any success story, but we don't talk about it enough. We've all been to plenty of events where people tell you how they hacked, hustled, and created their success, but very few where someone gets up and says "I totally messed up, and this is what you can learn from it."

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday, July 17, at TBA. Learn more.

July 18 — Chancellor’s Technology Bridging Fund 2019 Launch Event

In an effort to support the University of Houston's mission of building a thriving culture around innovation and entrepreneurship amongst its faculty, staff and students, Chancellor Renu Khator has allocated $2 million into launching the Chancellor's Technology Bridging Fund (CTBF). This five-year proof-of-concept program is aimed to help our faculty inventors move their technologies closer to commercialization. Goals for the CTBF include prototyping, creating industry partnerships, and preparing for further funding.


Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Thursday, July 18, at the UH Innovation Center (UH Technology Bridge, Building 4, Floor 2, 5000 Gulf Fwy). Learn more.

July 18 — TMCx alpha Opening Event

TMC alpha provides a pathway for any innovator affiliated with a TMC member institution to find support for the development and commercialization of their idea or product. The program will run every third Thursday (apart from where this conflicts with another function/holiday/etc.) from noon to 5 PM. Lunch and parking validation will be available.

Details: The event is from noon to 5 pm on Thursday, July 18, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd. Suite, X, TMCx17 Board room). Learn more.

July 22 — TMC Biodesign Info Session

Do you want to start your own healthcare company? The TMC Biodesign Fellowship is a one-year paid innovation program that unites the talents of innovators and entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds to quickly bring breakthrough healthcare products to market.

Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Monday, July 22, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

July 25 — Managing Your Sales Function

Startups with a direct sales model have to evolve from founders doing all the sales to managing a sales function. Since revenue generation is on the line, the stakes are high and the punishment for mistakes are even higher. This supplement to the quarterly Founders Academy boot camp focuses on establishing and effectively managing the sales function for an early stage company.

    Details: The event is from 2 to 4 pm on Thursday, July 25, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

    July 30 — Open Project Night with Impact Hub Houston and Sketch City

    Connect and collaborate with real, passionate people who are working on projects, ventures, and collaborations to improve to the city of Houston. If you have an idea, are working on something, or are looking for ways to collaborate with people who are doing work at the intersection of innovation and impact this event is for you.

    Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, July 30, at The Black Sheep Agency (611 West 22nd Street). Learn more.