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Houston educator plans to lead her university into the future with her new role

Former University of St. Thomas business school dean, Beena George, is taking on a new role at the university: Chief innovation officer. Courtesy of UST

High school graduation numbers are decreasing, and, by 2025, far fewer college freshmen will be starting school. Some project as high as a 15 percent drop, says Beena George, inaugural chief innovation officer of Houston's St. Thomas University.

UST is looking forward to and anticipating changes and challenges within higher education like this, and one of the steps the university has been to create George's position.

"My role is to ferment that culture of innovation," George says. "Not just sit here and think of ideas."

As the school gets ready to welcome students back onto its Montrose campus, the former business dean gets ready to serve in her new role for the first semester. She spoke with InnovationMap about her career, goals, and the role UST plays within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap: What have you learned throughout your career that has prepared you for the role?

Beena George: I've always been interested in solving problems. If I saw something that was an opportunity, and we didn't take advantage of it, I'll keep thinking about it. I've been thinking about what makes me enjoy this role and stage in my career, and I think it's because most roles tend to be mostly operational, but this is thinking of new things and doing things differently and checking your own assumptions. That is what really engages me in my role. My career has given me different opportunities to use this, but not so much as now. When teaching, you have that opportunity every day — engaging students differently. Then as dean, it was about looking at new opportunities and programs for the business school, like our Master of Clinical Translation Management program.

IM: How did this clinical translation program come about?

BG: The idea of clinical translation is essentially to move a discovery from the lab to the patient's bedside — it's the commercialization of life sciences. The program trains students to shepherd a discovery from the lab to the commercial setting so that it's available to patients.It's a combination of business, life sciences, regulatory affairs. It's a one-year online program with some residency periods. It's the only of its kind in Houston and is one of less than 10 in the United States and, to my knowledge, the only of its kind in a business school.

IM: What does innovation mean to the University of St. Thomas and this inaugural position?

BG: I think innovation isn't entirely new on college campuses, but now is a time when higher education is in flux. There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way. Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase.

IM: What’s on your to-do list for this first year and within five years?

BG: Since this is a new role, my first goal for the next two to three months is the process of discovery — internally and externally. One of the cool things that's happening in Houston is all these partnerships and collaborations. That's what I'm trying to do — learn about the groups here and outside and make these connections. The other part of it is bringing information in from the outside. There are so many different ways of doing things. For instance, in higher education, it's been historically tied to credit hours. We know now there are many different ways to look at education. That's the kind of conversation I look to get started.

IM: You mention collaboration, and I think that’s key when it comes to higher education institutions within the innovation ecosystem, but how do you see that teamwork affecting the city as a whole?

BG: So I have been so glad to see that, because I've always believed that there has to be some competition — it ensures that everyone performs at their best. But there are some industries where you have to go beyond competition to the next level and manage competition and collaboration at the same time. We have two networks — Texas Medical Center and the academic partnership created by The Ion — and talk about what's happening on your campuses and how we can work together in Houston. There's also the 60x30 Texas, which has different advisory councils that offers that same conversation of collaboration to work together to meet our goals. Those types of conversations are important and having those types of venues to do that can have only a positive effect on Houston.

IM: How is UST finding new ways to prepare its students for the workforce?

BG: One thing that has gained a lot of attention here on campus is providing students with more experiential learning opportunities — more internships and apprenticeships and bringing the industry into the classroom. Carlos Monroy, a professor at UST, and his student worked on a project for the city. This is something that allows us to remain connected to the industry and it gives our faculty the idea of what the Industry needs and they can focus on that in the classroom.

IM: UST recently announced a major “renewal” plan. How is this going to affect innovation efforts on campus?

BG: I think the whole process is about innovation. What we have is an opportunity to recreate ourselves for the next millennium and create a sustainable operating model that will continue to provide for our students. I think it will affect everything.


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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

This Houston staffing firm has tapped into tech to support the growing gig economy workforce. Photo via Getty Images

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

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