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What’s Making Houston the Next Go-To City for Women-led Startups

Tyson Greer (CTO, Quorum Software) presenting the Quorum Software Award to Emily Cloud (Founder, Cloud FR)

When you think about hotspots for startup activity, what cities come to mind? Austin? San Francisco? Perhaps Seattle.

Now try Houston. Houston is starting to make noise in the startup space. But not for just any startup. For women-led startups.

Here’s why.

In 2017, only 2 percent of the $85 billion raised in VC backing went to female-founded startups based in the U.S., according to data from research firm PitchBook. Additionally, female-founded start-ups raised smaller rounds than men – averages of $5 million and $12 million, respectively.

Allow me to put that into perspective. The largest venture capital deal cut by a team of female founders was Moda Operandi’s $165 million Series G. The largest round of their male counterparts? WeWork’s Series G at $3 billion.

Yeah, you read that right.

Another key issue is that just 1% of all women-owned businesses use VC funding. If most women aren’t looking to get VC funding, even fewer will seek it. That idea doesn’t just affect today’s entrepreneurs, it effects future generations of women – and men.

But it’s not all bad news. Over the past few years, Houston’s women-led startup community has fought back and is firmly putting the city on the map as a place that’s got its female entrepreneur’s backs.  

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

It was with this is mind, that we at Quorum were proud to sponsor StartHereNow.

StartHereNow is a startup weekend for women that focuses on early-stage, women-led startups. The competition is part incubator, part pitch-day, brainstorming session and hackathon that aims to create a collaborative environment for women to build impactful companies.

The competition is organized by StartHereNow, Inc., a non-profit co-founded by Allison Lami Sawyer and Roy Johnston. Both are Rice MBAs, entrepreneurs at heart, and have witnessed the uphill struggles faced by female-led ventures. Allison in particular has experienced them first hand when founding her own company, Rebellion Photonics (which also served as ‘ground zero’ for the StartHereNow weekend).“Being a female founder and CEO is lonely and isolating at times,” Sawyer said. “This all started because I wanted to connect with other female CEOs and there were literally none around. That was just unacceptable to me. So I decided that if I wanted to network with more female leaders in the area, I was just going to have to create a space to get more women to start their own ventures. That is how StartHereNow was born!”

Changing the Narrative

What makes StartHereNow different is that anyone interested in entrepreneurship (no previous startup experience is necessary) can sign up for the weekend and be placed on founder-led teams of their choice. The process kicks off with female founders submitting their ideas and applying to lead a team. Local professionals with diverse backgrounds (software developers, marketers, researchers, techies and students) then apply to work on a team and help the founders bring their ideas to life!

These teams then help the founder fully develop their start-up pitch, a 5 year go-to-market strategy, a financial plan, and a product prototype, all for a blockbuster price of $25! It was this idea of working collaboratively with an incredible tribe of women from diverse backgrounds that drove me, a mother of 3 girls, to give up my weekend and sign up. I mean, how often do you get the chance to help someone build their dream?

Armed with my passion for helping create change, I joined over 50 women at the Rebellion Photonics office on a rainy Friday afternoon to kick things off with an elevator pitch contest and dinner. I watched in awe as 10 female founders – whose ideas had been selected from hundreds of entries – gave their 4-minute elevator pitches to a judges’ panel of local business leaders, including our very own CTO, Tyson Greer. Ideas ranged from AI technology that would suggest wines to shoppers in stores based on their personal preferences, to online coding classes taught to children by tutors, to wearables that would help monitor the health of loved ones in elderly care homes and communicate real-time updates to the family. This was an opportunity for the entire StartHereNow community to hear pitches from all 10 finalists, and for the founders to get initial feedback to shape their ideas.

“The energy in the room was palpable,” Greer said. “Each and every venture was unique and well presented. As someone who knows how hard it is to recruit top tech talent in Houston, it was exciting to see a robust and emerging startup and technology culture in Houston!”

What followed was an intense but rewarding weekend where teams met to hash out ideas, build prototypes, and flush out financial plans and details only to realize that their chosen approach wouldn’t work and then start all over again! “That’s normal,” Sawyer assured me. “Just a day in the life of an entrepreneur. You test many different approaches and strategies before you find one that works. Failure is just part of the journey to success.”

What made the weekend even more valuable was that Houston-area entrepreneurs and seasoned mentors from various industries were brought in and met with each and every team. They provided feedback, guidance, and many a times, much needed words of encouragement.

What resulted was 16 exceptional ideas that were presented to an esteemed panel of female judges including:

  • Barbara Burger, President of Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Gabriella Row, Managing Director of Station Houston
  • Amanda Edwards, Houston City Council
  • Diana Murakhovskaya, Co-Founder at Monarq
  • Juliana Garaizar, TMC Fund Investment Committee
  • Samina Farid, Entrepreneur & Investor
  • Stephanie Campbell, Managing Director of Houston Angel Network

The final event was held at the Liu Idea lab at Rice University and at the end of the day, $65,000 in prizes was awarded  -  up from $12,000 in 2017!

Watch this video to get a sense of the excitement and the incredible buzz of the start-up scene here in Houston.

 

A Bright Future for Female Startups  

I came away from the weekend realizing that Houston was punching above its weight class for women-led start-ups. And that non-profits like StartHereNow were at the forefront of making that happen.

But it shouldn’t stop there. We are all responsible for creating a more equitable world where everyone can achieve their full potential - regardless of gender. As a mother of three girls, I feel pretty strongly about that, which is why I brought my girls along to the final at Rice University.

I watched as they 'leaned in' and listened to one fearless woman after another pitch a start-up idea.
I watched them smile each time the room - full of men and women - cheered an entrepreneur on.
And I watched them welcome the future.

Go on Houston. Lead the change.