Women in Tech: The Female Leaders Behind One of Houston’s Newest Startup Incubators
According to a recent article in The Wire:
There is continuing debate over how to include more women in tech, an industry which suffers from a severe gender gap at the highest levels. Getting more women to enroll in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees is a start; only 15 percent of freshman women at American colleges plan to declare a STEM major, compared to 29 percent of men, according to the Association of American Universities and Colleges. Women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, which the U.S. Department of Commerce attributes to a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping.1
As cities across the country also seek to diversify their tech startup communities with more women, one local incubator Fruition Technology Labs has successfully demonstrated that Houston is not only a growing startup hub but also one that has a thriving community of women in tech.
Since 2012, Fruition Technology Labs, which supports humanity-focused innovations, has built a team comprised of diverse ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, industries, fields and, surprisingly, gender. Women make up a large percentage of Fruition’s team of mentors and collaborators – nearly 42 percent. In addition, following the opening of Fruition’s new co-working space and prototype lab just north of Pearland, the group is seeing a higher number of female inventors seeking Fruition’s assistance.
“I believe that our team is a positive reflection of the growing interest in technology amongst women in Houston,” says Fruition founder Wes Okeke. “We are proud to provide a collaborative community where anyone who is interested in bridging the gap between humanity and technology can thrive and help be a part of the development of some really exciting innovations.”
They are a motley crew of experience levels, skills, talents, backgrounds and education. But they all strive to make a difference in the world through their contributions to and passion for emerging technologies in Houston.
Meet 12 of the women who make up the Fruition team.
Christy Franco – Mentor, Simplified Neuroscience (Invention)
Self-motivation and diligence in personal time management have been the keys to Christy Franco’s success throughout her career in the biotech industry. As Director of Research and Development at Twister Biotech, a life science startup based in Houston, and previously as a doctoral student in bioengineering at Rice University, she experienced first-hand how to successfully develop and foster new technologies with the potential to make an impact on people’s lives.
Fueled by her growing interest in Houston’s biotech industry after starting with Twister, Franco became actively engaged in the local entrepreneurial community through various meetup groups, LinkedIn and local organizations. She first met Fruition founder Wesley Okeke through this startup network and, upon learning about his vision for a humanity-focused incubator in Houston, enthusiastically signed on as a mentor for one of their life science-focused projects Simplified Neuroscience. A company focused on bringing advanced brain mapping technologies out of basic research labs and into the clinic where they can help patients with a variety of neurological disorders, Simplified Neuroscience was a natural fit for Franco, combining her experience, skill sets and passion for biotech.
“I think Houston is generally very supportive of women in technology compared to some other communities. We have several local organizations that focus on expanding technical skills among women and girls. One example, RailsGirls, is an organization where women get together to help each other learn basic programming. There is also an active SWE (Society of Women Engineers) chapter in Houston, as well as resources for those looking to start their own company.” – Christy Franco
Michelle Lenzen – Collaborator, Dezphonics (Invention)
Passion is what drives Michelle Lenzen every day in each of her pursuits. As a teacher, entrepreneur and now a collaborator at Fruition Technology Labs, she believes that passion must be at the center of one’s work in order to achieve success. It was her own passion for entrepreneurship and hope for the Houston startup scene that connected her to Fruition founder Wesley Okeke when the incubator was a mere idea. Since then, Lenzen has been a key collaborator for one of Fruition’s first projects DezPhonics, an innovative online learning program invented by a fellow teacher that helps young children, those with learning disabilities and first-time English speakers learn to read quickly and effectively. In 2015, Lenzen and the DezPhonics team look forward to continuing pilot tests across the country and bringing DezPhonics to a group of students in Brazil next spring.
Lenzen plans to continue lending her passion for and knowledge in education, writing and entrepreneurship to helping other Fruition projects grow. She is especially excited about Fruition’s new co-working space, which will provide the type of inspiring environment and positive climate that, she believes, entrepreneurs need to thrive.
“The women leading the technology front are paving the way for more young girls to choose careers in tech. I support everything about it.” – Michelle Lenzen
Vivian Elebiyo – Inventor, Obella BE (Invention)
Nigerian-born Vivian Elebiyo, who now calls Houston home, did not follow a conventional path to becoming an inventor. The entrepreneur opened her own publishing house, worked in graphic design and started an African print-inspired textile company before channeling her imaginative mind and outside-the-box thinking toward the idea for her Obella BE biometric bracelet. Inspired by the devastating loss of a friend’s first baby due to a miscarriage, Elebiyo envisioned a wearable device that could provide accurate, real-time information about the health of an unborn baby; give moms, like her friend, peace of mind during pregnancy; and share valuable information with their doctors that could potentially save the lives of babies at risk.
Since joining Fruition Technology Labs in 2014, Elebiyo is well on her way to seeing her vision come to life. She first connected with Fruition through one of their mentors Christy Franco at a Houston engineers’ meetup group. After sharing her idea with Franco and eventually meeting the Fruition team, Elebiyo felt confident that the incubator could help her idea become a reality. Now in the exciting prototype stage of the invention process a year later, Elebiyo, who can now proudly add inventor to her name, cannot believe how much she has learned and how far her idea has come with the help of her team of collaborators and mentors.
“I love the dynamics of the Obella team and the passion everyone brings to the table…Women are creating tech products that help make lives better. We are at the forefront of life-enhancing inventions that can change the world.” – Vivian Elebiyo
Iris Velazquez – Mentor, Obella BE (Invention)
Houston real estate agent and Puerto Rico native Iris Velazquez is another example of how a passion for innovation and a drive to help others are pivotal to the successful development of new technologies. After she and her husband learned of long-time friend Wesley Okeke’s idea for a humanity-focused startup incubator, Velazquez jumped at the invitation to join the team as a mentor. She was particularly drawn to the opportunity to be a part of developing technologies that improve the quality of life for others.
As a Fruition mentor, Velazquez draws from her extensive background in finance and her experience in project management to help inventors stay accountable and motivated throughout the invention process. She is currently a mentor for the Obella BE project and looks forward to seeing the final product’s impact on pregnant women around the world. As a homeschool mother, Velazquez is also interested in educational and entrepreneurial projects that inspire young kids to develop their creativity and to take their innovative thinking to new levels.
“I strongly believe that women have a great role to play in Houston’s emerging technology market. We have a unique opportunity to mentor talented people and to inspire them to follow their dreams and use their creativity to enrich the lives of others, especially the less fortunate.” – Iris Velazquez
Fay Pauly – Collaborator – Technology, Obella BE (Invention)
Never having considered a degree in engineering before entering college, Fay Pauly, now a mechanical engineering student at Rice Univeristy, quickly discovered her passion for the hands-on creative process found in engineering design. So when she first learned about Fruition’s projects in addition to their emphasis on humanity-focused innovation, she instantly “became hooked.” After a brief meeting with founder Wesley Okeke, who was impressed with the college sophomore’s extensive real-world experience in engineering design projects for local companies, Pauly signed on to help design prototypes for Fruition.
Pauly has thrived in Fruition’s collaborative environment, taking full advantage of the real-world experience she is gaining and the opportunity to work alongside other women who share her same interest and passion for emerging technologies. She is currently working on the mechanical design for the Obella BE biometric bracelet and looks forward to building more designs and prototypes.
“I love being a woman in technology. Before college, I had never considered getting an engineering degree. I didn’t really know what engineering was. But I quickly realized I had found my passion. I hope that more women also have the opportunity to discover all that the technology industry, and particularly engineering, has to offer them and the amazing things we can do with it.” – Fay Pauly
Heather Ross – Mentor, Game Development
Heather Ross is somewhat of an anomaly as a woman in the tech world and even more so in the area of gaming. For the past three years, she has dedicated time outside of her role as founding CEO of the innovative culture and arts company Perspective Implosion Studios, LLC, in Austin to several organizations that help make game development opportunities more accessible to students, women and minorities. She is the Chapter Leader for Women in Games International’s Austin chapter, provides free career guidance to game developers through Game Mentor Online, is a board member for the diversity-focused nonprofit Gamers Against Bigotry and is on the planning committee for WECon 2015, a conference that provides resources specifically for women in such areas as education, arts and finance. At WECon, taking place in Austin this March, Ross plans to host a sex ed game jam in which interested women form teams to create their own original games that make sex education more interactive and fun.
While on a business trip in Houston to mentor youth at a local hackathon, Ross connected with Fruition founder Wes Okeke. With gaming becoming an important aspect of a few new education-based technologies Fruition is helping to develop, Okeke invited Ross to join the team as the mentor dedicated exclusively to these projects. The opportunity to work with a diverse group of inventors and to help turn their ideas into successful businesses appealed to Ross, and she immediately accepted. She is already hard at work on a few projects, providing comprehensive, honest analysis at each step as well as guidance to help inventors make the best decisions toward their success.
“Women have historically made revolutionary contributions to the tech industry. From the days of Ada Lovelace, to Grace Hopper, to the Women of ENIAC and to countless other women around the world, technology wouldn’t be what it is or where it is today without them. We need more women in tech to continue revolutionizing the industry in new, unexpected and unforeseen ways.” – Heather Ross
Brett Hanley – Collaborator, Communications
Writer and digital marketing expert Brett Hanley skillfully crafts content that communicates Fruition and its technological work to the public for a variety of media. A recent addition to the team, Hanley first learned about Fruition’s mission from a friend who happened to be one of their mentors. Having a philanthropic edge herself, she did not think twice about joining the organization and enjoys the opportunity to contribute creative ideas and copy to promote awareness for Fruition and its tech projects.
Upon graduating from college, Hanley worked at a literacy intervention program in Austin, one of the most enriching professional experiences in her life. An active supporter of literacy today, it was only fitting that her first assignment at Fruition was to create promotional content for the online literacy program DezPhonics. Her experience is an example of how female professionals in any field can find their own unique ways to contribute their skills and areas of expertise to technological innovation.
“I’m excited about women having an increased presence in the tech sector, and I’m definitely in favor of initiatives that encourage young girls and women to pursue careers in the STEM fields. I think Houston’s burgeoning startup scene offers a lot of opportunities for women to take part in exciting, high-tech projects.” – Brett Hanley
Tiffany Vo – Collaborator, Obella BE (Invention)
Women in technology is not a strange concept for Rice University bioengineering Ph.D. student Tiffany Vo. She studies and works in a setting where men and women contribute equally to the research and development of new medical technologies every day. So the opportunity to be a part of Houston’s growing tech startup landscape as a collaborator with Fruition was an opportunity that she could not pass up. In particular, the necessity for a platform that supports humanity-focused technologies, which aligns perfectly with her work in bioengineering, struck Vo the most when she learned about Fruition.
Drawing upon the skills she learned in both the lab and the classroom over her extensive academic career, Vo performs the market analysis and background research necessary to direct product design and market strategy. She is currently a part of the Obella BE team and is excited to help develop such novel technologies for women.
“Women are vital to the technology industry. As a bioengineering Ph.D. student at Rice and collaborator at Fruition, I see and know firsthand the capabilities of women as inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and leaders.” – Tiffany Vo
Elly Hutchinson – Mentor, Research and Analysis
A senior at Rice University graduating in May, Elly Hutchinson learned early on that even “non-techies” can find a way to lend their skills and expertise to the development of emerging technologies. Her contribution to Fruition as a mentor in industry research and analysis is an important part of the invention process. Her passion for humanitarian-based projects like those that Fruition supports also helped her find her niche as a technology mentor with the group.
As collaboration is a core principle at Fruition, Hutchinson’s current research for Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, which focuses on existing practices by professors that enhance collaborative and active learning for college students within the community, will bring additional experience to foster this important aspect of technology development. Her most recent Fruition project identifies new techniques to help schoolteachers better understand and utilize technology tools in the classroom. With a deep belief in the benefits of applied and experiential learning for students, Hutchinson will provide valuable market insight for the education technology projects that Fruition supports.
“Houston is the place to be for anyone, especially women, to embrace the hugely diverse market for technical skills. I’m happy to be here for that.” – Elly Hutchinson
Melanie Mock – Mentor, First-Tier Projects
A recent addition to the Fruition mentor team, Melanie Mock is already contributing her unique experiences as a researcher and consultant at a business services firm to overseeing first-tier technology projects. Her focus on Asian Studies, mentorship of refugee students and business Spanish translation services will also help inventors develop comprehensive business strategies from a cultural and sociological perspective.
Mock’s experience demonstrates the growing need for and impact of more diverse skill sets and perspectives to help advance the development of new technologies. Motivated by a passion to make an impact on society, Mock looks forward to being an integral part in accelerating and facilitating the progress of humanity-focused innovations in Houston.
“As the technology industry inevitably will continue to grow in size and importance, it is vital that more women become involved in this traditionally male-dominated field, as female participation in the community and workforce is a significant factor of economic growth.” – Melanie Mock
Jennifer Pearson – Collaborator, Communications
Communications in the tech field helps bring new technologies to life and connect the important work currently taking place with various audiences who might not otherwise know about or understand them. Collaborator Jennifer Pearson’s videography, photography and writing skills have been pivotal to effectively communicating the technology that Fruition is helping to develop to an ever-growing community of followers. Stumbling upon Fruition’s need to showcase their work, this HISD instructor and former Houston Chronicle reporter has found her niche in technology development.
Currently, she is creating a video that highlights the key elements that compose a successful incubator, which Pearson hopes will encourage inventors with innovative ideas to take their first steps toward seeing them to fruition. Plans are in the works to create similar videos for many of Fruition’s upcoming projects. It’s Pearson’s proud contribution to the few humanity-driven tech startups being developed in Houston today.
“I think the tech startup field provides women who have a visionary mindset to explore the technology industry with the advantage of growing their own ideas in an environment that promotes it. With technology changing so fast, the demand for women in the field is crucial to help explore the possibilities out there.” – Jennifer Pearson
Andrea Nguyen – Mentor, Education Technology Projects
This past year, former journalist, educator, marketing consultant, wife and mother of two Andrea Nguyen added a new title to her motley roster of professional experiences: mentor of educational technology at Fruition. From her news coverage on the latest inventions and their journeys to success to her first-hand knowledge of the hunger teachers, students and school districts have for technology in the classroom, Nguyen has channeled her own passion to improve education through innovation into her work at Fruition.
Nguyen’s qualifications as a mentor go beyond just her professional experience. Despite the hardships that she and her family faced as refugees of Vietnam when she was just five years old, Nguyen continuously challenged herself to make each of her dreams a reality and to succeed. She hopes to teach inventors that with a healthy mix of energy, focus and support, they, too, have the power to transform their passions and ambition into their life’s work – amazing technologies that make a difference.
Nguyen has spoken about education and technology at several Fruition group meetings, most recently the group’s Sparx Forum, which explored the current technology trends in education with Houston-area techpreneurs. Sharing Fruition’s vision of a better world through life-saving and life-enhancing innovations, she looks forward to helping accelerate the delivery of innovative educational tools to the schools and communities that need them the most.
“I love hearing about and seeing women thrive in technology…In Houston’s growing tech startup landscape, female innovators and entrepreneurs are not only growing in numbers and influence but also paving the way for other women.” – Andrea Nguyen