“Five Questions For …” Houston Technology Center’s Deborah Mansfield

Houston—Before Deborah Mansfield joined the Houston Technology Center, she was a bench scientist working in genetics and a grants manager at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Those positions, along with an MBA earned during weekend classes and a hands-on education of “the ABCs of business” at a Houston retailer, together give Mansfield the right mix of skills to nurture fledgling startups as the life sciences acceleration director at the Houston Technology Center.

In the years since she joined the HTC in 2004, Mansfield has watched the Houston ecosystem grow to include the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute (which runs the TMCx accelerator), JLabs @ TMC, and Station Houston. In addition to coaching HTC member companies, Mansfield mentors startups at those other organizations. “There’s no other job like it in Houston,” she says.

In our latest “Five Questions For … ”, Mansfield speaks about how her singing abilities brought her to Rome, her love of political fiction, and why she’s made healthcare the focus of her work. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

Deborah Mansfield: John F. Kennedy. I wish he would have been able to ask for us to do more for our country, that he would have had more time to live in that vision, for us to create more.

I don’t think it would’ve just been reaching the moon. It would have been relationships. We’d probably be involved with countries differently. … He would have had the longer lens, and he would’ve engaged with youth more. The Peace Corps was just part of his administration.

Now it seems we’re heading toward something that sounds like something that was happening before World War II: isolationism.

X: What’s your favorite book? Or maybe one you’ve read recently?

DM: I like the Daniel Silva stories, political fiction that takes you to far-off lands. These are my voyeuristic voyages into other countries and political intrigue. I love mysteries like the [Robert] Ludlum books. It’s a real escape from what I do in life. I also like puzzles and dot-connecting—it’s what business development is.

X: What’s your most impressive or most quirky skill that has nothing to do with your day job?

DM: I sing with the Houston Masterworks Chorus. I sang with the chorus for the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston in a special mass in Rome for when the archbishop [Daniel DiNardo] was elevated to cardinal [in 2007].

I’ll do anything in the arts at least once. I made my wedding dress. I did a suit coat—I wouldn’t do that again. Anything in the arts gives me outlets.

X: What did your 25-year-old self know that you have forgotten?

DM: That the world’s your oyster. The fear factor isn’t there. I’ve just rediscovered it. You get more cautious when you get older. You’re just trying to make things work now. [One forgets] just the ignorance of youth. I say all the time, ‘You have a 50/50 chance on anything in life.’ To get funding [for a startup, for example] it’s an 8 percent chance. So just go for it.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

DM: Doctor Kildare or Ben Casey. I was going to become an Elizabeth Blackwell. Hey, it was the 1960s. Anything was possible.

My dad had a major heart attack in 1960; I was 9 years old. My father had to be hospitalized and we could only see him through a window. Kids weren’t allowed in the room. It impacted our family life. My father lived until he was 86 [but] he was under this heavy cloud because of the [isolation and trauma of that experience.]

He worked in heavy industry and was in the Korean War. He had a degeneration of inner ears and the nerves. We found him on the floor because he couldn’t get up; he had such terrible vertigo.

I was going to fix my dad. … Turns out, I married [a doctor, now her ex-husband], and he helped to fix my dad.

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