Spawned by Harvey, Entrepreneurs For Houston Hires Inaugural Leader

Houston—Born out of the destruction and dislocation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the Entrepreneurs for Houston group has taken a step to codify itself as it plans its mission for the long term.

Elena White, a former management consultant and native Houstonian, has been appointed executive director of E4H, as the philanthropic group calls itself.

“The urgency that we all had during the storm continues in this organization,” White says. “Many foundations can be removed from the action [after it has happened], and we want to make sure we continue to feel the need to act now.”

Just days after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area, innovation leaders here decided they wanted to do something to help tech entrepreneurs, who found their business pipelines dry up, according to Blair Garrou, founder of venture firm Mercury Fund. These people include the volunteers who helped Sketch City—the civic tech skunkworks—develop software tools to help people affected by the hurricane, as well as entrepreneurs at-large in Houston. E4H is raising money to fund the development and implementation of technologies that could help Houston recover from the disaster, and, ideally, be useful to other communities.

E4H’s founders include Garrou; John Reale, Station Houston CEO; Jeff Reichman, Sketch City founder; Carolyn Rodz, founder of Alice (formerly known as Circular Board); and Erik Halvorsen, director of the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute.

White, who started in the position two weeks ago, says she is assessing the organization’s goals to figure out how E4H can “rethink the way we can live and thrive in this city.” She also wants to consider how “the solutions that we build here, through tech and entrepreneurship, can be scaled to help other communities.”

That latter objective would help continue the work Sketch City volunteers did during Harvey, when they developed tools such as APIs (application programming interfaces) to help rescue stranded residents and create interactive maps of shelters. Those tools were then passed along to the tech community in Florida bracing for Hurricane Irma.

So far, E4H has raised about $12,000. White says none of the money has been distributed. She says she wants to evaluate what specific needs there are and do some housekeeping, such as revamping the website to make it easier for donors to choose specific projects to fund. White says she wants “radical transparency” so that it is clear where the donated money is going.

In the meantime, White says she is considering using the donations to fund grants to hire technologists in a fellowship program that would place them in a specific city or county department. “They could help to develop solutions that could be scaled to other organizations,” she says. “What we don’t want to let happen is for us to build a tool that goes out to an organization and doesn’t get maintained, and that organization loses adoption of that tool in a year or two years. We need to find a sustainable model.”

White says she was looking to move back to her hometown of Houston right around the time the storm hit. (The 28-year-old is also the daughter of former Houston mayor Bill White.) She was living in Austin, where she worked for Social Solutions, a software firm that sells case management software to nonprofits. Prior to that, she worked with the Boston Consulting Group in Houston. She says her favorite part of that job was implementing technology in the public sector.

“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the civic tech space,” she says.

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