046: From University of Houston Dreamer to Houston Exponential CEO with Natara Branch

C: Podcast

In today’s episode, we discover the transformative journey of Natara Branch, from her early experiences at the University of Houston through her unprecedented career at the NFL to her pivotal role in cultivating a thriving startup ecosystem, as she leads Houston Exponential in redefining the city’s identity beyond its traditional industries.

Key Points + Topics

  • [2:12] Natara Branch is not a native Houstonian, but you wouldn’t know that from hearing her accent. She first came to Houston with her older sister for a college tour at the University of Houston. She fell in love with the scrappy, underdog personality of the school. She also appreciated that it was in the backyard of many Fortune 500 businesses. She was recently named to the board of advisors, which was a full-circle moment for her. 
  • [5:37] The University of Houston is a very down-to-earth institution, more so than some others Natara experienced. It was a commuter school when she attended (surely just a few years ago 😉 ). She met people from all walks of life, from those whose families could afford to give them a top-notch experience to those working five jobs to pay for a few courses. This no-guardrail, dreamer atmosphere was very different for Natara as she’d grown up in a military family. She knows that “blue sky thinking” really helped open her mind to the possibilities of her future business career. 
  • [8:15] Mentorship is one of those things that is easier to define in the context of what it’s NOT. Natara believes there are sponsorship and mentorship roles, especially in the field of business. A sponsor is someone who can speak for you when you’re not in the room and can promote your skills. But they’re not necessarily going to be someone you go to for advice and guidance. Mentors can give that guidance and practical advice because they’re part of a trusting relationship. It’s not limited to just business or school; it can be in all paths of life. 
  • [9:25] Natara has a Life Board of Directors. It’s family members, friends, mentors, previous mentees, and others who mentor her in all aspects of her life. They’re people who can help hone you and add polish to your life. When she first started her career, she was very unpolished. She wore a borrowed suit four sizes too big for her first interview with Exxon. Thankfully, Exxon assigns mentors. Over her career, Natara has had some very bad and very good mentors. The phenomenal ones she attributes her passion for mentorship of others. 
  • [16:20] Natara’s husband started UWANTGAME with his mentor. It’s a nonprofit organization focused on helping student-athletes find success in all areas of life, not just sports. Natara now helps with this nonprofit. People often forget the STUDENT piece of student-athletes. People have a lot of expectations of sports success for student-athletes, but that success often means they miss out on many “student” activities. They help guide students that their future is just as important as their current athletic prowess. They help teach young people practical life skills and help prepare them for the personal, family, and financial elements of life. 
  • [22:05] Natara was the first African-American woman to hold the title of VP in the NFL organization. She admits it can be easy to get lost in a massive brand like that. She recalls her biggest challenge was thinking as an individual worker that you ARE the NFL. And she never conflated herself with the institution. She always focused on determining how she could best contribute to the institution. How does she make herself part of the priorities they’re working on? She had a different career than many others at the company because she took significant risks and challenges and moved through many different departments. She claims she was willing to take these risks because she knew if the reward didn’t come, she would be able to come home to Houston, which was something she always wanted. 
  • [28:55] As the newly christened CEO of Houston Exponential, Natara is passionate about its mission. Houston Exponential was created to bring startups and entrepreneurs into the Houston Region. They brought Natara on in 2022 and transitioned from a nonprofit to a private organization, allowing them to target the greater Houston area rather than just inside city limits. Her analogy for their goal is food-focused (which we love). Houston wants to be a great apple pie. The city has sugar, crust, apples, and butter. But they’re not the apple pie. It’s about talking to the apples and saying, “Apples, you’re not quite the apple pie by yourself, but if you work together with some other ingredients, we can get there!” She sees what’s happening now in Houston and knows it’s nothing short of amazing. It’s world-changing. She was talking about delivering packages to space with a connection recently. It’s universal! Moving forward, marketing is going to be a big piece of the strategy. 
  • [31:40] Houston, Texas, is known for two major industries: Healthcare and Petroleum. She notes that these legacy industries are starting to realize the world is changing. The emerging startup economy is going to change the way they do business. So they’re being extremely smart and partnering with new businesses because it will help them keep up with business. There’s a saying that nobody does oil better than Houston. And data is the new oil. If we’re that good with oil, imagine how good we can be with data! 
  • [33:53] Natara spent the first six months of her time at Houston Exponential just listening. She wanted to find out what they needed. What are the gaps? She wanted to understand: if she could see all the great things happening in Houston, why did nobody else know? What’s prohibiting Houston from being on the same plane of visibility as New York and LA? Investment is a significant gap. People outside of Houston invest in the city. But money from inside Houston continues to stay in oil and real estate. So, she made it her mission to find people who are (literally) invested in the growth and success of Greater Houston. They’re currently working to make a digital city and map the variety of different startup businesses all over the Houston Region. 
  • [37:58] One of the offers from Houston Exponential to new entrepreneurs is the free creation of a profile in their system. This helps Houston Exponential see their needs. Do they need mentorship? Investment? A friend? What are some networks they can join? Also, the Houston Tech Rodeo (which takes place shortly before the Houston Livestock Show + Rodeo in February) is a significant opportunity for networking and investment in the Houston Area. 

Guest + Episode Links

Full Episode Transcript

Danny Gavin 00:05

Welcome to the Digital Marketing Mentor. I’m your host, Danny Gavin, and together with industry leaders and marketing experts, we’ll explore the meeting point of mentorship and marketing. We’ll discover how these connections have affected careers, marketing strategies and lives. Get ready to get human. Hello everyone, Danny Gavin, founder of Optige, Marketing Professor and the host of the Digital Marketing Mentor. I am super excited for our guest today, Natara Branch, who I have seen live at the Cougar 100 event, which is an amazing event that celebrates all the great people who came out of the universe of Houston and running businesses.



Natara was named CEO of Houston Exponential last fall where she started her foray into the business world and accounting. She has since progressed to tackling major strategic and management positions and amassed an amazing reputation over her career. In addition to her role with Houston Exponential, she also serves on the U of H Bower College of Business Advisory Board and the U of H Sports Task Force. Finally, she’s an investor, entrepreneur, advisor board member and volunteer for many different organizations, including Uant Game, which helps mentor young student athletes. Today, we’re going to talk about all Natara as well as marketing a city’s ecosystem. How are you?


Natara Branch 01:24

I am phenomenal and excited to be here. One of my favorite topics is mentorship, so this is going to be a fun time.


Danny Gavin 01:32

When I was sitting in the crowd by the Cougar 100 and there’s like Natara and she’s super inspiring and she’s talking about mentorship, I’m like man, I got to have that lead on my podcast because otherwise it’s not going to be complete. So this is a little dream come true, Natara, thank you.


Natara Branch 01:47

I’m excited way, way more than needed to say, but I appreciate that. Cougar 100 was super special for me. Feels like eons ago now, but to be able to go back to University of Houston, the place that gave me my start, and look at the success story, it was a dream. That was a dream come true for me. So that was an incredible experience and I want to congratulate all of those 100 businesses again.


Danny Gavin 02:11

So let’s talk about the University of Houston, where you went. You have such an illustrious career and it’s not over. There’s a lot more to go, Starting from a small school. Relative to some people it’s like wow, that’s crazy. So love to talk about you, VH.


Natara Branch 02:24

So I am not a native Houstonian, even though to hear me speak, you would think I was born, raised here and just have Houston tattooed on my chest or something. Houston is my home. My sister was going to the University of Houston for a tour and I literally just fell in love with it. She told me she was older than me, but she’s older than me, and I was just tagging along and came to the University of Houston and what I loved about it was that scrappy, you know we’ve got something to prove, not necessarily chip on the shoulder, but really that kind of essence where we know we’re really good, we know we’re really talented, but people doubt us and I love being the underestimated, and so that I felt like I fit right in. And it was in the backyard of so many Fortune 500 companies. So it made so much sense to me because I knew I wanted to go into business.



I knew from an early age I wanted to be in some kind of business Didn’t know what kind, but I knew I did. And so University of Houston made so much sense to me and I recently just got a letter from them that I’ve now been named to the Board of Visitors of University of Houston. So it was a surreal moment because you go from having that letter saying you’re accepted to the University of Houston, having a phenomenal career, and then getting that letter to say we’d love you to be on the board, the advisory board for the university, and really thinking about the challenges that they have now and where they want to go in the future, because they are optimistic about being a top 50 institution, public institution, and so that to me was an incredible feeling and really full circle of the decision I made years ago not telling you how many years ago, but years ago. But now I’m just really being tied to a phenomenal university.


Danny Gavin 04:11

And the cool part is that you want to give back. I think a lot of people are so busy and I’m sure you could have a million and one reasons why, man, I just don’t have time but it’s amazing that you’re actually creating that space to give back, which I think a lot of people can learn from.


Natara Branch 04:26

Yeah, and it also goes into your topic of mentorship, right, because one of those things where, when you have a really good experience in mentorship or a really good experience with an institution and not to say that there weren’t concerns or issues or challenges and things of that nature, because I’m not going to sit here and be Pollyanna but it’s one of those things where you’ve got to give back negative or positive your experience. You’ve got to give back either to make it better or to pay it forward for the things that you experience. And I feel like that was for me, because I think I could have gone on so many different pathways in my life before the mentors and the professors and the friends that I made at University of Houston. I’m a better person for it and I want somebody else to have that experience.



If you’ve ever heard me speak, I talk a lot about. I want the Netera, who is on the east side of Austin, to know that she’s not alone and whether that’s in business or mentorship or school or anything, I was like how do I get her exposure and access to the things that I did so that she can have a lot of options? And so that, for me, is my driving force and I’m so privileged to be able to do that again with University of Houston.



So, going back to the days at U of H, any specific experiences or stories, both inside or outside the classroom, where something happened that was impactful, directing your path, the one thing that I found at University of Houston, I told you, is that scrappy school where it’s not very I don’t want to insinuate that anybody else is not necessarily sort of down to earth, but it is a very down to earth institution. It is the time that I went it was a commuter school and so a lot of people were sort of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps even to just go to the University of Houston. So you met almost everyone in between, and the person whose family could afford to give them the top notch experience to the person who was literally working five jobs to just take two classes. And that’s what was actually eye opening for me, because a lot of the students there weren’t wasting the opportunity and so we were just meeting and dreaming and just experiencing. And to me that actually was around that kind of atmosphere, because I actually grew up in a military family. All of my family’s military and it’s very regimented. You’re going to do this, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this.



And for me, university of Houston was an opportunity to dream big and not have any guardrails of sort of that process around it, and so that, I think, was the biggest thing for me is sitting in the middle of Meltzer Hall just dreaming with other students who had no guardrails, and I wish that other people could have that experience, and I hope that in my current role at Houston Exponential, that I can give that experience to people, because that’s what we’re doing now brainstorming, big sky thinking, blue sky thinking, no guardrail kind of conversations which changes not only the city, the country, but the world, because then you get 3D hearts, then you get robots that are serving food, then you get AI, then you get all of these things that are making people’s lives a little bit easier to manage, and so that’s, I think, the most pivotal part to me. Nothing significant like a moment in time, but it was over a period of time, sitting in Meltzer Hall with these blue sky thinking sessions.


Danny Gavin 07:52

Yeah, and just to kind of create that picture for people, meltzer Hall, you know you can search it up on Google images, but it’s got this you know it’s a really beautiful space. It’s got this huge like ticker on top. If you look at it it looks a little bit like the Starship Enterprise for those people who like Star Trek. But yeah, a lot of dreams and a lot of cool people have been, you know, hung out there, so check it out. Segueing into mentorship, how would you define a mentor?


Natara Branch 08:16

First, I think it’s always easy because I know you like practical steps. It’s easier for me to define mentorship in the context of what it’s not, and so the way that I always tell people is that there’s sponsorship and mentorship in business. Sponsorship is that individual person that can speak for you when you’re not in the room, so that senior executive who can say, oh, Natara is a great worker, this is what she’s done, these are the things that she’s accomplished. But I’m not necessarily going to that person to say, hey, does this outfit look right, or am I speaking correctly, or you know that sort of thing. That’s sponsorship. Mentorship is a subset of that where someone can give you guidance and tell you what to do and not to do. But they can also say you know what you’re coming across, this X, y and Z, and there’s no hurt feelings, or you know I’m gonna sue you or anything like that. It’s a real, practical advice from someone, a trusted relationship, the biggest part of that where they can really guide your pathway, and it doesn’t have to be in business, it doesn’t have to be in school, but it can be in life, and so that’s why I always tell people about my board of directors, so I have a personal board of directors that are full of mentors and they’re mentors in different aspects, whether it’s spiritual, whether it’s business, whether it’s family. I have a lot of family mentors right now because we have a five month old Whether it’s family, I have mentors in every segment of my life on this board of directors, and those are the people who are really gonna call me to the carpet if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing and really pat me on the back if I need to be patting on the back, but separate from sponsorship, because they’re not necessarily. They sometimes can act as sponsors because they can speak on your behalf or something, but most of this time they’re really the ones who are really trying to hone you and polish you and get you up to speed.



For me in my career, I mean, I was so super unpolished, I was awful when I started my career. I remember I started at Exxon and I was super excited just to go on the interview because they said they were sending a limo for me and I was like cool, I get to ride in a limo. Well, that’s how unprofessional I was and I was probably a size six or eight at the time and wearing my cousin’s aunt’s suits, and she was a size 14. So over you just imagine this super unpolished person and I had no idea what to do.



As I said, my family is military, that’s extremely regimented, that’s you know what you have to do to get to the next level in corporate America. It’s totally different, and so I don’t even know what a mentor was at the time. But Exxon actually assigned you mentors and that’s where the journey began. Now I have had some really bad mentors along the way, and I think that’s actually fueled me as well, because I feel like the difference for me in my career has really been phenomenal mentorship, and that mentorship to me is the difference between somebody who sort of jumps off of the track and somebody who stays on the track and does really well. And I don’t want really good talent to fall off the radar because they don’t have good mentors, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it.


Danny Gavin 11:34

Any specific people in mind that, like you, want to have a special shout out, that were like those amazing mentors who brought you to the next level.


Natara Branch 11:42

Because I have so many mentors.


Danny Gavin 11:43

We can’t list them. I don’t do specific stuff.


Natara Branch 11:48

I do not do a specific shout out, but I will say that they want to know who they are, because I am so poor. Making sure you tell people thank you, because mentorship not only is a thankless thing, but it is one of those things where these people are honing you and polishing you and really giving you help to get opportunities that you probably wouldn’t get to on your own, and so you owe them nothing from their perspective, but you owe them a lot from yours, and so every single mentor that I’ve had knows, I think, a world of them. Now, the important thing now is that my board of directors is really turning into an advisory board. As I get a little older, my mentors are getting younger, so before it was people who had more senior positions than me, who had had life experiences that I’d never had, and now it’s starting to become the people that I’ve actually mentored. I feel like I get so much from the individuals that I’ve mentored, whether it’s keeping up on the things that are in business, keeping up on the experience of junior folks that are coming into the working world, keeping up on the newest and latest, greatest technology and things of that nature.



I am getting so much more mentorship from the people that I’ve mentored. I’m calling them like hey, what do you think about this, what do you think about that? And it’s keeping me relevant. And so it’s an awesome but interesting transition for me, because it’s usually that I’m scared to go talk to this senior person who’s my mentor to now like hey, I remember when I went to your graduation for college you’re like hey, can you tell me how this works? It’s kind of different but, like I said, they know who they are. I have an and my younger board of directors and board of advisory. I call them my alumni. I always tell people don’t look at my resume, don’t look at my bio, look at the people who I’ve mentored, and that will tell you sort of my successes and what I feel is the most successful part of my career.


Danny Gavin 13:49

And that concept of having a board of directors from a mentorship perspective. So that’s new to me. Is that something that you came up with, or maybe something you learned from someone else?


Natara Branch 13:59

I would love to say so, but no, I think, because I would probably trademark it as a patent or something I don’t know, for you too now, but I know you can’t. I can’t know if you can’t trademark an idea, but it actually comes from a book. I cannot think of the name of the author, but I got it out of the book. I’m an avid reader, so much so I was laughing with you before. I was like I read so many books. I don’t even know who the authors are anymore. I just love to read and I love just for everybody. I love books. I love to turn the page. I don’t like the scrolling and the audible. That’s not real reading. Oh, I like books. And so it came from a book and I’ve just applied it ever since.



In my life. I talk about it all the time. I feel like it is something that is so necessary because, as an accountant, as an example, to be mentored by an accountant in the same field that you’re in doesn’t get you as far as if you’re mentored by a finance person in a whole different industry or business line. So you need somebody who’s in your company. You need somebody who’s out of your company. You need somebody who’s in your industry. You need somebody who’s out of your industry. You need somebody who looks like you. One of my greatest mentors looks nothing like me, has a totally different background than me, he and I speak completely different languages, but we learn so much from each other and he’s been one of the best mentors in my life.



I get asked to be a mentor by a number of young African-American females, which I do actually mentor, but I actually make them go and meet other people outside of that spectrum, because it’s so important to have different perspectives. You’re not gonna only encounter yourself. So even though somebody might want to be like me, whatever that means, you’re not going to only encounter a Netara. You’re going to encounter so many different people and so you need to be mentored by so many different people and so many different aspects. And the person who is telling me how to be a great accountant is not the same person who helped me to switch over my career to start doing strategy work, or who’s gonna help me to be the best CEO that I can be, or a board member, or they’re not the same person who’s going to help me to be spiritually correct and sort of nurture my spiritual being, and so that’s why I love it so much, because I get so much out of it, and I totally encourage people to join that concept.


Danny Gavin 16:18

So I know you mentor a lot of people and that your husband and you have a special nonprofit that’s focused on mentoring student athletes. Why student athletes? How did that come about?


Natara Branch 16:27

So my husband actually started it with his mentor. They too had not a lot in common from, if you look at straight background, but what they did have in common with sports and what happens in youth athletics and for student athletes is some people forget that they’re student athletes and they only focus on the athlete side. So when my husband and they had already had this organization, my experience with it was that they were former student athletes that were mentoring current student athletes. Because if you’re a student athlete, you understand the journey of people who want you to perform, they want you to win and you do too. You want to win, and so a lot of your day is not only being a student, but it’s also being an athlete, which then you miss out on a lot of the student activities. So, as an example, we were working with the school in New York and we had some seniors that were student athletes and they had not taken ASAT, they had not gone to college prep courses, they had not done career fairs, and so it’s one of those things where you think about oh, but you’re the city’s champion, where is that going to get you? You’re not going to be in a D1 school, you’re not going to go to the pros, but people are pushing you along because you’re winning the city championship. That’s great for right now, in the present, but your future is equally important, if not more, and so what we provide to those students are life skills. That’s the biggest thing: Mentorship from people who’ve been there. How do you transition from being the high school star athlete to just being a student in college? Or how are you like the big man or big woman on campus in high school and then you might be at a D3 school Not necessarily saying anything bad about that, but it’s just different. And so there’s mental things that you have to prepare yourself for. There’s family things that you have to prepare yourself for Now, even if you’re at the top of your game going into college. There’s NIL that you have to prepare yourself for.



People are pushing these young people through, and oftentimes pushing them through the system because of their athletic prowess, but forgetting that the student part. And so we try to bring and reconcile that student part of the student athlete and make sure that they understand they’re a student first. And what does that mean? Because I always tell specifically, having worked for the NFL for 18 and 1 1⁄2 years, I had a longer tenure at the NFL than most athletes do, and so it’s one of those things where that is going to be a point in time in your career. That’s not going to be your entire career. So what happens after that? And you can’t start to prepare once you get hurt or once you feel like the retirement is coming, and then you have young men, in the NFL specifically, that are retiring at 27 years old.



Then what do you do? How do you know how to invest? How do you know how to buy a business? How do you know how to go get a job? I had one young man who came to me and had to redo his whole resume because he’d never done one, never done a resume, never had an interview and that was one of the great things about working at the NFL is working with athletes to understand you have a lot to bring to the table and we just need to package it right. No one’s helped you with that. Our nonprofit goes a little bit back into life, where it’s at the high school level, where it’s not necessarily paid for by the NFL and all of their resources, but not forgetting that these young men and young women are starting at high school level and we need to go back and make sure that they’re mentored appropriately so they can become where they are. So great of athletes, they’re so great of humans and community contributors as well.


Danny Gavin 20:02

And I know it’s not directly related, but I think that’s why it’s so amazing that there’s athletes like Steph Curry, who literally is at the top of his game but decided during COVID 2020, I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to make sure that I get my degree, but sort of setting that standard of how important education is. It’s amazing that we have these people even when they’re at the top of the game. But it’s like, hey guys, remember, it may not always go that way, but as much as you put your effort into sport, you also need to put effort into each of the other parts of your life as well 100%.

Natara Branch 20:31

Back in the day, when I first started at the NFL, you had people going broke and you had people not necessarily knowing what to do after their career. But now you have great role models and I love it. I love it. I don’t mean any slight by saying that I’m not a fan of LeBron James and his actual game, but I am more so a fan of what he does in the business world and that he is showing you can be a great, phenomenal, top of the line athlete, but you can also have business interests that actually outduel your athleticism. Or a Magic Johnson or, like you said, a Steph Curry, a KD, all of these individuals who have outside interests and so, where you see, more so in a space of basketball, because they’re more forward-facing, they’re more fan-facing than in football.



But you have now the examples of Peyton Manning and what he’s doing in the franchising world. You have all of these individual Brian Westbrook in real estate. You have all of these individuals who are now coming out with yeah, I have my planter and that’s my platform, but that’s not my life. That’s what I did. It’s not who I am. Who I am is a businessman or woman. Who I am is somebody who is contributing from an economics perspective, and I love that, because now it’s starting to show that Netera on the East Side of Austin the old East Side of Austin not today’s East Side of Austin, but the old East Side of Austin that there are possibilities and there are things that you can do outside of just kicking or throwing or catching a ball. That’s great, but there’s so much more that you can use with that platform.


Danny Gavin 22:05

So you mentioned the NFL and I know you had an impressive career over 18 years, culminating being the vice president of business operations and strategy. I want a special shout out that you were the first African American woman to hold the title of VP at the NFL League office, which is truly amazing and really inspiring. So how did you ensure you didn’t get lost in this big brand that was the NFL?


Natara Branch 22:28

You can get lost. You can get lost in a couple of ways, not necessarily the way people think. Ok, you sort of get pushed aside. But what I’ve found is the biggest challenge of the NFL is thinking that you are the NFL and I always tell people it is the national football league, it is not the Netera football league. And keeping that perspective one because of mentors, I think is why I had such longevity there, because I never conflated the two. I never conflated that I am the NFL and people should hear me roar.



It was really around. How do I best contribute to this institution whatever its name is that I am working with? How do I be a part of big league priorities? How do I make sure that I am contributing to challenges? How do I make sure I’m still challenged? So the interesting thing is I had a career there that was so different from most people because I moved around to different groups. Most people are there like, oh, I’m marketing and I’m going to be marketing, or I’m production and I’m going to be production, and people used to ask me all the time how did I get to so many different areas in the NFL? And it was. I mean, it’s not some great story it really is. I knew I wanted to come back to Houston and so I could take a lot more leaps of faith than most people, because when big strategic priorities came up and they said this is something that we’re working on, I could raise my hand and say I’d love to work on that, because if it failed and they fired me, I got to come home Win win situation. I’m kidding, but it’s one of those things that are in my career.



I literally just took chances. I took chances that today Natero probably wouldn’t take, but I was so eager to just want to learn as much as possible. I went as an accountant, as an auditor, and ended up doing some phenoms. I was at a fashion show with Dionne Sanders at one time and I was like, ok, I’m a CPA, a CIA and a CFE. That doesn’t mean a lot to most people, but there’s a pretty you know a lot of good certifications there, pretty good accountant. I always tell people you cut me. I believe numbers. I’m an accountant but I’m sitting here planning a fashion show and picking out a scarf for dealing with standards.



And it was because I took a chance and I moved into strategy and then that became a role in the retail group and I oversaw retail in all of the marketing parts of it, eventually, and all the branding parts of our consumer products business, which was such a stretch. But I was so blessed that the NFL gave me the opportunity because I was hungry, they felt like I was smart, they knew I went to University of Houston and they knew I could do it. And so that scrappy that I can do a mentality I can do anything, mentality that I think, like I told you before, comes from University of Houston, I believe is what helped me in my career and I just tried things. And not to say that I didn’t fail, I’ve had failures, but it literally was that this is such a great institution from a standpoint of the fans love it. It’s bigger than you. We always had to remind ourselves of that, and so it’s one of those things where just trying to just do a great job and be a part of something that was bigger than myself.


Danny Gavin 25:51

And I think that lesson of like you’re joking about yeah, worse comes to worse. I lose my job, I get to go back to Houston, but having that mentality where it’s like what’s the worst that could happen and just trying, I mean it makes so much sense why you’ve been able to grow to where you’re at. Because you took those risks and people need to do that, because you know worse comes to worse. Yeah, maybe I mean, obviously you don’t want to lose your job, but worse comes to worse. Someone will say no or they come back again, but you can’t be afraid of yourself.


Natara Branch 26:19

You can’t be, and it’s that risk reward. It’s elementary. The more risk you take, the more reward. Now, you’re right. There’s also that risk where you don’t get the reward and no one wants to lose their job, but how? For me, anyway, I think the bigger risk was not crying, the bigger risk was just sitting back.



And let’s be real, if you would have left me to my own volition at the time, I probably would be still in audit because I loved it. I absolutely loved the profession, the industry, the discipline, the process of audit. Weirdo, I don’t care that you’re talking about me, I love it. However, a mentor actually said you’re not an accountant, you don’t have the personality of an accountant. I still don’t know what that means. And he said you need to stretch. And so I went kicking and screaming. Let’s just be real. I went kicking and screaming, but once I got there and I could see that I could do more than and not only do more but could use it in a way that actually gave me, using it, my accounting degree. That gave me a leg up on people. Because I understood how to analyze the business and then make it grow.



Because my second next role was in generating revenue, where we were breaking records, not because I’m some guru, but because I understood financial analysis and planning and what numbers can do for you, and so it’s one of those things where I could use that as a base and fundamental foundation to my growth. Oh, I believe for me, I became unstoppable at that moment, but someone had to push me, someone had to push me, but then after that it was off to the races. Hey, this is a new priority, hey, this is a new priority. I feel like we can grow this in this kind of way, and I think too, exxon was real Exxon then. Exxonmobil Now was really good at that, for allowing young people to have voices.



And that’s important for institutions and managers and CEOs to understand that just because someone’s coming out of college or just because someone’s had one or two experiences doesn’t mean that they have nothing to contribute. When you work with me as an intern, when you work with me as a first year coordinator or what have you, any one of my folks at alumni or anybody who’s worked with me will tell you you might get a $4 million business to manage. You might get a whole entire project to manage. I don’t believe in going to get coffee. I don’t even drink coffee. I don’t believe in going to make coffee. If you have a degree and a willingness to work, in that tenacity and drive, you’re going to get put to work and really try to stretch your wings. And if you know right or wrong. I just believe that people will either come up to the bar or they’ll, you know, check out, and that’s what I found in my career.


Danny Gavin 28:53

So, segueing into marketing a city, Houston Exponential works with a handful of Houston-based organizations. How do you authentically nurture those relationships? On behalf of Houston Exponential.


Natara Branch 29:03

Sure. So, just to recap, Houston Exponential was created by the city to bring in those institutions that could foster development and growth in the startup and the entrepreneurship world. So that’s where they’ve been from 2017 to 22, when they dropped me on in 2022. They changed from nonprofit to private so that we can really go forward and really address the greater Houston area, as opposed to just Houston and or Harris County. But Houston Exponential works in strategic partnerships.



I believe in not stepping on anyone’s toes. I believe in that. I’m always hungry, so I always give everybody this example of people who have rolled their eyes at me. Now Houston wants to be a great apple pie. We have sugar, we have butter, we have crust, we have the pan, but we don’t have the apple pie. We have some phenomenal ingredients, and so it’s one of those things where Houston Exponential is bringing out the best of that butter, bringing out the best of that sugar, and they’re letting them know you’re not quite the apple pie apples, but if you combine yourself with this sugar and this butter and this pie crust, you’re going to be a part of something amazing, and what’s happening in greater Houston right now is nothing short of amazing.



We have some significant legacy institutions that are in Houston and we’re leaning into that innovation, we’re leaning into that knowledge base and bringing along some emerging industries that are, just like I said, not changing the city, state or country. They are literally changing the world. I was having a conversation two weeks ago, thinking I’m having a global conversation. I’m a global business and we’re global. We were talking about taking things to space.



Think about having a conversation in Houston, Texas, about delivering packages to space. We are now having a universal conversation in this city and that is exciting. It gets me excited. It really ignites the fuel to be able to work with these institutions from a strategic partnership perspective to say how do we move this city forward? And marketing is a huge element of that, because I tell everyone you can do a lot of work and no one knows that you’re doing it. No one knows that you’re doing it, and so I think Houston suffers from meeting a marketing mentor and really being able to, because it’s the humble city really being able to tell a story without feeling it’s being bragged about.


Danny Gavin 31:35

So, going a little bit deeper into one of the points that you mentioned, and for people who don’t know, houston is known for its oil and gas and healthcare and obviously Houston is exponential and our job in general in Houston is to let people know hey, we’re more than just that. How do you strategize to leverage that notability and visibility of, like, the big industries in Houston for the lesser known industries?


Natara Branch 31:56

The interesting thing is, I think, that the legacy industry is starting to realize that the world is changing. Technology is changing, innovation is changing. This emerging startup founder economy is going to really change the way that they do their business. They can’t sit behind the glass walls anymore and just say we’re oil and gas and it’s been around for a long time. We’re 40% of the jobs here in Houston and that’s the way it’s going to be forever. They understand that the world is changing and that automation and advanced manufacturing are going to change the way they currently do business, and so they’re being extremely smart in partnering with a number of the institutions in Greater Houston to start to get ahead of that.



So that’s why you have this energy transition that the city is going bananas over because we there’s nobody better in place to do that and one of the great folks of this city, wade Pinder, I think, has said that they people always say that oil, it’s really about oil, and that data is the new oil. They’re like who does oil better? That’s his quote, and I’m like, if we do oil that way, imagine what we’re going to do with data, and so it’s one of those kinds of things that it’s a really big opportunity for Houston to use and lean into its legacy innovation knowledge base to really move into those commercializations of healthcare in the bio economy, really move into synthetic bio, really move into space commercialization, diversity and DEI type of technology, sports tech huge emerging area FinTech, all of those kinds of things, advanced manufacturing which we lead in all of those things. But leaning into all of what happened with the legacy industries.


Danny Gavin 33:49

So you mentioned marketing. So obviously one of Houston’s exponential goals is to promote Houston, its talent and opportunities to the rest of the world. Where or how does one even start that sort of media or communication strategy when it feels like the whole world could be your audience?


Natara Branch 34:05

Yeah, literally the whole world, you know. First it was around. I spent the first four to six months listening Like what do we need? What are the gaps? Because I feel like I was pretty aware of what’s happening here and I was like this city is great. So when I got the job, I was like wait, you want me to come and talk about using, which I do every day. You want me to come and talk about innovation, which I do every day, and I get paid for this whole time.



You guys realize how crazy that sounds, right, but it’s one of those things where I wanted to understand, if I understand all the great things that are happening in Houston, how come nobody else knows? And so I did a lot of listening. Where are our gaps? What is happening is that no one knows that you go from New York, which I used to always do when you fly from New York to California and forget about this post. Why is that? And so, really getting keen on what’s happening in this city, that’s prohibiting us from excelling in the rest of the country at least, and then the rest of the world. And so it’s one of those things where it was let’s listen, then let’s strategize. And so then I said the next few months strategizing with our partners and saying, okay, if this is a gap, how do we close it? It is a gap, a significant gap in Houston.



People invest in Houston, but they’re from outside Houston. Houston has a lot of money not invested in anything other than oil and gas and real estate, and so how do we change that dynamic and who are the right players to do so? And so that’s where I spent the next part of my journey. who are the people who are really vested in the success of Houston, not only their own entity and organization success, but vested in the success of Houston and that greater Houston. And that is where I am right now, and you’re going to see some really, really big things coming out of this city region.



I keep saying the city, but it is really greater  Houston, the region, because every part of every county that surrounds the Houston city or Harris County has a significant contribution to our puzzle, piece of this economy, and what I enjoy is being able to bring that out. So the things that are coming from, example, from Fort Bend, are the things that are coming out of Woodlands or Montgomery County or some of the other counties. They’re equally as important, it’s not more important. It was like people talk about space with space, you know, they say use. It is not really used, and so it’s like we’ve got to talk about this as a region as opposed to one city in this region, and I think that’s what’s gonna help us win and compete is that we’re competing as a region now, we’re not competing as one city or one town.


Danny Gavin 36:48

Yeah, for people who haven’t been here, just know like if you want to travel from one side to the other side of the Houston region takes about five hours. So we’re pretty big. We’re pretty big and that’s not because of traffic, guys.


Natara Branch 37:00

What the funny thing is. He’s not kidding, but it’s a significant thing. So one of the one of the initiatives that we have right now is we’re creating a digital city Because we have that sprawl, because we know that you’ve got to pass a lot of, a lot of buildings and a lot of people think it’s only you’re passing cows and hay, hay rides and things, but you’re passing a lot of buildings and businesses to get from one Into the other. So how do we close that gap? We are partnering you know, a little premature to announce, but we are partnering with an entity that’s going to digitize this, this great region, and it’s going to allow someone who’s in, like I said, richmond, texas, to talk to someone who’s in the woodlands and as if they’re they’re sitting there next to each other, and that’s what COVID really taught us is we’ve got to stop letting the car and and and the highway get in the way of progress, and that is is what we’re going to do.


Danny Gavin 37:55

Love it. So, given that part of Houston exponentials focuses on helping new entrepreneurs in the Houston area, what is one thing that Houston exponential offers that you most wish business hopefuls in the area knew about?


Natara Branch 38:08

So one of the things that we offer is for them to create their profile, and that profile allows us to say what do you need? Do you need mentorship? Do you need investment? Do you need just a friend who’s in the business who’s gonna say it’s okay? Because if anybody is an entrepreneur, they know it is a roller coaster. You do have some lonely days. We, especially if you’re a micro entrepreneur, what are some networks you can join? And so that profile allows for free, allows those entrepreneurs to Engage in ways that they probably didn’t know that they could today. Additionally three you know there’s free and then there’s additional add-ons to it.



But tech rodeo using tech rodeo, which is at the end of February, has to do the shameless plug is a Significant opportunity for networking and investment and just hearing what are all the things that are happening in the city. So if you wanted to know what was happening in the bio economy, that was the one place where you could actually find out. If you wanted to talk to somebody who is, who is working on Space X, or somebody who’s working out at the space port, or somebody who’s working out at NASA, that was the one place that you could do it and it was a conference of like mind, from anywhere from the energy transition to sports tech, to Diversity. We had everything represented, it represented and we’re gonna do it again. So you know, excited about that.


Danny Gavin 39:32

Love it. All right, it’s time for a lightning round, so I’m gonna give you a couple categories and I want to hear what’s your best. So let’s first, what’s your favorite TV show?


Natara Branch 39:40

my favorite TV show has just gone off. It’s a blacklist. I I Always wanted to be like the FBI. The saddest sound I wouldn’t. One time I went to a career friend. The guy goes you accountants chain trade in your calculator for a gun. I was like, what kind of marketing is this? But okay, so I’ve always wanted to work for FB. I’ve been working for the F3 letters, dnfl instead I. So. So a blacklist was made.


Danny Gavin 40:05

Yeah, I remember talking with the CIA at a career fair and it was pretty interesting, but I didn’t want to go down that path. Travel I know you’ve got big travel coming up.


Natara Branch 40:15

Yes, I’m going to Abu Dhabi for the very first time. I’m super excited about that overwhelming, but I’m excited. I went to South Africa this year already. Cape Town, which was a bucket list item for me, got some travel in. I go to Guernsey, which is a channel island, every quarter, which is kind of cool, except for it takes longer to get there than the meeting that we actually have a week when we tell but yeah, I’m, it’s interesting that I am doing less frequent travel but longer travel and I’ve done in my life before. But I’m excited about Abu Dhabi.


Danny Gavin 40:49

That’s wonderful. It went to South Africa. I don’t if you knew, but I was actually. I was born there. My family lived there for many years, yeah.


Danny Gavin 40:58

Have to send you a link to a previous episode that I did with my uncle, who actually was part of the marketing team that helped Nelson Mandela change from his perspective of a terrorist to amazing leader, so I’ll have to share that with you. Yeah, yeah pretty amazing. Yeah, please do those amazing things where can listeners learn more about you and your organization?


Natara Branch 41:23

I would love for them to learn more about our organization, and so it’s Houston exponential, that org right now, switching over to doc in the next few weeks. But I, houston exponential, is on social media. It’s on LinkedIn. We have a slack channel. If anybody wants to join that as well. Hopefully you will see us around town.



I’m looking for ambassadors that can really talk about the Houston startup economy, and so I hope you would reach out. We are, we’re out there. We’re excited to be here and for founders to reach out to us and let us know what cool, innovative things that you’re doing. But many, many ways, I would say start with social media and LinkedIn and or, like I said, hit us on. The website Should be launching in a couple of weeks. We’ve been saying that, but it’s an opportunity for you to see events all around the city in every single aspect of the startup Economy and entrepreneurship economy, see where their resources are as well. We’re out there for the founders. This is founder-centric. We want you to be a success because we want greater Houston to be the best place to start, grow or exit a scalable business.


Danny Gavin 42:23

Natara, you are truly an inspiration and you definitely did not disappoint. I’m so, so happy that you’re able to join me today. Thank you for being a guest on the digital marketing mentor and thank you, listeners, for tuning into the digital marketing mentor. We’ll chat with you next time. 

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