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The Big Idea

Houston has always been a city of innovators—Wildcatters, heart transplanters, moon walkers. Think big and work hard, it’s often said, and you can succeed here. Now a new breed of young entrepreneurs is keeping the legacy alive.

Fashion designer David Peck at his new manufacturing and retail center

If Paris- and New York-trained David Peck, 35, originally of Santa Fe, was a chef rather than a fashion designer, he would have been right at home in the farm-to-table movement, which prizes locally grown ingredients—and espouses the virtues of knowing where your food comes from.

Well, how about where your clothes come from?

Peck, who in the five years since he chose Houston as his home base, has grown from a trunk-show-hopping newbie to a key leader in the effort to turn the city into a design—and manufacturing—capital. Making it here matters, he says, adding, “The further away from us the manufacturing happens, the less control we have over the quality and the care and the social responsibility.”

Last fall, he moved into a large new retail and manufacturing space in Montrose, where he designs, makes and sells his ready-to-wear CrOp line of smart and flirty dresses and separates—often in uniquely vivid prints and rich colors—as well as custom bridal and evening gowns. “The new location has transformed everything,” he says. “There’s more space to tell a story.”

Lately, the story also includes the manufacturing not only of his own designs but also those of other local designers such as Elaine Turner, whose first apparel line bows this season—and also the creation of all the clothing for the well-put-together staff of the new JW Marriott in Downtown. But his most noteworthy addition is much more personal; he and wife Michelle Phillips Peck welcomed their first child, a little boy, just a couple of weeks ago. Any guess who was the best-dressed baby in the maternity ward?

Striking Ashley Gooch, 27, and handsome Andrew Pappas, 28, cofounders of River Oaks’ new cycling studio, Ryde, clearly work out.

The young entrepreneur pals, who met while studying business at Texas A&M, both got their first fix on the spin-lounge trend in New York in 2009 while she was visiting her sister and he was working in finance. They both remember something transformational, an experience that blended exercise with club-thumping music that kept everyone motivated. “I’d never seen that many people so excited,” she remembers. “It was one of the best workouts I’d ever had.”

After moving back to Houston, the two reconnected following her morning-commute epiphany one fateful day. “My mind was spinning, my heart was racing, and I realized I was ready to make the jump.” The newlywed called her bachelor buddy Pappas. Two months later they were presenting a detailed, 100-page business plan to an investor who knew nothing about cycling. “It was like Shark Tank,” he remembers. Luckily, he bit.

The plush new studio, which features super-mod decor and a mini juice bar, opened its doors last month. Within a week, the classes were selling out. “It’s crazy how addicting it is,” Pappas says. And with a plan to open at least four new locations in the next five years, it’s only the beginning of the Ryde.

For siblings Jennifer Welker, 31, and Jonathan McKenzie, 29, being an entrepreneur means carrying on a legacy started by their oilman grandfather. Although both had professional careers before starting their respective jewelry and artisan-knife businesses, they couldn’t fend off the urge to go out on their own. “It’s been interesting to walk through this together and share the struggles and the hard work,” says Big Sis, “even though we do very different things.”

In 2010, Welker, a former UT cheerleader, left her job as a nurse to found Golden Thread, a monogrammed-jewelry company. Her edgy yet classic pieces boast mod Southern charm and are becoming a celeb favorite. Early on, Welker was told that royal sis-in-law Pippa Middleton was spotted wearing one of her necklaces. “That was a surreal moment,” she laughs. Taylor Swift just sported a Golden Thread ring in the March Vogue. Welker, expecting her third child with her engineer hubby, handcrafts her pieces in her Tanglewood studio. Saks Fifth Avenue carries the line.

Brother Jonathan went in a decidedly manlier direction and started a knife-making company, Gulf Coast Native, in 2013. No far-off Hollywood types or royals have signed up yet, as most of his business in handled face-to-face with an elite group of Houston clients, and sealed with a handshake.

McKenzie became enamored of knife making after reading a book on the subject. After trying his hand at the craft, he fell in love with it and decided to leave his energy job to pursue his new passion full time. Like his sister, he handcrafts each of the high-end products himself; they run from $400 to $2,000. When it comes to design and workmanship, he has a two-century vision. “I want to design something that is still going to be cool 200 years from now,” says McKenzie, who will wed his school-teacher fiancé next month. “I want to make a piece that is timeless. I’m not really big into the fads of today.” Wouldn’t granddad be proud.

Like many young doctors emerging from their studies, pretty family-medicine physician Latisha Rowe, now 33, wanted to make a difference. “I wanted to heal the world,” says the single mom—“single and ready to mingle,” to be specific—who moved to Houston from Miami by way of Philadelphia six years ago. “But I became disillusioned quickly. I felt like a glorified drug pusher. Patient visits were always rushed. I didn’t feel like I was making an impact.”

She explored several alternative career paths, working as an urgent-care doc, dabbling in online health coaching through social media, and also earning her MBA from UH, her inner-entrepreneur already talking to her. After the Affordable Care Act became law—meaning a potential uptick in the number of patients seeking basic primary care nationally, and a worsening of the problems she’d already identified—she dreamed up a new, consumer-friendly spin on the now-venerable concept of telemedicine. The concept for the Click It Clinic, which went live last July, was born.

Rowe sees her medical practice—which now partners with 20 doctors in several states to provide non-emergency primary care to about 500 patients via secure video chats, dramatically cutting down on waiting-room time—not so much as a nifty entrepreneurial innovation but rather as a necessity in the modern age. “None of us have time for the inefficiencies of medicine.”

When David Underwood, 41, co-founded TopSpot Internet Marketing in 2003, the Beaumont native and Texas A&M grad knew he was onto something big. His company, a pioneer in search-engine optimization, has since expanded from five employees to more than 100, and was just named one of the city’s fastest growing companies by the Houston Business Journal. “Back in 2003 there were a lot of web-design firms and traditional ad agencies,” he says, “but there really weren’t any search-engine marketing firms. A lot of companies would build a website for you but they wouldn’t really help market that site.

“People didn’t understand SEO at the time,” adds Underwood. He began to explain to clients what is today commonly held but at the time revolutionary: It’s not enough to simply be online; you must have a meaningful, high-impact presence that gets noticed and rises above the clutter. The latter was a technical matter, that involved mastering what’s now known as analytics and keywords.

With more than 750 clients nationwide, the company is regarded among the industry’s best, helping international clients like Toshiba and local clients like UH and Landry’s to optimize their online presence. And as their client list grows, so does their office space. Late last year TopSpot moved into a posh new 18,000-square-foot office in the Galleria area.

The married father of two stays busy on the weekends, too, coaching basketball for his young daughter and son. “As important as TopSpot is to me,” he says with a smile, “my family comes first.”

For many Texas kids, spending summers at camp is a rite of passage. For Steven Wallace, 26, camp turned out to be a formative part of not only his youth, but also his career—a journey in the emerging genre of social entrepreneurship. 

Tall drink of water Wallace and his petite wife, Ally, 25, launched their e-commerce biz CampOut in December, with a portion of proceeds going to scholarships to send underprivileged kids to camp. “It’s not as sexy a cause as building water wells, but we would argue it is just as important,” says the UT grad, who grew up attending Laity Lodge Youth Camp and later worked there for five years.

The scruffily handsome former college football player and Ally, a high school art teacher, were also involved in YoungLife, a Christian ministry with various summer camps across the country, throughout college. “We’re investing in and loving on people who will grow up to be doctors, businessmen, athletes and artists who will give back, love and change the world.” 

CampOut sells apparel—tees, hats and more with cool graphic designs and its motto, “Choose Whimsy”—and, soon, fine-art prints and camping supplies like high-quality water bottles. It’s all marketed to 20-somethings and college kids—a demo, the couple says, that believes in youth camps, and in giving back. And the Wallaces think their business model is the wave of the future. “It’s the idea of, ‘When you shop here, you’re helping to do this,’” Steven explains. “And I hope eventually it’s the norm, that wherever you shop or eat or go, you’re not just satisfying or getting something for yourself, you’re also making the world a better place. I think we’re moving toward that.”

The making of Sandy Tran and Anne Le’s EaDo bakery and coffee shop Tout Suite—which means “in a hurry” in French—was actually anything but fast. In fact, it took years for the duo, both now 30, to fully realize their dream of opening a business together.

Although they both grew up in northwest Houston, they didn’t meet until years later, when they worked at the same bar. The pair quickly hit it off. “We were a double act,” laughs Tran. They topped off their service-industry training with business degrees and corporate experience—Le worked at Ernst & Young, Tran at Hewlett Packard—and, after years of saving up funds, they opened their first bakery, Sweet, in CityCentre in 2011.

After smashing success—the former baking hobbyists couldn’t make their macaroons and cupcakes quickly enough—they started to dream bigger. They found an empty warehouse a few blocks east of Downtown, renovated it, devised a full menu beyond just desserts, curated cool beer and wine lists, and threw open the doors to Tout Suite in the fall. “We believe in this neighborhood,” says Tran, the married partner to Le’s bachelorette. “And the outpouring when we opened was amazing.” 

Eventually, the two even have plans to convert the so-far unused upstairs portion of their warehouse into a co-op with small private and public work spaces to open to other entrepreneurs. “We put our heart and soul into this place,” Tran says. “We can’t wait to share it with others.”