Posted June 1, 2018 – When UH Chancellor Renu Khator calls someone the Energizer Bunny, that’s a high compliment.
Khator offered those words of praise about Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as Murillo was honored with a 2018 UH Distinguished Alumni Award in late April.
Murillo is a three-time University of Houston graduate, with a bachelor’s in journalism, a master’s in higher education and a doctorate of education. She also worked for UH for 15 years, at the Center for Mexican American Studies and as an advancement officer for the College of Education and Bauer College of Business. She and the chamber have received UH’s highest honor, the President’s Medallion, and she serves on the UH Board of Visitors.
“I owe so much to the University of Houston, especially the College of Education,” Murillo said. “It gives me great pride to see how influential the University of Houston is today.”
Murillo was born in Houston, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States as teenagers with a second-grade education. Her mom stayed home raising nine children. Her dad started a tile company and then opened a Mexican restaurant, where Murillo worked from age 10 until she graduated with a bachelor’s at 21.
“My father taught me the importance of hard work,” Murillo said. “My mother taught me the importance of compassion and helping others.”
Working the Hardest
As a student at Austin High School on Houston’s east side, Murillo remembers meeting a UH administrator, Dorothy Caram, at a career day.
“I thought, ‘Wow, look at this woman. She’s educated. She’s bilingual,’” Murillo said. “She was my first introduction into this world of professional women.”
The meeting helped motivate Murillo to apply to college, she said, and her professors encouraged her to keep going higher.
While pursuing her Ed.D. as a full-time student, Murillo was pregnant, raising a 2-year-old daughter and maintaining her job as an advancement officer for the College of Education. Still, she met her study group on Sunday mornings and stayed long after her classmates left.
“I was never the smartest, but I probably was among the hardest working,” Murillo said.
As her final round of exams neared, Murillo faced an unexpected challenge – her mom had a massive heart attack and was in the hospital. Murillo wasn’t sure what to do about school.
Her dad had passed away years earlier, when Murillo was 25. She remembered his parting words.
“He said, ‘You know, Laura, when I die, you’re going to be sad, but life goes on. But when you die, people are going to remember you because you’re going to leave a legacy.’”
Inspired by her parents, Murillo continued with her Ed.D. and graduated as expected in 2003. Her mom lived to see her cross the stage.
Carrying out a Vision
After a 15-year career at UH, Murillo worked for seven years at Memorial Hermann. She started as a fundraising executive for the hospital and then was promoted to manage 10 departments as a direct report to the CEO.
Murillo’s own opportunity to lead came in 2007, when the Houston Hispanic Chamber was struggling to make payroll. Murillo, on the board at the time, recalls telling her fellow board members that the chamber should be a strong, influential organization.
“I said, ‘Somebody needs to do something about this,’ and they looked at me and said, ‘You should do something about this.’”
They named her CEO.
Today, the Houston organization is the largest Hispanic chamber in the country. Membership has grown from 400 to 4,000, and revenue has skyrocketed from $150,000 to $2.6 million. Under Murillo’s leadership, the chamber has won the Marketer of the Year award three times in the economic development category from the American Marketing Association’s Houston chapter.
“I saw the chamber not for what it was but the vision of what it could be,” Murillo said.
Understanding the power of media from her journalism background at UH, Murillo also produces radio and TV programs for the chamber on CBS and Univision.
In addition, she founded the chamber’s foundation, which runs a mentorship program called the Emerging Leaders Institute.
“I thought of myself when I was at UH,” Murillo said. “What helped me become what I was? It was mentors. It was internships.”
Leaving a Legacy
At the recent UH alumni gala, Murillo’s mentor Dorothy Caram presented her with the award medallion.
“It was like being there with a daughter I never had but could praise and be proud of,” said Caram, the mother of four sons.
Caram, who also has an Ed.D. from the College of Education, worked for UH in the 1990s as the assistant to the president and director of the affirmative action office. She said Murillo’s growth of the chamber has been remarkable.
“She’s multi-talented and has a great perception of what people’s needs are and how to address those needs, especially in the Hispanic community,” said Caram, who received the UH Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008.
Murillo, who calls Caram her “second mom,” said earning the same award was a “bucket list item. … It just validates my parents and everything they did.”
Murillo also has served on the Houston BBVA Compass Board of Directors, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority Board and the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board.
Her youngest daughter, Mia, is a junior at an elite Houston private school, St. John's. Her oldest, Marisa, is studying mechanical engineering and astrophysics at Columbia University in New York.
“Talk about a generational transformation,” Murillo said. “You want your children to do things you didn’t do.”
“I think her two daughters are following in their mother’s footsteps,” Caram added.
–By Ericka Mellon
–Photo and video courtesy of UH
Watch Laura Murillo talk about her journey to a successful career: