Child of Mexican Restaurant Owners Helps Build Houston’s Next Generation of Business Leaders

In 2007, when Laura Murillo became president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the organization had just two employees and was in financial peril, about to lose its lease. Under her guidance, it is now the largest Hispanic chamber of commerce in the country, with 4,200 members, 12 full-time employees, and annual revenue of $2.1 million. Murillo was able to turn things around, in part, because of her parents, who crossed the Rio Grande as teenagers so they could give their future children a better life.

“I was fortunate to have been born here, where, if you work hard and get an education and surround yourself with the right people, it’s all possible. I’m living proof of that — and I’m proud to be the daughter of immigrant parents,” she says. Because of her family’s experience, Murillo believes immigration reform should provide a quicker path to documentation and citizenship, which will in turn make it easier for immigrants and their American-born children to get an education. Until then, she’s helping the Latino community in any way she can — especially by facilitating its economic growth in Houston.

The youngest of nine children, Murillo was born and raised in the city where she now lives. Watching the struggles of her parents, she says, is something she never took for granted. Her father was a tile mason, and he eventually opened a small business with a handful of employees; her mother stayed at home with the children. When her father had saved enough money from his first business, he opened a Mexican restaurant in East Houston (35 years later, it’s still there), and Murillo pitched in beginning at age 10. “Cleaning, sweeping, whatever was needed,” she says. “I worked there until I was 21, and it anchored me in my community and taught me so much about what the employees needed. They just wanted their children to have a good education. That’s when I knew I wanted to help people.”

I was fortunate to have been born here, where, if you work hard and get an education and surround yourself with the right people, it’s all possible.

After graduating from the University of Houston, she spent 15 years at the school working in student services and fundraising, helping to increase retention and graduation rates among Hispanic students. She went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate and was working as senior executive director of the Memorial Hermann Foundation when the CEO position at the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce became available. “I was on the board of the chamber, and conversations were very grim about how it didn’t have enough money to make payroll,” Murillo says. “I had a great job and no reason to leave, but I realized that this was another opportunity to help people, and that’s what drives me.”

Murillo’s greatest accomplishment, she says, is the launch of the Emerging Leaders Institute. Part of the Chamber’s nonprofit foundation — which Murillo founded — the Emerging Leaders Institute aims to help young Latinos become community and business leaders. The program has graduated more than 200 participants. “We teach everything from public speaking to how to talk to the media to etiquette to networking,” Murillo says. “When I joined the Chamber, I didn’t see younger people involved. We need to engage that next generation.” Immigration reform, she says, is a way to make that possible.

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