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Hispanic Chamber CEO Laura Murillo is the diversity, equity and inclusion champion Houston needs

Laura Murillo is unyielding when it comes to diversity in Houston because she knows it's good for the city and business.

Murillo, the CEO and president of the Greater Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, stood before an audience of 2,000 at the group's annual luncheon and business expo this year and announced that it is now the city's largest business luncheon.

She also told the audience that the chamber had received its first $1 million donation, from Benny Agosto, Jr., a New York-born Puerto Rican Houston trial attorney, and his wife, Nichole. The money will go to the chamber foundation's Emerging Leaders Institute, which provides training, mentoring, and career opportunities for young professionals with less than 10 years of experience.

The ability to galvanize people together as Murillo does each year for this event is a superpower that few organizational leaders have. The Hilton-Americas hotel ballroom was packed with more than 100 elected officials, 100 CEOs, and hundreds more professionals from nearly every major company in the city. The guests represented diversity across ethnic groups, too.

Her work is even more important as Texas enacts a new law banning diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities. A week before the luncheon, the University of Texas-Austin laid off dozens of employees whose jobs included promoting DEI.

In another rollback of equity and inclusion efforts, a federal judge in Texas ruled last month that the Minority Business Development Agency, which has assisted minority-owned businesses in accessing capital and government contracts since 1969, must now be open to white-owned businesses. Still, Black and Hispanic business owners are more likely to be denied loans compared to white business owners.

Murillo said the growing anti-DEI movement is fear-mongering at its best as Hispanics and other minority communities realize their buying power.

"As a chamber, we are having conversations with the Mexican government, which will elect a new president in June. We're involved with the World Cup. Anything that is going on in Houston, we're involved. This is our collective victory," she said.

Murillo, who took over the fledgling chamber in 2007 when it had no money, is an unapologetic champion for the chamber and its work to expand business opportunities for Hispanics in Houston.

Her best-selling book, "Lead in Life: People. Passion. Persistence — Succeed in the New Era of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" furthers her advocacy for establishing seats at the table on corporate boards and in business arenas that often are closed to Hispanics and other people of color.

"We've had people try to marginalize us and limit our accessibility and our entry as long as we can remember. So we are persistent. We move forward, we connect with those who understand our economic power, which is $54 billion per year by Hispanics in Houston. So we connect with those who understand what this means to their pocket," Murillo said.

Houston’s large Hispanic population grew almost 10% between 2009 and 2021, and now is nearly 45% of the city’s more than 2.3 million residents.

As federal and state programs supporting underrepresented groups have become targets, Murillo reminds us that DEI is about representation and inclusion.

Agosto's $1 million donation is an example. Chambers of commerce, especially those representing Hispanic or Black communities, don't typically get million-dollar gifts or have the financial backing to support a program to support the next generation of leaders.

"I think of all the people and big companies who told me no," Murillo said. "Even when setting up the Emerging Leaders Institute, I was told it wasn't needed, that I didn't know what I was doing, that it would not be sustainable, that no one would fund it, that I wouldn't be able to get the curriculum or the speakers. It was 'no, no, no, it's not possible."

Earlier that morning, more than 30 Hispanic and minority-owned firms had a private meeting with seven major Houston oil and gas companies to explore business partnerships and opportunities. It's another way the chamber under Murillo's leadership is hoping to expand representation.

Since the state Legislature views DEI as the devil, it's up to Houston, the most diverse place in the state, to lead the way.

As published by the Houston Chronicle