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PILLARS OF THE ECONOMY: Laura Murillo wants to showcase the economic strength of Houston’s diverse population.

Born and raised in the Bayou City, Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is no stranger to the city's diversity and the importance of supporting minority-owned businesses.

When she was a child, her own family began a business in the East End, El Jardin, with every hope to build their American Dream. As a young child and into adulthood, she watched her parents, who came to America from Mexico, work hard — achieving success despite having a second-grade level education.

Families like her's are crucial to Houston's entrepreneurial spirit. According to research data acquired by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, Hispanics are driving economic and demographic growth in the region. Over a decade, Houston’s Hispanic population grew by almost 10% — increasing from 917,993 in 2010 to 1,005,205 in 2021. And, in the city, there are 17 Latino-owned businesses for every 100 white-owned businesses, far greater than the average United States City.

"My father didn't see barriers, he saw opportunities, Murillo said. "With every obstacle, my father figured out a way to make things happen. I think that's what we see in businesses today, is that they are resilient and hardworking. They figure it out, they don't give up, they start over, they try something new. To be an entrepreneur, you have to be creative, innovative, and you must adapt to the situation."

In the city of Houston, Hispanics/Latinos make up about 45% of the population, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Data from the Greater Houston Partnership shows that the nine-county Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area is home to the nation’s fourth-largest Hispanic population.

However, the growing number means so much more than diversity — it signifies opportunity and a chance to shape entrepreneurs into successful business owners, Murillo said.

Latinos are the fastest growing subgroup of entrepreneurs in the country, and they are taking full advantage of opening their own businesses as well as utilizing their diversity and bilingual abilities within the global economy — opening doors, creating opportunities through the internet for global business from the comfort of their homes, she said.

“Given our numbers in terms of the city being the fourth largest in the country, we know that entrepreneurs are the economic engine of this city,” Murillo said. “We need to support entrepreneurs.”

Murillo said in the work she does today, the chamber sees itself as a connector, a facilitator and an advocate for not just Hispanics, but the Houston business community as a whole, through provided opportunities, services and programs.

During her tenure, Murillo also became the founding executive producer and host of its radio and television program that airs to a cumulative audience of 3.3 million on CBS – KHOU 11, Audacy and Univision — which will celebrate 15 years next year. Through this, Murillo interviews entrepreneurs, CEOs, executives and other successful people as well as programs and services that support businesses.

This added media platform allows the chamber to address the masses with additional support, she said.

Looking at the bigger picture and into corporate America, Murillo told the Houston Business Journal that Hispanics are a viable corporate partner and viable investment. She said the population is a “big chunk of [the] market share that cannot be denied.”

Hispanics in business
According to the most recent segmented State of Latino Entrepreneurship study from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, there are 11,354 Latino-owned businesses in Houston and 68,651 non-Latino, white-owned businesses.

Murillo has played a role in uplifting various minority- and women-owned businesses programs in the Houston-area. She said she provided testimony to various entities, such as Harris County Commissioners Court, to bring its program — which encourages businesses to award contracts to MWBE owners — to fruition.

In a recent report from Harris County’s Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity, which shows contract dollars awarded from October 2022 to March 2023, it was found that about 25% of the $377 million Harris County awarded in contracts went to certified MWBEs.

Of this, $337 million was awarded to prime contractors, with about 18.2% of this money awarded to MWBE prime contractors. Hispanic-owned prime contractors were awarded the largest portion, $30.8 million. Meanwhile, Black-owned MWBEs were awarded $16.9 million, Asian-owned MWBEs were awarded $10.1 million, and white women were awarded $3.6 million.

Murillo said for some companies, once given a contract from the city, it's easier to get a contract with the county, and then to the Port of Houston, and so on. She said the first one is the biggest leap, but she’s seen companies do that and go on to do extraordinarily well.

“[Entrepreneurs] need much more support,” Murillo said. “They need doors of opportunity to be open. They need investors, they need funders, they need marketing.”

Entrepreneurial barriers
However, a big barrier most Hispanics and minority entrepreneurs face is lack of equitable access to capital. According to the data collected from UH, Hispanics are underbanked compared to other demographic groups. In fact, in the past 12 months, Hispanics were the least likely ethnic group to visit a bank branch or have a credit card.

In an interview, Pablo Pinto, director of the Hobby School's Center for Public Policy, said one of the issues that comes up when looking at small businesses among Hispanics, and specifically for some areas of Houston, is that a large number of individuals are considered “self-employed” and although. they are entrepreneurial, the businesses are not incorporated.

Pinto said from a business standpoint, these are missed opportunities. If these individuals were to analyze and incorporate a businesses, they would see more benefits such as access to finance, capital and banking, and tax benefits among other things.

According to the Stanford study, Latino-owned businesses are less likely to be asked to provide collateral when taking out a loan than those who are white, as well as less likely to be profitable, and more likely to have outstanding debt and less cash.

Murillo said it’s important to encourage entrepreneurs to get all internal paperwork in order so they can be certified and have a chance to look at requests for proposals available — seeing it as a viable option for a new revenue stream. Aside from this, her advice is to go online, ask questions, attend events and sit next to people who have achieved success. At the end of the day, it is all about developing relationships, she said.

“This is not rocket science, but at the same time, it is time consuming,” Murillo said. “You've got to pay attention and you’ve got to know whether or not your business is something that connects with that entity.”

Economic factors
According to UH’s data, the Hispanic community is also a strong driver for the region and state in terms of helping to meet workforce needs, contributing to taxes and building significant political power. Between 2021 and 2022, the average quarter employment for Hispanics in Harris County increased by 5.4%, growing from about 734,894 to 775,083.

Meanwhile, Hispanics represent 41.6% of Houston’s labor force, with almost 745,000 in 2021. In comparison, about 474,000 or 26.5% are white-non Hispanic and 22.8% or about 408,000 are Black or African American, according to UH’s research data.

Murillo said growing up in business, she understands there is an urgency when it comes to connecting to resources and access to try to find people to hire. She said there is a “large deficit” of people to hire — from construction jobs to executive positions — in the “challenging market.” To help, the chamber does what it can to post available positions, collect resumes and work with corporate partners when they are hiring.

According to additional economic data, nearly 40% of Hispanic households own the place where they live, for Houston specifically, this number is nearly 60%. Majority of the population lives mainly on the East End and North sides of Houston.

Despite this, homeownership has become more challenging for many people in recent years amid increases in housing costs and steep inflation, according to the 2023 Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey. The biggest barriers facing the Latino community when it comes to homeownership in Houston is affordability, as well as supply and demand, meaning housing stock is needed, Valeria Esparza-Chavez, head of Wells Fargo's Home Lending Hispanic segment, previously told the HBJ.

As for household income, over half of Houston’s Hispanic population makes less than $50,000 a year. However, in the past seven years, average monthly income for this population has increased over $1,100. In 2021, Houston's median home price exceeded $300,000, while the median per capita income was $65,000, per the Kinder report.

Importance of representation
And while Houston has come a long way in terms of growing Hispanic- or minority-owned business, Murillo said there’s a lot more work to be done — particularly when it comes to representation at the top. She said that less than 2% of Hispanics in the country are on corporate boards, yet they make up $54 billion in consumer spending per year. Given the demographics in the city and the role the boards play in policy decisions, this number should be greater, she said.

According to the data, Hispanics made up 27.8% of the electorate in the Greater Houston metro area — in 2019, there were 1.2 million eligible Hispanic voters. However, out of Houston City Council’s 16 members — 11 of whom represent single-members districts for specific geographical areas — there is only one Hispanic member on city council: District I Council Member Robert Gallegos.

Above all, one of the most important things to note when considering the population is its young age, Murillo said — one-third of Hispanics are under the age of 18. Pinto said this could lead to misconstrued beliefs based on the demographics for education, income and other conditions.

In terms of representation, he said, since younger people tend to vote at lower rates, their voices are also less likely to be heard or accounted for when policies are made.

"We want to see people who look like us and have a unique experience that will provide corporations for insight," Murillo said. "A new set of eyes, a fresh way of looking at things and one that at the end of the day is going to make that corporation stronger, better, more productive, and that input more dollars in their pocket at the end of the year because you've got someone who's talking to them about a huge market. It's that connecting with a community that is very loyal, and that spends an enormous amount, not only in the city, but across the country. So, it's an economic and business imperative."


As published by the Houston Business Journal^22290202