In the News

One Saturday morning in 1977, La Siberia Mexican restaurant opened its downtown doors to a group of 21 business leaders from banking, insurance, energy and other local industries.

"They didn't have a breakfast menu, but the owner brought staff in for us," recalled Manuel Leal, who had called the group together for the first official meeting of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "What we were doing had never been done before here."

Forty years later, the Hispanic Chamber is now the city's second-largest business organization in terms of how much money it takes in. With 4,000-plus members and corporate sponsorships from Fortune 500 and other companies, the chamber generated more than $1 million in revenue in 2015, tax records show. By comparison, the Greater Houston Partnership reported more than $12 million in 2014.

The Hispanic chamber offers seminars and resources for economic development to a growing roster of primarily Hispanic-owned businesses. Since 2013, it's hosted the Emerging Scholars Institute to guide young professionals by offering networking opportunities and leadership training that's applicable across industries.

The chamber's rise from humble beginnings reflects the Hispanic community's growing influence in Houston's economy.

The metro region has the nation's third-largest Hispanic population, behind Los Angeles and New York, and 76 percent of local Hispanic consumers live in Harris County. Locally, Hispanic consumers spent an estimated $57.75 billion in 2014, up 44 percent from 2009. That number is expected to grow to $175.89 billion in 2034.

Likewise, the number of Hispanic-owned businesses doubled between 2013 and 2015, when they accounted for 41.6 percent of Houston's small businesses, according to research compiled by Telemundo Houston and presented last year at the chamber's inaugural Hispanic Houston Impact Summit.

On Wednesday, the chamber will host a business expo to commemorate its 40-year anniversary.

The celebration also marks the 10-year mark of Laura Murillo's tenure as president and CEO. When she took the reins in 2007, she said, the organization was at risk of being evicted from its East End office and faced possible disbanding or a merger with the Greater Houston Partnership.

Murillo, at the time a volunteer on the chamber's board, left an executive position at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center to take on the turnaround job.

"I didn't see the chamber for what it was," Murillo said. "I saw it for what it could be."

Murillo sought greater involvement from Fortune 500 companies and a brighter spotlight on the group's endeavors.

One previous leader, Yolanda Londono, established a corporate advisory board during her time as president and CEO from 1991 to 1997 and earned the chamber recognition by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But building on that was difficult with just two paid employees, including Londono herself.

"You can't create the master plan until you can convene the needed people," Londono said.

Taking over after a period of CEO turnover in the early 2000s, Murillo scouted for new office space to bring the chamber back to its roots in downtown, where Leal and the first few leaders after him kept moving meetings from boardrooms to community centers and the like.

In her first year, Murillo boosted contributions and grants to the chamber, from nothing to more than $1 million. Television and radio programming further promoted the group as the place to go for business advice, support and networking.

She also capitalized on Amegy Bank's desire to tap into the Hispanic market.

Murillo secured a 10-year lease for 2,500 square feet of office space in the bank's 1801 Main Street building at a below-market rate, recalled Kelly Foreman, the bank's corporate real estate and facilities manager. In 2010, the bank helped the chamber expand its office space to 4,300 square feet with an additional 5,700 square feet for event space that the chamber, bank and local community groups could use.

"The chamber's growth to one of the largest in the U.S. and Amegy's growth over the last 10 years are related," said John Hernandez, Amegy's business and community development manager.

Hernandez said the work with the chamber helped increase the bank's Hispanic client base significantly, though he declined to provide specific figures.

"We're thrilled to be associated with them," he said.

Under Murillo's leadership, the chamber won recognition from the national Hispanic chamber and was named Marketer of the Year for economic development from AMA Houston.

"It blows all expectations away from anything I could have expected," said Leal, recalling the difficulty in the early days getting enough volunteers together to get the organization off the ground. One of the challenges was convincing the local community and government that it was a business group, not a political activist network.

"We weren't interested in political power, we were interested in green power," Leal said.

As it has grown, the chamber has taken a role in encouraging political and civic engagement. It launched a voter registration campaign for the 2016 presidential election, and Murillo was invited to attend President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"We had to be at the table with leadership, Hispanic or not," Murillo said.

Of all of the chamber's major changes over the last decade, she is most proud of the Emerging Scholars Institute, Murillo said.

Alex Obregon, deputy city controller and now chamber treasurer, participated in the program's second class and through it formed the Latino Texas PAC in 2015 with a group of his cohorts.

"In today's time, early leadership development is ideal for your profession," Obregon said.

Back in 2009, under Murillo's guidance, the chamber adopted the tag line of "Leader of Houston's New Majority." As the Hispanic community's role in the city's economic, cultural and political development grew, she said, she wanted the chamber's leadership role to grow as well. That remains a priority.

"Our community needs us now more than ever," Murillo said. Story as published by By Ileana Najarro in the Houston Chronicle