Our Speakers: 2018 Houston Women Conference

Our Keynote: Dr. Laura G. Murillo, President and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 

In 2007, Dr. Laura Murillo was named President and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where she has set unprecedented records, with support from the Chamber Board and Staff,  increasing membership by 950% and revenue by 1700% on their way to becoming the largest Hispanic Chamber in the country.  Two years after Murillo took the helm, the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce won the National and Regional Hispanic Chamber of the Year Award from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. It has been named Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association three times.

Dr. Murillo also serves as the Founding President & CEO of the Chamber’s Foundation, Founding Executive Producer/Host for the Chamber’s Radio and Television Programs on CBS and Univision with a cumulative audience reach of 3.3 million.  She is also a Telemundo Political Commentator and has appeared on numerous international media outlets. She holds a B.A, a Master’s Degree, and a Doctorate from the University of Houston. Prior to her current role at the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she held executive positions at UH for 15 years and at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center for 7.

Dr. Murillo serves on numerous boards of directors and committees, in addition to receiving many state, national and international honors including being named among the “Most Powerful & Influential Women in Texas,” receiving the “Top Latino Leader Award” from the National Diversity Council and the 2018 UH “Distinguished Alumni Award,” and being named the CKW LUKE 2019 Top 20 Impact Maker Honoree, and the 2018 Houston Business Journal’s Most Admired CEO Honoree.

The youngest of nine children, Dr. Murillo was born to Mexican immigrant parents and was raised in Houston’s East End/Magnolia.  She is the proud mother of Marisa and Mia.  Marisa is a freshman at Columbia University and Mia is an honors sophomore at St. John’s School in River Oaks.

See Dr. Murillo’s Video Bio

Our 2018 Panelists


Renee Cross, Moderator

Renee Cross is the senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. She directs the Hobby School’s operations and external relations, supervises professional training and internship programs, and conducts research on civic engagement, elections, and public policy. Cross also serves as an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Houston and the University of Houston-Downtown, teaching courses in urban politics, Texas politics, and participation and democracy.

Tanya Debose

Tanya Debose is a fifth-generation member of the historic community of Independence Heights. She graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, with a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and has over 24 years’ experience in the social service field including eight years as a parole officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She is the director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council and is responsible for the oversight and development of a comprehensive community revitalization plan. Her role includes protecting and preserving the history of Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by African Americans in the State of Texas.

Ada Edwards

Ada Edwards is the assistant director of the Department of Housing and Community Development for the City of Houston. She is a former Houston city council member, serving two terms after being elected in 2001. During her tenure, Edwards chaired three council committees: the Housing and Community Development Committee, the Flooding and Drainage Issues Committee, and the State of Emergency HIV/AIDS Task Force. Edwards is a respected spiritual leader and ordained minister, a successful entrepreneur, and devoted mother of five and grandmother of 14.

Annise Parker

Annise Parker was elected the 61st mayor of Houston in 2010. She left office in 2016. She is the second female mayor of Houston, is the only person in Houston history to serve as council member, comptroller and mayor, and is the first openly GLBT mayor of any major American city. In 2010, Time Magazinenamed Parker one of the most 100 influential people in the world and in 2014 she was named top US mayor and seventh ranked world mayor by the City Mayors Foundation. Parker also served as a member of President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, and chaired the U.S. Conference of Mayors Criminal and Social Justice Committee. She also served on the boards of the Texas Environmental Research Consortium and the Houston Galveston Area Council.


Elizabeth Gregory, Moderator

Elizabeth Gregory, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program. She also developed the Carey C. Stuart Women’s Archive and Research Collection at UH, which houses the papers of Houston area women’s organizations and records oral histories of women who have made history in Houston. She is also the author of Quotation and Modern American Poetry: “Imaginary Gardens and Real Toads”and is the editor of The Critical Response to Marianne Moore.

Linda Cohn

Linda Widom Cohn is presently serving as president of the League of Women Voters of the Houston Area. LWV-Houston has provided trusted, nonpartisan voter services since 1920. They offer a full menu of civic engagement programs, including voter registration, a special outreach to new and aspiring voters, candidate debates and forums and our popular Voters Guide to the Election and the Candidates.

Judge Phyllis Frye

Phyllis Frye, J.D., is an Eagle Scout, a former member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, a veteran (1LT-USA), an engineer, an attorney, a father, a grandmother, and a lesbian wife. She is also the nation’s first, OUT, transgender judge. In 1976 when she transitioned to an “out” Phyllis, she daily faced the possibility of arrest because City of Houston Ordinance 28-42.4 prohibited crossdressing. She lobbied Houston City Council for four years before members repealed the ordinance. When the gay community was still ignoring or marginalizing the transgender community in the early 1990s, Phyllis began the national transgender legal and political movement with the six annual transgender law conferences (ICTLEP) and the training of future transgender activists, lawyers, and bloggers. Appointed as a City of Houston Associate Municipal Judge by Mayor Annise Parker in 2010, Phyllis retains her senior partnership in the out LGBTIQ-and-straight-allies law firm of Frye, Benavidez and O’Neil PLLC. While the firm works in multiple areas, Phyllis devotes her practice to taking transgender clients – some as young as five – through the Texas courts to change the clients’ names and genders on their legal documents.

Yvonne Frear

Yvonne Davis Frear is the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department Chair and Liberal Arts Liaison to Dual Credit and Early College High Schools at San Jacinto College Central in Pasadena, Texas. She is also a Distinguished Faculty member and history professor. Frear’s articles and essays have appeared nationally and internationally in award-winning publications, including Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights; Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas; Major Problems in Texas History; and the German published encyclopedia, Yearbook of the Department of Business Administration. Her current research is focused on theNAACP Youth Council and the sit-in movement in Dallas, Texas and African American women historians in Texas.She serves as a member of the Executive Advisory Committee to the “Handbook of Texas Women” and on the board of directors for the East Texas History free mobile app and web platform. She is currently president of the Central Texas Historical Association,  is a life member of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), has served on the board of directors for the East Texas Historical Association and is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated – Huntsville Alumnae Chapter.

Kristen Contos Krueger

Kristen Contos Krueger, Ph.D., is passionate about creating space for girls and young women to grow as leaders. She recently served as the Launch and Production Manager for the ELCA National Youth Gathering that brought 30,000 young people to the city of Houston to participate in service learning and leadership development. Kristen works as a consultant, speaker, and freelance writer for local and national nonprofit organizations including LEAD: Living Every Day as Disciples, Mission Year, and Camp Hope Ministries. Kristen is a historian specializing in the history of girls and public policy and teaches at Lone Star College. She earned a B.A. from Texas Lutheran University, an M.A. from Southern Methodist University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. She is the mother of two little girls who constantly bring challenge and joy to her life.


Ellen Cohen, Moderator

Ellen Cohen served for 10 years as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, and for 18 years as the CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, working with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. In 2006, she was elected as the Texas State Representative for Houston’s District 134. After serving two terms in the Texas Legislature, Ellen decided to continue her public service career at home. She ran for Houston City Council and was sworn into office in January 2012 as the Council Member representing District C. In 2016, she was named by Mayor Turner and elected by her fellow Council Members as Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Houston. She is currently serving her third term on Council.

Dorothy Gibbons

Dorothy Gibbons founded The Rose, a Houston-based nonprofit providing quality breast healthcare services to insured and uninsured women, with Dr. Dixie Melillo in 1986. The mission of The Rose is saving lives by providing quality breast health services and access to care regardless of a woman’s ability to pay and advocacy. Today, The Rose is the only free standing, non-hospital based facility to be recognized as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence. The Rose is a leader in healthcare delivery and its programs are replicated nationally and internationally. Dorothy’s awards include being the first female awarded the Community Health Leadership Award by the Episcopal Health Charities in 2008; Houston’s first “Fearless Woman” Awardee in 2011; the first recipient of the Trekker Award; and Yoplait’s Breast Cancer Champion in 2012.

Gracie Saenz

Graciela “Gracie” Saenz, J.D., is a partner in the Oppel, Goldberg & Saenz law firm, with her legal practice emphasizing administrative law,[co1] and commercial and international business transactions. She was a member of the Houston City Council from 1992 through 1998, where she chaired three committees: Council Rules, Ethics, and Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprises while serving on nine other committees and was president of Houston International Initiatives, a City of Houston organization, which encouraged international trade. She also served on the Joint City/County Commission for Children and Youth, 1993-1997. Saenz was the first Hispanic and woman to be elected to the position of Mayor Pro-Tem, 1996-1997. Her private activities include service on the Board of Directors of the YMCA, support of Houston Grand Opera, the Boy Scouts of America and the United Way.

Nikki Van Hightower

Nikki Van Hightower, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in 1974 from NYU and wrote her dissertation on “The Politics of Female Socialization,” looking at women’s participation in state and local government. She says, “What I learned about the discrimination and discouragement women experienced while attempting to realize their full potential in life served as the inspiration for me to transition my role from interested observer to that of active participant for change. “ She returned home to Houston and was appointed Houston city Women’s Advocate by Mayor Fred Hofheinz in 1976, one of the first offices of its type in the country. The New York Times labeled her the “best-known feminist” in Houston. Her appointment to the role was critical in the city’s selection as the site of the 1977 International Women’s Conference. Van Hightower established the Houston Area Women’s Center in 1977 and served as its executive director until 1986, when she was elected Harris County treasurer. She ran for Texas state treasurer in 1990. She is now a retired senior lecturer in political science at Texas A&M University.