To many, Houston is the land of barbecue, oil wells, and honky-tonks. You’ve probably picture Sam Elliott standing next to a pickup, brimmed out in a Stetson hat, brass buckle and Lucchese boots. In popular culture, Houston natives are depicted as football-crazed, gun-toting, Whataburger-chowing churchgoers who are obsessed with size and will go all “Don’t mess with Texas” when you ask if they ride their horses down to the 610 Loop.
That’s part of the Houston lore – a land where you can make your make your millions drilling oil, rustling cattle, or selling air conditioners. In reality, the Bayou City represents the best old of new, an economic powerhouse defined by diversity, both in terms of industry and ethnicity. It is a city built on fundamentals and friendliness, a momentum that cannot be slowed by financial crisis or flood (or fire ants, for that matter).
LOTS OF JOBS AND GREAT FOOD
Looking for work? Houston boasts nearly two dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Conoco Phillips, Sysco, Haliburton, and Waste Management. What’s more, the region features the second largest concentration of Fortune 1000 companies in the United States. The area is also home to NASA – and its Texas Medical Center is so big that it covers a whole zip code. Not only that, Houston is the nation’s largest port, with a third of the area’s jobs supported by international trade. Considering this, is it any surprise that Houston provides more convention space than any other city in the United States?
The recreational and cultural scenes are equally vibrant. In 2018, GQ dubbed Houston as the “new capital of southern cool.” That’s hardly hyperbole. Despite its deep oil and energy roots, Houston is a “green” city composed of more park acreage than any other American city. It also houses world-renowned ballet and opera companies, along with a museum row that rivals the likes of New York City. If you’re a restauranteur, Houston is the place to be. Residents go out to eat seven times a week. We’re not just talking barbecue brisket or chicken-fried whatever. Beyond Tex-Mex, you’ll find world class fare from Venezuela, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, and the Caribbean. The reason? One of every four Houston residents hails from outside the United States, with 145 different languages spoken in the metro.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong was famous for saying, “Houston, the Eagle has landed” when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. Fast forward fifty years and Peter Rodriguez, the dean of Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, could reply “The Owl has landed.” In recent years, the program has rocketed up the rankings, boosting enrollment and becoming the new “It” MBA program in the process. Long known for its academic prowess and generous scholarship offerings, Jones also benefits from the reputation of the larger Rice institution, which has reaped labels like “the Stanford for the South” and “a Southern Ivy.” However, the school is also plugged into the diverse and dynamic Houston economy, making it the place to be for aspiring entrepreneurs, energy disrupters, and real estate barons (among others).
“I DRINK TEXAN KOOL-AID AND ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT”
“After living in Chicago for eight years, I knew I wanted to live in a big city filled with opportunities to develop personal and professionally,” says Francisco J. Alvarez Rincon, a first-year MBA who plans to lead large scale building projects after earning his degree. “Houston, being both the 4th largest city and most diverse city in the States, seems like the perfect place to continue my professional journey.”
It is also a place to forge a new identity. Take Munirah Zulkifli, who has quickly learned that Texas is as much a state-of-mind as a place. “I have never lived in Texas before now,” admits the Connecticut native. “When I moved to Houston two weeks before Hurricane Harvey, I ended up buying myself a large blue, double-cab pick-up truck to weather the floods and Houston’s mega highways. Hands down, my truck is one of my favorite purchases I have ever made, ever. A few months later, I fell in love with a gun-dog named Darcy and recently, I found that I am quite the trap and skeet shooting enthusiast. I live in my cowboy boots and love nights out two-stepping. I drink Texan Kool-Aid and absolutely love it. Who knew?”
At the starting line, the Jones MBA Class of 2020 is as diverse as the city that surrounds them. Alvarez Rincon, for example, spent the past three years as an architect who handled everything from schematics to construction. Kori Li comes to Jones with a more traditional background: a senior account manager at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Well, that’s how it appears on the surface, at least.
“In 2015, I oversaw the production of and taste approved one in three Bud Lights sold in Texas,” Li says.
A BOLD CLASS – EVEN BEFORE THEY CAME TO TEXAS
That isn’t the only unique background in the class. Looking for non-traditional undergraduate majors? Karen Meyer studied anthropology, while Ashley John – “queso’s biggest fan” – earned her undergraduate degree in urban studies from Stanford. Norma Torres Mendoza already holds a Master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Then again, Munirah Zulkifli is pulling double duty, earning an MBA alongside a Master’s in subsurface geoscience.
Not surprisingly, the Class of 2020 had synced with Texas’ brash-and-bold attitude long before starting their MBA programs there. Gary Miller, a U.S. Special Forces Officer and “Philly cheesesteak aficionado,” traveled across the Himalayan Mountains last summer, even reaching Mount Everest Base Camp at 17,600 feet.
That wasn’t Miller’s only impressive feat. “My defining moment was realizing my childhood dream and becoming a Big Ten Track and Field Champion,” he explains. It took everything I had to beat some of the best middle distance runners in the world, but the joy of realizing one of my childhood dreams made the years of hard work worth with it. Moreover, from this victory, I learned that nothing great in life comes easy, but with hard work and dedication, even the most audacious dreams are possible.”
DANCING ON A TORN ACL
Miller isn’t the only dreamer who turned their goals into glory. In six months, Norma Torres Mendoza transformed herself from someone who could barely run two miles to a seasoned runner slated to complete her third half marathon. Whatever you do, never doubt Ashley John’s grit.
“I performed with my high school’s dance team on a torn ACL for a year because I couldn’t bear to give it up!”
Looking for a colorful character in the class? Meet Miles Weinberger. A sports lover, Weinberger interned with the Oakland A’s, even running the team’s “war room” during the 2016 Major League Baseball draft. Oh, he has also served as the personal assistant for Golden State Warriors All-Star Klay Thompson. His long-term goal?
“My dream is to be a sports agent or a financial advisor for high net worth individuals and professional athletes.”
ENGINEER TURNS AROUND FLEDGLING BEER SALES
Sometimes, dreams change – just ask Kori Li. At Anheuser Busch InBev, he was initially responsible for managing operations. Thanks to his success, he was offered a stretch promotion in sales. As an engineer, sales was a foreign area to him – one with a learning curve that was like “drinking from a fire hose.” It also required intensive travel across the west coast. Here’s the kicker: Li would be responsible for turning around the largest and worst-performing unit in the company.
No pressure there, right?
Turns out, this “leap of faith” was Li’s defining moment, one that set him apart and proved to him that he could change course and move into investment banking. “Within 13 months, I was successful in my mission,” he recalls. “In fact, the retailer’s performance led the West Coast for an entire quarter. In addition, my “playbook” has since been taken and implemented in other struggling chains with strong initial results.”
“ECLECTIC” AND “DRIVEN”
Li wasn’t the only member of the 2020 Class to take a major risk. Exhibit B: Yina Zhang. Her claim to fame: She was one of the few female analysts who wasn’t fazed by heading into the humid and cramped confines of coal mines – which often stretched 500 miles underground. A dangerous proposition, no doubt. Through visiting over 70% of coal mining operations in China, she also found her long-term purpose.
“The year was 2015, and I wearily stood in the mine, encumbered with heavy flame-retardant overalls,” she reminisces. “I was sweaty and overwhelmed by the heavy humidity. In that moment, it dawned on me that I should help coal companies achieve a positive energy development model to improve the welfare and work environment of Chinese miners while focusing on sustainable practices. By integrating this goal with my continued passion to help my clients solve problems, I determined that starting a consulting company specializing in this area was the best way to realize this vision.”
Such events reflect the defining virtues of the Class of 2020. Munirah Zulkifli boils it down to being “eclectic” and “driven.” “Everyone seems to be from everywhere — different places, backgrounds, industries — but they all have one commonality: they are driven to become improved versions of themselves. It’s so energizing, and I am so looking forward to learning from all of them throughout this course.”
This diversity creates a certain vitality that brings out the very best in everyone, adds Kori Li. “The energy that my classmates bring makes the program seem less like an MBA program and more like a unicorn startup about to IPO. From successful entrepreneurs to consultants for NATIONS to former professional athletes, everyone here has already accomplished what most people would be happy with in an entire career, and they’re just getting started!”
Go to next page for 12 in-depth profiles of Rice MBAs from the Class of 2020.