Business leaders, Rice commit to support Houston innovation

Lilie Lecture

HOUSTON – (Oct. 31, 2023) – Prominent entrepreneurs and business leaders have committed to invest in Houston’s innovation landscape as part of the inaugural cohort of the Rice University Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie)’s Leadership Council. 

The 2023 Lilie Leadership Council (LLC) members have pledged time and financial contributions to directly fund and support Rice’s most promising entrepreneurial programs for students, research staff and faculty. 

The Liu Idea Lab was endowed in 2015 by the Frank and Cindy Liu Family Foundation. The Liu family believes Houston has the talent and resources to be a leader in innovation and views the Liu Idea Lab at Rice as a key driver in the future growth of Houston’s startup ecosystem, which they hope will further diversify and strengthen the city’s economy. Having seen the impact that the Liu Idea Lab has had both at Rice and within the city of Houston thus far, Frank Liu, a Rice alumnus and business community leader, has now recruited others through the LLC to further support existing and expanded programming. The LLC has garnered interest from other successful Houstonians who themselves have benefitted from the vibrancy of the city’s economy and therefore want to invest in Houston’s next generation of leaders and its future.  

Inaugural LLC members include: 

Frank Liu is the co-founder and co-owner of Lovett Industrial and the founder and owner of Lovett Commercial, Lovett Homes and InTown Homes. He has overseen over $5 billion in development projects.  

Earl Hesterberg, who now calls Houston home, served as the former CEO of Group 1 Automotive. Prior, Hesterberg was at Ford Motor Company working as the group vice president of North America marketing, sales and service.  Earlier in his career he served the same role at Ford of Europe as well as stints as CEO of Gulf States Toyota, Vice President of Sales for Nissan Europe and General Manager of Nissan Division for Nissan U.S.A.  In retirement, he is chairing the capital campaign at Kids Meal Inc., a nonprofit that is feeding the 50,000 food-insecure preschool-aged children of Houston.  

Sandy P. Aron is the president of Hunington Properties and has been in the real estate industry for over 40 years. Founded in 1984, Hunington Properties offers a range of third-party real estate services to tenants, owners and investors across commercial, multi-family, industrial and land sectors in the Greater Houston Area. Aron is active in the Houston community where he served on the boards of the St. Francis Episcopal Day School of Houston, Congregation Beth Israel of Houston, and Jones Partnership at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. 

John Chao is Vice President and Managing Director of Westlake Innovations, a subsidiary of Westlake Corporation, and also serves as a board member of Westlake Corporation.  His previous roles include Chief Operating Officer of New York Public Radio and Partner in the strategy and finance practice at McKinsey & Company.  Mr. Chao received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Rice University and an M.B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Lorin Gu is the founding partner of Recharge Capital. The investment fund focuses on critical sectors such as women’s healthcare, clean biotech, semiconductor enablement and fintech democratization. Prior to Recharge, Gu supported Cyrus Capital, a US $4B hedge fund, as well as Blackstone Group. He is the Founding Chair of the Global Future Council at the Peterson Institute of International Economics.  

Annise Parker was Houston’s 61st mayor and the only person in Houston that has held the offices of council member, controller and mayor. She has been named by Time magazine as one of the most 100 influential people in the world. She is currently the president and CEO of the Victory Fund, a nonprofit devoted to electing pro-equality, pro-choice LGBTQ+ leaders to public office at every level. She also sits on the Policy and Global Affairs Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the boards of Houston Botanic Garden, Houston BARC Foundation, Patient Care Intervention Council and the Climate Disclosure Project. 

Gary Stein is the CEO of Triple-S Steel Holdings. Under Gary's leadership, Triple-S Steel has grown from a single location to one of the largest steel service centers in the industry, with over 53 locations, more than 2,000 colleagues, and branches across 17 states, Canada, Dubai, and Colombia. What started as a small new and used steel distribution yard over 60 years ago has become one of North America's largest distributors of structural steel. Mr. Stein serves on the American Institute of Steel Construction Board and the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors.   

Charlie Meyer formed Lovett Industrial in 2020 in partnership with Frank Liu and is currently the CEO. Lovett Industrial has more than $2B of projects complete or actively under construction and has developed or acquired more than 20 million square feet of industrial real estate. He formerly served as managing director at Hines Interests in Houston as well as director of construction and development for NewQuest Properties. He is currently serving on the board of directors for both Generation One and NAIOP Houston.  
Shoukat Dhanani is CEO of Dhanani Group Inc, a family owned and operated business conglomerate, headquartered in Sugar Land, Texas. He also serves as Head of Dhanani Family of Companies, with more than 40 years of experience in creating and managing successful businesses. The family business interest includes restaurant franchising, real estate, convenience stores, and fuel distribution. Today Dhanani family owns and operate more than 2000 Fast Foods restaurant as well as several different business verticals, and now it is the second-largest quick-service restaurant franchisee group in the U.S. 

Robert T. Ladd is the chairman of the board of directors and chief executive of Stellus Capital Investment Corporation (NYSE:SCM). He is also the managing partner and chief investment officer of Stellus Capital Management. His professional career includes leadership positions with the D.E. Shaw Group, Duke Energy, Arthur Andersen and First City Bancorporation of Texas. Mr. Ladd is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Rice University. He is also a member of the advisory council of the McGovern Medical School in Houston. 

Hong Ogle is the president of Bank of America Houston. In addition to her role as Houston President, Hong is the Southeast/Southwest Division Executive for Bank of America Private Bank. She started her financial services career in the early 90’s and has since then received many awards including Houston’s Most Admired CEO’s Award by the Houston Business Journal and Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance: Top Team in Banking by American Bankers. She serves on the board of Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) and Central Houston Inc. and chairs the Bank of America Charitable Foundation in Houston. She is also a member of the Bank of America Global Diversity and Inclusion Council. 

"I owe much of my entrepreneurial success to opportunities I had while at Rice University,” says Liu. “I can't imagine the heights students today can achieve with the resources that now exist through Lilie. Over the last several years, as the #1 ranked Graduate Entrepreneurship program in the country, we have seen exponential growth in student engagement, and we have witnessed the life-changing technologies—tackling big problems in industries like energy and healthcare—bred within Lilie classes and programs. I am thankful for the commitment of Lilie's Leadership Council for propelling these founders from the classroom to the community and building the next generation of Houston's economy.”  

Lilie will leverage the financial contributions and network of the LLC to enrich the current entrepreneurial offerings for students and faculty at Rice — a program currently ranked as the No. 1 U.S. graduate entrepreneurship program by Entrepreneur Magazine and the Princeton Review. The Liu Idea Lab administers experiential courses for undergraduate and graduate students each academic year, as well as competitions and accelerators to help student, faculty and alumni founders move from idea to impact. Lilie’s state-of-the-art working space aggregates the Rice entrepreneurship community into one convenient location, while its experiential courses, co-curricular programs, equity-free funding and personalized mentorship provide an array of resources for every stage of the entrepreneurial journey. 

“Entrepreneurship and the innovative ideas that create new industries are critical to Houston and the state’s prosperity and quality of life,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “I am deeply grateful to Lilie’s leadership council for their commitment to supporting and rapidly advancing our students and their start-ups at Rice Business.”