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Houston's 20 Most Influential People

By Jane Humphrey | October 16, 2020 | People Features

This October we honor the local luminaries leading the charge in our community. From arts and education advocates to innovators finding solutions to current challenges, these formidable forces drive change, pushing Houston forward for the greater good.

1. Beyoncé

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Constantly stepping up to the plate to lend a helping hand, Beyoncé continues to shine her bright light both on and off the stage. Once again, the Houston native has used her star power to help those in need and to encourage people to take positive action toward the community. In light of the pandemic, the songstress launched the #IDIDMYPART campaign through her organization, BeyGOOD. The campaign encourages Black communities to prioritize health and raises awareness of best practices, screenings, etc. Beyoncé also set up several COVID-19 testing sites with her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, throughout the surrounding Houston area.

2. Brittany Hebert Franklin

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As CEO and founder of Sky High for Kids, Brittany Hebert Franklin is carrying out her mission to bring the community together to provide comfort, fund research and save lives of those diagnosed with pediatric cancer and other life-threatening conditions. “Our mission is not canceled, and this is all temporary,” she shares, reflecting on 2020. “We will get through this! There are children fighting cancer right now who are relying on our support!”

3. Katie Stone

As president of The Cleverley Stone Foundation, Katie Stone is following in her late mother’s path to feed and help those in need in the surrounding Houston area. “Houston Restaurant Weeks was founded in 2003 by my mother, and has since grown to be the largest annual fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank,” says Stone. “To date, Houston Restaurant Weeks has raised $16.6 million for the food bank, which provided 49.8 million meals to those in need. I am proud to continue my mother’s legacy and oversee the continued operation of HRW going forward.” When asked about ways to get involved, Stone says, “The pandemic has obviously hit the restaurant industry extremely hard this year. Our partner restaurants have created special to-go menus so those wanting to help can do so by ordering takeout and specifically asking for the HRW menu. Each purchase will help our local restaurants stay afloat during this time, while also raising money for the Houston Food Bank.” This year has brought on so much reflection and awareness. We asked Stone what her silver lining has been for 2020. “The silver lining for me is that my mom’s life’s work and legacy have proven invaluable to her community during perhaps the most trying time they’ve experienced. And that’s exactly all she ever wanted to do—to be there for and to help people. I, along with many others, am grateful to help ensure her legacy of helping those in need lives on and thrives.” We have no doubt that Stone will honor her mother’s legacy and carry the torch on helping strengthen and build the community.

4. Beth Wolff

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As chairman and CEO of her namesake real estate firm, Beth Wolff certainly has her finger on the pulse of the city—helping contribute to the ever-expanding market and enrich Houstonians’ quality of life.

What is your 2020 motto? To evaluate, pivot and push forward.

What has been your silver lining this year? Adversity presents opportunity. Due to COVID-19, my daughter has joined our company, Beth Wolff Realtors Real Living. Her experience in law, title and real estate will be a benefit to our team and clients alike.

What does the world need more of right now? What comes to mind is a song, ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love...’ We need to appreciate our differences.

5. Ellie Francisco

"Outside of client work, I look for opportunities to volunteer and connect people to accomplish a goal. When someone has a need, my mental Rolodex starts spinning. Whether I’m reaching out to local restaurants to help feed medical workers during crisis or raising funds for scholarships through the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, my main goal is to be a support to others. Every little bit helps too." —Ellie Francisco, Founder & President of Francisco+Co

6. Lynn Wyatt

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"The arts are the soul of any city." —Lynn Wyatt, avid supporter of the Houston arts & culture scene, including her role as ambassador for the storied Rothko Chapel

7. Linda Lorelle

CEO of Lorelle Media, host and producer of Our Voices Matter podcast and co-founder of the Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund, this maven is living her own 2020 motto: I am the change I want to see.

My mission is to spread light and love in every aspect of my life in this very troubled world. From my work at Lorelle Media and the Our Voices Matter podcast to the Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund and my EncourageX Collection, story is at the heart of everything I do. Our stories reflect who we are as humans, shining a light on our common hopes, fears and desires. Our stories have the ability to save us from ourselves, if only we will listen.

How are you helping your community? Back in the day, shortly after being promoted from weekend to prime-time anchor at KPRC-TV, my husband, Lou Gregory, and I co-founded the Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund. We have given voice to the stories of nearly 400 Houston-area students who were in danger of falling through the cracks, provided them more than $4.5 million in college scholarships and, perhaps most important, taught them life skills to enable them to be successful on campus and in the workforce. SmartUp Houston, our innovative partnership with the Greater Houston Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative, educates students and parents about job opportunities in the Houston region and the critical skills needed to land those well-paying positions. As we embark upon our 30th year, we are especially proud that five former Lorelle scholars, as well as our daughter, Lindsey Gregory, are now on our board of directors.

What do you recommend to those who want to follow in your footsteps? Find your passion, chart your path, keep going when you stumble and give back to light the way for others.

What has been your silver lining this year? Seeing the rainbow of humanity across the globe taking to the streets in peaceful protest and recognition that all lives matter when Black lives matter too.

8. Rosanette Cullen

Rosanette Cullen is a name synonymous with transformational philanthropy in Houston. In fact, you can’t be a Houstonian and not recognize the Cullen name. It adorns buildings and theaters and a myriad of educational institutions throughout the University of Houston, including the UH Cullen College of Engineering and the Cullen Performance Hall. Move to the medical center and there you will find the Cullen Building at Baylor College of Medicine, the Cullen Eye Institute, and the list goes on. How does Rosanette Cullen seem to tackle such grandiose endeavors, one might ask? Easy—she leads through faith and resilience. “We are all learning new ways to keep our philanthropic spirit alive,” she shares. “We have to evolve with the times and the circumstances.” Striving to engage the community surrounding her, Cullen emphasizes the importance of giving and getting involved. Her motto for 2020? “Think of positive things to keep you going, encourage everyone to have faith and hope and show kindness.”

9. Ceron

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Stylist to some of our favorite ’dos around town, Ceron has taken this unique time to cherish what he is most grateful for—his family, hardworking team and a community to embrace.

It’s incredible to see...how strong Houston is during times like this. It doesn’t matter what your background is or who you are, we are all in this together.

Now more than ever...we must exemplify kindness.

What has been your silver lining this year? As a first-time parent, I have had the wonderful opportunity to see things I never thought were possible.

10. Alicia Smith

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Founder of Innovative Legal Solutions Alicia Smith has been a huge advocate for the Houston community throughout the years. Not only does this admirable woman run a successful business and has her hands full with a beautiful loving family, but her charitable efforts are something to take lead from. While advocating the missions of various philanthropic organizations, including the Houston Ballet, UNICEF, March of Dimes and The Children’s Assessment Center (where Smith formed the Friends Guild Board and served as its first president for two years), she has chaired several of these organizations’ signature events that raise critical funds. It’s safe to say that Alicia Smith has touched the lives of many—in Houston and beyond.

11. Amanda Boffone

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As a “We’ve Got You Covered” crew member at Memorial Hermann, Amanda Boffone is hard at work with her team gearing up for the Razzle Dazzle luncheon taking place virtually on Thursday, Oct. 8.

How would you describe your mission? In a world where one in eight women will develop breast cancer, timely diagnosis is critical. Many women have been faced with a decision of whether to skip or postpone routine mammograms during the pandemic to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus. As a member of the ‘We’ve Got You Covered’ crew, we are advocating for the 2020 Razzle Dazzle event, which will be held virtually this year, but is ever so important to raise awareness and funds for early detection and outreach programs at Memorial Hermann.

What do you hope the world learns from these challenging times? The power of unity. We don’t have to be the same in order to have a common goal.

What do you recommend to those that want to follow in your footsteps? Recognize that COVID-19 does not stop breast cancer. Now, more than ever, programs like these need your support.

12. Brian Greene

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As president and CEO of the Houston Food Bankthe largest Feeding America food bank in the nation—Brian Greene has been helping aid the fight against hunger in the surrounding Houston area since joining the organization in 2005. Through a network of 1,500 community partners, the Houston Food Bank carries out its mission of “food for better lives” by serving more than 1.1 million people in Texas. In light of the pandemic, the Houston Food Bank partnered up with the Spirit Golf Association for the Spirit Food Fund in hopes of raising $2 million and enlisting the help of volunteers for the food bank. “The significant support from the Spirit Golf Association will add critically needed funds to allow us to work to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for food assistance created by COVID-19,” says Greene. “The generous support from donors like the Spirit Golf Association will make a significant impact on what we can do for our many neighbors in need.”

13. Vivian Wise

When Vivian Wise comes to mind, one might immediately think of her iconic pink ’do or perhaps her ever-evolving style choices she so seamlessly rocks at galas, fashion shows or even in the comfort of her own home. As CEO and founder of the Texas Legacy Foundation and Heart of Fashion, Wise seems to be constantly looking for ways to better her community and help those in need. Always doing so with a smile on her face and dressed in something fabulous, no doubt.

14. Michael Clay

"We are raising funds to develop music programs in children’s hospitals that can be recorded and streamed directly to the rooms of the patients. As part of our continuing efforts, planning is underway for an online library of studies and performances." —Michael Clay, founder of the Texas Music Project, which works directly with children's hospitals to teach kids how to play instruments, write songs and share in the joy that music brings people

15. Jennifer Roane & Melanie Fitzpatrick

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The co-founders of leMel and sisters extraordinaire are carrying out their shared passion for making women feel happy, beautiful and loved.

How are you helping your community? Giving back and being kind is the ethos of our business. Through our Kindness Campaigns, we give back to organizations and causes that support health and wellness, education and children. For October, we are launching a breast cancer awareness bracelet to raise money for Bright Pink, an organization that empowers women to know their risk and manage their health proactively. Breast cancer affects one in eight women, including many of our friends, family and customers. We are creating an exclusive Breast Cancer Awareness stretch bracelet, and a portion of the proceeds from this bracelet will be donated to Bright Pink.

What do you hope the world learns from these challenging times? Patience and teamwork. This has been a test of patience and pivoting. We have had to constantly pivot in both our business and personal lives over the past six months, and it has not been easy. With the help of others, in your family, your community, your social network... we can all help each other out and lend an extra hand during this trying time.

What is your motto for 2020? Today is a new day—look for the good. Sometimes COVID and lockdown get the best of us, but we try to wake up every morning grateful for a new day. You can’t let one day get you down! Find the good in the day and focus on that.

16. Brooke Bentley Gunst

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Development director for Homemade Hope Brooke Bentley Gunst is carrying out the organization’s mission to nurture and empower at-risk Houston children. “Supporting children in poverty is a cause that is close to my heart,” she shares. “My family believes that every child deserves a chance to better his or her life, especially those children facing insurmountable obstacles.”

17. J.J. Watt

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Storied Houston Texans player J.J. Watt is no stranger to facing challenges with steadfast determination and enthusiasm. He continues to help those in need during times of crisis, encouraging others to do the same. As a result of the pandemic, Watt and his wife, Kealia Ohai, found their calling to aid the Houston Food Bank during this time. Through considerable efforts and an incredibly generous donation of $350,000, the couple continues to lead by admirable example.

18. Paige Chenault

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The founder of The Birthday Party Project, Paige Chenault is on a mission to celebrate the lives of children experiencing homelessness through the magic of birthdays. Spreading the gift of joy at every turn, Chenault’s unwavering efforts have been on full speed since founding her company and have not stopped just as a result of this time. In fact, she seems to have been busier than ever. “During the pandemic, we are providing ‘Birthdays in a Bag’ and gifts for children celebrating their birthdays while staying in homeless and transitional living facilities,” says Chenault. Working with Star of Hope, Mission of Yahweh and a women’s shelter, TBPP is also sharing virtual birthday wishes with children experiencing homelessness. When asked how one can get involved, Chenault says, “Sponsoring a birthday is easier than ever before; $50 provides a kid with a festive, age-appropriate bag full of goodies to help them feel celebrated.”

19. Susan Plank

It all started in 2007 after visiting a family friend at Texas Children’s Hospital. The rest, as they say, is history. Founder and president of Dec My Room Susan Plank (who started the organization alongside her daughter Kendall) has been on the move ever since to live out the Dec My Room mission. “We create healing places for long-term pediatric and young adult patients at hospitals around Houston and around the country,” says Plank. “We’re fortunate to decorate hundreds of hospital rooms each year.” The team helps transform an average hospital room into what feels like a cozy, personalized sanctuary tailor-made for each patient. By providing more of a homelike experience, these patients are able to feel just a bit more at ease as they undergo various treatments. With the annual fall luncheon set for Thursday, Oct. 22, Dec My Room continues to be a voice and source of comfort for those in need.

20. Mike Mahlstedt

"I love helping people and finding them an enjoyable, happy home that is also a sound financial investment. My mission is to better the lives of my clients in whatever way I can—whether that’s supporting them every step of the way through the purchase or sale process, as well as providing trusted home improvement contacts or design advice post-closing." —Mike Mahlstedt, top-producing agent, Compass



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Photography by: from top, photos: © marco piraccini/mondadori portfolio via zuma press; by quy tran photography; by gittings; by candace moore; by steve wrubel; by bob levey/getty images for unicef; courtesy of amanda boffone; courtesy of houston food bank; by morgan oncley; by candace moore; by tim warner/getty images; courtesy of the birthday party project