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Putting Student Success “Over the Top”: Clara (’02) and Christopher (’00) Hough

Posted on: May 5th, 2015

Clara (’02) and Christopher (’00) HoughThe Heights office and showroom for Over the Top Linen may look nondescript from the outside — few windows, tan walls, carved into a residential street — but a vibrant array of fabrics in myriad textures and hues waits inside, topped by a rainbow-ribbon chandelier and helmed by strong Cougar leadership. “We don’t explicitly try to hire people from UH, but there are so many talented graduates in the community, it often works out that way,” said CEO Clara Hough (’02) with a smile.

Clara founded the specialty linen service in 2005 with her husband, managing partner Christopher Hough (’00), whom she met when they were both students at the Honors College and Bauer College of Business. Christopher is also Director of Finance and Accounting at Ascent Automotive Group, using evenings and weekends to strategize accounting and finance operations and help organize events for the family’s business. Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed: Over the Top has received numerous accolades over the years, including, in 2014, ranking as one of the Cougar 100 list of fastest-growing Cougar-owned or led businesses and the Houston Business Journal naming Clara as one of their 40 Under 40 honorees. Additionally, Clara was named an honorary alumna of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in April 2015. Besides investing in the Houston community with their business and through several charities, the Houghs have also established the Christopher and Clara Hough Annual Scholarship at the Hilton College to afford exceptional students the same opportunities they received at UH.

For Clara, attending the University is synonymous with her experience of becoming an American. She lived in Venezuela until the age of 17, but her grandfather owned an oil and gas business is Venezuela and lived in Houston for a long time. “My parents always wanted us to receive our education here,” Clara said. “It meant so much to me to come to UH. Being here prepared me for life in a different country.” Her three sisters, Cristal Ordonez (’03), Alba Villegas (’04) and Aurora Pisana (’10) all hold UH degrees. When they arrived, however, the first challenge was to learn English. After completing a course at the UH Language and Cultural Center, Clara intended to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, it being one of Venezuela’s core industries and an expected concentration for students, but was drawn to business and marketing. “I wasn’t familiar with the concept of business as an area of study, but when my sister Cristal began studying at Bauer, it inspired me to change my course.”

Christopher moved from Colorado to attend UH and had a similar unfamiliarity with what a business major entailed. He had intended to study computer science, but changed his mind after a lecture in his introductory accounting course by Dr. Gary Schugart. “Something just clicked. I’m not sure what exactly did it, but that course put everything in perspective,” he recalled. Both Christopher and Clara made an effort to form strong relationships with professors and other students, seizing as many opportunities as possible. “There are so many organizations and ways to get involved,” said Christopher. “The connections and relationships – you can’t put a value on that.”

Clara worked as a catering manager after graduating in 2002, building her customer service skills and gaining an insider view of the hospitality industry. “I’ve always loved the design aspect of an event, the colors and textures. The right linens can transform the entire feeling of a room,” she said. “As a catering manager, I saw what people wanted for their special events, as well as aspects that could be improved. Having the right linens can make a significant difference for any event.” She estimates that around 70 percent of their events are weddings, but the scope spans all social occasions, including galas and fundraisers — they have even provided linens for a baby shower. Christopher noted that even though events require careful planning and execution, the events are typically happy ones, which makes the effort less arduous and more rewarding. Clara agreed, which is not surprising, given the quote displayed above her desk: “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Hard work is important, but the Houghs know that passion is equally important. “When starting your own business, you have to combine passion and opportunity,” Clara said.

The opportunity was certainly there – Over the Top is one of few companies of its kind in the Houston area, and their business has steadily grown over the years. The success hasn’t come without challenges, though: “People have said that I get more emergency calls at odd hours than a heart surgeon,” Clara laughed. “But it’s important for us to recognize that even though we work events all the time, it’s a special day for our clients — a once-in-a-lifetime moment. We want to make everything memorable and as stress-free as possible for them.” Not to mention, founding the company fell in the same time frame as the birth of their daughter, Mia. Their son Christian was born a few years later, and the Hough family now resides in Katy. Christopher attributes the continued success of Over the Top to Clara’s building strong relationships with their partnering venues, using their individual public relations and accounting skills cooperatively and planning smart growth. “It’s important for businesses to decide at what rate they want to grow. We often see businesses that grow too quickly, and then the process is unsustainable,” he said. Accordingly, Over the Top started small — out of the couple’s house — and graduated to larger facilities and clientele over the years.

The Houghs decided to establish the Christopher and Clara Hough Annual Scholarship at the Hilton College because they believe in the talents and potential of UH students. Besides working with UH alumni on a daily basis, Clara also works closely with the Houston chapter of National Association of Catering and Events (NACE) and the NACE student chapter on campus. “I’m constantly impressed by the students that I work with. We’ve formed great relationships over the years,” she said. Christopher agreed: “I don’t think there’s anything as important as educating young people. We want to contribute to them — we know that will make us better off as a society.” The most compelling reason to give, however, may be that scholarships made a tremendous impact for them both as out-of-state and international students. “We’ve been blessed,” said Christopher, “and we feel that we have the responsibility to share that with others.”

Culture, Comfort and Class: Jackson Hicks and Houston Public Media

Posted on: April 23rd, 2015


“’Prince of Parties’ is fun,” Jackson Hicks says of his press-given moniker, “but may be a bit of an overstatement.”

By Joelle Jameson

“’Prince of Parties’ is fun,” Jackson Hicks says of his press-given moniker, “but may be a bit of an overstatement.” The title is understandable, however, in light of the some 15,000 events his catering and event-planning outfit, Jackson and Company, has gracefully executed since its formation in 1981 — especially since it isn’t uncommon to spot a current or former U.S. president in attendance.

After 35 years, Jackson and Company is still going strong under Mr. Hicks’ watchful eye, and is preparing for several events, including“A Celebration of Reading” to benefit The Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation. Past events include lavish galas and receptions such as the opening of the Menil Collection, the Wortham Center and the George Bush Presidential Library, as well as the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. “When you have the history we have of serving distinguished guests, you learn to take care of people in a more refined way,” he explains. “We learn in the present tense.”The result? All guests feeling like royalty.

Hicks’ own “palace,” so to speak, is located in a historic district of Houstonand shared with two English Cocker Spaniels, Montgomery and Winston. Built in 1905 and listed on both the National and Texas Lists of Historic Places, the house embodies an eclectic combination of period antiques and contemporary design elements to achieve a sense of balance and comfort.This appreciation for design and history spreads to the full service event venue Hicks operates in downtown Houston, The Corinthian. Formerly a grand bank, the reimagining of the space has preserved all its neoclassical glory.

One can easily picture these venues as a setting for a Houston Public Media (HPM) TV 8 program. HPM, a community service of the University of Houston, is home to KUHT, which was established in 1953 as the nation’s first public television. The PBS network is considered essential “appointment” viewing in the Hicks household. After years of supporting Houston Public Media Foundation with smaller gifts, Jackson Hicks has made a major gift to support the Foundation and HPM’s TV 8, as well as a legacy gift, which will support the Foundation’s focus areas of arts and culture, education, news and public safety for the Houston community and southeast Texas for many years to come.

Hicks has been serving Houston in many different capacities since he arrived in 1969, founding Jackson and Company as a later response to the gap he witnessed during his years of working in the field. “Most all events were limited to event halls, country clubs, hotels and smaller parties in people’s homes,” he says, describing hosts’ efforts to rally neighborhood household staff to assist with whatever occasion arose. Working in the gourmet food and wine department at the then newly-opened Neiman Marcus in the Galleria granted him the knowledge of what its high-end clientele was seeking: individualized, upscale and flexible entertainment options. “Catering until then was mostly barbecue — good barbecue, but it was much more casual,” he recalls. “We envisioned a full-service catering and event planning service to provide a higher standard of service, and I knew it would be well-received because I was talking to people who were giving parties all the time. Even in our first month, we did a residential party for 500 people. ”

Houston was only intended to be a brief stop for Hicks on his way to graduate school, but after spending the summer in the city, he decided to stay. “I found Houston’s energy and vitality particularly appealing,” he says. He also respected and benefited from a Houstonian way of life, which he describes as more of a “meritocracy” than other large cities. “I was only about 21 when I started working at Neiman Marcus, which at the time had a very large wine operation. But I had some knowledge of wine, and our sophisticated clients respected that,” he says. “In other cities, I don’t think they would have been able to get past my age.” He credits that meritocracy as part of the reason Jackson and Company has thrived. “If you’ve got a good idea and are working hard to put that idea forward, generally I think you receive a very positive response in this community,” he says. “The city has been so generous and supportive of us; it’s really quite gratifying.”

Originally from Oklahoma, Hicks drew inspiration from the hospitality displayed by his mother and both his grandmothers from a very young age. “They focused on making their family and friends comfortable, and paid attention to details,” he says. Those are the tenets of his business, and are the backbone of Jackson and Company’s commitment to hospitality. “It’s not just taking care of people, it’s pampering people, and anticipating their needs before they even realize them,” he explains. “It’s a commitment to making people feel comfortable in their environment.” Hicks also remembers lessons in “thoughtfulness” in regard to service learned at Neiman Marcus from Mr. Stanley Marcus himself, as well as his supervisor at the store whom he eventually joined at a new business, Henry Kucharzyk. “I learned the appropriateness of how one entertains.”

Music is another of Hicks’ passions; throughout earning his bachelor’s degree in social sciencesfrom Baylor University, he studied voice and participated in the Baylor A Cappella Choir as a soloist. Although his professional path changed, his appreciation for great performances has not. “We are so lucky in Houston to have a first class opera, symphony and ballet,” he remarks, also naming the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts as some of his favorite Houston arts institutions. “We have such a high quality of leadership in the arts, as well as performers.” In addition to Houston Public Media, Hicks also provides support to the Houston Grand Opera Studio and the Young Artists Program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, as well as Rice’s Graduate Opera Program.

But the study of music has been beneficial in other ways. “You learn in musical training, among other things, to always be prepared — if one walks into the studio unprepared, your teacher might throw you out,” he says with a smile. “You learn discipline, and techniques to control your nerves and stay centered, or else it will show in your performance.” This demeanor shines through while running what can often be challenging events. “People are always surprised that I stay so calm,” he says. “But they have to understand, the preparation happened a long time ago. It’s important; if they see that I am relaxed, the guests will be more relaxed.”

Hicks sees his passions of entertaining and the arts reflected in HPM’s local, national and international television programming, such as “Masterpiece” and “Great Performances.” He has a penchant for British culture and history, which is often the subject of “Masterpiece” programs. “I certainly have an interest in the traditions of British etiquette and style of entertaining, especially in the Edwardian era,” he says. “I appreciate the ritual of dining, the precision and formality, and its structure. There’s very little of that in our society.” He also harbors an interest in exploring the historical context of those traditions. In that vein, the locally produced and nationally syndicated “Manor of Speaking,” a “Downton Abbey” talk show that often discusses the history and traditions its characters employ, is a new favorite for Hicks. But, that is to be expected of a man who reads etiquette books “as if they were novels.”

Hicks decided to increase his giving to Houston Public Media Foundation after “an epiphany” regarding his priorities. “I felt I was now in a place to give more significant support, and I wanted to support something I really care about. I think HPM programming is a great asset to our community, and has been for a long time.” Additionally, Hicks appreciates having the opportunity to include the Foundation in his estate planning. “Testamentary gifts are a great way to give to organizations you care about.” The present is certainly staying busy for Jackson and Company, with the “organized chaos” of catering and event planning running strong. Hicks’ partnership with Houston, no matter what the capacity, is certainly one made to last.

Former Ms. Wheelchair America Lets Nothing Slow Her Down

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Michelle Colvard
For years, Michelle Colvard didn’t like to acknowledge her differences.

Born with spina bifida, Colvard has used a wheelchair for most of her life, but early on she ignored her mobility limitations.

“When I was a kid, many times I felt like I was being set apart from everyone else, by the school system for example,” she said. “I grew up with that feeling for a long time, and didn’t want to identify as someone who had a disability.”

But eventually, Colvard, a UH alum, decided it was time for her to help others who didn’t have the same advantages.

“It started to dawn on me that there are a lot of people who didn’t have the opportunities that I did. They didn’t have the parents that I did,” she said. “They had disabilities and they weren’t being able to benefit fully from life because they were either putting themselves in a box, or other people were putting them in a box.”

The realization led her to search for opportunities to advocate for people with disabilities, and ultimately resulted in her selection as Ms. Wheelchair Texas in 2008 and Ms. Wheelchair America in 2009.

“I think you are much stronger when you embrace that part of yourself,” she said. “I began doing community work to try to improve things and increase awareness of people who have disabilities and show others about the opportunities and ways we can all work together.”

Her goal, she said, was to encourage others with disabilities to develop the same independence she learned early on from her parents and developed further as a student at the University of Houston.

“When I got to college, it was like I just woke up,” she said. “I absolutely loved it. I loved that it was all about you. The professors may give you homework or an assignment, but it is up to you to finish it. It is up to you to do it. You are the only one that is going to be responsible for it. I totally thrived in that environment.”

Colvard majored in psychology, in part because she was interested in the way people react to problems.

“It’s not just the problems that they have, but how they overcome those problems that is most interesting to me,” she said.

As a student, she began working as a research coordinator for a special psychology research study dedicated to analyzing the treatment of child behavioral problems in families with domestic violence. Colvard said she learned a lot by observing the children in those situations.

“A lot of those kids are not going to do well. They may watch their mom get beat up, or have a gun held to her head. Sometimes the kids themselves are abused,” she said. “What was always interesting to me was the kids that overcame all of those situations and worked really hard and maybe found a different outlet.”

After graduating in 2000, Colvard’s research job turned into a full-time job. She stayed at UH for more than four years before moving onto graduate school at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“While I was at UH, I learned a lot of the discipline that you need to go to grad school and to think critically,” she said. “I had some excellent professors that really taught me well, and helped me, really encouraged me to think for myself.”

In graduate school, while she was working toward her master’s in health promotions, Colvard was appointed to the Houston Commission on Disabilities – a position that enabled her to encourage the city to improve recreational options for people with disabilities.

Later, she was hired to serve as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities. In that position, she helped develop new programs and support existing programs for people with disabilities.

Eventually, after being encouraged by her friends and her husband, Colvard agreed to enter the Ms.Wheelchair Texas pageant in 2008.

“At some point, I thought this might be another opportunity to reach out to the community, to reach out to people and show them that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful, that you can’t have a higher education, that you can’t work full time or hold challenging jobs and a successful career,” she said.

After winning the state crown in 2008 and the national crown in 2009, Colvard went on the road, speaking at events before a variety of audiences.

“I would speak to people with disabilities and try to provide some encouragement and helpful insight, and link them to resources,” she said. “Or I would speak to general audiences and try to raise more awareness about people with disabilities.”

Personal fitness for everyone, particularly those with disabilities, is Colvard’s major passion. She enjoys spending time on wheelchair sports, including wheelchair soccer and basketball tournaments held at the UH Campus Recreation and Wellness Center.

She also is an avid autocross racer, and spends time each month racing her car through an obstacle course.

In her current job as manager of research integrity at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Colvard said she is constantly inspired by the patients she sees every day.

“I am inspired by people who are struggling with cancer,” she said. “I try to put myself in their shoes – I don’t have a condition that is terminal. I have some challenges, but not so much in the scheme of things.”

When she sees patients making the most of their lives, she is inspired anew to encourage those with disabilities to make the most of theirs.

“My message is no matter who you are, where you came from, you can change your path, you can change your destiny,” she said. “You may have come from difficult circumstances. But to me, life is an adventure. It is something for us to take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t let opportunities pass you by.”

Phil Swanson Supports the Cougar Graduation Challenge

Posted on: September 5th, 2013

the swansons

The Cougar Graduation Challenge is an exciting way for University of Houston students to give back before they even graduate.

The Cougar Graduation Challenge is an exciting way for University of Houston students to give back before they even graduate. It also helps create a sense of community among students. The Challenge has two components—the Cougar Spirit Cord and the Cougar Graduation Survey. By making a minimum $15 donation to the University of Houston, graduates receive a red and white Cougar Spirit Cord to wear at commencement. This shows a student’s pride in their school and their support for those who will be returning the next semester. But if that donation seems too daunting, Phil Swanson (’86) has agreed to let every student who completes a Cougar Graduation Survey direct one dollar to the UH program of their choice. Swanson understands that the pressures of life and the costs of living can outweigh the desire to give back—especially for new graduates. One dollar, directed to any college or program in the University, is what he considers a “launch pad” for giving. His wife, Mindy, adds: “Once you’re in your thirties and forties, a pattern has been established–you need to start students out giving back while they are young!”

Annual giving ensures support for student scholarships, recruitment and retention of key faculty, research, technology and more. “The academics at UH are what really inspire me to give,” Swanson maintains. “You want to be proud of your education. I thought the University of Houston provided a great education for me.” Mindy adds, “Education is something that’s important to both Phil and me. We’ve made Houston our home, and in my point of view, having a thriving university is critical to having a great place to live.” Also, he says the University’s tireless aim at expansion and construction excites him about giving back. There are currently more than four new buildings being constructed around campus and 10 recently built or renovated facilities. The Energy Research Park is an impressive 70-acre structure, which he believes is going to be a huge part of establishing UH as the nation’s “energy university.” “Other folks can’t help but notice these things,” he maintains about the recent expansion. “Things that are happening now—these things are what inspire me to give.”

He knew that philanthropy would be an important part of his alumni experience ever since he pledged Sigma Chi during his freshman year. Whether it was the brotherhood that ultimately determined his sense of belonging on campus or the time he spent traveling as a Cougar cheerleader, he always knew that it was up to alumni to give back because he saw other alumni giving when he was a student. “I always figured I would be contributing myself one day—I learned about giving on the job,” he admits. The alarming reality is that, despite rising costs for higher education, tuition covers less than half the funds needed to educate a student. Educating a student at UH relies on 36 percent of contributions from sources other than tuition. Generous donations like those from Phil and Mindy bridge the gap, making it possible to continue providing an affordable, Tier One education.

Creating a habit of giving is important. No matter what the amount is, an annual gift is ultimately, a transformative one. For instance, twenty gifts of $20 each can purchase a guest lecture from a visiting professor. Charitable donations affect every student when they use library resources and technology on campus. In total, the 2012-2013 Cougar Graduation Challenge raised more than $30,000 for UH students and programs from more than 29% of graduating seniors!

The Treasurer of the Society of Women Engineers and President of Cougar Waterpolo, Catherine Finley, is an example of a May 2013 graduate who will be wearing a Cougar Spirit Cord at graduation. When asked what motivates her to give to the University, she answers, “Knowing that you’re helping others.” In addition to her donation, she also helped raise an extra dollar for her favorite college on campus, the Cullen College of Engineering, by completing a Graduation Survey. Because of yearly scholarships, including the Honors Scholarship and the Engineering Alumni Scholarship, Finley is able to graduate debt-free from University of Houston. “I really understand how donations from alumni relieve stress and let you just focus on school,” she says. And, after all, focusing on education is the most important job the University accomplishes.

The next wave of UH achievers

Posted on: August 28th, 2013


by Marsha Carter

Nick Brown, an Honors College student majoring in Political Science and Government, describes the University of Houston’s red spirit in three words: loyal professors, diversity and pride.

Nick, who will graduate in May 2013 with a Bachelor of Science degree, worked to build close relationships with his professors through the years, which he says added to his insight of the subject matter and expanded his network.

Growing up in a single-parent household in Spring, Nick learned that hard work, and a commitment to leadership can forge an amazing path. He serves as President of UH’s Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society and President of UH’s Phi Theta Kappa Alumni Association. He has interned for two years with Texas Senator Dan Patrick through the Hobby Center for Public Policy. “Working closely with constituents, researching specific bills and networking with prominent political contacts has been life-changing,” he says.

Nick’s goal is to attend the UH Law Center in fall of 2013 to prepare for a career in law and politics. “The combination suits my passion for people and satisfied my constant thirst for justice in society.” Nick aspires to a Doctor of Jurisprudence with special emphasis on Constitutional Law. During his last semesters in law school, he plans to pursue an externship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas.

Nick’s future plans reflect the deep partnership between UH and the city of Houston. He would like to see top scholars and presidents of student organizations visit elementary and high schools, hold workshops for students and mentor the next wave of UH achievers. “A program like this would help recruit top high school students to UH, and connect our student body with the greater Houston area.”