The BusinessMakers Radio Show

Episode #460: Dr. Renu Khator

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Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at; brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. I'm very pleased today to have as my guest Dr. Renu Khator, the Chancellor of the University of Houston system and President of the University of Houston; Renu, great to have you on The BusinessMakers Show.

Renu: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

Russ: About 3 years ago I interviewed Welcome Wilson on the show and it was real clear to me that his background with the University of Houston is extremely meaningful to him and his involvement of the selection of you to, uh, to lead it was very important and he told me the story about the contenders for the position were all very impressive, but the end of your interview you looked at him in the eye and said you know why you need to hire me? And he said no, why? And you said because I've got fire in the belly; and that did it. So here you are 5 years later, do you still have fire in the belly?

Renu: Oh absolutely, I think I am born with fire in my belly. Absolutely, I think you probably need to ask that question to those who are around me, um, who work with me as a team at the university and they'll tell you; I've got plenty of fire in my belly.

Russ: Well, I have asked them. I've had about 10 of them on the show and without me really even bringing it up your name comes up all the time and they give you straight A's so you're doing a good job.

Renu: Good, well thank you.

Russ: Tell us about the University of Houston today, what's the most exciting thing that's going on out there in your opinion?

Renu: University of Houston is a totally transformed campus at this point in many, many, many ways, you know? If you thought it was a commuter school, think again because now we are the second most residential campus in the State of Texas among all public and private institutions. Now, if you thought the University of Houston was doing just, you know, academic research, I would say think again; in terms of our innovation, commercialization, in all of those areas we are absolutely beating the odds and we are doing phenomenally well in the country.

We are now ranked in the top tier institutions in terms of research, we are there for our value that we provide in the Princeton Review in US News and World Report, but we are also one of the most affordable universities in the country. We rank number 7th in the nation, to me that is very precious. But I'll tell you, out of all of these things - the great rankings, great ratings - what excites me most is the fact that today when I see students walk around campus, when the Freshmen - when I meet with them I know that we are able to graduate far more of them today than we were able to do few years back. The graduation rate, the retention rate, what that means to me is it's not about just one person's job, one person's life, it's about changing the whole generation Because the students who are coming to us, are many of them are first generation; many of them are role models for their entire family and generation and the clan.

Russ: Well the diversity on campus is extremely impressive and the whole ambiance of the campus. You mentioned Tier 1, I remember when sort of that objective first sort of got out into the public and everybody said ooo, that's a real high mountain to climb; it seems like you just kind of took it in stride.

Renu: I did all of the study of the databases and the faculties resumes and everything before I came here and my assessment was it would take 5 to 7 years for us if we really could focus very hard. Well, I didn't know the quality was better than what I had anticipated; I didn't know the community support was far greater than what I had anticipated. So after I came here, generally people get surprises, well I got surprises too but mine were pleasant surprises and we were able to get - get it done much - at a much faster speed and it's really very gratifying, you know, to see just the confidence in the University of Houston as an organization, uh, change. It's gratifying to see the community's perception about the University of Houston change. And I think we have hardly scratched the surface of our potential because what this university can do for this community and this state is - we're not there yet, we have huge potential.

Russ: Well I believe you for sure. My sort of entre to the campus was quite a few years ago for the Wolfe Center - back before it was the Wolfe Center interviewing and visiting with Bill Sheryl and Ken Jones, and man is that ever impressive and they continue to rate first or second and third in the nation in entrepreneurship and then you mentioned commercialization too of IP. I interviewed Dr. Mark Clark and discovered how that's going; share your perspective, I'm impressed.

Renu: It is very exciting because these are under graduates students who are in the program for entrepreneurship. Where do they get chance to play with the real thing? And we decided we have so many technologies sitting on the shelf and maybe we can do something better, so we paired up 5 of those students with couple of professors with their technology and said well you teach them the science of your technology and you teach them the business of your work and the two together, if you are able to win a national competition, then we will support you and give you place in our incubator. Well guess what, they went the national competition and they won. So now they are in our incubator holding equity in this start of a company and their technology's amazing.

Russ: It seems to me that you do an extraordinary good job of integrating like the faculty, student body and local businesses too.

Renu: Right. Who - so it's not really me, it's Houston; there is something in the air of Houston because many times people come and want me to come to other universities, other cities to talk about how do you make it Tier 1 University? And I tell them number one ingredient, Houston; because the people are so entrepreneurial, so innovative, they're willing to synergize, they're willing to celebrate success. And I think that has been the key for us in our attempt to synergize and to build partnerships with industry and with other sectors. And I think the impact has been on our students because we have programs now that we didn't think possible.

For instance, we have the largest medical center as well, you know, and now we don't have a medical school at the University of Houston, but we have a joint program and partnership with all the 3 medical schools that are in Houston. Students can get directly they can get admission, they can come to the University of Houston and seamlessly they continue to other medical schools for their combined BSMD program, and while they do that they also save one year and they can do it in 7 instead of 8 years. To me that is so important given the population that we have; we have so diverse, we are the second most diverse university in the nation. We are the prototype of what America will be tomorrow. If we can prove that it is possible to be successful, that you don't have to put excellence and diversity in 2 separate boxes, the two are together. I think we can change the face of America tomorrow and that's what excites me here. And I can do some things here in Houston that I don't think was possible other places.

Russ: I've also noticed you've integrated deeply with the energy industry here. I've done multiple energy interviews out there, uh, with, uh, with Dr. Franchack and the subsea thing, Dr. Economides - the late, great Dr. Economides - but you have multiple initiatives going on in energy today, right?

Renu: Right. We have lots of initiatives in terms of educational programs because we are providing the educational opportunities and the skillsets that are not available anywhere in the country. And I think we should do that, we are in the oil and gas capital of the world here, but we are also doing a lot of research things. We have for instance, uh, the Ocean Energy Safety Institute which we are a part; it's our responsibility I think to look at the future of oil and gas and the very best, environmentally safe way of exploring the new ways and new places for oil, but at the same time I think it's our obligation to look at renewable energy.

So we have an energy advisory board and I think the top people here are serving on that and they're guiding us, our choices. And we're just so lucky that we are here in such close proximity to all of the headquarters of these energy companies and it's shame on us if we are unable to really use that proximity to the best, um, interest of the community and our economy. But while we do that we obviously very much benefit from the educational point of view.

Russ: Well even when Energy Director Muniz was in town recently for CERA Week, I think he chose to come out and visit the University of Houston.

Renu: That's true because we convinced him that here is the future; we are the 800lb gorilla in Houston because we are graduating about 8,000 students from the University of Houston main campus. So and most of our students are staying right here, in the businesses right here in Houston - so if you think about raising the bar for Houston as a whole or keeping our competitive edge tomorrow, you really have to pay attention to what's happening at the University of Houston.

Russ: Renu you know that your success has put you in the position of really being an instrumental role model; share with us your background.

Renu: Well, my background I come from India born and brought up in a very, very small town with no knowledge of English - I always say that - and I just happened to land in the United States because my marriage was arranged, so everything in my life has happened not so well planned, but everything has turned out well. Then I went to Purdue University, I finished my Masters I think when I was 20 years old, then my did my PhD and I just had fire in my belly all the time. If somebody tells me it can't be done well I definitely want to do it.

Russ: That is so cool. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective and giving us some of your valuable time. Thank you so much for coming in.

Renu: Thank you, thank you so much.

Russ: And that wraps up my discussion with Dr. Renu Khator, the Chancellor of the University of Houston system and President of the University of Houston. And that wraps up this episode of The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen right here at, brought to you by Comcast Business built for business.