5 Under 25: These Houston Millennials Already Making Their Mark

Millennials. Every day it seems as if there’s another story about them, touting their ingenuity or criticizing their lack of a work ethic. Born between the early ’80s and the early ’00s — there is no firmly agreed-upon date range — members of Gen Y, according to sociologists who study such things, do have some common if confounding traits: confidence sometimes bordering on entitlement; a positive outlook despite facing some of the highest levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty in generations; civic-mindedness offset by a desire to amass wealth; technological proficiency combined with a lack of realistic pragmatism.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials outnumber Baby Boomers, making up more than a quarter of America’s population. They are also the most ethnically diverse generation, particularly in Texas, where more than 56 percent of them are part of a minority. It is no surprise, then, that young Houstonians are beginning to make their mark on the city.

Still, there is young and then there is young. It’s one thing to find a talented professional in her early thirties, but most under 25 are still concerning themselves with college or figuring out how to move back in with their parents. But there are those who’ve already shown they can handle an up-and-down economy and find things they can be both passionate about and successful at in life. Here are five of them — all Houstonians under the age of 25 — we thought you should know about.

One is the soccer phenom who already has a gold medal from the World Cup and an eye on next year’s Olympic Games. Another is a chef who began his career when most of us were trying to figure out high school algebra. There is the app developer who’s already a successful entrepreneur and was featured in a recent Houston city marketing campaign. Another is a remarkable artist overcoming disability to create startling, ecologically friendly art. There’s also the college student studying architecture and building health-care clinics in South Africa.

These are the overachievers, the people who don’t wait for decades of experience to get their lives into high gear. As it turns out, for these young Houstonians, age really is just a number.

Morgan Brian, 22
Professional Soccer Player

For most professional athletes, entering a grown-up league can be a challenge. There are the rigors of a sport played by people significantly older and more mature — physically, emotionally and mentally — and there’s the spotlight, which comes with its own complications. When you reach the pinnacle of your sport in your first couple of years as a pro, it can be pretty overwhelming.

Houston Dash midfielder Morgan Brian is about as levelheaded as they come, but she admits her rapid rise from student athlete at the University of Virginia to starter on the U.S. women’s national team was a heady experience. “I had to pinch myself when I was first on the team,” she says.

And the magnitude of performing in the World Cup — a World Cup that the U.S. women won, no less — was not lost on her, as she found herself standing at midfield during games, awed by the spectacle of it all. “The Germany game was the first time I did that, and I got chills every time it happened.”

In his coverage of the World Cup, Sports Illustrated soccer analyst and writer Liviu Bird singled out Brian, saying she “became the catalyst for the U.S. midfield’s composure through the knockout round of the tournament.”

The bright lights of world soccer competition are a long way from Brian’s home in St. Simons Island, Georgia. She grew up a sports fan playing softball and basketball, but excelled on the pitch. She was a star of her team at Virginia and wanted to play beyond her college career despite her parents’ objections. “My parents told me I was going to graduate no matter what,” she explains. “They wanted me to graduate first and then go play.”

Brian is still a couple of semesters short of a degree in kinesiology thanks to the demands of the national team and her Dash schedule, but she’s heading back to school in the fall to work on graduating. “School will always be there,” she says, explaining that her parents ultimately realized, “These chances don’t come as often as you think.”

Unlike in men’s professional sports, the path is not nearly as clear-cut and the odds of success are even longer for women. During her first couple of years in college, Brian assumed she would have to play overseas. She and the other players on the national team agree the opportunity to remain in the United States is significant for both the future success of women’s soccer and women’s sports in general. “That was one of the little goals underneath winning,” she says. “If we win, we succeed, we can draw more people to games and it becomes a bigger sport. Since we won [at World Cup], there have been sellouts across the league. That’s huge.”

For now, fresh off the World Cup and new to Houston, Brian is settling into her new hometown — she loves living in Rice Village but admits she has a lot of Houston left to explore — and enjoying the competition with the Dash. She is also prepping herself for next summer’s Olympics, where the U.S. women’s team will be the clear favorite.

Omar Pereney, 21
Executive Chef

Nine years ago, the owner of Sibaris, a well-known fine-dining restaurant in Caracas, Venezuela, offhandedly told 12-year-old Omar Pereney he could come and cook for him any time he wanted. Little did he know that Pereney would take his business card and comment seriously, calling him repeatedly looking for a job. “It just started me working for free.”

Thus began the impressive culinary career of the new executive chef of the recently opened Peska Seafood Culture. It’s hard to imagine someone as young as Pereney reaching the position of executive chef at his age, but his early start already makes him a veteran of many years in the business, including opening his own restaurant at 16, managing a string of fine-dining establishments in Mexico before he turned 20 and appearing as a television personality on Latin American food network Elgourmet when most kids were taking home economics classes in high school.

Raised in Caracas by busy working parents, Pereney was pushed to be self-sufficient at an early age. His mother left Post-it® notes around the house for him. He began making rice and frying plantains at the ripe old age of nine. And though he did briefly attend culinary school and participate in an internship in Peru, he is mostly self-taught. “I never finished culinary school anywhere because I was too young and it was not actually legal,” he explains.

He arrived in Houston last November to help open Peska — part seafood market, part fine dining — and has fallen in love with the city. “Houston is amazing in so many ways,” he says, noting the quality and diversity of the thriving restaurant scene. “You can have really good food from everywhere; really good Peruvian food, really good Chinese food, the best ramen I’ve ever had.”

And though he is just barely 21 (the restaurant threw a birthday party for him when he achieved that milestone), he is used to working with older, more experienced kitchen staff. “That’s the story of my life, man,” he says, explaining it helps that most of the people at Peska speak Spanish. “It’s all Spanglish all the time.”

For Pereney, the adventure of working with an astonishing variety of food makes Peska tough to beat for a young chef. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I say this really humbly, but I’ve never seen that many kinds of seafood.” He and his staff experiment with whatever ocean-dwelling creatures come through the door, trying everything raw.

But not everyone is a fan of his experiments. “My parents are picky,” Pereney explains. While his mother is not a fan of live food, it’s his father, who managed the first restaurant Pereney opened in Venezuela, who presents the bigger challenge. “My dad is more traditional with food,” he says. Recently, he served his father a traditional dish deconstructed with a modern twist. Pereney recalls his father telling him, “Man, you destroyed this dish.”

Caroline Brigham, 20
Student, Humanitarian

For most students, the summer between the sophomore and junior years of college likely includes vacation, having fun with friends and maybe taking a part-time job or internship. For Rice University student Caroline Brigham, it has been spent building a sustainable community center in an impoverished township in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a Rice internship. Certainly impressive, but it only scratches the surface of this junior architecture major’s interests.

“I’ve been brainstorming how we can have mobile health-care clinics in the township that are solar-powered so they don’t rely on a lot of funding,” she explains by phone from South Africa, “which would be an ideal situation for these people who don’t have access to health care.”

For eight weeks over the summer, she is not only building the center, but providing relief efforts to a drastically underserved population with little access to desperately needed services, including homes for unwanted children. “The community center that we are constructing has helped some of those cases where children are abandoned and left amongst the trash,” Brigham says.

Her desire to serve began in her home state of Maryland with her mother, a nurse practitioner. Helping others became the central focus of her life. “Since high school, my greatest joy has been service.”

Constantly searching for new opportunities, she is starting a university chapter of Circle K International — the collegiate branch of Kiwanis International — aimed at serving children and adults in Houston affected by poverty. She is also involved in a team project for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which she hopes will serve the Third and Fifth wards. She befriended a homeless woman she met on a run. “I’ve seen this hope grow in her,” Brigham says after spending time talking to her, introducing her to friends and working with Brigham’s church to help her acquire a phone and search for a job.

At times, the practical hands-on work Brigham is already doing collides with the more theoretical approach of her architectural studies. “One of the most modern buildings that is the future of architecture, you can’t just place that into a slum,” she says.

But she is still a student, and at least some of her ideas need to remain theoretical for now. Last year, Brigham wrote an abstract for the Rice Undergraduate Research Symposium dealing with architecture, its intersection with bioengineering on the cellular level and how it could help increase the flow of oxygen to cells.

Back in South Africa, Brigham spends her time on more practical pursuits. She explains how she and other volunteers are removing sand from the nature preserve behind the facility they are constructing, putting it in recycled bags, stacking them and plastering around them to support the building’s structure. “It’s kind of like we are making our own concrete.”

With all her responsibilities, Brigham does have one thing that helps provide a release: music. A classically trained singer, she doesn’t need a stage to enjoy herself, at least not a formal one. “I just go to Hermann Park and sing,” she says, explaining that she often brings a group of friends for accompaniment. “Sometimes, homeless people will come over to us. That’s always really nice.” It would seem, even in her down time, she is serving someone.

Grant Manier, 19

Shelves of puzzles line an entire wall of the Maniers’ garage at their home in Spring. Next to the stacks of puzzles are boxes filled with all manner of paper scraps, posters and canvases, neatly organized and arranged. What might seem like a hoarding problem is actually a carefully curated set of tools for artist Grant Manier.

Inside the home, partially finished works of impressionist art are spread across three rooms and finished canvases cover nearly every wall. “I don’t have a dining room; it’s a studio,” Julie Manier, Grant’s mother and manager, explains. “My entire house is a gallery.” It would be an astonishing collection for any artist, but for a 19-year-old, it boggles the mind, particularly when it’s revealed that Grant has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

He began tearing paper at the age of three. By the time he was seven, the pieces began to take shape as rudimentary forms, but it wasn’t until a homeschool art project when he was 14 that it all snapped into place. “It was supposed to be paint, but I felt nervous about [using] paint,” he says.

Since then, he has produced more than 100 works, though he doesn’t keep count, showcasing and selling original pieces, prints and calendars at retail shops and art shows across the country. He calls his work “eco-art” because it’s created almost entirely from recycled materials.

Hanging on the wall behind one of his work areas is Caribbean Owl, which he stitched together using shreds of 65 Pirates of the Caribbean promotional posters left over after a school play. Hair from a mermaid is cobbled together to make the wings, while bits of yellow give a glow to the moon hanging overhead. Caribbean Owl took more than a month to create.

“Paper art takes a while,” Grant says, sitting at his desk demonstrating how he painstakingly removes the top layer of puzzle pieces from their cardboard backing to use on some of his latest work. “I’ve got lots of patience.”

He has made a name for himself, too, collaborating on works with former Texans player Connor Barwin, Houston Oilers legend Dan Pastorini and Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic professor and speaker who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010. With his growing success, Grant is supportive of other artists with disabilities. His latest calendar — he’s done one in each of the past four years — showcases the work of other disabled artists along with his own.

In a back room hangs a set of four horse portraits Grant refers to as “the brothers.” They’re made entirely of discarded calendars, and bits of American flags and Mardi Gras decorations make up the faces and parts of the manes, which is not immediately noticeable unless you’re looking closely. It took months to finish all of them. “Every once in a while I have anxiety problems, but this helps calm me down,” he says. “When I’m working on my art pieces, it feels like meditation to me.”

Reva Verma, 23
Mobile App Developer, Entrepreneur

Business acumen, particularly in owning a company, is not something typically learned in school. Dealing with the daily struggles of self-employment is a skill honed over years of experience, and yet in a 2014 survey by Bentley University in Massachusetts, 67 percent of millennials said starting a new business was their main goal compared to only 13 percent who wanted to climb the corporate ladder. Reva Verma is among the first group.

“I grew up in an entrepreneurial family,” she explains. “So when I graduated from college, I was told, ‘If you’re going to fail, you might as well fail fast.’”

After her graduation from Texas Christian University, she immediately opened the mobile app development firm Reneka App Builders, which she admits she could not have done without the help of her father, the owner of a successful cyber-security company. “I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I’m doing without his networking and his guiding me on how to run a business.”

Technology seemed an obvious choice given her father’s career path, but her interest in mobile applications was incubated during an internship at Texas Children’s Hospital. There, she helped develop an app for moms with multiples. But her relationship with TCH began long before. “I was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic when I was 11,” she says, even blogging for the hospital about her experiences as a former patient. She now volunteers at Camp Rainbow, a camp for diabetic children, talking to youngsters and their parents about dealing with the disease. “It’s a way for a kid to be a kid,” she says.

Given her story, it’s no wonder the Greater Houston Partnership featured the native of The Woodlands as part of its “Houston: The City With No Limits” campaign, a photo of her in cowboy boots along with some of the things she loves about Houston — the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Niko Niko’s among them — adorning billboards and posters.

Verma says she appreciates what the GHP (which referred to her as Houston’s “hometown girl ambassador”) is doing. “They are trying to make Houston a place for young professionals,” she says. “They want to show it’s not only about oil and gas.” In college, she came to the same realization. “When I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my future, I was like, Houston is the place to be.”

She does have one quibble with the campaign, however. They described her as a Texans fan, and while she enjoys football, she grew up going to Rockets games with her father and her first love is clearly basketball. “There’s a James Harden poster in my apartment,” she says. When asked if she’s a Red Rowdy, she says, “No, I wish I was. That would be cool.”
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke