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Each year we celebrate a new group of Outstanding Young Texas Ex Award recipients with—what else?—a party. Transformed into a hip lounge featuring white sofas and soft jazz, the Alumni Center ballroom was filled with attendees eager to greet this year’s class. The honorees include a spirited entrepreneur who founded a multimillion-dollar company; a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who uncovered grand jury corruption; a two-time Olympic gold medalist and NBA MVP; an engineer who wants to take aerospace to the next level; and a member of a political dynasty who’s forging his own path. Did we mention that these accomplished Longhorns are all under the age of 40?

Kevin Durant

Forward, Golden State Warriors

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“When I went down there, I was blown away,” Kevin Durant says, referring to the first time he set foot on UT’s campus as a basketball recruit. “After the first 24 hours, I had met the coaches and seeing the campus and how beautiful it was … I just couldn’t turn it down.”

And so began his first major step in his incomparable career as a perennial All-Star, and the winner of the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player award. Durant, ’07, who had wanted to be an NBA player since he was 9,  joined the Longhorn basketball team his freshman year of college in 2006, starting every game. After becoming the first freshman ever to be named National Player of the Year, he left UT and was drafted No. 2 overall by the Seattle Supersonics, which later became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

This fall marks the two-time Olympic gold medalist’s 10th year in the NBA and his first season playing for the Golden State Warriors. If there’s anything he’d still like to accomplish, it’s staying healthy and active for as long as he can, which means continuing to work hard. He says what sets him apart from others has always been the push-it-to-the-limit mentality instilled in him by his mother—if his coaches said to do 25 push-ups, she’d say to do 75.

“There’re a lot of players that are taller than me, smarter than me, more athletic, and got more skills,” he says. “But what separates [us] is the mindset. Whenever I step on the court, I can’t play badly because there’s no room for me to play badly.”

Durant is also involved with numerous philanthropic causes, like the Kevin Durant Charity Foundation, which enriches the lives of at-risk youth through educational, athletic, and social programs. He spends his down time with family and friends, producing music in his home studio, and rooting for the Longhorns. He says life has turned out just how he had always hoped.

“I’ve never really envisioned myself anywhere else other than the NBA,” he says. “I’m happy where I turned out. There’ve been a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Free spirit: “I’ve been tapping into my artistic side. I know that’s something you don’t like to see anyone but artists do, but it’s important to me. Basketball could be over but mentally and creatively all that stuff goes on forever.”

Time you failed: “There’ve been plenty of times when I’ve failed.  I couldn’t sleep at night and it would just eat me up. The only way I could bounce back from that is to forget about it and move on.”

Lisa Falkenberg

Metro columnist, the Houston Chronicle

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When Lisa Falkenberg was just starting out as a journalist, the thought of interviewing someone was so crippling that she couldn’t even pick up the phone to make the call. “What if they’re smarter than me?” she once asked a seasoned colleague.

Last year, Falkenberg, BJ ’00, won the Pulitzer Prize for her series of columns about grand jury abuses in Harris County, Texas where corruption led to the wrongful conviction of a man named Alfred Dewayne Brown. And just the year before, she was a Pulitzer finalist for another series about a pregnant 12-year-old rape victim whose mother had abandoned her. A judge had illegally ruled to separate the girl from her baby, and it was Falkenberg’s columns that rallied the community to demand change. “They never would’ve been reunited without journalism,” she says.

Stories like these are why she loves her profession. Falkenberg gravitates toward social issues, education, and criminal justice in her writing and says journalism is a career that brings meaning to her life.

“I went from working at a news service where you may not even get a byline on a story to having my picture with every single column,” she says. “But not only do I get to write and ask all these questions, I feel a deep connection with readers. They write you, they tell you their stories, they share some of their lives with you. It’s the feeling that I’m making a difference.”

A Longhorn, through and through: “UT was the only school I applied to because it was the only college campus I had set foot on. Thank God they let me in.”

Time you doubted yourself: While working at the Daily Texan, Falkenberg accidentally misquoted someone in a story. “After that, my editor continued to suggest I didn’t know what I was doing. Whatever confidence I had, she stomped it out. I didn’t think I had what it took to be a journalist. But I got past it and it made me stronger.”

Dan Graham

CEO and co-founder, BuildASign.com; founder, Notley

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When Dan Graham was in law school, days meant lecture halls and legal terms, while he spent his nights holed up in a print shop until sunrise. All that time he had no idea he was building himself a future multimillion-dollar company.

Graham, BA, BS ’03, JD ’05, Life Member, co-founded BuildASign.com, an Austin-based e-commerce custom printing company, in 2005. It started out as a few young men with a website that offered people a new way of making personalized signs. It was just a means of making some extra cash—but the orders kept on coming. Graham put his law career on hold, his business partners quit their day jobs, and together they built an operation that today employs more than 350 people.

“I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” he says, joking that his first business took off when he was just 12 years old. He’d spend his afternoons going door-to-door around his Austin neighborhood, performing magic tricks for free—but if his audience wanted to know the secret behind the trick, they’d have to pay up.

Now, Graham and his wife Lisa, BA, BS ’04, MPAff ’09, Life Member, have three daughters. He collaborates with civic organizations like the Austin Technology Council, working to make the city a more supportive environment for tech companies. He also spends his free time serving on the boards of nonprofits like Mission Capital and the Austin Community Foundation, which provides grants to support health, human services, arts and culture, and the environment.

“I really enjoy tackling large issues,” he says. “I just want to make sure we don’t leave anybody behind as [Austin is] growing rapidly—no matter who they are or where they sit inside of the community. That’s really important to me.”

A class act: “In 10th grade during English class, I made up a fake poet. I’d bring in poems that I’d written to show the teacher and she completely bought it. I got to do my final paper on myself. What made it funnier was the poet’s name was mine backward: Nad Maharg.”

Time you doubted yourself: “Early on, the bank said we were high-risk for fraud, so they seized $60,000—that nearly put us out of business. We had some tough spots. It happens all the time.”

The Honorable George P. Bush

Texas Land Commissioner

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George P. Bush was raised in a political family. He’s the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush; the nephew of former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, MLS ’73, Distinguished Alumna; and the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, BA ’74. Some of his first memories are from when he was just 2 years old, attending events during his grandfather’s 1978 presidential campaign in Houston. But he never intended on following in their footsteps—that is, until about two years ago.

“Maybe I’m blessed to have seen the behind-the-scenes of what candidates take on to serve,” says Bush, JD ’03, Life Member. “So I was always reluctant to run.” But after years of shaping his own career and devoting himself to his family, Bush decided to run for Texas Land Commissioner, taking office in 2015.

His life leading up to his current position helped him explore the three issues he’s most concerned with today: public education, veterans, and state lands. Though raised in Florida, Bush made his way back to Texas as a baseball recruit for Rice University when he was 18. After graduating with degrees in history and political science, he taught public school in Miami, which he says was “an incredibly insightful year.”

Soon after, he enrolled at Texas Law,  joined the U.S. Naval Reserve not long after graduating, and co-founded the real estate firm Pennybacker Capital LLC, plus an investment firm focused on oil and gas transactions named St. Augustine Partners LLC.

Bush says his current position is the perfect fit. He’s leaning toward running again once his term is up, but he says, “right now, [I’m] just trying to survive the next legislative session.” He lives in Austin with his wife Amanda, BA ’00, JD ’03, Life Member, and their two young boys. Bush says success is about being surrounded by good people, working hard, and challenging yourself.

“It’s not glamorous, it’s not sexy,” he says. “It’s a willingness to get out there, find the right answers, and surround yourself with folks that can keep you honest.”

Health nut: “[My wife and I] are fitness freaks. I’m into CrossFit. We’ve also become really into Paleo cuisine.”

Time you failed: “Sometimes, I don’t take enough time for the ones that I love. You can get lost and consumed by the work of the day, but it’s important to take time for family and friends and even yourself.”

Andrea Chavez

Advanced drive systems engineer, Bell Helicopter Textron

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Andrea Chavez grew up looking to the stars. She would daydream about the sky, hoping that one day she could know more about what lies beyond it. It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she figured out how: aerospace engineering.

“My sister is an engineer, so I guess I had it in my mind,” she says. But it was her calculus teacher who introduced her to aerospace. With an affinity for math and science her whole life, Chavez, BS ’04, already knew her major when she arrived at UT in 2000.

Though earning her degree was far from easy, she got hired at the aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter Textron right out of college and has been there ever since. She credits her longtime career goals for her success. “It’s a combination of having that vision at a very young age and knowing that I was going to college,” Chavez says. “There were a lot of people believing in me and the perseverance and dedication to continue.”

She’s currently the program manager for a partnership between Bell and the U.S. Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate. As co-holder of two patents, she leads research in improving the performance and affordability of  systems that drive rotary-wing aircraft like helicopters.

Chavez says her favorite part of her job is the teamwork, and that she’ll be happy as long as she can keep learning and doing research. “I’d like to find improvements and take us into the next step of aerospace,” she says.

The slopes master: “I’m a big snowboarder. Being from Texas, it’s kind of hard to believe. I learned probably about 10 years ago, and I just started doing jumps in the terrain park.”

Time you failed: “There are so many. When I don’t get something that I’ve tried for, it’s hard not to take that personally at first. But I try to focus on the bigger picture. I just kind of build from that and realize later that it was an opportunity for me to learn and try again.”

Photos by Drew Anthony Smith

 

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