People of the Year 2020: Rubén Cantú
At a young age, Rubén Cantú watched his father come home late from mopping floors during graveyard shifts at the University of Texas. Nearly 30 years later, Cantú now leads several initiatives on campus to ensure students of color have access to better opportunities.
As executive director of the Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UT, he oversees the education of students in entrepreneurship and a fellowship program guiding women of color into corporate leadership roles within 10 years of graduating. He also leads the Texas 2030 Inclusion Challenge, whose mission is to increase diversity in Austin’s top industries and tech companies.
“We revolutionize the way higher education works,” Cantú says. “If you grew up in the wrong zip code, you don’t get access to particular education and it limits your ability to get into institutions.”
This lack of access in turn leads to an inability to provide for a family, which perpetuates the poverty cycle. Hoping to break this chain, Cantú is striving to provide education opportunities that create generational wealth. He proves to students that despite your past, you can have a future.
Outside the Forty Acres, Cantú supports socially conscious brands and uplifts voices within his community as the CEO of the LevelUp Institute, SocialGood.us and CORE Media Strategies. Prior to bringing his startup experience to the university, he devoted his life to ensuring Black and Brown kids don’t just have a seat at the table—they can create a new “round table” where they are valued.
Cantú is a testament to this sentiment. Growing up in the Givens Park area of East Austin, he learned to hustle for what he wanted from a young age.At 10, he spent the summer slinging snow cones in the brutal Texas heat to afford school clothes. By 14, he’d started a radio show, adding a magazine and promotional company to his résumé within a few years.
“I was trying to prove that I wasn’t just the kid that grew up in the hood in public housing,” says Cantú. “I was going to be somebody.”
When people tried to tell him what he could not do, he reminded himself that he is Rubén Cantú, refusing to listen to the doubters. Pursuing a passion for music, he was on the path to become the next Diddy, but his heart was not in the industry.
“It was at that time where I was forced to start considering who I was as a person reinvent myself,” says Cantú.
As a first-generation college student and the second Mexican American to go through the master’s program at the McCombs School of Business, Cantú grappled with feeling like a “fish out of water” and considered dropping out of UT after struggling with grades his first semester. He admits that without supporters like his dad reminding him of his potential, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Now, Cantú wants to be that motivator for others.
While “diversity” has become a buzzword over the years, Cantú equates true change to a school dance.
“Diversity is being asked to the dance, while inclusivity is being asked to dance. Inclusive innovation is being part of the committee choosing the playlist,” he says. “We need to talk about equity and belonging. That’s where the conversation needs to be shifting.”
Above all else, he considers confidence the key to success for his students.
“I don’t need to train them how to code,” says Cantú. “I need to train them how to lead people.”
With students graduating to own their own businesses and work at Fortune 500 companies, Cantú has achieved that goal. And while he appreciates adding Entrepreneur of the Year for Austin Under 40 to other numerous awards on his mantel, this impact on people’s lives is his true prize, which in turn extends far beyond the university. Cantú is currently developing a podcast and forming the Community Resilience Trust, a nonprofit addressing systemic issues such as homelessness and food shortages in communities.
“If I can be one of the voices of change in our community and beyond, then I know what I’m here to do,” he says. “I’m going to try to do it with honor and integrity every step of the way.”