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Being the Bridge: New director of inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship aims to diversify Austin’s startup landscape

image of Ruben Cantu
Aside from family trips to Mexico, Rubén Cantú rarely ventured outside his East Austin neighborhood until he came to the Forty Acres and discovered a bold new world. Cantú’s academic journey is one that students, particularly those coming from underrepresented communities, can relate and respond to in a positive way.

“The university was the bridge that allowed me to expand my mind,” says Cantú, who earned a B.S. in Radio-Television-Film in 2005. “I understood that folks on the other side of the highway had things much easier, but I refuse to be called the exception.”

One of the first Mexican American students to enter the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization program in the McCombs School of Business, Cantú saw himself as an anomaly.

“I don’t want to be the anomaly,” Cantú says. “There’s no reason for me to be the first from my high school to go to UT or the second Mexican to enter my graduate program. That’s unacceptable. We’re going to change that now. And that means instead of just forging ahead, we have to be the bridge.”

image of Ruben
KEYE Reporter Fed Cantu (left) and Rubén Cantú take a moment to smile for the camera at the Inclusive Innovation Week kickoff event held on Nov. 1 at the Capital Factory.

Now, in his new role as director of inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship, he aims to diversify this growing field of study. As he moves into this new chapter of his career, he plans to guide students and community members from diverse backgrounds into Austin’s robust startup scene. Emphasizing self-reliance, self-determination and the ability to move without restraints, Cantú hopes to teach them to channel their skills and their passions into an impactful career.

Although UT Austin is home to many innovation centers and institutes, Cantú’s forthcoming Product Prodigy Institute is designed for a different demographic of students. Cantú encourages undergraduates with mid to low GPAs to tap into this resource so they can get excited about starting up their own business ventures. He sees the potential in these students and wants to show them that they are as capable as their high-achieving peers of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Marissa Mayer.

As a career accelerator, Product Prodigy will help students develop leadership skills and learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship such as product development, market fit, pricing and communications.

“I don’t teach people how to fish,” says Cantú, who is modeling Product Prodigy after the training program he created for social impact tech entrepreneurs at LevelUp, where he served as CEO. “We’re already teaching students how to fish—how to go out and get a job—at the University of Texas. We’re going to teach people how to build fisheries.”

One important lesson Cantú drives home in his teachings is that successful entrepreneurship leads to generational wealth.

“Power is exchanged through education and knowledge, through economic and entrepreneurship development,” Cantú says. “We cannot have this discussion about equality until we discuss the inequity within our communities. And our communities cannot progress until we understand how to build wealth within them. What we try to do at the DDCE is create that new paradigm.”