Going.Ahead.With Gage: Interview with Ruben Cantu

“For the people in positions of power and privilege, please use this time not only to acknowledge the disparity, but to step in and dismantle it.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #COVID19

Hi y’all! I’m so excited to share this next Going.Ahead.With Gage interview because it’s featuring someone who’s passionate about helping others and helping them find the best parts of themselves. He’s a well respected leader in our Austin community and a huge advocate for DEI initiatives. Please enjoy my interview with the one and only Ruben Cantu, the Executive Director of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin!

You work at one of the largest universities in the nation — how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your students at UT and what advice do you have for them, especially those graduating this year?

Lots of people are coping with this pandemic differently. Some can’t wait to come back and finish their classes, others are facing extreme uncertainty due to not knowing how long this will last, and what the job market will look like when they graduate.

Many of the students I teach are first-generation, low-income students who often don’t have the resources and home to build up economically. Therefore, having to take classes online when they come back from Spring Break will be a challenge. I admire all of my students because they are inherently resilient and I know this experience will only make them better. 

“When we all serve one another, we share power, and when we share power, we create renewable energy.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #DEI

You’re a major advocate for DEI in Austin — what advice and uplifting words of wisdom can you share for those that manage and run programs specializing in those areas right now?

DEI allows people to gain a glimpse into the world of people who aren’t like them. In times of crisis, you begin to see the disparities even more. We all might be Americans, but we all don’t have access to the same opportunities and resources. There is something to be said for individual will and ambition, but that alone doesn’t prove out when the environment in which that plays in does support a true vision of EQUITY. Therefore, during this time, I have two messages:

For the people in positions of power and privilege — please use this time to acknowledge the disparity and step in and dismantle it. That is the only way. 

For those who find themselves navigating from a DEI lens — please know that we’re collectively creating a new world together. We’ll soon make up a large part of the workforce, and it’ll be upon us to lead not only in innovation, but with equity — we look at the inefficient systems and retool them to make them more equitable. We start honoring ourselves and those around us as ourselves.

We must step into other communities in the DEI space that we don’t understand and educate ourselves, empathetically listen and serve. Yes, serve, because that is how we begin to erase and blur the line of privilege. When we all serve one another, we share power, and when we share power, we create renewable energy. Let’s be that “renewable energy” for our future generations so that when they look back at us, they not only see the sacrifice we made, but see the systems we created that they can take and build off of. 

“It’s time to go beyond ‘Southern Hospitality’ and stop living just for yourself, and start living for the collective.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #COVID19

We’re in a time of uncertainty but also a change of coming together as a community, as a nation and as the world to support each other to get through it. What are some steps or actions people can take right now in our Austin community to support those that need help and/or protection?

The beauty of doing equity work is that once your eyes are opened to the needs of your community and those most vulnerable, you can never turn back. You’re then faced with the decision of helping improve policies and systems or perpetuating them. You take stock of all your privileges, make room and “pass the mic” to others who often go unheard. 

If Austin, Texas can take a moment to truly focus on this work and actively choose to create systems that influence our neighbors in need more equitably, we’ll be on the path to seeing Austin as the most equitable city in the country. That means checking in on your neighbor and understanding that we are truly interdependent. Go beyond “Southern Hospitality” and smiling to actually affording to care for people that don’t look like you or come from the same background.

It means that when people begin losing their jobs or their housing becomes insecure, you step up and step in to help and lend a hand. You stop living just for yourself, and you start living for the collective. Your identity is not lost in the collective but your ego is. And that’s something we can learn through these times. We can stand to lose our “ego-system,” and we can start to foster an equitable “eco-system,” as my friend Ruth Glendinning says. Go check on your neighbor, go volunteer and go raise funds for communities in need. Don’t do it out of self-righteousness, do it out of compassion and a deep sense of community. 

What’s your secret passion?

My secret passion is the exploration of human consciousness and expansion. We have biology that has brought us to this consciousness that we understand right now and thus we have developed systems from this standpoint, but we have hit a wall, or at least appear to, because humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes. Therefore, if we understand the mechanisms of our neurology and how we can upgrade our existing “firmware,” we might be able to ascend into a deeper, richer and more fulfilling experience called life. If you ever want to have coffee around this conversation, please let me know! 

“Without investing in relationships, you are nothing.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #leadership

What’s something you’ve learned in your career that you’ve held on to that’s inspired you to keep pushing forward?

I’m a statistical margin of error or anomaly. I’m the “exception,” but it’s my mindset that created new opportunities where others with even more intellect and capacity did not. I’m insanely curious and don’t care about failing. I’m willing to ask for help and I’m willing to pivot as needed. I also know that without investing in relationships you are nothing. Therefore, people aren’t transactional, but a source of unlimited potential and transformative power. 

“When people get in touch with their true innate purpose, they step into the path of personal human fulfillment and encourage others to do the same.” @rubencantoo #GAWG

How do you encourage people to keep pushing forward when they feel like they aren’t getting anywhere?

There are a couple of reasons why things don’t move forward, so let’s break them down:

  1. You are continuing to perform the same action and expecting a different result and are getting resistance. Ask yourself — what about my approach can change? How can I identify the elements that are flexible and can change, and see what won’t change? 
  2. We don’t understand the climate we’re in — think about trying to explain a thing like the Internet to people living 100 or 200 years ago. While it could have been understood on a high-level, it wouldn’t be as tangible and able to truly live in the consciousness of others. Ask yourself — what am I trying to sell and what environment do I find myself in? Is my idea too far ahead to be understood within the time, place, and environment I am in?

My advice? Understand that you’re not the owner of your vision. This seems contrary to what people push in traditional entrepreneurial motivation, where they will tell you to push harder and faster. That is true, but only to a degree. We have to understand the deeper energetic elements at play here. I know this starts to sound quasi-scientific but stick with me for a second…

Once you realize that many other people could have been presented similar ideas and visions just like you, you realize that we are all part of a collective whole trying to move our species forward. If we don’t do it, our resilient system will find a way to birth it into the world. If Henry Ford didn’t make the Model T then someone else would’ve stepped up. When you adopt this mindset, you start to humble yourself and begin to honor each day as precious, realizing that it’s a gift to be given this vision, and if you want to see this come to pass, you’ll need to adopt humility and trust your insights.

In order to keep going, you have to go back to your center and be very clear on your purpose and your why in this world. Once you’re clear of why you’ve been brought to this world, all things start showing up to help you achieve your mission. Most people don’t think like this and they will go through life trying to find job, after job, after job — or it could be company, after startup, after venture. Either way, they will never have enough anchors that help them remain motivated to keep going. Imagine doing a job and showing up every day out of fear of not surviving. Never honoring and giving time to the little voice inside you encouraging you to explore, think and create bigger and deeper. There is nothing wrong with the former, but I think when people get in touch with their true innate purpose not only do they step into the path of personal human fulfillment but they encourage others to do the same. And when the entire world does this, we’ll be able to take care of our planet in a very dignified and equitable manner. 

“Afford to care and genuinely invest in your network by bringing real value to the lives of others.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #leadership

What advice do you have for younger generations that are early in their careers and trying to work their way up?

Understand that you are in a game. The quicker you realize the rules of the game and understand how to navigate the game, the sooner you will be successful. However, there are individuals that exploit and manipulate their way to the top, but that will eventually bankrupt you and your soul. I wouldn’t recommend that. You can also, keep your head down and not play the political game, but sooner or later it will catch up with you — it will limit your ability to be seen as a contributor and instead become a target. I wouldn’t recommend this either.

What I do recommend is genuinely investing your network and bring real value to their lives. Afford to care, as I mentioned earlier. When you cement your life and work around trusted, genuine relationships, and when you’re committed to the growth and success of others, others will do the same for you. You’ll be sought as a resource and not a reservation. Energy and body language will tell you everything — learn how to read people not by what they are saying, but what their body language is expressing. When you get good at emotional intelligence, a whole new world opens up to you. 

“When you get good at emotional intelligence, a whole new world opens up to you.” @rubencantoo #GAWG #leadership #networking

What is one of the most difficult decisions you’ve made in your career and what did you learn from it?

One of the most difficult decisions I made in my career was to leave one of my startups and my co-founder to pursue my own company, which I had the passion and commitment. I was there for my partner, but I wasn’t truly committed to the vision. That’s when I discovered that you have to have both — if you’re not committed fully and wholeheartedly you will suffer in the creation of the company and it will test your relationships.

If the commitment is not strong enough then someone will leave. The great thing is that I honored and departed my position and continued to invest in him and his future. Today, he has gone on to start two other major startups and has had phenomenal success. What’s more important is that our friendship is intact and we tag team in helping our community all the time! 

I love book recommendations to help me grow in my career and challenge my thinking — what books would you recommend as a must-read for career growth and/or just fictional fun?

Thank you for reading and stay-tuned for the next one!

— Gage Grammer

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