You could call Ruben Cantu a renaissance man, of sorts. Maybe even a “born again” businessman. Or even a wannabe P. Diddy. Just don’t call him ineffective. After talking with the man, it’s hard to ignore the one word that represents Ruben best. And that word is “Impact.”
From a young age, Ruben has sought to make a difference in the world around him. Whether in east Austin, at the University of Texas, the corporate world, or even in other countries, Ruben’s primary motivation is to empower people to do good deeds. To those ends, he created a company called CORE Media Strategies (which stands for “Creating Opportunities that Revolutionize and Empower”), where he helps people create engaging stories through media.
Ruben is also one of the driving forced behind Austin + Social Good, where he’s raised over $20,000 in the past four years to help 17 different social enterprise companies go through accelerator programs.
His social innovation accomplishments led to a recent speaking engagement in Dubai as part of the 1st World Government Summit, a conference sponsored by the United Nations Foundation and the United Arab Emirates, where he rubbed shoulders with Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus and legendary singer Cat Stevens.
Oh, and did we mention that he was on the Apple team that launched the first ever iPhone? Yeah. This guy is prolific, to be sure. But none of this would have happened without the University of Texas at Austin.
The first of his family to go to college, Cantu’s entrepreneurial pursuits started at age 16, when he walked away from Reagan High and began going to school part-time at Garza High. It was there that he pursued his passion for radio and launched a three-hour program called “Urban Assault,” which promised to wage war on “ignorance” in urban culture.
He fell in love with the medium and the music that supports it before finally deciding on his long-term goal. “I wanted to be the next P. Diddy,” he said. A stroke of luck came his way in 2001 when he “got a shot,” Ruben said, becoming one of just four east Austin kids to be accepted to UT Austin that year.
“My father always encouraged me to do more, and now I finally got the opportunity to attend one of the best universities in the nation,” Cantu said. But he almost lost that opportunity just as quickly as it was given to him, coming within just a few percentage points of dropping out in his first semester. Luckily he turned it all around, making the dean’s list his second semester and several times thereafter.
That’s when Ruben’s media empire began to grow. He turned “Urban Assault” from a high school passion into a professional TV show that was honored as the “Best Music Show in the Country” by several publications. Then he bootstrapped his first company, the Urban Assault Media Group, before earning a rather fitting nickname from his fellow students. It did not take long before the so-called “hardest working man at UT” grew his company to a staff of 25 by his senior year, working as a promoter for independent artists on the side and coordinating sell-out shows at the original Antone’s. He even worked with some bonafide musical superstars like Prince.
That’s when MTV came calling, and Ruben was ready for them. Living in New York City, Cantu thought he made it, but something wasn’t right. He questioned whether his ethics fit in with an industry focused on money, power, and back-stabbing. Eventually, his doubts got the better of his wallet. Confronted by his boss one day, Ruben questioned whether a promiscuous music video was appropriate. “If you’re not comfortable with the music we promote, than maybe you shouldn’t be here,” his boss curtly replied.
“I thought I was an idealist,” Ruben said. “[The industry] was going to change me,” but he wasn’t interested in taking that route.
That’s how Ruben found his true calling: Creating social good. After moving back to Austin and spending a few years at Apple, he realized that his life was best served by making a positive difference for others. So he began studying for a Master’s of Science in Technology Commercialization. Like his other endeavors, Ruben succeeded, but came out on the other side with some misgivings. Mainly, upon graduating Ruben learned that he was only the second Mexican American to go through the program.
“Once again, I was one of the first, and it was unacceptable,” he said. Dissatisfied by the prospect of a six-figure job that attends to his needs and his alone, Ruben cashed out his savings from Apple and from the stock market, then bootstrapped another company: CORE Media. But something still was missing.
That something wasn’t clear until 2012, when Ruben began creating his network of social innovators. This effort culminated with Austin + Social Good, which hosted a sold out Social Good Summit at the Alamo Drafthouse on September 4, 2012, with author Deepak Chopra and SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest as the keynote speakers.
The next year, he organized “Work From Home Day,” which which the City of Austin now calls “Mobility Week.” The cause garnered support from companies like Dell, Rackspace, and GSD&M, as well as Governor Rick Perry, ultimately reducing Austin’s traffic load by about 14,000 cars. But don’t say that was entirely Ruben’s doing. “It was a community effort,” he explained with a smile.
That community effort — and the presentation of their results at the next year’s SXSW — directly led to the creation of SXgood, a new track for the festival featuring people and teams working to make society better. This year’s SXgood is expected to be bigger than ever.
Of course, Ruben isn’t quite done yet. Between creating the “Startup Superstars” competition alongside the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, carrying out a third Mobility Week, and taking the “+SocialGood” concept worldwide, he keeps busy with other smaller projects — usually focused on helping people, as you might expect.
Maybe that’s why Ruben was recently honored by the Austin Young Chamber as a 2016 Changemaker nominee. Or why he’s up for the Austin Under 40 Entrepreneur of the Year award. And no matter who you are, you’ve got to admit: That’s not too shabby for a former P. Diddy wannabe who almost dropped out of college.