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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Gates Millennium Scholar Who Wants to 'Make a Dent in the World'

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
Harvard University's Memorial Hall. (Photo: chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons)

Harvard University's Memorial Hall. (Photo: chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons)

Felix Ruano, 19, Economics

Felix Ruano grew up in a rough part of Los Angeles. His parents, who immigrated from Mexico three years before he was born, work in a Korean restaurant for a pittance. At one point, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with 14 others. He’s been held up at both knifepoint and gunpoint. Ruano has four siblings but is the first in his family to go to college.

He goes to Harvard.

(Photo: Felix Ruano)


At his high school, L.A.’s Ambassador School of Global Leadership—built over the spot where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated—Ruano was the captain of the soccer, track, and cross-country teams and won the Foot Locker Scholar-Athlete of the Year award (the prize was $20,000 for college tuition). He was the student newspaper’s editor in chief and presided over the school’s Model U.N., as well as his junior class. He and almost all of his classmates lived below the poverty line, which inspired him to pour his soul into humanitarian work, volunteering at orphanages in Mexico and doing service projects throughout Nicaragua.

Before he graduated, he helped start ChangeFire, a non-profit that matches people to philanthropic opportunities. ChangeFire’s CEO, Johnny Duda, is Ruano’s key mentor and the one who got him interested in philanthropy work. “He has been willing to take me under his wing,” Ruano says, “and show me how the non-profit sector works. He also pushed me to take on projects and exposed me to different skills that have become the basis of my work.”

For his efforts, Ruano was named a Gates Millennium Scholar, an honor that covers his full college tuition. (If Ruano could meet anyone, it would be Bill Gates, he says, “so I could pick his brain about leadership, business, and philanthropy.”) Ruano is also a Millennium Campus Network Fellow, which means that he gets up to $10,000, plus the services of relevant mentors, to help the organizations he’s involved with.

“I know that the relationships I build today are valued more than any single award,” he says. “Right now, I am taking the time to learn from role models.”

So far during his freshman year, Ruano has interned at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a pro bono law firm that serves underprivileged Bostonians, and joined Synergy, an incubator for students working to launch social-entrepreneurship projects. He’s concentrating his academics on economics and global development.

“My motivation comes from seeing the ability to create high impact as an undergraduate,” he says. “Coming from a disadvantaged background has made me unafraid of repeated failure. I want to inspire students from similar backgrounds to pursue higher education despite the obstacles they may encounter.”

Though Ruano isn’t sure exactly how he wants his career to take shape, he often returns to the idea of running for office. “I want to make a dent in the world,” he says, “whether it is by disruptive innovation or helping scale a powerful idea. I am a young man willing to take on some of the world’s toughest challenges.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.