Like many kids, five-year-old Cristina Flores dreamed of becoming president—but while most of us outgrow that Oval Office dream, Flores hasn't. In fact, at 26, she already has four years of experience working for the White House.
She started there interning in the Office of the First Lady, helping Michelle Obama plan more than 30 White House events, including those surrounding her husband's second inauguration, as well as various press conferences. Then Flores was a Running Start Star fellow in Congress, attending hearings on Capitol Hill and drafting legislative memos about issues like immigration and women's rights. After that, Flores was the White House's associate director of Hispanic media, a job that involved making sure that the Obama administration's efforts were reaching the Hispanic community.
Flores was also part of the White House's advance team, working directly with Joe and Jill Biden—"two of the best people in Washington," she says—providing them with logistics support, helping them shape strategy, managing their press relations, and acting as a liaison between them and other government agencies.
Incredibly, Flores has held an additional full-time job throughout all this. Today she is the National Women's Business Council's marketing and engagement manager, overseeing the federal advisory council's communication and digital media strategy, as well as engaging with all its stakeholders, a role she has held since 2016. She started as an assistant in 2014, overseeing its $1.5 million budget, and kept getting promoted.
She helps the non-partisan group conduct research that's relevant to women entrepreneurs, then communicates the results of that research to Congress, the White House, and the Small Business Administration; the council's goal is to influence policymakers to enact laws that are friendlier to female business leaders.
Though Flores lives in D.C., she grew up in the border town of Weslaco, Texas. "It's a place like no other, where two countries unite," she says. "I felt part of both yet neither country."
"A lot of people speak of the border without ever understanding or knowing what it's like there," she adds. "I'm proud of where I'm from. I find it a privilege that I was able to live where two countries unite, because it really changes your perspective."
Her parents emigrated from Mexico with a sixth-grade education; neither spoke a word of English. Flores is one of five children, and her parents, she says, "came to the U.S. to give us a life of unlimited possibilities. They raised me to remember that anything is possible. They taught me what it means to have an American dream, and now I'm creating my own. Their hard work, dedication, commitment, and love have brought me where I am today."
Like her parents, Flores didn't speak any English until she was in school. "My first language being Spanish made me work twice as hard," she says. "I have always felt that I had to prove myself and show that I didn't fall into the stereotypes that come from where I'm from or what language I spoke."
In third grade, she took the state exams and got perfect scores. After that, she was placed in advanced classes. "I knew at a young age that I had to keep trying," she recalls. "I couldn't give anyone a reason to question or doubt me." She went on to become her high school's salutatorian, and to graduate with honors from the University of Texas–Austin, where she majored in sociology and wrote an honors thesis about how the media depicts drug violence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
After college, Flores headed to Portland, Oregon, for the Politicorps Fellowship during the summer and then to Washington, D.C., for the Running Start Star fellowship. But she didn't have money, and knew that her parents "couldn't financially help me even if they wanted to." So she got two jobs, one at a temp agency and another at an AMC movie theater, working seven days a week to pay rent, school loans, and daily expenses. She slept on an air mattress instead of a bed. Six months later, she landed the job at the National Women's Business Council.
"There were months I didn't think I was going to make it, where I only had $8 in my account, when all the signs pointed that I should give up and go back home," she remembers. "'Making it' in D.C. is my proudest accomplishment, because I didn't give up."
What motivates her more than that, though, are her seven nieces and nephews. "I want a better world for them," she says, "a world where they don't doubt themselves and what they can accomplish. I want them to know they can pursue any job, live in any city, go to any school, and really do the impossible. I can show that if I can do it, they can too—and, more importantly, they can go far beyond what I ever did."
Flores' own role models include President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. She takes Barack Obama's advice to heart: "Worry less about what you want to be and more about what you want to do," she paraphrases. "Focus on what real stuff you want to work on, and work hard regardless of where you are to achieve that goal."
Her focus is empowering women and Latinos. "In my free time," she says, "I help other women and girls, whether that's in a mentor capacity, helping out for an event, or sharing resources. I like to volunteer my time."
And, she adds, "I want to be able to work on electing the first Latino or Latina president."
As for her own presidential aspirations, still very much alive from childhood, she acknowledges that they may not be realistic. "If you ask me whether it will happen, the answer is probably no." Nonetheless, she hangs on: "But being president is still the dream. It's that mindset that keeps me going."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.