By Tatiana Dennis
Justin Cruz and his family recently returned from a trip across the country. Cruz, his wife Wendy, and two daughters Emma (Madison East High Class of ‘18) and Maya (La Follette Class of ‘25) drove through the Badlands, explored Yellowstone National Park, and made it all the way to San Francisco. The trip was long and full, Cruz shared when we spoke in June, and he was happy to be back home in Madison.
Cruz’s story began on Madison’s Southside. He grew up near Park Street and Badger Road and was part of MMSD’s initiative to diversify schools by inviting students from low-income areas to select which high school they wanted to attend. Cruz chose Madison West High School. When I asked Cruz his thoughts on such initiatives, he emphasized that for him the real power of attending West was in the doors it opened to connections that may otherwise not have been possible.
“Coming from a broken, disadvantaged home definitely meant lack of access to many things, from simple luxuries such as dining out to bigger formative things like social and professional networks”. . Cruz said. While reflecting on the parents of his more well-off friends at West, Cruz expressed gratitude for the father of a high school friend who supported both his academic and professional journey. “He edited my college application essay, applications for scholarships, met with me before interviews, and engaged in career talks with me. The father of another friend was a leading researcher in math education at UW-Madison and provided me with the unique opportunity to become an undergraduate researcher at UW-Madison.”
After graduating from West in 1990, Cruz went on to major in Mathematics, Spanish, and Secondary Education at UW-Madison. After graduation Cruz moved to Milwaukee to teach mathematics at South Division High School, a bilingual school on Milwaukee's South side. After teaching, Cruz completed his master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. After four years in Milwaukee, Cruz and his wife decided it was time to return home to Madison. In 2001 Cruz began his career as an actuary with American Family Insurance.
Cruz continued working for American Family and progressed through leadership roles in actuarial and data science. . After almost two decades at American Family, the company decided to elevate their DEI work and named Cruz their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion VP. . “From a change management perspective, I became the initial face of our DEI efforts. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity” Cruz says. “When companies choose to step up in that way and make an Executive Role for DEI, the stakes are higher. Do you hire from outside, or do you hire from inside?” Cruz asked. “I don’t have an HR background, but what I had was a strong background in social issues, leadership experience, and, most importantly, the organizational credibility needed to influence leaders across the company...we looked at how we train, educate, hire, and brand outside of the company.” Cruz shared. The company has continued down this path, and has made great strides in building an equitable workplace. American Family has been an admirable leader in building equity in the community as well, through numerous philanthropic efforts over many years. More recently, After reading the Race to Equity report in 2013, American Family Insurance chose to show their public-school support by adopting Sherman Middle School. They expanded their Adopt-a-School partnership to include East High School in 2015 and Lake View Elementary in 2018. Cruz, a former school teacher with multi-generational ties to MMSD, jumped at the chance to lead the work at East HS.
Justin Cruz’s life has had its ups and downs. Through it all he credits much of his personal and professional growth to the mentors with whom he’s been fortunate to work.
I asked Cruz to share any words of advice he had for young graduates and professionals. “Make sure you are taking advantage of the adults in your life that are willing to coach you. I worked at Pizza Hut for a long time in high school and into college, and I had a great boss. I’ll never forget the fundamental things about life and hard work that I learned from her.'' As a low-income first-generation college student, Cruz stresses the importance of having not only mentors who can coach you, but also having ones that look like you. Since Cruz did not have mentors that looked like him, he became one, sharing, “If you can’t see it, be it.”