Art delaCruz Goes from TOPGUN to Top Gun

Julie H. Case

Team Rubicon’s next CEO on the leadership lessons that shaped him and the richness that fulfills him.

Born and raised in Minnesota to parents who immigrated from the Philippines and met at the university, Art delaCruz spent 22 years in the U.S. Navy, including serving as a Commanding Officer of a US Navy Strike Fighter Squadron, a naval aviator, and a TOPGUN instructor. He joined Team Rubicon in 2016 as Chief Operating Officer then as President and COO; in July of 2021 he takes over as the organization’s CEO.

Has being AAPI impacted you personally or professionally in the U.S.?  

I don’t know that I’ve necessarily viewed it through the lens of whether it benefited me professionally or non-professionally.

I will say that one area where it was truly impactful was as a Naval officer. You can imagine this situation where a high percentage of minorities join the military service, but a lower percentage of minority officers are present relative to that ratio, and here I am a senior officer in the Navy. I began to understand that I had a role in representing, and providing the representation of, the other Filipinos. For example, on the aircraft carrier, they would look up to me in that role. They understood my name; they would speak to me in Tagalog. From a professional standpoint, it was really impactful because it made me realize it’s not so much in what you do but how you do what you do that is super important, especially for the people who relate to you as an Asian Pacific Islander.

Did your heritage influence your decision to serve in the military? How?

It didn’t influence my decision to serve in the military, but I think, indirectly, it changed how I served in the military. 

A lot of the culture that I grew up in was aligned to taking care of people. That’s kind of the way that community was built. That’s something that served me really well in the military, this idea that part of your value is not so much in what you do, but what you enable other people to do. That proved to be a really important way of leading when I joined.

How does your experience as a Navy strike fighter squadron commander and an instructor at Top Gun lead into the nonprofit world, and especially to your work as the COO—soon-to-be CEO—of a nonprofit?

One of the unique things about flying a fighter is you can’t control who you meet, where you meet them, and what they’re going to do in the opposing aircraft.  That got us used to this idea that you plan, you execute, and you evaluate. The idea that you control what you control has been really helpful for me in this world of Team Rubicon, where you have to be able to do things that are incredibly important. I think that’s what differentiates me from a lot of other COOs in the nonprofit world: I accept that it’s going to be dynamic, I react to that dynamic situation, and plan for it in advance—just like you would in a fighter.

Is there something you especially want to achieve at, with, or for Team Rubicon in the next year?

I think for Team Rubicon the goal is to continue our growth and scale. There is a lot of opportunity in front of us to continue to have impact in the world. From a goal’s perspective it’s to make sure that collectively we’re actually doing more than we think we can.

Founder and CEO, Jake Wood, and President and COO, Art delaCruz, at a vaccination operation in LA.

Going into this next year, the most important role is going to be transitioning the organization from this COVID environment into what I’m calling “The After.” What does it look like? What kind of roles do we play? And, how do we do what we do normally—which is disaster response and recovery—but do at a larger scale because we’ve built all of these enablers, we found new volunteers, found new funders, over the course of COVID? And then, how do we double down and leverage those and use them as a source of enrichment as we move forward?

What has been the most meaningful, or memorable, part of serving with Team Rubicon?  

It’s just a reminder that, as David Brooks’ common saying goes, you live your life to write your eulogy or you live your life to build a resume. 

When you get out into the field that’s a reminder that generating wealth for the people who really need it— and I’m saying wealth in that if you deliver hope, deliver dignity, you deliver services at a critical time—that is more important than trying to generate wealth. That is a richness that fulfills people, and me in particular, more than some other things I could be doing with my life. I think the other piece that’s so important about what I’m doing is, in this act, you begin to create the ability to also have that happen for other individuals across the country. 

I know that I am, by example, delivering that type of value to my kids. They are learning that giving of oneself is just as important as receiving.


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