Recent Macalester College graduate Cuauhtemoc Cruz Herrera hasn't forgotten what it felt like to be an 11-year-old student in a math competition when the playing field seemed tilted against him.

Nobody involved was cheating, by the way. It's just that he was going up against kids who attended private school, with money for math clubs and mathematics teachers. Those were unaffordable luxuries in the public school in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.

"Because of all the trouble I went through to reach the national competition, I told myself [that] in 10 years, whenever I was ready, I was going to do something for kids that were in my position," he said.

Now an entrepreneur and educator, Cruz Herrera has already made a big difference. And way ahead of schedule.

With a little encouragement, the soft-spoken and earnest Cruz Herrera is happy to tell what he called "the long story." It's worth hearing.

It really does begin with that 11-year-old budding mathematics star at a public school in Guadalajara.

A teacher had come to his school to invite children to participate in an upcoming mathematics competition. Cruz Herrera stepped up. Along with some fellow students, he got two weeks of free math classes before the state competition.

He went on to win one of the eight first places, "by luck, plus the work I had done," he said. But things didn't stop there. He was thrust into four more months of preparation for the chance to compete at the next level.

"I was the only public school student in the whole state to be in that selection process," he said. "And it was really hard. Because everyone else had math clubs, math teachers. And I had nothing."

He managed to reach nationals, but he never forgot his struggle to get there.

Cruz Herrera went on to attend high school at an international school in New Mexico before entering Macalester three years ago. Majoring in economics and applied mathematics, he developed other interests besides math education, and considered pursuing international business consulting for a top-flight firm like McKinsey & Co.

But during his first year at Macalester, he learned of a small grant program called the "Live It Fund." This is a mostly student-run program that, as the college describes it, "empowers students filled with hope and drive to transform their ideas into action to change the world for good."

Cruz Herrera returned to his hometown to create a short summer mathematics program for public schools, the likes of which didn't exist when he was 11.

"In a closing ceremony of that summer program, after we gave the prizes away, the kids approached me and they asked me what's next," Cruz Herrera said. "And I didn't have any more money, I didn't have time, I was here as a full-time student. So I told them that there was nothing next."

It turned out he wasn't thinking big enough. Thanks in large part to the support of venture capitalist and Macalester alum Steve Arnold, he was able to forge ahead with the program. With the help of Arnold, whom he met at a Macalester entrepreneurship event, Cruz Herrera worked with more than 100 kids the following year and initiated a peer-to-peer training model: older kids who had been through the program and math competitions could begin to help younger kids.

He also eventually won a "Dream It" grant, part of Macalester's entrepreneurship program, which allowed Cruz Herrera to more fully develop his program as a formal nongovernmental organization. He called it Integración Matemática, and created a website that identifies high-potential students.

"He is somebody who embodies this great dreamer capacity, so you talk to him and what he describes makes you think, 'Is this even possible?' " said Kate Ryan Reiling, leader of Macalester's entrepreneurial program.

"Then he describes for you everything he's been able to accomplish. As you know, it connects so personally to him. That is such a deep motivator for him to move this project forward."

Last year, 150 children enrolled in Integración Matemática. For the first time, Cruz Herrera said, more math competition winners came from public schools than private schools. And 24 of these 27 public school award winners had been through his program.

His success has been noticed in his home country. The new administration of the Mexican state of Jalisco invited Cruz Herrera to join the government to roll out a similar program across the state. He had to hustle to complete his studies at Macalester in December so he could get right to work.

Now he's thinking big. In the short run, lots of students will get advanced math instruction that they wouldn't get in their traditional classrooms, he said. But beyond that, he's training and inspiring a new generation of mathematics instructors for whom the playing field is wide open.

"In the long run," Cruz Herrera said, "we want all these students to be the next engineers, teachers, doctors and economists."

Lee Schafer • 612-673-4302