Designs for Life
Recent graduate Juan Andrés Rujana leads with empathy as he works to improve life for others.
In the fall of 2015, Juan Andrés Rujana moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to Duluth to study mechanical engineering at the U of M. His country was in turmoil, and Rujana’s parents felt he’d have more opportunities if he studied in the United States. He chose UMD’s honors program because of the strength of the mechanical engineering program and the scholarship he received.
Rujana (B.S. ’20) understood he was fortunate to be an international student in a country that wasn’t suffering from a socioeconomic and political crisis. But that doesn’t mean his transition to Minnesota was easy. “It was an insane culture shock,” says Rujana, who is now 24.
When he went home for winter break, Rujana told his parents that he was miserable and wanted to return home. His mother responded with an article she’d found online about how even American students have challenges adjusting to college life. If he was still unhappy at the end of his first year, they’d consider letting him transfer.
Rujana went back to Duluth. Eventually, he adjusted and made close friends. But while he was happy socially, he was starting to have doubts about pursuing a future in engineering. After doing some research, he discovered a new product design program at the U of M’s College of Design in St. Paul that sparked his interest. He’d been intrigued by the idea of product design before he started his engineering studies, but had been intimidated by the sketching, model-making, and other artistic components of the career. But the idea that this program was brand new lessened his anxiety.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to become an engineer was to create cool products,” he says. “So being able to do that [along with] the fun part—which in my opinion is design and figuring out how [design] works in relation to understanding people—I thought that would just be amazing.” He transferred in 2017 and was admitted into his major the following year.
Talking to Rujana today, it’s almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else. When he talks about creating products, Rujana’s speech speeds up. He uses words like “amazing” and “fun” and “cool” and “super interesting.”
During the summer of 2018, Rujana was once again home for a visit in Caracas. A U of M professor had been urging him to enter industrial design competitions, so he sent in an application to Xingshi Cup L.A. Industrial Design Competition. His entry described a handheld device with sensors and haptic (touch-driven) feedback that he’d created as a student for people who are blind and sight impaired. “One of the big issues with people who are blind is they struggle to carry these inconveniently sized canes all around,” he explains. His invention was the size of a remote control.
Then Rujana forgot about the competition until the following October, when he was notified that he was a finalist and would be flown to Los Angeles to present his idea. He won third place, and the following month flew to Guangzhou, China, to show his design to potential investors.
“It was really, really fun,” he says of the whirlwind trips and meetings. “That’s when I realized, OK, you can make an impact just by making products that help people. And people really appreciate this career.” The award also helped his parents—his father is an accountant and his mom is a computer scientist—see there was a career for him in this discipline.
Rujana’s desire to improve people’s lives is a value that mentors say makes him stand out among his peers. “Juan has a very genuine sense of empathy for whom he is designing for,” says Jim Wilson, a lecturer at the College of Design who was Rujana’s capstone advisor. “He wants to really know about the people and the solutions that will help [them]. He’s very personable in that way.”
Soon after transferring to the Twin Cities campus, Rujana furthered his experience as a design intern at the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center, where he worked as part of a team to create a device that shortens the procedure time of chest trauma surgery.
His empathy was also key to his success in his first postcollege job, at Epimonia, a Twin Cities-based sustainable apparel and accessory company that donates a portion of its profits to support refugees in the U.S. Founded in 2018 by Mohamed Malim, an Ethiopian refugee who was born in a camp in Kenya, Epimonia has a well-defined mission: They upcycle old life jackets worn by refugees crossing the Mediterranean that are later discarded on the beaches of Greece. The company chose to highlight this material because it gives customers a physical connection to refugees’ struggles. The products the company produces from these worn life jackets include sweatshirts, caps, and jerseys. (Epimonia is also known for products such as its Citizen Bracelet, made by refugees in Minnesota from that same recycled life jacket material. Proceeds from sales are donated to the International Institute of Minnesota to cover citizenship application fees for refugees seeking a permanent home in the state.)
The Product Design major at the U of M’s College of Design is an interdisciplinary field that is both hands on and project-based. Also known as industrial design, the discipline teaches students to create not just innovative objects but also systems and services. Courses include physics, engineering, human needs, and entrepreneurship. Students go on to internships— and careers— as design researchers, industrial designers, packaging designers, product engineers, and user experience designers at some of the country’s leading companies, including Target, 3M, General Mills, Best Buy, and Boston Scientific.
Rujana wanted to help Epimonia tell its story without writing a mission statement on every item. His solution was both straightforward and elegant: a hand-sewn orange rectangular patch made from the lifejackets is placed on both clothing and caps. The patch acts like a logo, but with a deeper meaning.
The products attracted the notice of the merchandisers for the Minnesota United Football Club, who hired Epimonia to design a collection for them. Sales benefit the Karen Football Association, whose players are refugees from Burma and Thailand.
Malim says that Rujana’s experience as an international student now navigating the bureaucracy of securing a permanent work visa made him a natural fit at Epimonia. “Juan has such passion for the refugee crisis,” he says. “He’s very creative in how he uses product design to start a conversation . . . He took the brand in a direction I didn’t imagine.” Rujana also designed an Epimonia collection for the 2021 New York Fashion Week.
While Rujana continues to collaborate with Epimonia, his work visa realities mean he needs to secure a permanent job that will allow him to stay in the United States. In March 2021, the U.S. government announced it will provide temporary legal residence to several hundred thousand Venezuelans who left their country due to its economic collapse. That decision has given him some breathing room as he works to establish himself.
To that end, Rujana has moved to Brooklyn and opened JARLAB, a product design agency that “sees human diversity as a resource to elevate our designs.” He says his start-up experience at Epimonia, which was one of JARLAB’s first clients, gave him the tools he needs to be an entrepreneur and he’s now networking and building his business. And he plans to further develop the award-winning device he designed for people who are sight-impaired. “I’m growing my career,” he says.
And he’s also designing his life.