My favorite quote is: “From Maya Angelou: Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” My celebrity crush is: Michael B. Jordan
Empowering leaders in education to positively impact communities
ASPIRE TO GREATNESS. AJ DeLeón's founder journey is a story of growth, understanding yourself, and leveraging your entire toolkit to achieve your life goals and happiness. His company, Innovare, connects his story of being an immigrant, his intersectional identities, and overcoming immense challenges in his life.
"In business, you have to navigate complex environments all the time. To do that well, you must know yourself and how the challenges you've overcome have equipped you to succeed. I was the underdog who was always super driven and passionate about helping others."
Innovare is an EdTech company that aggregates siloed data in education organizations such as schools and nonprofits and pulls it together into one dashboard, empowering leaders to make good decisions that positively impact the students and communities they serve. AJ co-founded Innovare in 2017 with his brother Fernando, a former Google Product Manager, and Nick Freeman, a former co-worker and data strategist with a strong business background.
Born and raised in the Juarez-El Paso borderplex region of Texas, he moved to Chicago to be a teacher before moving into administrator and data strategist roles. Working closely with education leaders, he noticed that despite their dedication and preparedness for the part, they weren't equipped with the resources to make the most significant impact, including having all the necessary data to inform their decisions.
"When it comes to information, education leaders may not even know the current state of their school; for example, how many students are in the building on a specific day or how often are they coming to school? What are their test scores? All that information is in different systems, meaning they must take the time to put it together themselves to try to understand the root causes of common problems."
Determined to help streamline the education sector, after leaving Chicago Public Schools, AJ consulted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in their K-12 Education Team and Chief Strategy Office in Washington to research and develop data for decision making tools to support senior education leaders. After realizing there were still limitations on his impact, he decided to try and solve the problem himself and founded Innovare.
"When I left my last formal job at Gates, I went from living one block away from the White House to not having a job, but I knew I made the right choice because I was strong willed, had a good idea to solve a real problem, and a vision to lead a team toward business success. It was scary, but I was confident in my ability to make this new project work. I'm proud of myself for taking the leap to start a company because I'm happier as a person while I am also having a positive impact on education and society via my current professional role.”
COMMUNICATING FOR INFLUENCE. AJ says a key ingredient to his success is being a strong communicator. "In order to lead effectively, you need to be not just a good talker, but also know how to listen, whether you're pitching to investors, selling to prospective customers, or supporting your own team." AJ credits many mentors, especially his mom, for helping him build his confidence as a CEO who proudly represents the dreams and aspirations of the LGBTQIA+, immigrant and Latinx communities. "My mother is incredibly bright, but because of economic challenges, she had to sacrifice her own educational aspirations, so she has always prioritized the education of her children, and accepts me as her gay son. Many people in our LGBTQ+ community don't have their family’s support in career or life, so I never take my entire family's support for granted."
Innovare's impressive journey – becoming profitable in its first year, adapting its offering to support nonprofit leaders during the pandemic, raising funding during tough economic environments, and recently partnering with premier EdTech brands such as Google – is set to continue with bold expansion plans. In 2023 they will grow the app's reach even further with a freemium model, and in 2024 they plan to launch an Amazon-style marketplace called the Innoverse that will bring together all EdTech providers. AJ hopes this will grow the company beyond the US, a challenge that will leverage his multicultural background and Spanish language skills to expand his company.
"I now feel that I'm more glued together; that all the pieces of me are coming together, and that each one of those stories or identities makes me stronger. I feel I can do anything now. I feel very empowered; I think knowing myself and being proud of all I am is my superpower."