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Adrian J. DeLeon: “Be ready to pivot at any point”

I think true leadership is having the ability to connect your personal story and your professional skill set. For example, if you are an extroverted person and good at relationship building, a role in which you are the brand ambassador or salesperson is a good fit. I always try to live at that intersection of […]

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I think true leadership is having the ability to connect your personal story and your professional skill set. For example, if you are an extroverted person and good at relationship building, a role in which you are the brand ambassador or salesperson is a good fit. I always try to live at that intersection of my strengths toolkit in order to help the organizations and the people I serve. Leadership is also about being unapologetic about who you are, where you come from, and how you identify yourself. I always respect those leaders who are authentic and show up in an authentic way, and strive to be that kind of leader.


Adrian J. (AJ) DeLeon is the co-founder and CEO of Innovare — Social Innovation Partners, a Chicago based software company helping schools and nonprofits maximize their social impact. Innovare’s data, strategy, and project management app helps organizations integrate their data and visualize their performance in real-time, helping them maximize their results for the communities they serve. Since being founded in 2017, Innovare has worked with schools and nonprofit organizations across the United States and in Latin America. Prior to taking the entrepreneurial leap, AJ worked as an educator and data strategist for more than a decade, leading programs at Chicago Public Schools and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AJ grew up in the border region of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, and is a proud immigrant, Latinx, LGBT leader in the tech sector.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in the Juarez/El Paso border area with my younger brother and my mother. Living on the border, between two cultures, I quickly understood that there were “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of opportunities and education. As a child, I realized the importance of building bridges and the power of influence. On the playground when other children would tease me for being different, I would cope by being able to go to other kids and becoming friends. Now, in my adult life, being able to build relationships with individuals from all walks of life has definitely been an asset both personally and professionally.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I was in college, I read “Beneath the United States” by Lars Schoultz. Reading that book gave me the academic language to articulate how I was perceived and felt when I first moved to the United States. In other words, I saw in that book how there has been a cultural “tradition” of seeing Latin American countries as inferior and dependent on the United States. I think those perspectives inform how Latinx people are treated today and the policies that negatively impact all diasporic communities, from immigration to education, to political power and representation.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

For sure. I really like Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.” It emphasizes action beyond ideation and execution beyond aspiration. I try to live by that motto daily, by fully committing to organizations, relationships and the work I do. In my world view, I appreciate self-responsibility and actions that follow words.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Our organization empowers leaders in schools and NGOs to use data strategically in order to create a sustainable impact on students and communities. Our app organizes usually-siloed data into a visual dashboard that leaders use to develop smart strategies and manage the project in their organization. By seeing their performance data in real-time, organizations can measure the success they are having and maximize their social impact. We have been around since 2017 and work with small and large organizations across the US and Mexico, and we are continuing to grow fast. We are especially proud to be a tech company led by people of color and people who can relate to the impact that technology can have on under-resourced communities.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I have always been a bit of a rebel and a disruptor, so jumping into entrepreneurship now seems natural. However, I can tell you that I didn’t always think that leading a social enterprise was going to be my future. I have a computer engineering degree and like many immigrants, I wanted to have the “dream job” — regular hours, steady paycheck. Taking a risk like this was not in my cards, so to speak, but I am glad to be on this journey. I have had many “aha moments” that nudged me in this direction, with the most recent being working at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While there I realized that one person can literally change the trajectory of many lives. I’d already spent most of my career optimizing data and advising leaders on what to do with that information. After all of those moments, and seeing a greater need for diversity in the social impact and technology space, I decided to just go for it and start building a company.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the organizations that comes to mind is Bright Beginnings in Washington, DC. Our team was able to work with theirs to maximize their impact on some of Washington’s most disadvantaged families, who are predominantly Black.

We helped their leadership team design a data collection tool that provides real-time information to staff on the status of a family. For example, if a family member loses their job or is sick and can’t work, the data is collected and travels to a dashboard is then seen by a staff member who can help. In other words, we’ve been able to better connect staff with the families and children they serve by using data and tech for good.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

As you probably know, only about 1% of venture capitalists invest in companies led by people of color or women. This is an infuriating statistic which I personally find offensive. Being more equitable when it comes to investing in the entrepreneurial ecosystem is important to creating a more effective innovation sector.

The community can help by bringing awareness to the work my organization does and to other organizations like us — companies led by BIPOC individuals that are proximal to the problems they are solving.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think true leadership is having the ability to connect your personal story and your professional skill set. For example, if you are an extroverted person and good at relationship building, a role in which you are the brand ambassador or salesperson is a good fit. I always try to live at that intersection of my strengths toolkit in order to help the organizations and the people I serve. Leadership is also about being unapologetic about who you are, where you come from, and how you identify yourself. I always respect those leaders who are authentic and show up in an authentic way, and strive to be that kind of leader.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be ready to pivot at any point. COVID-19 really tested my ability to change direction and trust my instincts. As a result of adding a new segment of customers, our company is stable and planning for a new year of impact.
  2. Celebrate the small wins. Sometimes we focus on what we are missing and not what we have. Having an asset-based lens, especially in entrepreneurship and in life, can help you get far.
  3. Keep moving forward even if you hear the word no. When I first started Innovare I didn’t have as many cheerleaders as I expected and I got a lot of nos, whether it was trying to recruit a co-founder or sign my first client. Now three years later, I’m glad I wasn’t deterred to keep going despite all of the naysayers.
  4. Remember your why. Staying focused on my goal to empower people to change their lives makes me feel purposeful and gives me the energy I need to stay on track.
  5. Know your worth. During the first year of our company, we severely underpriced our products. As a result, we made less money than we could have and it affected our potential to grow. Fortunately, we have now overcome that challenge and understand that is important to know your worth in business and in life.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Despite what a lot of people might say, I strongly believe in the potential of our young people to ensure all of us have a better future. They are sophisticated, tech-savvy, full of great ideas, and should consider making a positive impact for all of those reasons as well as the fact that they have the time and resources that many of us lacked.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have lunch with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I relate to her story of achievement despite all odds and admire her fearlessness, defiance, and how forward-thinking she is. I would love to get to know the person beyond the public image and present my best pitch to join her administration when she becomes the President of the United States.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: @mradriandeleon

Twitter: @MrAdrianDeLeon

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ajdeleon/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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