Frankly's #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) series features some of our favorite female founders who are focused on providing goods and services that improve the lives of women and girls.
Today we're catching up with Ana Leyva, the Founder and CEO of Lelu. Lelu is a monthly Spanish + STEAM subscription service that help families bilingualism dreams come true.
Welcome, Ana! Tell us a little bit about yourself!
I'm the daughter of immigrants (mom is from Mexico, dad is from Nicaragua), SF Bay Area native, first in my family to go to college (and then to get Master's degrees), married my college sweetheart, have two amazing kiddos, and I think bilingualism is a priceless gift.
Can you tell us more about what Lelu does, in your own words?
Lelu is a subscription service that takes kids deep into a STEAM topic in Spanish each month. Some recent themes we've covered are: Computer Languages (February 2021), Polar Expedition (January 2021), Harvest (November 2020) and Human Body (October 2020). Through this fun language engagement, we help kids become "thriving bilinguals!" We do this by emphasizing that language learning is a lifelong journey that is built upon DAILY, and by helping the language learning come to life for them in fun and relevant ways!
Why is bilingualism important to you, and why should it be important to other parents?
My bilingualism is a treasure to me because it helps me better understand and celebrate all facets of who I am and the wonderful world we live in. Bilingualism has countless benefits: improved cognitive abilities, better communication skills, broader view of the world, more empathy towards others, etc. Bilingualism is a gift for life! Equipping your kids with bilingualism is one of the best things you can do for them.
Tell us about why you started Lelu!
Five years ago when I became a mom, I was faced with the sad reality that I’d have to get really creative and work really hard if I wanted my kids to grow up bilingual in the US. My husband and I knew that bilingualism was a must for our kids. We were living in LA and shocked that even there we couldn’t find the resources to support our bilingualism. The books and tools lacked depth and range of language, and so we started creating our own tools to support our bilingual home - we wrote our own books, created our own at-home aids and other families started asking us for support and guidance. That was really the beginning of Lelu. I realized this problem extended far beyond our home as American parents are increasingly seeing the enormous benefits of bilingualism. This pivotal realization led me to pursue master’s degrees at Stanford GSB and Stanford Graduate School of Education-- I founded Lelu while I was a student in these programs. Once I started looking at the research, it was clear that marrying STEAM and Spanish was a key way to make language learning more effective in the US. Lelu exists to give American families what they need to be thriving bilinguals: our Spanish + STEAM programs were developed with research-backed ideologies and specifically designed to address all the factors that have historically made the US a language graveyard. I'm beyond grateful to do this work and make a difference for so many kids and families.
You have been working on Lelu, in some form, for years. How has launching your business in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic changed what Lelu looks like or forced it to evolve?
I think the biggest thing about starting during COVID has been building a company with a remote team-- it's been an interesting challenge but also allowed us a lot of flexibility. We also have a physical product we fulfill and at times our sourcing has been severely impacted because of impacts of COVID. All of our live tutoring takes place over Zoom and I definitely feel that the COVID restrictions moved us online faster-- it was a constraint that made an in-person solution a clear no from the beginning, so it sort of focused us. Finally, having to homeschool my kiddos while starting a company because of COVID has definitely kept me sensitive to what parents are facing in this hard time. I always tell parents "I'm a Lelu parent, too!" First and foremost, I want our customers to relate to me as a parent.
Women get asked all the time how they balance work and their home life. As you mentioned before, Lelu IS your home life! For moms starting a business focused on being a mom / catering to parents with small kids, do you find that you need to set firm boundaries or does the integration of the two worlds act to your advantage?
It's definitely an advantage-- my kids are an endless source of inspiration and they often have ideas for themes we should cover or fun activities we should include. It's definitely challenging at times because it can feel like I'm always working, but I'm also grateful that my kids are a big part of my work. They understand the program intimately, they understand that mom is building this business and they're learning a lot about entrepreneurship along the way. It's a dream come true for me. I love to get to share my work with my kids.
Lelu is a hybrid product-service business model. How do you manage and meld these two separate components?
Every month families have a fun STEAM topic to explore in Spanish. The box arrives full of fun activities to engage families around that theme. Our live classes are coordinated to fit in with the activities taking place during each week. So it's all a seamless experience since the live classes build off of the hands-on activities.
Why did you decide to focus on STEAM simultaneously with new language learning?
There were two main factors that led us to his beautiful combination:
First, There was a huge lack of STEAM resources in Spanish. Kids are naturally curious about STEAM subjects - How is this made? How does this work? Why does that go there? - the curiosity goes on and on. Kids are curious about the world around them, and STEAM subjects at their core are about how our world works. For a bilingual family like mine, not having bilingual resources in STEM was super frustrating!! And indeed, having rich bilingual STEAM resources now has been a GAME CHANGER for the many families in our Lelu comunidad.
Second, Learning language through STEM makes the language come to life. Research shows us that in order to learn a language effectively, it needs to have a job in your daily life. Language learning takes on new life with STEM because you're learning vocab as you DO things, through inquiry-driven fun! Backed by research, it's the absolute BEST way to learn.
How have you seen or heard that Lelu has affected your customers & their families?
Oh man, this has literally been the most meaningful part-- hearing how our families are loving Lelu and about how life-changing it is for them and their kids. When parents thank me for doing the work we do, it just means so much!! Here are a couple of my favorite anecdotes:
"We had so much fun with our Lelu box this month. I must tell you how much we love our Lelu Maestra, My kids have blossomed so much in the last couple of weeks with her conversation speaking. She never rushes them, she is always so caring and receptive. Listening to my daughter speak in Spanish yesterday made me tear up a little. We were already running a little behind schedule and our Lelu Maestra never rushed through the lesson and finished with a minute to spare. My heart, many blessings to you and your amazing team."
"I love Lelu so much!!! This is what I’ve been looking for forever. I'm half Mexican and half White and I've always wanted to grasp the Latina part of my identity. Knowing Spanish is a core value for me and something I wanted to share with my kids. Lelu feels like a way to do this in a way that is authentic to our lives. This is a really fun, authentic-to-us way to live the language. My kids love it and can't get enough of the program! I feel like I found a treasure being an early adopter. Thank you so much for designing a program that gives me a natural way to include it at home and with my kids. I just think it’s so great and awesome!"
What is the biggest lesson you've learned from starting Lelu?
I think the biggest lesson has been to test by doing and hence to be OK with being a work in progress. Seems simple enough, but knowing that Lelu can be committed to constant innovation and that it can and will change with time has really freed us to try new things and to be out in the world as a work in progress.
How should our readers get more information and sign up?
We're a mission driven org and we really believe bilingualism can be for everyone and that it's never too late or too early to start your journey with bilingualism! Our website is a great resource to learn more. You can enroll here: https://lelu-usa.com/pages/enroll or feel free to reach out to us at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow us @lelu_usa and feel free to DM any questions.