Debbie & Alejandra dig into:
✓ from analyst to CEO within a year – Alejandra’s extraordinary career trajectory
✓ the power of the pivot – how Alejandra navigated shifting the company’s focus from social media analytics to education data insights
✓ practical advice to seize opportunities with confidence and determination
About our guest Alejandra
Alejandra Zertuche, an interdisciplinary scientist, serves as the CEO of Enflux, an analytics and decision support ed-tech pioneer converting educational data into insights that enhance student outcomes. With expertise spanning from business and academic assessment to biomedical informatics, Alejandra’s leadership is deeply informed by her diverse knowledge. She’s a Director at TransPecos Banks and has been celebrated as a San Antonio Business Journal 40 under 40 and one of Texas’ Top 50 Women to Watch. Alejandra holds a B.S. in Industrial Engineering and an MBA from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. in Biomedical Informatics from UT Health at Houston.
Follow Alejandra on LinkedIn
Give Alejandra’s podcast, EdLuminarie, a listen here
Open for Full Episode Transcript
Open for Full Episode Transcript
Debbie Goodman 00:00
Welcome to On Work and Revolution. I’m your host Debbie Goodman and today we are going to be speaking to Alejandra Zertuche. Alejandra, did I get your surname correctly pronounced?
Alejandra Zertuche 00:12
There’s so many ways of pronouncing it and one of them can be Zertuche which is in Spanish or in the US they say Zertuche.
Debbie Goodman 00:24
Well welcome, Alejandra. Alejandra is CEO of Enflux, which is a leading analytics and decision support Edtech platform, which converts educational data into insights that enhance student outcomes in a really unique way. What’s extraordinary about Alejandra is many things actually, but in terms of her career trajectory, she started out as a senior business intelligence analyst, BI analyst, at Enflux in 2017. And then a year later, in January 2018, she became CEO. So we’re going to dig into the story behind that in a minute. I noticed that on your LinkedIn profile, your top Gallup Strengths Finder strengths are learner, achiever, futuristic, input and responsibility. And from what I know about you from the couple of interactions, so far, this is like 100% accurate. So the learner strength alone, listen to this guys, It’s been a while since I came across somebody with like two and a half master’s degrees. So in addition to her B degree in engineering, Alejandra has an MBA, a Master’s in Biomedical Informatics and an almost complete Master’s in Applied Statistics. So that’s a lot of mastering. She’s a director at Trans Pecos Bank. She’s been celebrated as a San Antonio Business Journal 40, under 40, and one of Texas’s top 50 Women to Watch and she also hosts her own podcast, EdLuminaries, we’ll put the show notes, I’ll put that in the show notes. So look out for that inspiring stories of educators. And to top it all, her crowning achievement, Alejandra recently became a new mum. I spoke to her a few weeks ago when her newborn was just a few weeks old, I think. And you were awake, number one, and number two, so that was miraculous. So welcome, Alejandra. So lovely to have you here. I really appreciate you spending precious time with me.
Alejandra Zertuche 02:25
Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m excited to share my story and see if it resonates with anyone else.
Debbie Goodman 02:33
I’m absolutely sure it well. First of all, you mentioned earlier that it’s going well with baby. That’s pretty amazing. You’re what two months in?
Alejandra Zertuche 02:46
Almost. Seven weeks in, almost almost two months and she’s doing well. Last night, she slept for five hours, which is outstanding.
Debbie Goodman 03:01
You’ve got a hyper achiever already. So I know that when I was a new mom, my baby didn’t sleep for more than sort of two to three hours at a time and any other mom in a similar position who said, Oh, it’s a breeze, my baby sleeps, I just wanted to slap her.
Alejandra Zertuche 03:16
I don’t know how it worked, but she slept for I think it was from like 8:30 to 1:30 and then woke up at 4:40. And then I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I did my morning routine. Yeah.
Debbie Goodman 03:36
Amazing. Alright, so prior to your pretty radical career trajectory, which we’re gonna get into in a minute, you worked as a senior analyst for a university, where you mentioned that you spotted this big problem between accreditation agencies and universities. And so you decided, well, you’re going to figure out a way to solve this problem. So what was it? What was the problem you were trying to solve?
Alejandra Zertuche 04:01
Well, the problem was that accreditors were asking for evidence of student achievement of competencies. In other words in plain English, that they’re competent to practice as soon as they get get out of the program. So it was a Pharmacy school. Imagine a medical school as well, you want to make sure that your doctor your pharmacist is competent to practice. So the accreditors we’re trying to reduce medical errors, which there’s a lot of them. There was a study done, about 10 years ago or a little bit more about medical errors, and it’s huge. So how do you avoid that? Well, making sure that the students are competent to practice. So the accreditors were in charge with that. So they were asking the academic programs to provide data, student outcome data, and they were struggling with that. They couldn’t find an easy way of doing that because you had data all over the place, different tools, I mean, from admissions to board exams. So how do you centralize and provide a cohesive student journey? Like, here’s where the student started and this is where the student is graduating, besides just the board exam. Board exam should be the minimum bar, not right, the highest quality bar. So yeah, I saw that opportunity. And I was like, okay, what can we do? And back then I was well known for being a data nerd. Now they call this data scientists. Huge promotion, and I saw the opportunity.
Debbie Goodman 05:33
Okay, and so you went about creating this product that became the university’s IP? Or was it something that you owned as well.
Alejandra Zertuche 05:44
So it wasn’t a product per se, it was more of a process. So you always start with a process. And let me just do something real quick on my, there we go, do not disturb. So we started with a process. So you have the data, then what do we need to do to the data? What are the insights that we’re trying to obtain? And what’s the reporting that we’re trying to output? And then how do you make that process repetitive, so that the educators have access to, to those actionable insights they need for continuous quality improvement and ensuring student competency. So I started as a process, it took me about five years, it was a lot of spreadsheets. My own server and my computer. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Now. I’m not really a software developer, I’m more of a statistician. But I built kind of that process in place. And then after that, when I was looking for a job, I became senior BI analyst at Enflux and I was telling one of the founders that I created a process to convert data into insights. And we discussed the opportunity and that’s when we started building the product.
Debbie Goodman 07:03
Okay. So you joined Enflux and as a BI analyst, and Enflux at the time wasn’t doing then what it does now, righ? So there was a massive shift and transformation that happened from the time that you joined. Tell us about that part of the journey, because it was not one step, two step, three step, four. It was not a linear, not a linear line, the company was doing something sort of very different at the time.
Alejandra Zertuche 07:32
Well, at that time I was looking, born and raised in Mexico, so I went through that struggle, visas. I have had a student visa since I was 14, all the way to I believe 30 years old. So I know everything about visas. So I was looking for a way to obtain permanent residency or obtain what everyone calls the green card. So I applied by myself, the university couldn’t sponsor me. So I applied by myself and submitted awards, publications and everything else, and obtained my green card. And immediately after obtaining it, within a week, I saw the opportunity of joining a startup that is doing data analytics, although it was for social media. So it’s kind of finding influencers and doing market research. And I saw the opportunity of joining them because I knew I had a process in place. I knew I have a problem well defined. But I needed to learn how to start not only a product, but how to start a company so that you can build it. So I was like, why don’t I join them? Learn from them? What funny fact they were across my office. They were not even like a few steps away from my office. I don’t know how but that was serendipity. So why don’t I joined them, learn from them, and then started my own company in the future. I guess God had another plan.
Debbie Goodman 08:59
Right. Okay. So they were doing social media related work. But then you came on board. You had this process this, you spotted the opportunity, they spotted the opportunity. At what point? At what point did the current leadership of the organization because it was an existing business, there was a CEO and founding team. At what point did they say, Hey, you Senior Business Analyst, why don’t you become the CEO? I mean, it sounds like a really interesting transition. What happened?
Alejandra Zertuche 09:35
So it took a while, took a year. So within three months, four months, I had to tell the founders that I needed to present at a national conference, my work, and they were interested in learning, well, what’s your work? And I was telling them what I built, which is centralizing all data providing actionable insights. And one of the founders had strong connections with higher ed in Texas and said you know, I want to put you in touch with different people. Because I want to see if there’s something that we should commercialize there. And if we do, then I will support you. So I met with higher education leaders within here in Texas and they called the founder and said, like you caught the genie in the bottle, you need to commercialize this ASAP. Everyone needs this solution. So then within six months, they gave me a small team to start building the solution. And within three months of that, we got our first contract with Texas A&M Medical School, and we started building the solution. And it was fantastic. So then that was like in the summer, fall of 2017. And then by December, that’s when they saw that we had more traction with higher ed than the other side of the business. And I don’t know if you remember, but back then that was when Cambridge Analytics got in trouble, right. And they were were cutting a lot of ways companies were having access to Facebook data and Instagram and so on. So we actually pivoted right before they were cutting those channels, the data pipelines.
Debbie Goodman 11:20
Okay, so it sounds like the lights just switched on, on this path. The connecting with the higher end institution, recognizing there was a big problem that needs to be solved, seeing this offering that you had created. And then a CEO who was willing to recognize this and go, here’s the real opportunity. What was the point of sort of passing the baton from him to you?
Alejandra Zertuche 11:48
So funny story, I was having lunch with one of the founders, and he was telling me that we were going to pivot the business. And they showed me an org chart. And the CEO was still CEO and there was a lot of senior developers and people that had PhDs that were in our team. So they were still high up and I was like, on the third level. And at that point, with a green card in hand, with a solution that I knew everyone wanted, I felt empowered to ask what I wanted. So I told them, that we have two options, they either make it worth my while, meaning give me a lot of money for this and I’ll stay where you want me to stay in the organization, or you let me lead this and make it successful. And that’s what happened. So the funny thing is, like, the founder said something like, what are you? What do you mean? Are you asking for the crown? And I was like, Yeah, I want the crown. It was like, Are you sure? It was like, absolutely. I have always prepared for this. I didn’t know it was going to happen this way. But I’m ready. So yeah, over lunch, they just made that decision. And it became a joke here in Texas, San Antonio. There’s a lot of Spanish here and it became a joke of saying Larena, meaning the Queen, because I asked for the crown.
Debbie Goodman 13:14
Had you prepared ahead of time for that negotiation? Had you sort of prepared yourself to think, think about what might happen in that lunch meeting or was it just intrinsic to you, you knew you were ready? I just think about all the, particularly women, who go into some form of negotiating, asking for what they want and the anxiety in the preparation to actually have the courage to just sit in their power and ask for what they want is tremendous. And so I’m very curious to know, what was your internal dialogue happening at the time, if you can remember?
Alejandra Zertuche 13:58
Well, God gave me the opportunity to prepare for it years before. I asked, I struggled at the university to ask for what I needed, or I wanted to grow. And I had different challenges, and I got frustrated. And of course, you cried by yourself, you’re frustrated, you get anxiety. So then when I got to this point, I guess, like Benjamin Franklin would say said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. So I guess I was preparing this whole time, to the point where I never stopped thinking about it of what I wanted, where I wanted to be. I knew I always wanted to have my own business. So I had the conversation with them. I had no clue that we were going to talk about the org chart and the pivot or anything like that, but I knew what I wanted. So I felt comfortable asking for what I wanted. I didn’t even hesitate a minute for it at all. After I’d said it, then I was like, am I ready to be CEO?
Debbie Goodman 15:06
I guess then the question, was there ever a moment in that time and whilst taking on the role that you had the typical kind of imposter syndrome that many people have, particularly women, where there’s a bit of self doubt and like, who am I to be in this role? So quickly, all the thoughts that come in, did that ever happen to you?
Alejandra Zertuche 15:30
I guess I haven’t studied a lot of it. I heard of the term but I haven’t studied it a lot. I mean, I’ve heard a few things. But what I could tell you is, I always see, like, I remember having the next day and meeting with an investor to talk about my new role and where I was heading, taking the company, and he started asking me questions about what’s your cash burn? What’s your runway? What’s this and that? Now, like, I have no clue, right? I was like, what does that mean, right? And instead of feeling like, Oh, my God, I’m an imposter. It was more of a Oh, my God, as soon as I get to the office, I need to figure out all of these metrics, what are the SAS metrics that I need to have at hand so I’m prepared for the next meeting? So I guess that you learn, you’re not going to know all the answers. And I was honest to them and said, Hey, I just got the job yesterday, I’m still getting onboarded. I don’t even have access to the finances yet. But give me a few days and I’ll get back to you with those answers.
Debbie Goodman 16:33
That’s refreshing. I mean, I run a group of executive search companies, and we help people with their career transitions and particularly when it comes to women taking on senior leadership roles, C-level, or executive level roles. They often struggle to present themselves with extreme confidence, and feeling empowered to take on a job where they don’t already have all the experience and skills that they feel that they need. And so often, either they don’t apply for the role because they feel that they’re not yet ready, or they often do feel that they’re on the backfoot when they don’t have the skills. So what’s really extraordinary about your story is that that never occurred to you. You were like, of course, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do all these things. I’ve never done this before. But give me a minute, I’ll figure it out. Of all the sort of the skills gaps that you encountered in those early days, and maybe even up until now, what was the area that you felt most challenged by?
Alejandra Zertuche 17:38
Well, I think I was in a unique position, because I had to shut down a business at the same time of building a business. Building a business is extremely hard. Well imagine doing those two things at the same time, right?
Debbie Goodman 17:51
Because you closed down the social media side of the business, right?
Alejandra Zertuche 17:55
Which means letting people go.
Debbie Goodman 17:57
Oh, yeah, right.
Alejandra Zertuche 17:58
So that was the hardest thing, because they were my colleagues, I worked with them. I really, like I respected them they were so smart, but it wasn’t the right fit to what we were trying to build. And it’s easier to say, here’s my vision and mission, and you have people knocking at your door and saying I want to join because I believe in it, than actually having people in the room that you have to convince about your vision and mission. So that was the struggle. So I guess management, management of extremely smart people. It’s totally different than management of for instance, as an industrial engineer, I would manage logistics or, or quality control. It’s totally different skills of management when you’re actually managing someone that that knows how to do AI, and it’s a senior developer and those machine learning and knows a lot more more a lot more than I do about SAS. So I think that was the biggest struggle, one. Cutting ties quickly, it took me a while I think. Everyone has that challenge as a CEO or a manager, knowing that if you know you have to let someone go, you have to do it quickly, because you’re not doing them a benefit or doing a benefit or taking care of the company as well. And management of extremely smart people.
Debbie Goodman 19:28
When it came to the pivot of the company, from what it was into something new, you would also mention that the market wasn’t, there wasn’t another competitor, not another direct competitor. So you were also needing to sort of educate the market. It was in some ways like the blue ocean strategy, a completely new market, but that comes with its own extreme challenges. What did you learn through that process of this educating the market and how ready was the market at that time, because this was a number of years ago.
Alejandra Zertuche 20:03
Well, I don’t think the market was, the market was ready. They were for the first time in many, many, many years, they were getting in trouble with the accreditors. And it was getting really expensive. And that was wasting a lot of their time trying to be in compliance with the accreditation standards and that shouldn’t be the end goal, that should be a milestone. So they were ready for a solution, a magic wand, but they didn’t know what that magic wand looked like. So then we would meet with them and tell them this is what we do, we centralize your data, we give you out of the box reporting, and voila, you have all the insights that you need for continuous quality improvement and you can do accreditation easy, streamline the process. Well, they would keep asking us, I think we didn’t do a good job of explaining, in simple words, how the process work, we were too focused on tech. And now the value prop. So that’s a big lesson learned when when you’re selling, you need to focus more on the value prop than tech. They kept asking, so how long would it take me to put all the data in the system? And we’re like, no, we connect directly to the systems. And then 10 minutes later, it would be like, so how long does it take me to put all the data in the system? So there was something in our pitch, that wasn’t making sense to them. And also, because we were doing so much stuff, it was hard for us to tell them. Who’s Enflux, what do we do, In simple words? It was extremely hard.
Debbie Goodman 21:42
I am sure you encounter, I certainly do, many people with brilliant ideas. They’re in that startup phase and the concept that they have really is something new or unique, or maybe something that’s been done before. But they’ve got some new feature or opportunity that they are uncovering and the biggest challenge they have, is being able to articulate this in plain language, so that it lands with the audience. And how long did it take for you to refine your pitch to really understand what buyers were looking for, so that you could land it each and every time?
Alejandra Zertuche 22:26
It’s almost embarrassing, but I think it took us years and now it’s always improving. We started with, I remember, driving student success and then someone came to one of our conference booths and was like, how do you drive student success? And I was like, well, we provide you insights. And so then we drive student success. And it was quite interesting. And then academic intelligence for student success is like, well, what do you mean by academic intelligence, people didn’t know what it meant. And then there were different iterations of that until we finally came to, you know, now the market is a lot more educated on what a decision support system is, especially in health science, which is our market, because that’s what they have in the hospitals and in the clinics. And it’s all about data interoperability. So they should know what it is. But in case they don’t, then we tell them, we’re an analytics and decision support system. So that when they hear the word analytics and go like, Oh, they solve all my data problems. But in addition, we do a lot more than that.
Debbie Goodman 23:30
And so for anybody who’s listening, who might be a buyer, what’s the lot more? What’s the actual value proposition, so I’m really, I’d love to hear it.
Alejandra Zertuche 23:41
So it’s not just providing them the actionable insights, but within our tool, we can make decisions to the insights. So they have actually something that we call action plan. So they can document, track and evaluate their decisions, and quickly align them to a lot of different things, accreditation standards, students or risk, committees, strategic plan goals, university mission and vision. So on a daily basis, as they’re making decisions and improvements, they can quickly align them to all of these things so that when they’re starting their accreditation process, they can quickly say, what have we achieved for standard 10 In the last three years, and they get all of those exhibits in one view, in each exhibit, each action plan has a screenshot of the data of the before and after, so that it measures the impact of their decisions.
Debbie Goodman 24:37
Okay, well, you did that really well, after years of practice. Alejandra it is Women’s Month in South Africa this month. I’m from South Africa. And I mean, I think it should be Women’s Month somewhere in the world all the time just in order to try and provide as much additional support and advocacy for women all over and I really hate cliches and stereotypes. But any words of advice specifically for women who look at what you’ve achieved, I mean such a tremendous shift from your early days as a student, then an analyst, then into a small business, and then to become CEO, and then to be defining a new market, and to do it with such courage and boldness. Any advice? What, what would you say to somebody who looks at you and goes, I want to be just like you?
Alejandra Zertuche 25:30
Well, that success is not easy. Many people define success in so many different ways. And I see that sometimes people might see me as a CEO of a company and be like, Oh, she’s successful. And I would question that and be like, what does that mean? Well, that I have more responsibilities, and I’m working more, that we’re helping more universities. And if that’s the case, great, but success doesn’t happen from one day to another. It takes time. And I love to tell people that you have to prepare every single day for what the future has for you. You don’t know what it has for you. So I think that you don’t you don’t like for instance, as a woman, you don’t say, Oh, I’m not going to study engineering, because maybe that’s not a field for me. If you’re interested in it, go for it. Learn about engineering, and maybe learn, always with with a goal in mind, Why? Is it because you want to create a solution that it’s a software or you want to create a better way of solving a system to solve problems. I just feel that you have to prepare your whole life to where you want to be in the future and you don’t know what the future is going to look like. And you don’t know when that luck is going to happen. Because it’s a combination of luck. But when it happens, like when it happened to me, when they asked me where do you want to be in the organization, you’re going to be ready to tell them I want to be on top of it. I want to be the top of that organization, because I have prepared my whole life for it. I went through multiple degrees trying to figure it out how to solve this, I went through multiple ways of learning about businesses. I come from an entrepreneurial family, so I had tiny businesses since I was like 14 because I knew I wanted a business. So it’s just keep preparing, keep learning. You don’t lose anything by learning and preparing. And then when that opportunity comes, you’re gonna be so confident and feel comfortable asking for what you want.
Debbie Goodman 27:45
Oh, my goodness. Okay. We’re going to absolutely end on that amazing soundbite. Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure. Your story is fascinating. And hopefully there will be other listeners who will be as inspired as I am. And it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.
Alejandra Zertuche 28:04
Thank you. It’s a pleasure being here. Thanks.
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