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AES Literacy Institute Wins Social Innovator of the Year at United Way’s The Pitch

April 7, 2022

By: Ben Swanger

For the first time since 2019, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’ signature social innovation event, The Pitch, was held in person. And taking home the grand $60,000 Social Innovator of the Year prize was ShaKimberly Cooper of Dallas-based AES Literacy Institute.

Founded about three years ago, the nonprofit helps North Texans from deprived social and economic backgrounds earn their high school equivalency certificate. AES also won $10,000 for most innovative venture, $10,000 for the best presentation, and $25,000 for completing the Social Innovator Accelerator Program.

The five participating innovators were given five minutes to pitch their ventures, followed by five minutes of Q&A with the judges.

“Just to get to this point, all five innovators were doing incredible things,” Amber Venz Box, founder of LTK and one of this year’s judges, told D CEO. “But ShaKimberly, having personally identified with who she is serving, was just so enthusiastic about her organization. Looking at it as an investment, dollar for dollar, her scale is tremendous. And her budget, on an annual basis, is $86,000; for the work she is doing, that is a lot of ROI in return for the community. I told the other judges, ‘If we don’t vote for her, we’re going to get booed off the stage.’”

Joining Venz Box in the judge’s chairs this year were Jorge Corral, Dallas managing director of Accenture; Chris Kleinert, CEO of Hunt Investment Holdings; Billie Jo Johnson, general manager of Toyota Financial Services; and Steven Williams, CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America. The event was emceed by AT&T Business CEO and United Way’s 2020-2022 campaign chair Anne Chow.

The five participating innovators included:

  • ShaKimberly Cooper and AES Literacy Institute, which helps individuals 17 years of age and older who did not graduate high school by offering a three- to six-month alternative program that allows them to earn their Texas Certificate of High School Equivalency.
  • Joseph Vincelli of The Artist Outreach, which uses the arts as a way for students to learn core subjects like language and math through a delivery focused on early-elementary learning using drumming techniques and dance moves.
  • Jennifer Searles of Veritas Impact Partners, which delivers the gift of health by addressing the key barriers of benefit literacy, technology/user challenges, and customer engagement. This specialized direct-to-resident approach allows Veritas to surpass national trends on telehealth user activation.
  • Shellie Ross of Wesley-Rankin Aspiring Professionals (WRAP), a pre-apprenticeship program for high school students that addresses gaps in workplace readiness and low living wages through technical instruction, soft skill coaching, financial support and literacy, and parent education.
  • Shireen Abdullah of Yumlish, which is creating an AI-powered cultural nutritional therapy solution for minorities with diabetes and is addressing socioeconomic barriers to dietary adherence.

A total of $270,000 was awarded this year, and each participant took home $25,000 for completing the Social Innovator Accelerator Program.

AES Literacy Institute took home a total of $105,000. Yumlish earned the Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, which came with a $20,000 prize. The Impact Award for $20,000 was presented to Veritas Impact Partners. And the $25,000 Audience Choice Award was earned by Wesley-Rankin Aspiring Professionals.

“Watching these innovators get up here and pour their hearts out was amazing. They’re all so polished and really unbelievable,” said Chad Houser of Café Momentum, who earned the Social Innovator Program’s inaugural investment in 2013.

Since its founding, the United Way program has invested more than $5.9 million in funding, training, and mentoring for 64 North Texas organizations. Recipients have gone on to raise an additional $30.1 million in funding and foster more than 800 partnerships.

The Pitch begins with a month-long fellowship program captained by United Way. It features 10 area social innovators who receive seed funding and mentorship. Following the mentorship, the United Way selects five of those organizations to participate in The Pitch. It’s known as the Shark Tank of Dallas, but as Sarah Papert, CEO of Literacy Achieves and a mentor in this year’s program, put it: “It’s more like the Hunger Games.”