Ana Leyva ’11 grew up speaking Spanish at home with her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Nicaragua, and her two siblings. When Leyva and her husband, David Leyva ’11, had a son six years ago, the couple decided to teach him Spanish as his first language. But they couldn’t find Spanish-language books and games at stores in their Los Angeles neighborhood, so Leyva created Lelu, a company that helps parents make bilingualism a part of their family’s daily life.
“Languages are inherently social. They are meant to be shared,” Leyva says. “We want to give parents the resources to share their bilingualism with their kids so it can really thrive.”
Leyva has had a passion for languages since childhood, when her father, who worked as a school janitor, encouraged her to study them. She was the first in her family to attend college, where she took courses in French and Arabic. At Princeton, she met her husband, whose family also hailed from Mexico and Nicaragua. But it was his grandparents who immigrated to the United States, and he did not grow up speaking Spanish at home.
“I saw in him what my kids might be — they could lose their Spanish,” Leyva says. “Language skills often do not get passed on to the third generation.”
Lelu addresses that by offering a monthly subscription program that delivers — online and by mail — materials such as games, songs, a calendar with daily activities, and instructional videos, centered around science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts. The program is designed for children ages 3 to 11. It also offers online community classes and one-on-one online sessions with tutors based in Latin America. Since it was launched last January, Lelu has provided learning materials to hundreds of families from all over the U.S., including Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, and Maine.
“If you want to acquire a language, you have to use it in daily life,” Leyva says. “You need to give the language a job and put it into action for it to stick.”
Leyva founded the company after earning her MBA — and a master’s degree in education — from Stanford, where she took a class for entrepreneurs called “Launchpad.” She outlined her idea to several investors during pitch meetings for the course and raised a first round of financing. The company, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has three full-time employees in addition to Leyva, who is the CEO.
Lelu also was the winner of the 2020 Princeton Underrepresented Minority Founders Startup Showcase, at which several companies led or founded by Princetonians presented their pitches to investors, alumni, students, and faculty who were asked to invest fictional currency in the company of their choice. The showcase was sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, the Association of Black Princeton Alumni, the Association of Latino Princeton Alumni, and the Princeton Alumni Angels.
Leyva hopes that in the next few years, the company will expand its offerings to other languages. “We have had requests for Greek, French, Mandarin, and Korean,” she says. “I am dreaming of all the ways we will continue to grow.”