As a first-generation college student, EJ Carrion knows the difficulties of navigating the school system and college application process. Those experiences led him to create a company that individualizes school counseling in an effort to fight inequity in schools, and he’s doing it from Fort Worth.
His company, Student Success Agency, pairs students across the nation with agents who serve as mentors and counselors for the student online. The company partners with 500 schools across 18 states. The schools pay $100 per student per year for the services for schoolwide programs.
Growing up, Carrion was in a single-parent household and moved a lot. He said he was “such an average kid” who did not graduate in the top 25% of his class.
“I didn’t take an (Advanced Placement), (International Baccalaureate), dual credit class, I didn’t do any of that,” Carrion said. “But I had an amazing mom whose goal was to get a kid to college, and I was the oldest.”
To help achieve this goal, Carrion applied for around 30 different scholarships – and ended up landing a full-ride with The Gates Scholarship.
“I understand what it feels like to be average, but feel like you have this 7-foot energy about you, and you felt greatness,” he said. “Being a Latinx entrepreneur, Afro-Latino entrepreneur, first-generation entrepreneur…I pay other people’s jobs and bills. Nobody gives me money to do this…Those are all things that I’m proud about. I just think my purpose in life is to do something like this — bring up equity. And just build technologies and innovations that really break down the system.”
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That energy is what launched Student Success Agency to help students like Carrion.
Student Success Agency is used by about 350 students in Fort Worth ISD as part of a pilot program funded by the Tarrant To & Through Partnership. Since T3 is funding the program by student instead of across the school or grade, it is $300 per student. Carrion said it costs T3 about $105,000 to fund the program in Fort Worth ISD.
“We work with school districts to provide kids additional support, because the challenge in America is that we are currently providing all of our support services only during the day when kids are in class,” Carrion, 32, said. “We spend millions of dollars in school districts to offer kids these amazing services, and then you create a traffic jam.”
Providing services outside of regular school hours allows students who can’t stay after school or come in early access those services, he said. The flexibility allows students who probably need these tools the most to access them.
To ensure safety, Carrion said, all the agents go through criminal background checks, are safety certified, and only about 10% of applicants are accepted. The technology also works similar to Uber or AirBnB in that the students do not talk to agents on their personal numbers but through the agency’s platform.
The agency’s technology allows the company to track conversations, Carrion said. It even alerts employees if words like “depression” or “suicide” are used so the agent can help de-escalate the issue or contact the school.
“We call ourselves an agency that represents students instead of celebrities and athletes,” Carrion said. “LeBron James has an agent, Drake has an agent. Why can’t every teenager have their own agent as well?”
The program helps students feel empowered, he said. It’s cooler for a kid to say, “I talked to my agent” instead of “I have to meet with the counselor.”
Richard Owens, 36, connects Fort Worth ISD students who participate in Tarrant To & Through Partnership with their agents as the director of postsecondary pathways.
Part of T3 Partnership’s programming is giving students a path to mentorship, which Owens said is where Student Success Agency comes in.
“The fact that the platform is completely and totally virtual makes it consistent and accessible for students,” Owens said. “The pandemic hit and at T3, we were like, we’ve made this commitment to students around mentorship, and we have no clue how we are going to do that. We found out about SSA and their success in the way that they approach virtual mentorship, and I think it was just a really good match and a really good way to kind of get up off the ground and running.”
The agents view themselves as advocates for students, Owens said. Even if the agents cannot directly help with something, they can find other resources to help their mentee with.
The students are matched with mentors with similar interests who can help them achieve their goals. For example, Carrion said, a student in Utah was interested in magic. He was paired with a mentor who is in a master’s program for business. From there, the mentor helped the student connect with a magician in Chicago, and he went on to do an internship with a magician in China.
Tamia Johnson, 19, is a graduate of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy and is now attending Tarrant County College. Although she was accepted to other schools, she said, she was not “financially or mentally prepared” for that transition.
“The program basically gave me a better pathway to provide me mentorship, it gave me that easy crossway,” she said. “So when I went to TCC I didn’t have such a hard time.”
Johnson and her mentor talk about issues outside of school. She said her agent helps her with her mental health, programs to get involved in, her past and anything else that comes up in their conversations. She said she appreciates her agent also is a Black woman.
“Going into young adulthood, for me, it’s great to have somebody who probably knows how you are feeling, when it comes to family knows how it feels to be in those type of conditions and as a young woman, it’s just better to have that type of confirmation that you’re doing OK, there’s someone who looks like me that can assist me,” she said.
Jalicia Moore, 18, attended the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences and is now at the University of Texas at Tyler. She also has an agent, who she said gives her a variety of tools to success ranging from articles to help her in math class to advice from personal experiences.
“She made me a Google document that basically was a survival guide for my first year in college, and that meant a lot,” Moore said. “I just wish we could connect in person; we’re miles away. Her spirit is so sweet, and she’s extremely supportive.”
Part of why the two connect so well is their tastes in food, hobbies and majors, Moore said.
Carrion describes this as tapping into “the powers of when you meet kids where they are.”
“And we realize they actually need this amazing infrastructure that we provide in schools when they’re outside of it, and that’s what our goal is — we want to be the digital stack of schools so that we no longer think of school just 7 a.m.-3 p.m. — it’s anywhere, anytime; these services are ready.”
Four tiers of Student Success Agency
1. Set goals
2. Career exploration
4. Achieve outcomes
Carrion has lived in Fort Worth only four years, and most of his business is outside the city, but he said he sees the city booming and wants to be part of it.
“I believe 2022 Fort Worth is in the place where 2002 Austin was, where it’s a sleepy town, it’s a college town, it’s a nice town. It’s not really a bunch of nothing,” he said. “And I think that’s where I’d rather be than a place where it’s cool to be.”
He said the podcast he hosts with Jimmy Sweeney, the 817 Podcast, has helped him develop a leadership role in the city. He said he is passionate about journalism and wants to help young people get that passion as well.
Through the podcast and Leadership Fort Worth, Carrion said, he is learning more about the city.
As the city grows, Carrion said, he sees the Hispanic community, including Afro-Latino people like him, taking more of a role in the city.
“I think the kicker is going to be the Hispanic play. I mean that is the silent power that needs to be activated,” he said. “I think, if there is going to be change, it’s going to be really activating our Latino population, but I’m also a believer that you’ve got to take it.”
Carrion is passionate about entrepreneurship and getting people who have jobs that are focused more on “heart” than money — such as education or social work — to become entrepreneurs.
“No one’s going to give us the power,” he said. “So, if you can build wealth to play the game I feel like it’s the way to win the game. And I think that’s kind of the journey, I think it’s going to have to happen with the Black and brown community in Fort Worth, because I just don’t see the current powers at play, listening or giving up their power.”
EJ Carrion Bio
Birthplace: Plattsburgh, New York
Moved to Fort Worth: 2017-present
Family: Wife Monica and Dog Sega
Education: Bachelors of Arts in Journalism at the University of Oklahoma
Work Experience: I started my company at 22 and have been working for myself since.
Volunteer Experience: Not affiliated with any org but do my best to support local civic events, volunteer when needed, and advocate for important issues.
First Job: Installing sprinklers in high school
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Selflessness is a form of compound interest. The more you do for others, the more others will want to do for you.
Best advice ever received: You were born an original, don’t live like a copy.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.