Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Balsley: Stepping down at The Art of Education University

Guest post by Derek Balsley. This story was originally published on LinkedIn.

After more than eleven years of building The Art of Education University (AOEU), taking the institution from 2 employees to more than 150, I’m proud to announce that Jessica Balsley and I are stepping down from our respective roles as President and CEO. 

This was obviously a big decision. For those who wish to understand, I’ll expand a bit on the following topics below:

  1. Why we’re making this change.
  2. What we’ll be doing next. 
  3. Who will be leading AOEU forward.
  4. What we learned over the past decade.

First, why we’re making this change:

It probably seems a bit strange that we’re stepping down from our leadership roles at AOEU so early in our careers. Jessica and I loved our roles. Especially the opportunity to embrace responsibility, the ability to help grow others, to make big plans and execute on those plans. We decided to make the change for three main reasons: 

Fit – Jessica and I are entrepreneurs. Creators. On our current growth trajectory and scale (+150 employees), AOEU needs leaders with expertise in scaling, processes, systems, resource allocation. AOEU’s leadership should reflect its needs at this particular moment, with everyone in their perfect fit; us included. 

Accreditation – Although we disagree, regional college accreditors believe there is an inherent conflict of interest with owners serving in executive leadership roles. In order for AOEU to reach its full potential and serve our students as well as possible, we must step back from leadership in order for the institution to pursue new forms of accreditation.

Opportunity – There are so experienced leaders out there with unique insights and skills. AOEU represents an incredible opportunity for those leaders to utilize their gifts for good. Serving in one role for more than a decade can make you blind to opportunity that exists right under your nose. Being on the board will give us the ability to ensure the mission, model, pillars, and culture we worked so hard to build continue to thrive, while giving someone with new skills/gifts an opportunity to push the institution forward. We found such a leader and look forward to seeing how he takes the institution to the next level.

Second, what we’ll be doing next: 

Jessica and I still own AOEU and will continue to serve on the board. AOEU has many adventures ahead of it, and in this capacity, we hope to do what we can to ensure that the mission is fulfilled, the model is perfected, the students are served, and the team’s culture is defended. 

We believe that the Hyper-Vertical model of higher-education AOEU created for art teachers carries importance beyond the field of art education. Universities shouldn’t abandon students after graduation, they should serve their students over a lifetime through a full spectrum of learning tools, not limiting themselves to courses/degrees/diplomas.

That being said, this responsibility is far from a full-time role. As we’ve considered this change for more than a year, our number one concern was purpose. We both believe work is important — work driven by purpose, toward something meaningful. Using our God-given gifts to make a positive impact on others. We have a list of 10 or so possible work paths forward that reflect the values of “Ikigai” but we have not selected one. 

At 38 and 37, our work story isn’t over, but we also want to be intentional about not rushing back in. We’ve given so much to AOEU, and it’s time to invest in things outside of work that may have been neglected over years. Health, spirituality, family, etc. 

Third, who will be leading AOEU forward?

We were blessed to hire Mr. Brent Bingham as AOEU’s new President and CEO. Brent was selected for his experience, wisdom, discernment, and his background which uniquely combines academic experience with a track record of success growing education technology organizations. Brent has served as an executive leader in education technology over the last two decades, including PowerSchool, Apple, Pearson, Frontline, and most recently, GoReact. Prior to that he studied, taught, and researched humanities at BYU, Cornell, and Princeton. 

Brent actually consulted for AOEU prior to the release of PRO Learning, FLEX Curriculum, and MA in Art Education. His wealth of experience has already impacted AOEU and our rapid growth. Jessica and I look forward to collaborating with Brent in our new roles on the board as he leads AOEU through it’s next adventure.

Fourth, what we learned over the past decade:

This will most likely be the subject of some future longer post, but here are just a few quick reflections:

  1. Ownership mindset. One of the greatest gifts a leader can give to a team member is a sense of ownership/responsibility in their work. Replacing micro-managing with the gift of autonomy, agency, and responsibility gives team members a sense of pride and purpose.
  2. Purpose matters. We spend so much of our lives working. If our work is meaningful — aimed towards some greater good — suffering becomes sacrifice. Responsibility becomes reward. Work becomes purpose. Purpose unites people.
  3. Unity matters. The entire world is pulling people apart at the moment. Leaders must give their diverse teams the gift of unity. A mission, a model, a culture. Something to endeavor toward together. Too many companies are unwilling to plant any cultural flags in the ground for fear that they’ll be attacked/dismantled… but without unity, a team descends into chaos. Unifying people is what great leaders do.
  4. Leadership is a gift. Being put into a leadership position is an opportunity to go one of two ways. You can amplify your best qualities and become better than you were, or amplify your worst qualities and become something worse. I’m so incredibly thankful for the opportunity I was given to lead. I did my best to lead with humility, curiosity, open-mindedness and grace, and I can honestly say that I feel like I’ve become a better person thanks to this experience. I’m honored to have built an institution that can give others the same opportunity.

Finally, I just want to say that this has been an adventure of a lifetime. I’m incredibly thankful for all the people who’ve contributed to this institution, helped us through the hard times, sacrificed alongside us, or just offered a listening ear.

On to the next adventure.

Balsley: Stepping down at The Art of Education University | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
This Pop-up Is Included in the Theme
Best Choice for Creatives
Purchase Now