Aja Brown (Courtesy photo)

Aja Brown was a freshman in college majoring in pre-engineering when it clicked for her that engineering was not the right path. Brown said she prayed, opened up a 1,000-page course catalog, and landed in urban planning.  After reading the description, Brown said, “This is me.”

Brown was the youngest person to be elected mayor of Compton in 2013 at age 31 and served as for eight years. After her tenure, Brown transitioned to the private sector as a strategic impact partner at FORWARD in September 2022. FORWARD is a company that helps governments and nonprofits deliver resources and funding to communities using human-centered technology and customized solutions.

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Brown and her twin brother were raised by their single mother and financially struggled. This upbringing made Brown wonder how poverty gaps arise and inspired her to excel in school, take AP classes, and get straight A’s. Shockingly, she learned when she got to college that she had a gap in her school education, and she realized the disparities in the system. This made Brown want to fix the imbalances by addressing how the built environment impacts the outcomes of many communities.

“I never thought I would be in politics. My plan was just to work in government– doing the work, making things and places more beautiful, bringing programs to kids. I always loved young people, and I hit a wall when I realized that you can have the most wonderful data-backed strategies and even bring opportunities, but if policymakers don’t have a vision or they don’t want to implement it, then they’ll never make it to the hands of people. That’s how I started looking at politics, as a way to impact change,” Brown said.

Brown recalls the implicit bias she faced throughout her career because she had focused on economic development and redevelopment, which was predominantly led at that time, in her experience, by white men. As a Black woman in these spaces, Brown said she was a dichotomy for what these corporations were used to interacting with.

“As I transitioned into mayor, I anticipated what I would experience. But I think the biggest surprise for me was, in many ways, how I was resisted from my peers in that space, and in large part because I was a woman, and I was young. While it was very interesting to the outside world, the reality of what I faced every day was just significant resistance and definitely a big shift from what the previous mayors had experienced, in terms of people getting on board with the vision and moving forward,” Brown said.

After she had finished her last term as mayor, Brown took a year off to rest and recover. A friend of Brown’s in the VC space asked if she could look at a company he had invested in. They were doing something similar to what her previous team had built for the Compton Pledge. Brown was eventually asked if she would consider a board role for that company known as FORWARD.

She accepted and came on board as a strategic partner to help them navigate and optimize how they connected with governments. Because Brown had always worked in historically underserved communities, she knew that one of the critical things beyond the scarcity of resources was the lack of capacity. Brown said where there’s high need, there’s always low capacity from a staff level.

“There’s a multitude of challenges that are all very complex and diverse. Even when there are funding resources available, because of the lack of capacity, they may not even have the administration to design programs, market them, connect with communities that have the greatest need, and then let alone administer those funds appropriately and handle the reporting. It creates this virtuous cycle of not being able to get funding where it’s needed, but then also because of the lack of structure and capacity internally, continually having negative implications from regulatory bureaus,” Brown said.

According to Brown, 80% of FORWARD’s team comes from the government space, so they understand the high number of intricate programs that cities or states have to administer. This is done to ensure that funds are spent appropriately.

Brown said that technology increases transparency so that people can see where funding is going. They can access it on their cell phones and apply for a program instead of walking into City Hall. Funds can also be sent by a cash card, through their bank accounts, etc, – it’s up to their preference.

“What’s powerful is that the government agencies are able to know exactly how those funds were spent, where they went, at what time and then they can report appropriately, which FORWARD also handles all of that. So, it literally saves thousands of dollars on public cost of actually trying to figure out how to do all those things that government is not designed to do. But then also, add speed and make sure that people get what they need quickly,” Brown said.

Since FORWARD launched, they have partnered with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs to launch the Empower_U fund, which awarded 1,000 grants at $2,500 each, to domestic violence survivors to cover medical bills,  relocation expenses, and other costs necessary to empower their financial independence. These are just some examples of the many different partnerships and accomplishments that FORWARD has under its belt.

For more information on Aja Brown and FORWARD, visit https://www.ajabrown.com/ and