Jacob Lief is the founder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund. After visiting South Africa to observe the country’s historic elections, he returned to the Eastern Cape to co-found Ubuntu in 1999. He has since developed the organization, which began in a broom closet, into a world-class institution that supports more than 2,000 children on its pathway out of poverty. Overseeing 70 employees across three continents, Jacob has grown Ubuntu into an internationally-recognized model for community development. In 2009, Jacob was selected as an Aspen Institute Global Fellow and, in 2010, he was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. In 2012, he became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative Advisory Committee. Later that year, Jacob was named one of the world’s 101 most innovative visionaries at the Decide Now Act Summit. He is a Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and also received his Bachelor of Arts degree from there.
How did you get into the non-profit industry?
There’s not a short answer to that question. To answer that is to tell the story of my life. As an American teenager growing up in London, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa to observe the nation's first free elections, with a delegation of teachers and students from around the world. My life’s trajectory was forever changed. At first, I got caught up in the idea of being part of something bigger than myself – which was the “Free South Africa” movement. It was incredibly exciting – there was an immense feeling of celebration, reconciliation, and just overall positive emotion. On the other hand, I could also see that it would be a great challenge to undo all the damage of the apartheid years. Poverty and mass inequality don’t disappear overnight.After I returned, all I could think about was how and when I could go back to devoting myself to the movement of building a new South Africa.
At the University of Pennsylvania I was lucky to find a great mentor - Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson of the Commission on Civil Rights and a major figure in the Free South Africa Movement. In my third year of University, I made my second trip to South Africa – intending to spend a semester working abroad. We’d recently gotten internet on our campus and I found a job in Cape Town. Upon arriving in South Africa, I quickly realized my employers were running a scam, so I did what any college student would do. I decided to jump on a train, not sure where I was going, and 18 hours later I met a man on the train who convinced me to get off in Port Elizabeth. Through a series of unlikely events, I ended up at a tavern where I met a local schoolteacher Malizole Banks Gwaxula. After a few drinks, we realized we both shared a passion for soccer and education. I spent the next six months living with his family and working in the school where he taught. In 1999, Banks and I founded Ubuntu Education Fund, hoping to address a piece of the educational crisis in South Africa. We started out simply distributing academic supplies to orphaned and vulnerable children. Over the years, the organization has grown, evolved and changed in so many ways. Today, though we’re focused on one geographic area, our model is a proven blueprint for culturally-appropriate development, and has been highlighted as a best practice strategy at the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative.
Tell us about the Ubuntu Education Fund. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
Ubuntu Education Fund is an organization dedicated to working with the people of the Eastern Cape Province to provide orphaned and vulnerable children with cradle to career services and support – including quality healthcare from before birth, a safe and secure home and an , excellent education - in other words, everything that I had growing up, and what all children deserve. Our inspiration is right in our name - Ubuntu. It means “I am because you are,” that a person is a person through other people.
Our vision is based on the premise that one-time, one-off development interventions are not enough to give township children in post-apartheid South Africa what they need to succeed in life. Education does not exist in a vacuum. Health care does not exist in a vacuum. Our approach is holistic. The other major principle that guides our work is that these children should not have anything less than what all children deserve. Should your birthplace determine your future? Our answer is no.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that have attributed to UEF's success?
One of the most interesting partnerships we’ve been fortunate to have is one with the Bertha Foundation, a family foundation based out of South Africa and London. They helped us launch our BUILD program about 4 years ago – an unprecedented, world-class staff development initiative. People always want to fund more program supplies, computers, etc. But that stuff is easy. What we really need – what is more difficult, and yet so critical – is recruiting, retaining and cultivating good people. There is a huge skill shortage in South Africa – their best and brightest are heavily recruited into the corporate sector. Through Bertha, we’ve been able to invest a quarter of a million dollars per year into simply developing people. And we’ve seen extraordinary progress as a result. One of our staff members, Fezeka, who started with us twelve years ago having worked as a hairdresser, is now a manager at the Ubuntu Centre and pursuing a Masters in Social Work. That’s just one incredible example. Bertha showed real, gutsy leadership within a philanthropic community that is often reluctant to take this kind of risk.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
I’m noticing a backlash against the traditional concept of "going to scale" long seen as the sign of success - being able to expand geographically. This is something I’m happy to see since Ubuntu has always been focused on the depth rather than breadth of our impact. Ubuntu's cradle to career model ensures that 2,000 vulnerable children in a single community have everything--household stability, health, and educational support--to realize their potential.
Another trend I’m seeing that relates to our work is challenging the dollar-per-day mentality. A growing recognition of the value of investing deeply in a small group of people to ensure true leaders are developed. An example is the African Leadership Academy, run by my friend Fred Swaniker, which spends $30,000 per year per child—an unheard of concept on the continent of Africa.
With the help of global venture philanthropy, there is a shift towards radically rethinking the criteria used to decide which projects and ideas will have an impact, as well as actually redefining what “impact” is so that both investor and beneficiary are on the same page.
Three life mottos:
1) Life is either too long or too short depending how you look at it; so you better enjoy the ride.
2) There’s always a solution.
3) Human rights always trump culture.
Ubuntu Education Fund motto?
Access to excellent education and quality health care should be a child’s right and not a privilege.
Your greatest success as founder of UEF? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
Both questions can be answered with the same experience: the building of the Ubuntu Centre in 2011. Everyone said we couldn’t do it -- how on earth could we build a $7 million centre when we only raise $6 million a year? And from an architecture perspective it was ‘too big’ to build in the townships. Kids looked at the billboards announcing the building project and they literally said “that building belongs in the city,” with the implication being they don’t believe they deserve to have such a building right in their community. But the building symbolizes the philosophy of Ubuntu: that vulnerable children deserve the same things we want for our own children. I knew we had to build the building. So we did - and it was ultimately a great success. Despite naysayers who said this was “Jake’s vanity project,” we won Global Architecture Awards and made a statement to the world that access to great education is a child’s right and not a privilege.
But it was unbelievably hard. Every step of the way presented another major challenge. The usual things - construction taking longer, costing more money than expected. Building something of that scale and that quality, we had to completely retrain construction workers in a specific way of laying cement. We raised money furiously and continuously, up until the last day.
But it was a lesson in the importance of taking that first step. If you feel something is right in your gut, don’t be daunted by the obstacles ahead. There’s always a solution.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
You better really be passionate about your cause or project, because it’s really hard work. It takes a long time to get good at something, and you have to recognize there will be mistakes and missteps along the way. A deep passion for what you are doing - that needs to fuel that to get you through those harder times. It’s easy to romanticize or glamorize building something of your own, especially in this day and age of start-ups everywhere you turn, but the truth is it is such difficult work. You need to develop tough skin. People get jealous of your success. Try your best to treat people fairly. Judge your success by where you’ve come from and not where you’re going. If you can do that, you’ll be on the right track.
Favorite travel destination?
Mozambique. Nothing better than sitting with a cold LM beer and giant peri-peri prawns and watching the world go by….
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Dry-aged bone-in ribeye from L. Simchick & Co. Meats, a butcher in NYC, paired with a bottle of Romanee-Conti (which I hope to actually taste one day…)
What literature is on your bed stand?
The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
Role model - business and personal?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is both of those people to me. He is our patron at Ubuntu Education Fund and I am blessed and humbled to call him a friend. He’s someone who continues to stand up for what’s right and just in this world, never wavering, despite mounting criticism from his own government. He has always been about doing the right thing, embracing through his words and actions the notion that human rights trump all. He embodies the spirit of Ubuntu – the idea that a person is a person through a person. He has taught me the true meaning of forgiveness through his actions.
You may start to sense a theme here -- I’m passionate about finding new platforms to challenge the status quo, changing the conversation for the development sector. I’m tired of people saying to me “Jake, we love what you’re doing but how do you reach more kids for less money. We’re all about efficiency.” I want to prove that the question we should be asking is “how much does it cost to actually change a child’s life?” I’m joining a coalition of CEOs committed to raising our voices in the overhead debate -- challenging the long held notion that nonprofits are judged and praised on how little they spend on ongoing operating expenses.
Most interesting headline you've read this week?
“Gloves off as Numsa takes on Cosatu, dumps ANC” (from Mail & Guardian, a progressive paper in South Africa). It’s in reference to a political power struggle among the unions, which have been and continue to be influential to South Africa’s growth.
What's next for UEF?
I spent close to four years working on, I am because you are: How the spirit of ubuntu inspired an unlikely friendship and transformed a community, due to be published by Rodale Inc. in May 2015. It’s the story of my personal journey weaved together with an attempt to address some of the issues that are dominating our sector. I hope to inspire the next generation of global change makers.