A conversation at a bar 18 years ago in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with school teacher Malizole Banks Gwaxula, started Jacob Lief's journey into global development. What followed were years of sleeping on couches while bootstrapping to raise funds for his startup. He imagined a world where a child’s birthplace doesn’t have to determine her future and together with Gwaxula created the Ubuntu Education Fund to work toward that goal.
Lief was just named one of Fortune Magazine’s “40 Under 40”, an annual award recognizing young business leaders and innovators; he was one of the few from the social good space. The Ubuntu Education Fund provides household stability, health, and educational services to 2,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth’s townships.
Lief is not looking to expand their work to other geographies because he believes that depth is more important than scale in development work. To that end Ubuntu is expanding its campus, building a vocational training college and doubling the size of its early childhood program.
In a recent interview with Devex, Jacob Lief shed light on his journey, on setting his own rules, and developing what has become an internationally recognized model for community development. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
You are passionate about encouraging other organizations to focus on depth rather than scale. Can you explain why?
Too much of the development world is characterized by reaching more children for less amount of money. We flipped it on its head. We have spent 18 years working in one little 7-kilometer zone, going deeper into the community. It is about taking children from cradle to career and investing in them all the days of their lives. There is nothing more sustainable than investing in a child [but] raising children is not scalable. I have two children of my own and they are so unique in what they need. We have 2,000 children in Ubuntu, that means 2,000 different pathways and that is a huge undertaking. It shouldn't be about how many children you reach as an organization but how you can truly change a child's life. There is a difference between touching a child's life and changing a child's life. When you touch a child's life, you provide a cup of soup or a computer class. When you change a child's life, you help them not only to survive but also thrive. You’ll give them the tools they need to thrive.
So, do you intend to replicate this program in other countries?
Absolutely not. But I want to develop an institution so that others can leverage our model.
You have gone against what might be expected more than once. You once turned down $10 million in funding to build an Ubuntu-like program in Connecticut because it was not in line with your organization’s core mission. Was it a difficult decision to make?
Of course. When I got the offer I opened up champagne in excitement. But at night time, I was like, why? What am I doing? That is not what we do. We don't chase the money just to prove that we can do it. We have a business; we are good at what we are doing but going into a community in Connecticut is not the answer. Too often, NGOs think all money is good money. All money is not worth the same. We need NGOs to have a stronger backbone and not take heavily restricted capital.
Ubuntu’s work is to help children from difficult backgrounds succeed. What advice do you have for young people with great business or social change ideas who might feel limited as a result of their place of birth or socio-economic background?
Surround yourself with people who have a different set of skills and are smarter than you. And really build a team. Nothing successful was ever built by an individual. Everyone wants to focus on the social entrepreneur but really it should be focused on the leadership team. Find yourself strong mentors, people who can really help you and be there for you. Learn to celebrate small successes and make sure that you are happy.
I prided myself on working harder than everyone — the first one in, last one to leave. I was burning out my key people. We were working ourselves into the ground. There was never enough. We always had to work harder. What I have learned through strong mentorship is that you need to be able to sustain yourself and make sure your team is happy and have that work-life balance. People with happy lives make happy employees.
What is your personal philosophy? What has motivated you over the years?
We measure success against where we have come from, not against where we are going.
Can you explain that?
Yes. I look at it as a process. Are we making progress? Are we doing better today than we did yesterday? Good [if yes], that means that we are doing something right. As opposed to setting lofty goals and wondering why we are never meeting them. It is also learning to celebrate the small successes because in our business it is one step forward, ten steps backward. I tell my team we have to celebrate small successes otherwise it becomes demoralizing. Make sure you are happy. If you do not enjoy what you are doing it is not going to work. This work is too difficult.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I am addicted to the challenge of proving to people that we can create a world-class institution in the middle of extreme poverty.
Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.
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