Interview with Jacob Lief, author of I Am Because You Are, the untold and inspirational story of the Ubuntu Education Fund

Jacob Lief is the Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund. His new memoir, I Am Because You Are is a powerful story about his incredible journey of founding Ubuntu Education Fund, the myriad obstacles he faced, the inspirational people he met, and the countless lives that he has changed. My wife and I have been long-time supporters for over a decade now and annually visit them in South Africa. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jacob and ask him some questions about his new book.

In your new memoir, I Am Because You Are, you write about the years you spent living in South Africa and founding Ubuntu Education Fund. Why do you think that this story, your story, is worth sharing?

Writing I Am Because You Are has been an incredibly cathartic experience for me; it’s been three years of intensive therapy. So in that sense, sharing my story has been an incredibly selfish process. At the same time, I think that, in writing the memoir, I tried to be brutally honest. I wanted to expose myself. Too many of the young people that I meet, the ones who are interested in development and founding their own nonprofits, put me and every other social entrepreneur on a pedestal. I think that, in doing so, they elevate our endeavors into achievements that ordinary people cannot realize. Their idolization of us discourages so many of them from changing the world. But I really do want this millennial generation to feel empowered to do anything. I want them to understand that Ubuntu was successful only because I put myself out there; I took risks, I made mistakes, and I never stopped learning.

It seems like you can trace Ubuntu’s beginnings back to when you moved to London and then convinced a teacher to lead a trip to South Africa in 1994. Could you speak more to the all-consuming fascination with the country that you describe in the first few chapters of the book?

At first, I just wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. Moving from a sleepy New Jersey suburb to a metropolitan city like London, I quickly got caught up in the “Free South Africa” movement, and I definitely romanticized it. How could I not? The speeches, the music, the colors. It was all so inspiring. But it’s easy to be infatuated with something from afar—to idolize a place, a movement, or a person like Mandela. I only realized just how little I understood South Africa’s nuances, its complexities, when I stepped off the plane in Johannesburg. There was so much more to learn and see than I had expected, and I got even more caught up in it than I had thought possible.

What, in your memory, stands out to you from that first trip?

I think that what strikes most people when they visit South Africa is the poverty; it can be overwhelming, and the gravity of what it means to live in an urban slum or township sinks in. But I had seen poverty in thirty some-odd countries before and, although it certainly manifests itself differently in each community, South Africa’s poverty is not what stayed with me. It was the people.

Growing up as a Jew, I spent time with grandparents, who still lived under the shadow of the Holocaust. My wife’s mother, for instance, was born in a concentration camp, and her grandmother to this day won’t speak to a German. I’m not saying that she is right or wrong; I can’t pass judgment on her. But I found an immense capacity to forgive in South Africa. People spoke of reconciliation and a commitment to move past decades of oppression. Everywhere, everyone was celebrating. People were literally hugging and, being an incredibly emotional person, I got caught up in the emotion of it all.

Your second trip to South Africa, however, was incredibly different; you describe the time you spent living with your future Ubuntu co-founder as the immediate precursor to Ubuntu. Beyond your professional growth, how were those five months formative for you, personally?

When I had previously travelled to the developing world, I saw extreme poverty, but I never lived in it. I returned to a hotel or hostel every night. There was always a barrier between me and the day-to-day experience of living below the poverty line. When I went back to South Africa and stayed with Banks, I saw things I had never seen before, and I was not emotionally ready for them. Although, I suppose no one ever is.

What exactly did you see?

I woke up to the sounds of a guy beating up his girlfriend, saw two people get shot at a party, and a number of other instances of racism, sexism, and violence.

How did that affect you?

 I kept my mouth shut. I was young and felt extremely vulnerable. I didn’t know how to respond to these experiences, and I was paralyzed every time. But that’s not really an excuse. To this day, I still think about everything that happened, and I’m still a little disappointed in myself.

In your memoir, you describe not only some of the things that you saw but also your choice to live in poverty. Specifically, in Chapter 3, you write “Nobody had enough to eat…I wanted to be part of the community, for all its good and all of its ills. So, like everyone else, I didn’t eat a whole lot.” You went on to describe surviving on beer and bags of chips. But hunger, for you, was self-imposed. You knew that you could leave the townships whenever you wanted.

You’re right. I went to a great university and grew up in relative privilege. I knew that I could always fly home; it was always in the back of my mind. Maybe it was a bad social experiment, but I had made the commitment to live as everyone did in the townships. So I did.

Did the people in the township respect you for immersing yourself into their lives? Did your decision confuse or upset anyone? Were you ever criticized?

Back then, the townships were still extremely closed off from white South Africa and the rest of the world. The only white people in their community were a handful of white communist activists or policemen, all of who were much older than me. There weren’t any study abroad programs or tourists. So when people saw me they were extremely confused at first, but I slowly earned street credit. For the most part, everyone really respected me, and this respect would become instrumental in establishing community buy-in when we founded Ubuntu. I do, however, understand that, today, my experience would have probably received a very different response.

How did you balance these experiences in Port Elizabeth’s townships with life in New York? In your book, you describe living in New York City, meetings on Park Avenue, and dinners with donors at the city’s top restaurants. The disparity between your two worlds must have been, and still be, incredibly stark.

At first, I was incredibly self-righteous. I looked down upon friends who would complain about a chef’s mistake in their brunch orders. I realized, as I got older, that just because I chose to live my life between South Africa and the United States doesn’t mean that other people make that decision. Although I do believe that all human beings have a responsibility to make their communities better, we all draw these boundaries differently, and that’s okay. We also all contribute to society in different ways as well. But it took me a long time to work through my frustration.

How does Ubuntu strike a balance between reaching a wider donor base and being candid about the long term investments necessary to break the cycle of poverty?

I believe that honesty is what has made Ubuntu successful over the past fifteen years. We own up to our mistakes, and we also are honest with our donors about what it takes to break the cycle of poverty. Sure, we had to learn that lesson, but I think we have. Our mission is not to build schools, distribute condoms, or provide any type of once-off intervention. Ubuntu provides orphaned and vulnerable children with everything that you or me had growing up—a safe, secure home, love, support, quality healthcare, and cradle to career education. That’s what they need to grow into successful adults. I don’t think that mission shies away from the complexity of poverty; I think it addresses it head on.

Obviously building Ubuntu, writing this memoir, and receiving such positive attention is an incredible achievement. But what has been one of your proudest moments at Ubuntu? 

Rooted in the ubuntu philosophy is the idea that all people deserve the same things. A child growing up in a South African townships is no less deserving of a state-of-the-art theater or clinic than the daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO. When Ubuntu outgrew our first small, brick building, we decided to build a beautiful center in the middle of our community. Everyone told us that we couldn’t do it or worse—that we shouldn’t do it. The odds we stacked against us and, at first, no one would give us a dime. But we took a risk and broke ground before raising the $6 million.

So it wasn’t so much the opening of the Ubuntu Centre, which was actually pretty anti-climatic for me, but the process of building it. It represented everything that is wrong in our perspectives on poverty, and I suppose our ability to build the Centre—an embodiment of what I think development should look like—signified a shift in this mentality. Or at least that attitudes could be changed.

What next? South Africa has frustrated so many people. Many think that it hasn’t made nearly as much progress towards realizing President Nelson Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation as the world had hoped; rather, progress has come slowly. What keeps you personally invested in the country?

For better or for worse, I don’t like to be proven wrong. That may not be the right answer, but it’s the truth. I’m addicted to the challenge. 

Even with this “refusal to fail” mentality, have you ever had doubts about founding Ubuntu Education Fund and working in South Africa?

Yes. Every day I have moments where I think about how different my life would have been had I not founded Ubuntu. Overseeing the organization gets harder and harder as I get older, particularly now that I have children. I see friends that I went to university with send their kids to private elementary schools that charge $30,000 to $40,000 per year, go on $20,000 vacations, and donate a million dollars to a charity. You find yourself starting to wonder what life would look like if you had a private plane. I know that’s an extreme case, but I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t questioned my decision.

Can you pinpoint a specific moment where you almost gave up?

After 9/11, we really struggled. Ubuntu, and most nonprofits, raise a significant amount of their budget from September to December. It was a difficult time, we couldn’t ask anyone in New York for donations. It was a period that almost bankrupted us and it was the closest Ubuntu has ever come to shutting down. I was convinced that we were going under, but we somehow made it through.

At Eleven Eleven, we truly value the shared spirit of our community and try to embrace the philosophy of ubuntu and practice it in our work. Can you tell me more about the Ubuntu community and people you work with?

Ubuntu is really just a collection of incredibly passionate, resilient people who have time and time again helped Ubuntu whether the storms; they truly are some of the most amazing human beings that I have ever met. I absolutely love going to work. I get so excited to walk in and see everyone. They make me incredibly proud, and I can’t see myself doing anything else in my life.

What is your vision for Ubuntu’s future?

I’m not 100% sure. I hope that the Ubuntu Centre flourishes and that our model continues to grow with the community—that our approach can adapt to clients’ needs. I also hope that we can really formalize our strategy and everything we’ve learned in an important and meaningful way. I want to be able to share Ubuntu with social entrepreneurs around the world, empower them to run with it, and hopefully improve upon it. But I know that this type of success will come incrementally. I ask myself every day is Ubuntu better than it was yesterday? Yes. Good, let’s move forward. As long as we are improving, and I think we are, then that’s what really matters to me. And that’s really how change happens anyways—it seems small in the moment like a giant container ship inching through the waves. But, in the end, it still manages to cross an ocean.

As a South African, I’m rooted in the reality of the past, but inspired by a vision for a greater future. Do you think the country will ever achieve what it set out to do back in 1994?

Twenty years ago, South Africa was a bankrupt country without a civil society or an economy. It was full of hate. Look how much it’s grown. I’m not saying that there aren’t issues, but it has made enormous strides forward.

I also think that the world needs South Africa to succeed. Its greatest potential legacy to all of us is what can be in the context of war. Where else in the world can really see that today? We need more examples so that we can tell our children that there is hope in Palestine and Israel, in Syria, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is hope because, look, South Africa made it work. South Africa achieved peace and built a vibrant democracy. That idea is what drives me—that bigger picture that the world as a whole needs South Africa to work. And, as cheesy as it sounds, I think that that change happens on an individual basis one child at a time.

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