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Penn alumnus Jacob Lief is the CEO and co-founder of the Ubuntu Education Fund, a grassroots non-profit dedicated to providing families in South Africa with proper health care, education and household stability.

Photo: Courtesy of Riaan Photography/Creative Commons

As a senior at Penn, 1999 College graduate Jacob Lief couldn't imagine that he would impact the lives of thousands of children in South Africa. 

Today, Lief is the CEO and co-founder of the Ubuntu Education Fund, a grassroots non-profit dedicated to providing for vulnerable children in South Africa.

In the South African language, Nguni Bantu, the word Ubuntu translates to “human kindness towards others.” During his senior year at Penn, Lief decided he would combine his knowledge as an Africana studies major with the Ubuntu philosophy to develop the Ubuntu Education Fund. With the advice of Penn professor Mary Francis Berry and the help of his friends, Lief began his own organization to provide aid for impoverished children in South Africa.

16 years later, the Ubuntu Education Fund grew to become a leader among NGOs, and has assisted more than 2,000 children and their families. Their mission is to give these children and their families proper health care, education and household stability. Lief said that the care the Ubuntu Education Fund provides is not a privilege — it’s a right that every child in the world deserves.

According to Lief, the focus on sustained, intensive interventions over the course of children’s lives optimizes the quality of education and care a child in South Africa receives. Along the way, Lief said he asked himself, “would this be good enough for my family?”

Lief reflects upon the years it took to establish his organization in his upcoming memoir, "I Am Because You Are: How the Spirit of Ubuntu Inspired an Unlikely Friendship and Transformed a Community," where he discusses many of the challenges he faced.

“Most of what we do doesn’t work,” Lief said. “These issues are extremely complex. It doesn’t mean were not having huge success or progress, but it’s often five steps forward and 10 back. We had to learn more than a few lessons the hard way and we have had to learn humility, but I think our ability to acknowledge our shortcomings has allowed Ubuntu to grow into what it is today.”

Lief hopes to inspire the next generation of students, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs through his memoir. “I really want this millennial generation to feel empowered to do anything,” stated Lief. “I want them to understand that my experience as a social entrepreneur was riddled with mistakes. Ubuntu was a success not because I did anything extraordinary. I did put myself out there and took risks but, more importantly, I was always open to learning, changing and adapting to new challenges.”

Lief’s memoir will be released in May 2015. He hopes to return to Penn in September of 2015 for a book signing. 

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