There are 250 million illiterate children in the world and one woman is on a mission to change this. Leslie Engle Young is the Chief Impact Officer at Pencils of Promise (PoP), a non-profit organization providing education to impoverished children in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. While always having a passion for education, Young didn’t always know she would one day oversee an implementation strategy for an $8 million dollar a year organization.
Her involvement with PoP was born unexpectedly from a one-way ticket to Laos and exposure to the non-profit while travelling in the country at the age of 23. She was so inspired by PoP staff’s commitment to helping disadvantaged children that she joined the organization and worked in Laos for another four years as a Country Director. Seven years later and she is now responsible for measuring PoP’s impact from their headquarters in New York City.
Since PoP’s inception in 2008, the organization has built over 425 schools and enrolled over 73,000 children. Not only does PoP give children access to education, they ensure their schools are sustainable by providing quality teacher training and educating children about water and sanitation to keep them healthy and enrolled. As Chief Impact Officer, Young makes sure that PoP’s programs are both making a positive impact today and maintainable for the future. She ensures the organization remains accountable and transparent while simultaneously managing a staff of over 90 people spread across four countries.
When she’s not in New York City, she is between Guatemala, Ghana and Laos, checking on PoP’s operations in the field. Young is proof that if you are passionate enough about a cause, you can create positive change. It all started with curiosity and a yearning for adventure, but it’s been her dedication and genuine passion for helping others that has propelled her to become a front-runner in advancing human rights. We caught up with Leslie to see what it’s like to dedicate your career to a noble cause.
What was your background before getting involved with Pencils of Promise? And how did this background influence your involvement?
I studied English and Creative Writing, taught pre-school and then bought a one-way ticket to move to Laos. That basically sums up the three distinctly different parts of my journey with PoP. While the path to this point was not direct, I do think that it made sense for me and helped prepare me for future challenges: studying English and fiction gave me access to a whole new world of complex people and places, and being a teacher gave me a bit of insight into the challenges of that world and a great lesson in patience, all of which have been instrumental to my work at PoP.
As the Chief Impact Officer, what is the most impactful moment of being a part of PoP?
I’ve been working at PoP for over seven years and I can honestly say that there are regular moments that impact me in profound and transformative ways–with colleagues, in communities, with students. The most defining moment, however, was probably the day I left Laos and moved back to the US to work at our office in New York. It became the first time that we as an organization had fully handed off ownership of country operations to a local staff, something that was, and is, very true to the core of what we want to be.
What have you found as the most effective format for getting sponsors and donors?
From where I stand, deep in the programmatic and impact side of PoP, it’s all about the connection. If you can get to the field, come to our gala and meet our country directors, hear a story directly from the field, you’re hooked. The people who make our work actually happen are the most inspiring people you’ll ever meet.
As inspiring as your work can be, I’m sure there can also be days that are frustrating—how do you cope with these and push through?
Of course there are frustrating times! But it isn’t hard to push through when you have good people around you. Our Impact Team in NYC is a mighty group of five who operate with trust and support–so, bad days are allowed and folks around you collaborate to get through them. (Also, Netflix!)
Do you have a daily inspiration or motivator?
I’m a runner and that is how I really fuel myself outside of work before I start the day. At work, the people.
What is one of your favorite stories to share about PoP?
In my role, I spend the bulk of my time in-country with our teams, and much less with students and teachers. But there was one time, a few of years ago now, that I was in the community of Toklokpo in Ghana for a lesson supported by PoP staff that promoted self-guided research and inquiry. After the session, I talked with some students and teachers to get their feedback. One boy, Obed, said to me, “Today, I learned how to learn.” That line has stuck with me. He has stuck with me. His feeling in that moment is the goal.
How does it feel to have a 100% success rate with all 414 schools you have opened?
The fact that all of our schools are open and operational is a testament to the relationships that our Country Directors and their teams have built with every single community. While we are continually working to streamline and systemize our work, we know how important the human element is–that having the PoP team in the community before and during a build, working with people on an individual basis, is something we will always prioritize.
You’re significantly and regularly changing lives, but how has PoP changed your life?
PoP has changed my life in literally all of the ways. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life here and in that time have gained life-long friends and family from all over the world. To grow with these people, through personal and professional triumph and challenge, has been one of the greatest markers of who I am and who I want to be.
What locations are programs are next for PoP?
What’s next for us to keep learning and improving! We don’t have any geographic scale plans at the moment and are deeply focused on using the qualitative and quantitative results of our programs to go deeper and improve along the way.
You have a variety of ways for communities to get involved with PoP. What do you suggest as the best way for someone to get involved?
To start an individual campaign page. Our supporters and campaigners range from high schoolers to Tough Mudder champions to insurance company executives.
Photo Credit: Nick Onken