Jacob Lief visited South Africa for the first time in 1994 when he was seventeen years old, witnessing firsthand the transition from apartheid into democracy. Three years later, Lief returned to that same city as a university student and was confronted with how little had changed. “I was struck by this lie we were feeding the children there, saying, ‘You have your freedom,’ and ‘You can do whatever you want.’ But that’s not true,” Lief told DuJour. “If you’ve been raped, are living in a shack, or if you don’t have parents, then you’re not going to make it.”
Lief is the CEO of the Ubuntu Education Fund, one of many organizations that focuses on changing the lives of children in South Africa. But their motto, “From Cradle to Career,” sets them apart. “When I returned from South Africa, I looked around at all of these organizations operating around the continent and noticed that everyone is defining success by the number of soup cans handed out,” Lief told an expensively dressed audience at the charity’s 14th anniversary gala held recently in New York, “and looking at you, I know you didn’t get to where you are because of a cup of soup. Knowing very little about each and every one of you, I can guarantee that a lot was invested in you and it’s probably harder for you to fail than succeed. At Ubuntu, we want to define our success […] by the depths of our services and lives changed.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal was one of the many celebrities in attendance along with Paul Simon, Donna Karan and Michael Franti. The mother of two told DuJour, “My children are so lucky; so many children are. As a mother it makes it all the more real and harder to allow any child to not have the things that he or she needs.”
Take Lwando Nteya, who described his experience with Ubuntu: “They took me when I was at my most vulnerable, and then they raised me as one of their own, as a member of their family. I had dreams in my life, and they made sure I could I could go forward with those dreams and become someone important one day. They’ve been there supporting me for my entire life.” Now the Ubuntu Education Fund Scholar is now a confident young entrepreneur and aspiring pilot.
It took only ten minutes after Lief and Nteya’s moving speeches for the audience of over three hundred socially conscious philanthropists, musicians and celebrities to raise over $273,000 in funds for a prenatal care unit, early childhood development and scholarshipss. Celebrity event planner Colin Cowie hosted the live auction, where guests bid on a luxury trip to South Africa and tea with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Michael Franti and Sonna Rele performed to a captive and well-fed (and mildly intoxicated) audience for hours—and while it may not have been a night to remember, it certainly was a cause to remember.