Philanthropy: Leslie Engle Young, Pencils of Promise

This article is part of our Create & Cultivate 100 List created in collaboration with KEDS, you can view the full Philanthropy List Here

Bridging the education gap. 

Pencils of Promise is a global education organization that builds schools and provides educational programming to increase literacy rates in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos, and Nicaragua. Since its founding in 2008, Pencils of Promise has served over 30,000 students. 

Leslie Engle Young plays a vital role at the company: Director of Impact. A title unlike many others on the job market today. 

Prior to working with Pencils of Promise Leslie was focused on two very different paths: early childhood education and short story writing. After studying English and fiction writing in college she was set on being a writer. At the same time she was teaching preschool in Portland, OR. As the daughter of two educators her career path made plenty of sense. β€œPractical sense,” Leslie says. 

Until she took a leap. A major one. Buying a one-way ticket across the world to Laos when she was 23 and looking for more. She stayed almost four years, as the Country Director in Laos, creating on-the-ground change through education. 

What is the most important step you took to where you are today?

There wasn't one singular step that got me in the job I have today. In fact, it was the repetition of stepping forward again and again and again that got me here. My job has changed greatly through the years, from being one of two volunteers on-the-ground in Laos, to overseeing our impact across four different countries from our HQ office in New York. My role today looks nothing like it once does, and it was the commitment to continuing to learn and continuing to step into the unknown that kept me here. 

What are the challenges you encountered along the way?

Some of the biggest challenges came in the early days in Laos. Myself, and my Lao colleague Lanoy, frankly didn't look the part. And in a communist country that is primarily run by men, that was difficult. We were two women, then 25 and 30, with no previous experience setting up an NGO or building out an education system. This came with heavy doses of doubt and skepticism from those around us, which at times, was tiring. But we sought a lot of strength from one another and ultimately we sought strength from the people we got to work with--from the parents, teachers and students who were endlessly dedicated to carving out as much opportunity as possible for themselves and their communities. 

What is the "promise" of Pencils of Promise?

Our promise is one of opportunity. We believe that every child, regardless of status or location, deserves the right to a quality education. We promise to work with communities and governments to ensure equal opportunity for all children. 

Why do you think education is the most powerful weapon to change the world?

Because education is agency.

What keeps you going?

My coworkers! I work with a group of people all over the world who are endlessly dedicated to making their countries a better place. They are constant source or motivation and inspiration. 

Who are the people you consider your mentors or influences and why?

Women everywhere. Women leading, women working, women mothering. Women who are doing it day in and day out. Women who, in many parts of the world, keep going despite every single odd. Women who come together and believe in their combined power and their voices. 

"Women everywhere. Women leading, women working, women mothering."

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Do you remember having a mentor at the beginning of your career?

In the first year I was in Laos I met and got to know a man named Mike who worked for a larger NGO in town. He had 15+ years of solid experience on me and had been working in aid and disaster relief in some of the most challenging places on earth. I was young, probably very naive, and in desperate need of some straightforward guidance. Mike was always ready to talk over a fruit shake or a beer on the Mekong, never sugarcoating anything yet always infusing everything with his signature optimism and zest. I don't know what those first couple of years would have been without his friendship (and that of his equally amazing wife) and guidance. 

What is the best piece of "real talk" advice you've received? 

My dad, a lifelong educator, was the one person who got me through being a preschool teacher (a job that is not for the faint of heart). When I would call him in tears after a particularly exhausting day with 20 three and four-year-olds, he used to say to me, full of love and sarcasm, "Don't you just hate it when kids act their age?" That sobering comment sums up working with people. We're all coming from different places with different realities and baggage, and the ability to have empathy and understanding for one's actions can help us cross the biggest cultural and generational gaps. 

Do you have any extracurricular activities?

Running--I run half and full marathons.

How has your relationship with yourself changed in the last five years?

I've learned to take more structured time for myself. A lot of this came with running. When you train for a marathon, you need a lot of hours--weekend runs can take up half of the day. I've used this to be my own time and space and hope that as life continues to get busier I remember to really embrace and cherish that time. 

How has your relationship to your career changed?

Over time I've grown to really embrace the discomfort and the learning curves in my career. At first it was hard--I wanted to have things right the first time around. But I've come to really thrive off of the unknown and the challenges. I enjoy the opportunity to fail fast and learn from it as quickly as possible. 

What’s next?

My next five years will be about starting a family and sharing the joy and purpose of my work and travel with our kids.