The Inspiring Backstory of Leslie Engle Young, Chief Impact Officer, Pencils of Promise
“Never leave home without The Big Three. Long car rides and adventurous meals in the developing world can sometimes lead to desperate situations. That’s where The Big Three comes in: Imodium, Cipro and toilet paper. They will save you. “
Leslie Engle Young is the Director of Impact at Pencils of Promise a non-profit that builds schools for children that otherwise wouldn’t of had a chance at an education in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos
What is your backstory:
The path to my current job is very windy. I grew up in rural Oregon, moved around for college, travelled abroad and wound up back in Oregon teaching preschool in my mid 20s. I had educators for parents and fell into it naturally — and while I think I was pretty good at it, I found only relief at the end of the day, not joy. I then went on a journey to lead me to a way to help teachers — the real teachers who passionately do what they do, day in and day out, with little thanks and few resources. That ended me in Laos for four years, where I had the pleasure of working with my Lao counterpart to build out a team and Pencil of Promise’s (PoP) first in-country operations.
Which person or which company do you admire and why?
The person I have looked up to most in my professional life is currently the Country Director of World Vision in (the magical South Pacific island of) Vanuatu. I met Mike very early in my career while living in Laos, and in hearing his stories and watching him interact with his team, I slowly developed an image of the type of leader I someday wanted to be. He is someone who leads with integrity, commitment and love. He cares deeply for every person who works for and with and near him, and he cares about them holistically as people — and at the same time, he is incredibly dedicated to mission-driven work and is able to rally people and teams around common goals. In stressful moments, I often think of how Mike would handle the situation.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I’m bringing goodness to the world! I just feel very fortunate to love the work that I get to do and the people I do it with.
What are your 5 things…”I wish someone told me when I first started”
Hire your opposite. When you first start interviewing and hiring people it is very easy to lean toward people who are just like you with whom you have instant rapport and great conversation. Those people, however, could have your exact same weaknesses. In building up a team, look for those who help fill in the gaps and bring new perspectives; you don’t want a team of folks who think and operate exactly the same. You want someone who will challenge your logic and help you see the other sides. Some of the most successful (and fun) colleague partnerships I’ve had have been with people I would have never met outside of work.
Sometimes you will fail — so use it! It is inevitable that you’ll make the wrong decision. I’ve made many, many wrong decisions. I learned early on to forgive myself and keep moving myself and team forward. What took me more time, however, was to take the time to pause after a mistake and learn. People and teams grow from failure — one of my mentors always says, “breakdowns lead to breakthroughs.” Don’t simply trudge on to the next answer. Think through what went wrong. Why did it go wrong? What were you thinking would happen? And, most importantly, how will you avoid making this mistake next time.
Don’t disrupt for the sake of disrupting. There are a lot of shiny ideas in this field. People are interested in bringing new technologies to last mile communities, in trying something that has never been tried before. And at times, that is absolutely necessary. But you first always need to gut check yourself with the ‘why’. Why am I doing this? Do communities need this solution or do I want to be known for trying something? Is it going to be a sustainable solution for students or is it going to be a one-time material drop that will yield some great pictures and stories? Does it align with our mission and move our work forward or are we veering off course? In this work, communities are trusting us to partner with them to do what can truly create change — we owe them our honesty and integrity in return.
Numbers are your friends. I am one of those people (there are many of us) who say ‘I’m bad at math’ as a preemptive excuse or a caveat to anything that has to do with numbers. For years, all this did for me was convince me that it was impossible to change. I’m bad at math, so why try to fix the budget? I’m bad at math, so why would I understand the effect size of an intervention. This approach simply does not work. If you’re bad at math, get good at math, lean on people around you for support and don’t open conversations with what you refuse to do.
Never leave home without The Big Three. Long car rides and adventurous meals in the developing world can sometimes lead to desperate situations. That’s where The Big Three comes in: Imodium, Cipro and toilet paper. They will save you.