Jess Teutonico, Founder & CEO of Under the Acacia
Jess has been working in Kenya since 2008 with her organization, Under the Acacia, where she works in tandem with the local community in the remote areas, changing the game for community development and sustainability. Implementing and investing in all basic human needs as income generating activities, she has successfully generated infrastructure and created a centralized economy that over 150,000 Maasai inhabitants now rely on. After they finish their final raise of $250,000USD, not only will Under the Acacia never have to raise another penny again, the community will conservatively net proceeds each year of over $100,000 after all overhead is paid out - enough for many generations to flourish and to use this as a case study of remote community development in similar areas. She consults on many international conferences addressing global issues with a focus on youth initiatives. In her past life, she was a Director of Special Events at Vogue Magazine and produced the world’s leading fashion shows and events. She divides her time between New York City and Kenya. She is a black belt in Kung Fu.
1. Tell us more about your/Under the Acacia’s philosophy
There is no reason why anyone in this world should not have access to basic human needs – period. Sustainability and infrastructure is so important. A community should run its own community, in charge of their own success. It is beyond addicting to send money over to build, say, a classroom, and within five days 80 students, who otherwise would be without education, now have one. Nowhere else in the world can something happen so fast, right in front of your eyes and have such massive eye-opening impact. There is no better place to invest right now than in the remote parts of Kenya.
2. How does your work influence the way you see the world?
Even the biggest challenges, the most desperate of situations can be overcome. Live a life of purpose and you will never feel a day of stress again.
3. What’s it like to run your own business?
Under the Acacia is essentially a conduit – everything we raise goes over to Kenya. I don’t take a salary and we have no overhead other than accounting. I honestly don’t see Under the Acacia as a business – to our detriment oftentimes. What we have created is an incredible international community of global citizens, most who have never been to Kenya, who understand it is our responsibility as human beings to engage with the world and invest our resources in strategies that actually make a difference. I wish I had a staff and big marketing budgets at times, but honestly, our function is to finish this investment and turn Under the Acacia into an education model – so other communities like ours can become sustainable too. You do whatever it takes – I will sacrifice everything to achieve this goal. It’s not even a question.
4. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned (personal or professional)?
In Kenya, nothing, and I mean nothing, ever ever ever goes as planned. As someone who loves to plan and be in control, that was the biggest challenge working there – understanding that we are not in control and truly thinking on your feet. It’s not only helped me grow professionally, but also personally. Jess in Kenya is very different from Jess in New York City – over there the journey is the destination.
5. Can you share a travel tip?
Anti-Jetlag pills are a must. Try their food, listen to their music, and have a local take you around. The trick is to leave your comfort zone.
6. What’s your favorite restaurant in Kenya?
So many! In Nairobi - Dorman’s for the best latte in the world, Cedars for Mediterranean/Middle Eastern and Osteria del Chianti for Italian (both on Lenana Road), and in the Mara, any meal at Sanctuary Olonana by Chef Big John (my home away from home). But the best meal when traveling to a new country will always be at a local’s house so you can get the true experience – no food is fresher and no one is more hospitable than in Kenya.
7. What’s next on your bucket list?
Bringing my son to Kenya for the first time this summer, Tanjers and the Holi Festival in India! Honestly though, if I could travel somewhere new everyday I would – nothing feeds the soul more.