The Origins of ETH: An Interview with Co-Founder and CEO Jae Lee
Jae Lee sits on the patio of a bar in Iganga, a town in Uganda on a Sunday evening.
The overcast sky is juxtaposed by Jae’s effervescent demeanor as he describes his origin story and that of Empower Through Health (ETH), the public health organization he co-founded and leads, while he patiently waits for the chicken dish he ordered to arrive.
In our Skype conversation, Jae described his personal journey—spanning five continents and over 50 countries—that has led him to co-found ETH.
Jae is from South Korea, and lived there until he was nine years old before moving to the United States. Since that initial move, he has traveled the world attempting to meet people from every walk of life, and spend some time in their shoes. “If I don’t meet a new person, I’m going to stay on the streets,” Lee says about his traveling traditions. He has stayed with wealthy businessmen and farmers as he has hitch-hiked around the globe. But he calls St. Louis, Missouri his home base…at least until he finishes medical school at Washington University.
He first ventured to Africa during his “gap year” between high-school and college in 2011. He decided to go to Ghana on a quest to experience something as far removed from his life experiences as possible, while still being relatively safe for a first-time solo traveler. He has been back to Africa eight times since then.
On his first trip, Jae took the savings he had from high school jobs and went to Ghana for five months, staying at an orphanage. “The first month I was a foreigner,” he says. His trip was going well, and he was experiencing the cultural differences he set out to find – he took bucket showers and made trips to the well for water. But after two months, the differences in his lifestyle versus the Ghanaians he was living among became starker. The kids at the orphanage were malnourished. “They would fight over scraps of rice.”
To be able to more fully grasp the lives of those he was working with, he gave away his malaria prophylactic and the money he brought with him, opting to live on $1 a day for the rest of his trip. But he recognizes that he did not experience true poverty. “I had a comfy place waiting for me back in the U.S.”
The lesson he took away from his trips abroad is one of universality. “We’re all the same” – from rich businessmen to malnourished orphans – “we are all pursuing companionship and purpose.”
Lee’s mission since then has been to think of ways to enable people to determine their destiny, and not be limited by the circumstances they were born into. “We are all human beings, we deserve a chance to be our best selves,” he said. Although he donated his money to the orphanage in pursuit of this purpose – to further the education and buy food for the children – as an eighteen-year-old, he didn’t know how to make the money sustainable.
With some additional education and more life-experience, Jae began to believe medicine would have the biggest impact in improving the lives of disadvantaged people. (Jae is quick to point out that disadvantaged people–and not Africans specifically – are the people ETH seeks to support.) Although Jae was originally drawn to economics as a tool for positive change, he grew skeptical. “There have been many very smart people with wonderful ideas that made sense on paper, but it hasn’t always worked. A medicine-based charity seemed the least likely to be led astray.”
With a mission to help to the disadvantaged and a vessel, providing access to medical care, all Jae needed was a blueprint to make it happen. As a sophomore in college, he began looking at online research on a malaria treatment, artemisinin, which started out as a traditional Chinese medicine. The idea that there could be easily accessible, low-tech solutions to widespread ailments was an interesting one to Jae. “I started emailing the authors of journals [discussing artemisinin].” Through these exchanges, he found Shanti Parikh, an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and African and African-American Studies at Washington University. She was helpful in discussing the issues facing rural Africans, and later, in securing funding for ETH from Washington University.
Although Jae had been wanting to set something up to bolster public health in Africa while he was in college, he faced a problem that many starry-eyed young adults face: credibility, or the lack thereof. “I couldn’t get people to invest in a project I was starting while I was a senior in college,” he noted. Upon his graduation from Washington University, Jae went back to Uganda to research the prevalence of ulcers. He found that while more than half of the population he studied suffered from dyspepsia (indigestion associated with ulcers), only 4% of them got the proper treatment for it. It was because they lacked access to quality healthcare.
When he returned to Washington University with the data, he needed help entering it in a way that could be easily analyzed. That’s where Gautam Adusumilli, a friend and fellow medical student, came into the picture. Jae and Gautam were dismayed by the lack of treatment for such an easily treatable illness due to a lack of access to medical care. Their plan? “Let’s build a f***ing hospital.”
Inspired by Gautam’s buy-in, Jae got inspired to invest in ETH and began reaching out to officials in Africa and Washington University to make their plans reality. Through a network comprised of everyone from college freshmen, to Washington University directors, to leaders in Africa in charge of policy-making at the highest level.
ETH has become a multi-disciplinary project with medical, public health, programming, and public relations facets. “We want to utilize all of the brainpower at Washington University and bring it together,” Jae says. “A lot of people want to make an impact, but they don’t have an outlet for it. ETH is the conduit for people to offer their skills or expertise to a greater cause” without any barriers to entry.
By Faith McElroy