As an associate at one of the world’s largest law firms, Brian Kuhl is doing exactly what he envisioned when he decided to pursue a law degree: building a home for his extended family in Uganda.
Kuhl’s day job is working as Mayer Brown’s lone associate in Minnesota, where he works from home and visits the firm’s Chicago headquarters monthly. But his passion lies in Uganda, where he met his wife, Jesca Kuhl, some 13 years ago while working as a teacher in the Peace Corps. Since then, the couple have built two homes to house about 15 children in the African nation.
The Kuhls have paid for them and more than a dozen others to go to school in Uganda to become accountants, beauticians, businessmen or to work for a local cement company.
“It’s what we’ve structured our lives around,” Brian Kuhl said. “And where we envision ourselves being in the future is back in Uganda doing this type of work.”
Kuhl never expected he would be in Minnesota doing banking and finance work and bringing home a Big Law paycheck. After getting a bachelor’s degree from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, he taught elementary school in his home state for a year before signing up for the Peace Corps and heading to Uganda in 2004.
As a teacher and a trainer for educators, Kuhl worked with 56 local schools. He built the first library in the eastern Ugandan town of Pallisa, where he also helped bring about the first internet connection. And Kuhl developed an after-school program for at-risk kids—mostly the children who gathered around his house to get a glimpse of his white skin, he said.
Before Kuhl had the internet installed in his library, he traveled about an hour-and-a-half to another town, Tororo, to the closest internet café. Spending Fridays and Saturdays there was a good way to send emails to friends and family back in the United States and it was also where he met Jesca, who worked as a manager at the shop. She caught his attention mostly by avoiding him.
“There was something refreshing about that when I had been getting an overabundance of attention from people,” Kuhl said. “It was great to be treated normal.”
On one of his next Friday visits, he asked her to breakfast the following Saturday morning. Jesca eventually began working in Kuhl’s internet café back in Pallisa before the two were married in a Ugandan ceremony in 2006. They treated that as an engagement as they planned to head back to live with Kuhl’s parents in Minnesota.
But tragedy struck his new family shortly before they left Uganda. One of Jesca’s uncles, Tom, was hit by a car and killed. Tom had been perhaps the closest thing to an American-style father figure in Jesca’s life. After Jesca’s mother left her husband, Tom allowed his sister and her daughter, Jesca, to live on his family’s property. Tom helped put her through school.
“This uncle had a dream of his kids going to school and doing well in life,” Kuhl said. “We didn’t have anything at the time. I was a volunteer and we were figuring out how to come here. But we knew we wanted to figure out a way to help that family in particular.”
Kuhl still hadn’t considered law school. He was donating blood twice a week when the couple first returned to his parents’ house. Kuhl eventually got a job as a public school teacher in Minneapolis. But financial troubles at the school meant there was not a stable enough position to support his growing family (the couple had a baby on the way); to send Jesca to nursing school; and to help her relatives in Uganda.
After working as a teacher for a year, he got a better paying job as an administrator at a health care company that also paid his rent. That allowed the young couple to spend about $50,000 to buy an acre and a half of land near Jesca’s family’s village and build a house. The house is made of plastered mud walls with a roof of iron sheeting. As the children graduate from school and move onto jobs, Jesca and her family find local children or orphans who would benefit from living in the home.
Eventually, the couple decided they would need more income to support their life in the United States and their growing mission in Uganda. Kuhl was accepted to the University of Wisconsin Law School.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to go to Wisconsin, that’s a pretty good school. If I work hard enough I should be able to do well enough to come back to Minnesota,’” Kuhl said.
He did better than expected, interning for Shirley Abrahamson, the then-chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, graduating summa cum laude and earning a rare award given to “an outstanding member of the law school class.” That led to job interviews at big firms in Chicago, which at the time were paying a first-year salary of $160,000 per year. That kind of money was enough that Kuhl took a job at Mayer Brown in Chicago and left his family in Minnesota.
“It was a hard decision, but we knew we’d be able to do the things we wanted to do [in Uganda],” Kuhl said.
He then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to work with a partner who had recently lateraled into Mayer Brown. That assignment lasted for about a year-and-a-half until the partner left the firm. Kuhl said he was at that time offered a job in the Cayman Islands from one of Mayer Brown’s clients. So he spoke with a member of the firm’s management committee about his future job prospects, telling the partner he thought he was only going to leave Mayer Brown if he was moving back home to Minnesota.
“He said, ‘How about this, to make it easy for you, you stay on with us and you can move back home and work from Minnesota,’” Kuhl said. “That’s my current arrangement. And I travel to Chicago once a month for two days. It’s not bad.”
Kuhl has been working that way for about two years. In August, he and his family—the couple now have a 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter—visited his property in Uganda. They have since bought more land and now currently own 3.5 acres and recently built a second, sturdier house. This one has solar power and is in the process of getting running water.
The Kuhls spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a year on each of the children they put through school. One of the girls, for example, is going to a boarding school that Kuhl called the best in the region, which costs $2,000.
Kuhl said he and Jesca are in the process of creating a nonprofit organization to structure their investments in Uganda and allow them to take donations. The project has gotten bigger than either he or his wife expected.
There have been a number of success stories, with one former resident becoming a businessman and owning a shop in a nearby town. Another woman works as a border agent on Uganda’s border with Kenya. And a third child, whose father was Tom, Jesca’s late uncle, now works at Tororo Cement Ltd. The company, one of the largest manufacturers of construction materials in East Africa, is the same place where his father once worked.