Founder of Acumen Fund: only one Jacqueline Novogratz, but many lessons for all

Image from TED.comThere can only be one Jacqueline Novogratz.

And no, this is not a hagiography; there is no need to relentlessly emphasize how rare of a person she is: intelligent yet modest, curious yet analytical, romantic yet logical, optimistic yet practical.

What makes Novogratz a person who can never be replicated has a lot to do with the times that she grew up in, and it’s the unique ways that she has reacted to those times that has allowed her to found the organization Acumen Fund and become a leader in international poverty-alleviation work.

In the early 1980s, African countries were just emerging from the debt crisis that had rocked their newly-independent governments.

During these years, the young Novogratz found herself working to establish a microfinance office in Africa, where, over time, she saw the inefficiencies of the non-profit aid model that was conventional for addressing poverty in Africa. This experience led Novogratz to believe in the need for a “middle ground” between the market and charity. Out of this conviction, the concept of “patient capital” was birthed.

Patient capital aims to alleviate poverty through long-term debt or equity investments in early-state enterprises that provide needed services to low-income communities. Novogratz established Acumen Fund in 2001 toward this end, and since then, the non-profit organization has grown to host an investment portfolio that includes health care, housing, energy, water, and agriculture projects in countries around the world including the United States, where the organization is headquartered.

But the path to success was dark, winding, and filled with potholes. When Novogratz started working in Africa, the African women she was supposed to be working alongside wanted nothing to do with her. Instead of fleeing from the stressful and often lonely situation, however, Novogratz worked through it until she was confident enough to do work that she knew could bring results for low-income women in Africa.

Her memoir, The Blue Sweater, is her account of the struggles, surprises, friendships, personal transformations, and historic moments that defined the path Novogratz pursued from a young, bright-eyed international banker to founding Acumen Fund in 2001.

The book begins with an anecdote of a sweater that young Jacqueline was gifted and, disliking it, donated to charity. Years later, working in Rwanda, she stumbled across a young boy wearing the exact same sweater, with her name in the tag. This concrete and uncanny experience was proof to her of the interconnected nature of our world.

“Our actions – and inaction – touch people we may never know and never meet across the globe,” she writes.

Novogratz shares important lessons with her readers, and though there will only ever be one of her, we can all learn from her experiences:

(1) Listen, don’t assume: If there is one main point this book argues, it is that the market holds the most potential when it is regarded as a “listening device,” and that meaningful, sustainable change can only occur once a place has been thoroughly listened to and heard, without assumptions or judgment.

(2) Know, and love, yourself: Upon arriving in Africa, Jacqueline is ignored by her colleagues, who perceive her as an immature, white outsider who’s never been to Africa. But as she gains a sense of purpose, she becomes more confident and capable. Importantly, Jacqueline dedicates time to herself, running every morning to stay in top mental and physical form.

(3) Be trusting, but not stupid: Jacqueline is often guided by a discerning and strong intuition in her business decisions and career choices, and in whom she chooses to work with. But when it comes to personal safety, she can be careless, and she is robbed a few times in Africa, putting herself in danger. Furthermore, she discovers at one point that a woman she thought she could trust was probably swindling money from the bank she was helping to found in Rwanda.

(4) Be optimistic, but not naïve: A bleeding heart when she sets foot on the continent, Jacqueline develops a pragmatism that guides her to tell her readers, “Compassion [isn’t] enough.” And she begins to drop her ethnocentric expectations, too: over time, Jacqueline realizes that she is expecting change to come too quickly to Africa, when it can only take place gradually in order to be sustainable.

(5) Appreciate beauty: Jacqueline reveals the wonder and curiosity with which she encounters different cultures and landscapes around the world. She relishes her relationships with women from different backgrounds than her own, and thrives in the hot climate and stunning geographies of Africa. And the contradictions of the continent – its violence, corruption, and chaos – form part of Jacqueline’s enamor; as she accepts Africa’s surprises and challenges, the place only entraps her more.

Maybe we can’t all follow in the footsteps of Jacqueline Novogratz. But wherever you are in your life or in your career, whatever you’re doing and however you see yourself making a positive impact on others, when illness strikes or you get robbed or you’re told to go home because no one wants your help…

Remember that you too will one day have a story to tell: of an unexpected connection, of a person or community who is transformed because of you, of a place that you may love deeply without fully understanding, and of a dream that becomes reality.



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