Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz issued a powerful challenge to the roomful of CEOs at Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference on Tuesday: Business had the technology revolution; now it needs a “moral revolution.”
Describing her journey of leaving a successful career on Wall Street three decades ago to start a microfinance institution in Rwanda—which turned into more than $100 million in investment across 108 companies around the globe that has used entrepreneurism to bring services to more than 270 million people in the developing world—Novogratz shared lessons and advice for CEOs seeking to help solve the world’s most pressing issues.
Among Novogratz’s lessons: Empathy alone isn’t enough, she said, because empathy allows power dynamics to remain intact. “We don’t really have to change if we feel another person’s pain,” she said. Instead, solving the world’s problems calls for business leaders to channel their “moral imagination.”
Partnering, she said, is critical for scale. She cited Acumen’s eight-year partnership with global consulting firm Bain, which includes senior partners coming into Acumen’s offices and a total of 52,000 hours of pro bono consulting, but also “reverse apprenticeships.” These involve Bain embedding its young leaders in externships at Acumen initiatives in the field—in Ethiopia, say, or post-conflict Colombia—after which they come back with a different level of understanding of things like the supply chains in which their large-corporate clients are working in. “It makes them better leaders,” she says.
Along the way, Novogratz says she’s learned a lot about the commonalities between the companies and entrepreneurs that succeed and those that fail. It comes down to one word, she says: character. “Those that have the character let them fight the bureaucracy and corruption and let them fight in long-term, gritty ways.” The enterprises that win, she says, “have won in really big ways,” like the Mumbai-based company that has redefined emergency health delivery with 3,500 ambulances in rural India, or two entrepreneurs out of Chicago who addressed Ethiopia’s protein deficiency by creating EthioChicken, which produces highly fertile, disease-resistant chickens and sells them to small farmers.
The key, she says, is betting on the right entrepreneurs “on the edges” and bringing them to the center.
She also encouraged the group to embrace the contradictions between peoples and beliefs, but try to move toward the center—and encourage others to do the same—in the name of the “radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world.” “Even if you seem to be at the polar opposite of me, I can find a partial truth and move toward you,” she said, citing the poet Rumi: “Beyond right doing and wrongdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”