Guest Post: Building value in the developing world

March 25, 2009, 7:08 PM UTC
Photo courtesy of Joyce Ravid

by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund and author of The Blue Sweater

As a 25-year old banker, I decided to leave my career and change the world. This sounds like a move that a 25-year-old banker might make today–to escape the chaos.

But this was 1986. I thought I might start my new life in Africa. I discovered soon enough, though, that most Africans didn’t want saving, thank you very much. Certainly not by me–a young, unmarried American woman whose French was pathetic and whose understanding of the continent was limited to reading a few books.

I could have given up my dream. But I had a calling, so to speak. One sun-drenched day, I was jogging up and down the hilly streets of Kigali, Rwanda. Out of nowhere, a young boy, wearing a blue sweater, walked toward me. He was about 10 years old, skinny, with a shaved head and huge eyes, and not more than four feet tall. The sweater hung so low that it hid his shorts, covering toothpick legs and knobby knees.

My Uncle Ed had given me a blue sweater when I was in middle school. A soft blue wool sweater, with stripes on the sleeves and an African motif on the front–two zebras walking in front of a snow-capped mountain. This day in Rwanda, I ran over to the boy, who was obviously terrified. I grabbed his shoulders and turned down his collar. Sure enough, it was my name, Jacqueline Novogratz, on the tag.

My sweater had traveled thousands of miles for more than a decade.

Over the past two-plus decades, I’ve committed my life to understanding global connectedness and issues of poverty. In 2001, after working for more than seven years for the Rockefeller Foundation, I founded Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund that invests in the poor. We don’t believe in traditional aid. We hold the recipients of our loans and equity stakes accountable to clear goals.

We’ve funded A To Z, a company in Tanzania that today produces more than 20 million anti-malarial bed nets annually and employs over 7,000 people, mostly women. We’ve invested in Mumbai’s first emergency ambulance service that serves rich and poor alike (and whose yellow ambulances were ubiquitous in the news coverage of last November’s attacks in that city). We’ve supported the development and distribution of drip irrigation systems that allow hundreds of thousands of poor farmers in India and Pakistan to double or even triple their crop yields and income. We’ve invested more than $40 million in enterprises that have brought safe water, affordable health care, housing, and alternative energy to low-income people in South Asia and East Africa.

In writing my new book The Blue Sweater, I’ve thought a lot about what my adventures, experiences and the people I’ve met have taught me. I learned that it’s all too easy to veer toward the charitable–to have low or no expectations of low-income people. This does nothing but confirm prejudices on all sides. “Philanthropists should focus on supporting others to do what they already do well,” one of my mentors, the late John Gardner, told me back when I was in business school at Stanford. “Individuals don’t want to be taken care of. They need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential.” (Gardner, who served in the Johnson Administration, founded Common Cause and headed the Carnegie Foundation before I knew him.)

I’ve also learned this: “I am part of all that I have met.” This is from Tennyson’s Ulysses. It’s one of my favorite lines in literature. I try to live it every day.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. Her new memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, tells the inspiring story of a woman who left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. Acumen Fund’s corporate supporters include Goldman Sachs , Google , Cisco , Nike , Coca-Cola , Exxon Mobil , Citigroup , Dow Chemical , Credit Suisse , as well as the Skoll Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.