As part of a larger effort to document leaders that find unique paths to success, drive impact and work within the confines of humanity to seek justice and prosperity, I found the the history of Jaqueline Novogratz, Founder of Acumen Fund, one of the most inspiring and worthy of sharing. I have admired Ms. Novogratz for many years, not only because of the amazing, groundbreaking way she has improved the lives of many disenfranchised populations, but also because of her path to fulfillment, and the way she exudes true compassion to deliver lasting impact.
Jaqueline Novogratz is Founder and Executive Director of the Acumen Fund, an impact investment non-profit working with ‘game-changing’ companies seeking innovative solutions to some of our planet’s most difficult challenges. Acumen works to address the drivers of poverty, including access to education (particularly for girls and women), sustainable housing, clean energy and water. Acumen delivers basic services to very poor people that otherwise would be without, but the organization also invests in innovative partnership programs, financing, and community-led response mechanisms helping the world’s poor overcome crippling poverty. Without question Acumen has established itself as the most well respected impact fund in development, and Jaqueline Novogratz as the esteemed and fearless leader needed to address large, complex global challenges.
Coincidentally, Ms. Novogratz and I both share a background in Economics, and both began our careers in the international credit markets. I was amazed to read that like me, Ms. Novogratz left her banking position after three years, seeking greater opportunities to improve development. Perhaps it was her introduction to the international financial markets during a volatile and uncertain period, where global poverty was at a historic high, that made her realize the wealth of Wall Street was ephemeral. Or perhaps it was a feeling from within that her own compassion was desperately needed to solve some of the day’s global challenges. However that pull evolved, Ms. Novogratz left her high paying job to work in Africa as a consultant to the World Bank and UNICEF. Thereafter she managed a series of microfinance programs before starting Acumen in 2001. In her book, The Blue Sweater1, a story about the interconnectedness and innate compassion among all humans to solve our greatest global challenges, Ms. Novogratz shares a piece of advice she received from a successful CEO of a healthcare company as she was just getting her microfinance programs off the ground at Acumen. Feeling apprehensive and “in a panic”, Ms. Novogratz wrote that the CEO said:
"just start," …"Don't wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. No one expects you to get it right the very beginning, and you'll learn more from your mistakes than your early successes anyway. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go.” (196)
What is beautiful about this quote is how it exemplifies the real struggle of achieving true impact. The lofty goal of trying to solve poverty cannot be underestimated, yet the fear of failure can easily take hold, squashing the innate sense of compassion to right so many of our global wrongs. For Ms. Novogratz, her dream of changing the world felt initially like “falling flat on her face.” She remarked:
“They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step….As a young woman, I dreamed of changing the world. In my twenties…I concluded that if I could only nudge the world a little bit, maybe that would be enough. But nudging isn't enough.” (4)
I appreciate so much that Ms. Novogratz had an urge, perhaps innate, and likely shaped by her experiences in finance and economics, to seek fulfillment by using her knowledge and compassion to shift the trajectory of poverty. She did not give up when feeling like the path was too long, or too difficult, or as if she were falling on her face. She kept seeking her true impact, guided by the circumstances around her. The story of Ms. Novogratz is one that helps me understand how to shape our world for the better, and to create a human path for prosperity.
1 Novograntz, Jaqueline. The Blue Sweater. Rodale Books, 1st Edition, 2009.