I had gotten a copy of Acumen Fund founder, Jacqueline Novogratz’s, book “The Blue Sweater” a couple of months ago and had kept promising myself that I would read it. Finally as I was leaving on a short trip to India, I threw it in my bag hoping to get to it during my visit. As the long 15 plus hour trip from Newark to Bombay stretched before me, I settled myself in as best as I could and opened the book expecting to read a few pages and then sleep as much as possible for the rest of the flight.
Once I started reading I was hooked. Before I knew it I had plowed through the entire volume. This is an extraordinary and powerful book. My personal interest in social entrepreneurship, particularly in solving issues in the developing world, had led me to peruse many books in the field – from the seminal one by David Bornstein to Jeff Sachs and Prof. Yunus. Each provided a perspective on development with solutions and suggestions. Yet somehow this book was different.
Firstly it was written from the heart. Central to the theme was Ms. Novogratz’s personal quest for solutions to poverty and her self realization about the power and efficacy of market driven solutions. The book is not prescriptive; there are no neat lists of things to do or frameworks for implementation. The chapters don’t come tied up neatly with a bow. A key narrative is Ms. Novogratz’s first hand experience in setting up a women owned business and one of the first microfinance organizations in Rwanda, before microfinance became a buzzword, and her subsequent quest to find out what happened to the co-founders and the institution after the genocidal disaster in Rwanda.
Yet it is this personal journey that makes this book so powerful. In each chapter lie nuggets of observations, lessons and themes that I believe are critical lessons for any one looking to provide sustainable solutions for the developing world. Some of the key points in these chapters include:
- Global interdependence: We are all connected in some way. The title of the book describes a blue sweater that Ms. Novogratz had given away to charity and that resurfaced many years later on the back of a local boy when she was stationed in Rwanda. Knowingly or not, our actions touch others around the globe.
- Cultural context: When Ms. Novogratz parachutes into Cote d’Ivoire representing the African Development Bank she is met with stiff resistance from the locals. The local attitude was “How can some one who is not from Africa understand and solve our problems?” This scene is repeated countless times even today. Attending a conference on social investment on my recent trip to India, I heard several NGO leaders mutter about the visiting European and American funders “How can these people even understand what we are doing when we have spent 20 years working this issue in the field?” There is some truth to this observation specially when typical aid workers drop in, offer advice and then depart leaving the implementation to the locals.
- Building trust: Throughout the early chapters you see the transformation in the author as she gains self-confidence and realizes to manage effectively she needs to enforce the rules and gain the respect of the people she was managing.
- Creating business commitment: Getting a group of women working in the Rwandan bakery to take ownership in their enterprise was a challenge. One had to first convince them that they all shared in the money the firm made, then one had to motivate them to sell, while ensuring that quality and commitment to the group was also maintained.
Even the several chapters towards the end where she describes her repeated visits to Rwanda after the massacres, trying to retrace her steps to the old bakery, visiting the women founders of the microfinance institution – each having traced a separate path during the genocide – all raise fundamental questions about how poverty, culture and human nature are so intertwined. She tries hard to tease apart and distinguish what motivates one to commit horrific acts of violence or incredible acts of courage, compassion, and forgiveness.
Finally the steps that lead to the creation of the Acumen fund and its various implementations world wide are a window into how philanthropy can be positively leveraged to effect scaleable change.
As I have been working with several startup organizations that target the social sector, I have been advocating a startup social investment fund – a Social Incubator – similar to Acumen Fund but one that will invest earlier in the investment life cycle. I had hoped to learn from this book how Acumen was able to successfully launch its fund. Unfortunately, for me, the takeaway from Ms Novogratz’s experience is that you need to be incredibly well positioned when you start fundraising. Not to belittle Ms. N’s first hand experience in the field, but it was her very opportune landing at the Rockefeller Foundation that provided her with access and visibility to the initial funders that seeded her fund. As I have been walking around trying to figure out how to get to some of those high net worth people she has been able to hob-nob with, it is apparent that there is a small inner circle that you need to break into that provides that access.
Aside from that observation, I would heartily recommend the book as a great first hand account of how one person was motivated to change the world. I already have several on my list who will be getting a copy soon.