Monday, January 26, 2009

From Blue to Green

I just finished reading an advance copy of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, Jacqueline Novogratz' book on social enterprise that's due out in March—and it's terrific, an unusually candid and highly personal memoir about the deep and often painful complexities of trying to make lasting change in the world.

Novogratz, the CEO and founder of The Acumen Fund, which invests money in companies run by and for the developing world, is also generous with her storytelling: Early in the book, she shares the memory of first landing in Africa some 22 years ago, at the Abidjan airport on a sweaty, Ivory Coast morning. She had just left Wall Street, had cut her hair (“to the point of resembling Margaret Mead,” she told Cause Global) and gave away most everything she’d owned, arriving with “all the essentials, from poetry to new clothes to, of course, a guitar. I was 25 and I was going to save the world—and I thought I would just start with the African continent.” Yet within days of arriving, she was told—and in no uncertain terms by a group of West African women—that “‘Africans didn’t want saving, thank you very much’—and least of all, not by me.” Recalls Novogratz: “I was too young, unmarried, had no children, didn’t really know Africa and my French was pitiful. It was an incredibly painful time of my life and yet it gave me enough humility to start listening.”

And learning: To this day, Novogratz—cited last fall by Portfolio magazine as one of the "73-Biggest Brains in Business"—has let her experiences as a pioneer in the still-evolving field of social enterprise continuously shape and check her unique blend of idealism and flat-out pragmatism; her Acumen Fund, founded in 2001, remains passionately focused on “changing the way the world sees the poor” by alleviating poverty in ways that make the poor the customers of—and workers at—self-sustaining businesses seeded by donors but run locally, over time, without hand-outs. From her experiences running a bakery in Kigali, Rwanda in 1986 with 20 unwed mothers to starting the first microfinance institution in Kenya, Novogratz has seen first-hand “the power of markets to end poverty, the discipline that running a business provides, and the pride that results from ownership”—in other words, an end to charity. She has also seen what doesn't work, and retells the story of revisiting Kigali a few months after the 1994 Rwandan genocide there.

Of all the inspiring stories in her memoir—[the blue sweater in the title comes from Novogratz' experience of spotting her favorite childhood sweater, given 11 years earlier to Goodwill, being worn by a child in Kigali, with Novogratz' name still visible inside the collar]—one of my favorites is her hard-won lesson in the importance of listening, closely, to those in need. "...I could have listened better," she says about the women she met in and around the markets of Kigali while helping them to create a "blue bakery" to sell samosas and doughnuts as a local enterprise, even painting the walls blue until one of the women dared to speak the truth to their enthusiastic benefactor. ["Our color," one of them finally told Novogratz, "really is green."] "...Listening is not just having the patience to wait," Novogratz writes, "but is also about learning how to better ask the questions." Her efforts eventually transformed the bakery, which had been run as a charity when she got there, into an enterprise that earned $2 a day for each of the women. "When you've lived on charity and been dependent your whole life long, it's really hard to say what you mean," Novogratz says. "The poor often think no one really wants to hear the truth."

But perhaps the biggest lesson, both from the book and the life it profiles, is that investing in businesses run by and for the people they're intended to serve can actually work, grow, and create change across a neighborhood or a region or a country. For those looking for the "ROI" of social enterprise, it doesn't get much better than that.

(Photo of book jacket with permission of Rodale Books)

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