Go to the people;
live with them, learn from them
start with what they know
build with what they have.
But of the best leaders,
when the job is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will say:
“We have done it ourselves.”
– Lao Tzu, father of Taoism
It all started with a blue sweater — a sweater that was author Jacqueline Novogratz’ most prized possession until she outgrew it and donated it to Goodwill. 11 years later in Africa, she spots it on a boy, asks to see it and finds her name still written on a tag inside. The sweater’s journey from Alexandria, Virginia to Kigali, Rwanda reminds us that we live in an inter-connected world, a world where ‘our actions — and inaction — touch people we may never know and never meet across the globe’.
Few books I’ve read have been as inspiring as The Blue Sweater, countless insights strewn across its 300 pages. Just like Acumen Fund — the incredible non-profit venture fund Novogratz founded in 2001 – the book tells its tale with both the heart and the mind, both intellect and compassion. It challenges us to have moral imagination, not just imagination.
The story telling is engaging, the characters powerful, and the descriptions colorful. But it is Novogratz’ journey that is fascinating — from a young, ambitious college student in love with Africa, to the founder of a global organization that, today, is changing the lives of millions living below the poverty line. The book paints a vibrant, at times psychedelic picture of Rwanda as experienced by a 20-something Novogratz, who travels there to start a microfinance organization for Rwandan women. The reader feels her frustration as she struggles with corruption, bureaucracy, and nonacceptance of the leadership role she attempts to carve for herself as a young, white woman surrounded by older, African ones. There are disappointments, tears, a lot of hard work and many tough lessons.
A fair portion of the book focuses on the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took almost a million lives over the course of 100 days, only a few years after Novogratz left the country. In the several trips she makes back, she tries to make sense of what happened, to see what is left of the country she knew, the places she lived in, and the women she worked with. The stories the survivors relate to her are gut-wrenching — of hundreds of thousands indiscriminately massacred, of men turning into barbaric killing machines, of lives uprooted, discarded, trampled upon. And of the world watching silently. But there are also stories of resilience and hope, of humans who rose after incredible pain and grief to rebuild their lives.
Novogratz also takes us through her experiences with philanthropic organizations in the US, young people looking to create change, and seasoned mentors she is lucky to have. Through her eyes, we learn from them.
As a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, Novogratz realizes that ‘philanthropy can appeal to people who want to be loved more than they want to make a difference‘. She concludes that while the former is not that difficult, the latter can take a lifetime to achieve.
While spearheading a brand new Fellows program, also for the Rockefeller Foundation, she recalls being intimidated by a young African American who claims that Novogratz can never lead properly because she is privileged, and connected to big names that have done great damage to the world. While unable to answer the man at the time, she introspects later and decides that the question isn’t whether she is privileged — which she admits she is — but whether that privilege disqualifies her from effectively running the program.
But my favorite lesson is from the later part of the book, where Novogratz talks about Acumen Fund, and the 35+ thriving social enterprises that it has invested $50 million worth of patient capital in. One such investee is A to Z Textiles in Tanzania, which is bringing a new bed net manufacturing process to Africa, with a mission to combat Malaria – one of the world’s biggest killers (taking between 1 and 2 million lives every year). A to Z experimented with building a small sales force of women who would be selling bed nets door-to-door. One of the most successful and charismatic saleswomen demonstrated how she marketed the bed nets to poor families – there were no signs of the oft-used public health language that typically employs “should” and “must”.
“You put the bed net on your floor”, explained the woman, “and all the bugs go away, not just the mosquitoes. Can you imagine? You can sleep the whole night long because there is no buzzing in your ears–and your children will do better in school because they won’t be so tired.”
“The color is beautiful”, she continued, “And you can hang the nets in your windows so that your neighbors know how much you care about your family!” Almost as an afterthought, she mentioned that bed nets would protect the children from malaria.
‘Beauty, vanity, status and comfort’, writes Novogratz, ‘These are the levers that are pulled the world over as we make our decisions. The rich hold no monopoly over it. But we are a long way from integrating the way people actually make decisions into public policy instead of how we think they should make them.’
And the quote from the book that is etched in my mind, is from Maha Ghosanada, a Buddhist monk Novogratz meets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: “If you move through the world only with your intellect, then you walk on only one leg. If you move through the world only with your compassion, then you walk on only one leg. But if you move through the world with both intellect and compassion, then you have wisdom.”
The Blue Sweater is now recommended reading for freshmen at several US colleges, as they map out their life trajectories, and was on Forbes’ 2010 Absolute Best Summer Books list. Recently, it made it to space! Astronaut Ron Garan talks about how the book resonates the realities felt by astronauts as they orbit the earth — the absence of country or state borders on the beautiful, blue globe they look upon from space, the fragility of our planet, the awareness that we can only leave it better than we found it if we believe in a brotherhood that binds all its inhabitants, and the realization that all we have is each other.