Tue • May 12th, 2009 • by Tom Nees • Comments 2
In her new book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, Jacqueline Novogratz describes how entrepreneurial leaders are key to ending global poverty.
In 1987, as a young twenty-five year old helping establish a mircofinance institution for women in Kigali, Rwanda she noticed a boy wearing what had once been her childhood blue sweater–thus the title. After donating her sweater to Goodwill it was sent to Africa. The unlikely coincidence of seeing a boy in Africa wearing a sweater that had once been hers became a metaphor for how we’re all connected and how our actions, however incidental can affect others for good.
While serving with UNICEF prior to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda–during which over 800,000 people were killed in three months–she helped a group of women start a bakery. After the genocide she returned to find and interview the women survivors she knew–both victims and victimizers. In these tragic stories Novogratz struggles to understand and explain the capacity for unspeakable evil as well as incredible willingness to forgive among the women she knew.
In the late ’90’s while at the Rockefeller Foundation she started the “Next Generation Leadership” program. I was pleased when Rita Bright, described here as “a tall, thin, formidable African American community leader from Washington, DC,” was selected to join the first group of twenty-four next generation leaders on a journey to South Africa.
As Novogratz was surprised to see her blue sweater in Africa, I too was surprised in 1977 to meet Rita Bright in what I thought was an empty, uninhabitable, Washington, DC, apartment building. She was then a young homeless mother of two small children. In time Rita became the extraordinary community leader that Novogratz discovered and supported as a “Next Generation Leader.” Unfortunately Rita died from cancer in 2005.
Novogratz is convinced that the answer to global poverty will come from entrepreneurs like Rita within poor communities and developing countries. She quotes Rita Bright, who I watched convince some of her inner-city friends to invest in “Big Wash” the only laundromat in the neighborhood:
“Of course,” she would add when describing the small business, “everyone needs a hand to get started. There is no embarrassment in using grants to train people and even to put the initial investment into these neighborhood businesses. Just give people a way to walk so that eventually they can run, and then you’ll see them dance. Some of them will fly.”
Convinced that a new strategy to end global poverty is needed, she started the Acumen Fund in 2001, described on the fly-leaf as “a nonprofit, venture capital firm for the poor that invests in sustainable enterprises bringing healthcare, safe water, alternative energy, and housing to low-income people in the developing world.”
The Acumen Fund provides what she calls “patient capitalism,” to carefully selected programs in developing countries, taking calculated risks with local leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to start and lead enterprises with the potential to end poverty for large populations.
“We can end poverty,” she writes, “if we start by looking at all human beings as part of a single global community that recognizes that everyone deserves a chance to build a life worth living.”