Sunday, April 05, 2009

Book Review: The Blue Sweater

Many people dream of doing something great in retirement. Not Jacqueline Novogratz. Perhaps I’m way off base here, but after reading her first installment of memoirs in The Blue Sweater, I’m not convinced she dreams of retirement at all. And if she did, it would be hard for me to imagine her pursuing anything with greater purpose than what she has already been working on during the first chapter of her life.

With the exception of a brief jaunt into her childhood to introduce her favorite blue sweater after which the book was named, Novogratz begins the book interviewing for an international banking job with Chase Manhattan Bank, which she landed straight out of college. Her goal was to change the world, and she hoped that traveling the world and gaining international business experience in this new role would be a strong foundation.

After just a few years, Novogratz’s international banking job led to positions with the African Development Bank and UNICEF, working in Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, and Rwanda. Novogratz was generally met with skepticism from locals, who knew the languages and the culture far better than she, and who were also several years her senior. She was even threatened or intimidated on at least a few occasions. But despite the cards being stacked against her, she helped Rwandan women to start a microfinance organization and a bakery, and she gained plenty of real-world experience working with women in poverty. And somehow, these wins overshadowed the frustrations and allowed her to continue on toward her lifelong goal to change the world.

Novogratz was accepted into the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she earned her MBA and grew her network. On the advice of John Gardner, an esteemed professor and mentor of hers at Stanford, she accepted a fellowship with the Rockefeller Foundation rather than moving to Czechoslovakia to work on a fund that would build small enterprises there. Since she knew her life’s goals were all focused internationally, it did not make sense to her that she should live and work in the United States. But John told her to “focus on being more interested than interesting” and to put new and different tools in her toolbox.

After her one year fellowship, she decided she would leave philanthropy and to start a for-profit business that employed low-income people. She told Rockefeller Foundation president Peter Goldmark that philanthropy was too frustrating a sector because of its lack of accountability. Goldmark convinced her to stay on at Rockefeller and to figure out how to bring greater accountability to the philanthropic sector. Novogratz started the Philanthropy Workshop at the Rockefeller Foundation, with a goal to train a corps of philanthropists, providing them with networks, knowledge, and skills necessary to tackle the world’s problems.

The Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s had a profound impact on Novogratz, especially given her experience there during the 1980s. She returned to Rwanda on several occasions “in an effort to understand what happened there.” She devotes a significant portion of the middle of her book to her follow up travels to Rwanda and the stories of despair and hope that came from the genocide. In fact, The Blue Sweater was a 10-year project kicked off by her writings following the genocide.

In 1999, Novogratz reached a crossroads. Down one road, she had an offer from a major financial institution to lead a philanthropy program for clients with net worths over $100 million. Novogratz’s salary would have been seven times what she was making at the Rockefeller foundation. Down the other road, Novogratz had been kicking around ideas of starting a non-profit venture fund that would invest in entrepreneurs who could lead sustainable organizations that help millions of the world’s poor. She turned down the lucrative offer and instead chose to pursue her passion. With $5 million in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and $2 million from the Cisco Foundation, she started the Acumen Fund, which gained status from the IRS as a nonprofit public charity in 2001. Through 2009, the Acumen Fund had invested more than $40 million in 40 enterprises serving the poor.

To college students and newly minted MBAs who wish to do meaningful work serving the world, she gives the advice to gain skills in marketing, design, distribution, finance, medicine, law, education, and engineering. She says they can make a difference by working for NGOs, progressive corporations, or governments. I believe Novogratz would also agree with recent advice from Barack Obama: "Better to jump in, get involved -- and it does mean that sometimes you'll get criticized and sometimes you'll fail and sometimes you'll be disappointed -- but you'll have a great adventure. And at the end of your life, hopefully you'll be able to look back and say, 'I made a difference.'" Novogratz followed this counsel long before it was given, for which she has sometimes been criticized and has sometimes been disappointed, but she has also most certainly made a difference.

I recommend The Blue Sweater for anyone with an interest in social entrepreneurship or Africa, anyone hoping to do something great, anyone looking for accountability in philanthropy, or anyone who has considered making a social investment (aka donation) to Acumen Fund.

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