Corner Office: Jacqueline Novogratz Founder of Acumen Fund

UPDATED: September 30, 2009
PUBLISHED: September 30, 2009

When Jacqueline
Novogratz arrived, hot
and sticky, at the Abidjan
Airport in 1986 with “all
the essentials—some
poetry, a few clothes and,
of course, a guitar,” the
25-year-old international
banker turned poverty-slayer
was convinced she
was arriving on Africa’s
Ivory Coast to change
the world.

But reality can be a cruel
poison. Novogratz soon learned
she needed more tools than
deep-seeded passion and determination for the challenges
and misconceptions she encountered there.

“Failure can be an incredibly motivating force,” she
tells SUCCESS. Since she had turned down a lucrative
Manhattan bank promotion prior to leaving for Africa,
she felt she had to prove herself before returning home.
She had to develop her well-rounded world vision the
hard way—in the thick of the developing world, often on
her own, without an established road map.

Her March 2009 book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the
Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World

(Rodale Books), chronicles her passionate journey to the
creation of the 8-year-old Acumen
Fund, a nonprofi t global venture fund
using entrepreneurial approaches to
solve the problems of global poverty.
“As our world becomes increasingly
interconnected, we need to find
better solutions that will include
everyone in today’s opportunities,”
she writes. “Monsters will always
exist. There’s one inside each of us.
But an angel lives there, too. There
is no more important agenda than
figuring out how to slay one and
nurture the other.”

Acumen Fund manages more than
$40 million in investments in South
Asia and East Africa, all focused on delivering affordable
basic services to the poor (her immediate goal is to
increase that to $100 million).

Novogratz’s change-the-world passion began early.
“I grew up very disciplined, with nuns, a military family
of seven, all the rest boys,” she says during a break from
a frantic day of meetings in Acumen’s New York offi ces
just before leaving on another far-fl ung trip. “I was very
tough, and hard on myself, and had high expectations
for myself.”

The compassion of the West Point, N.Y., nuns who
taught her—particularly a fi rst-grade teacher, Sister Mary
Theophane, whom Novogratz recalls with special affection—helped hone her lofty

“It was from her that I fi rst heard that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’ ”
Novogratz says. “I wanted desperately to be one of those kids who delivered.
I wanted to commit to do something big.”

In a way, she took her own set of vows in those formative years. She would later
embrace the writing of Thoreau and Shaw, extracting from the poets what it meant
to live a full life. “When I would read Thoreau talk about people living lives of quiet
discontent, I would say, ‘That is not going to be me. I am going to live out loud,’ ”
she says.

So later it seemed natural to relocate to another part of the world, learn a
language, make a difference and gauge what she was capable of. “I loved being a
banker,” says Novogratz, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics/international
relations from the University of Virginia. “But there was something inside of
me that wanted to be a cross-culture, cross-class bridge to change the world. That
was what drove me.”

During her first trip to Africa, she encountered a youth walking toward her
wearing a blue sweater like one she had owned and loved as a child before donating
it to charity years later in the States. “Certainly, when I found this child wearing the
blue sweater that I had thrown in the Goodwill as a 10-year-old, I felt that I was in
the right place—not necessarily doing the right thing, but in the right place.”
Novogratz experienced both gut-wrenching failures and encouraging victories
working on developing-world projects. She became convinced that there had
to be more effective ways to address poverty than traditional
charities. In 1987, she founded the microfi nance
institution Duterimbere (translated, “to go forward with
enthusiasm”) in Rwanda. At that time, microfi nance was a
little-known concept.

Aiming to better fulfill her philanthropic goals, she
returned to the States and earned a Stanford University
MBA. After graduation in 1992, she took a position
managing special projects at the Rockefeller Foundation,
where she founded and directed the Philanthropy
Workshop and the Next Generation Leadership programs.

Her education and her early efforts in philanthropy,
banking and microfi nance would eventually contribute
to her innovative Acumen Fund vision. The bottom line,
she concluded, is that charity alone cannot end poverty.
Rather than handing out grants, Acumen invests in fl edgling
companies and organizations that bring critical—and
often life-altering—products and services to the world’s poor.

“Early on, it was all about developing the confi dence and earning
respect to be effective,” she says. “One of my favorite Martin Luther
King Jr. lines is: ‘Power without love is reckless and abusive, and
love without power is sentimental and anemic.’ When I fi rst went to
Africa, I felt this great sense of compassion and was making excuses
for people…. Once I let go of the idea of being Mother Superior
trying to save the masses and instead found the joy of building
systems that really do allow people to change their own lives, then
I could be much more myself and challenge people to reach higher.
What I learned is people live up and down to the expectations others
place on them. That was incredibly liberating to me.”

of the innovation we’ll see will come from private individuals using the tools and skills of business."

She also learned to articulate her mission with more clarity to
both those she solicits help from and those she wants to serve.
Novogratz has become a leading proponent for fi nancing entrepreneurs
and enterprises that can bring affordable clean water, housing
and health care to poor people so that they no longer have to depend
on traditional aid.

Today, Acumen Fund, which has offi ces in New York, Pakistan,
India and Kenya, also includes the Acumen Fund Fellows Program,
focused on training the next generation of business leaders with an
understanding of global issues and poverty.

Novogratz rattles off a number of success stories, organizations
founded with help from the Acumen Fund. WaterHealth
International is bringing safe drinking water to 287 villages in India.
A to Z Textile Mills, which produces 20 million long-lasting bed nets
annually in Africa, provides malaria protection to almost 40 million
people and employs 7,000.

“We’re seeing corporations embracing many principles of social
entrepreneurship,” Novogratz says. “We’re seeing interest from the
State Department and international agencies around the world.
There is an increasingly widespread recognition that much of the
innovation we’ll see will come from private individuals using the
tools and skills of business.”

Novogratz admits that a
large portion of her job is to
ensure that Acumen retains
its culture. She insists on
being the final interview
for every applicant, even if
it is a 15-minute session for
an administrative assistant
post in India.

“Every Acumen employee
carries our brand out there;
they are our face,” she
explains. “I only interview
them for fi t; I don’t ask them
about their fi nancial background.
I look for what we
call the Acumen Fund DNA. Are they intellectually curious? Do they
have the rigor and discipline that will allow them to be as tough as
we need them to be? Do they have what we call moral imagination,
the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes? Can they laugh
at themselves? Are they unafraid of failure? Are they fun?”

Today, she surrounds herself personally and professionally with
people making a difference and having fun, including her husband,
Chris Anderson, who curates the TED Conference, an annual event
where thought leaders exchange ideas on world issues.

The ultimate goal Novogratz has for Acumen—and herself—is to
help create a world in which every human being on the planet has
access to basic, affordable services so they have a choice of freedom.
“So I guess I don’t have any small goals,” she says, laughing. “That is
what drives me—are my actions contributing to that?”

For Novogratz, it’s all part of a grand plan, even if the original
playbook got tossed thousands of miles ago. “This is serious work,”
she says. “I feel privileged to work with some of the most remarkable
human beings on the planet, some of its most beautiful souls.”