So, this book, if you will, is a handbook of sorts for anybody who sees themselves as someone who wants to create change and solve problems, whether at a micro community level, an organization level or, I daresay, at a national and beyond level. – Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder and CEO, Acumen
Matthew Bishop (MB): Welcome to Books Driving Change your podcast where I, Matthew Bishop, talk to authors of books with big ideas about how we build back better after we come out of the pandemic.
Today, I’m talking with Jacqueline Novogratz, who is the founder and CEO of Acumen, a nonprofit investment fund that takes businesslike approaches to building a better world. Jacqueline is an extraordinary leader herself and has experienced some really demanding challenges throughout her career, including having launched a microfinance institution in Rwanda, where some of the leaders got caught up on both sides of the genocidal civil war. She is looked to by many of us for wise counsel and inspiration, as we think about how we contribute as leaders to solving some of the most intractable problems facing the world.
She’s written a new book, “Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World”, which I recommend to everybody. I’m going to be talking with her now about some of the key ideas in the book.
Jacqueline, I want to start by asking you, for our audience of people who are trying to change the world or feeling called to play a part in trying to build a better world, why should they read your book?
Jacqueline Novogratz (JN): Thanks, Matthew. It’s good to be with you.
The pandemic, if it has shown us nothing else, has exposed the brokenness of all of the major institutions that you and I grew up with and for so long trusted. The issue with reimagining institutions is that we don’t know what to replace them with yet. We don’t have a step-by-step playbook.
On the other hand, we have seen, and I have personally worked with, thousands of changemakers who have taught me what it looks like to operate from a moral compass, a framework that puts our humanity and the earth at the center, which we must do, if we’re going to build the right kinds of institutions to lead us into a more sustainable future. And so, this book, if you will, is a handbook of sorts, for anybody who sees themselves as someone who wants to create change, solve problems, whether at a micro community level, an organization level or, I daresay, at a national and beyond level.
MB: It is a really fascinating tour of very inspiring people who are doing amazing work in the world. It particularly appeals to me, because of the complexity of so many of the situations people are in and because of so many of the stories that are told. These are heroes that you’re writing about, but they are very real human beings as well. One of the interesting questions I was left with was, what’s your advice to people who want to solve something about how to get started?
JN: It may sound trite, especially to a journalist, but the best advice I can give is to just start. I get emails and requests for meetings from so many people who want to know what they should do in this moment. How can they find purpose in this moment?
I feel that the word complexity is such an important word that you mention, because we don’t have all the answers. We have to live ourselves into them, if you will. If you see a problem that attracts you, take a step toward that problem and that step will lead you to the next step. That’s something I’ve been practicing all my life.
As I think about Acumen’s next ten years, after completing our first twenty in many ways, I feel like we’re just starting again. I think that for all of us coming out of this pandemic, and many of us are going into a new wave of it, we almost have no choice but to just start using beginner’s mind taking a step, trying, being willing to fail, and letting that lead us to the path toward the next level of solutions.
And so, I’m not saying everybody get along. I do believe that we need this time of reckoning in a very powerful way. And, we need to find within it, where we are able to create a sense of the collective, of our shared values, of our common heritage, and move from there.
MB: You tell a story early in the book about when you were a college student and you wanted to help some poor communities in Virginia. You went out with a bunch of goodies that you’d raised from your fellow students. In the end, you sort of dumped them on the doorstep and run away. I think it could have captured a lot of the dilemmas that people feel when they think about trying to help someone who’s in a very different, less privileged situation from them. What sort of advice did you take from that and what lessons do you have from that?
JN: In a way that too goes back to just start. You know, that was the beginning, in so many ways for me of wanting to make a contribution; raising a holiday meal for a very underprivileged family that I knew absolutely nothing about.
As you said, when we finally found this house, in this not very rural, but distant world, I suddenly was overcome by shame, because I didn’t know who these people were. I didn’t know anything about their children. I didn’t know what kind of toys or games the children liked or didn’t like. I didn’t know if the parents had told their children anything about where Christmas was coming from.
I think that was the beginning of my recognition that we need a different level of moral imagination. By that, I mean, had I really been serious about change, rather than simply “helping”, I would have done the work. I would have started with empathy, which is what clearly drove me, but I wouldn’t have ended there. Because empathy by itself reinforces the status quo, nothing changes. I would have immersed myself, “gotten close” as Bryan Stevenson talks, gotten proximate, to understand what was going on with the family and the community, and then analyzed what they needed more systemically than certainly I was doing. And if I wasn’t willing to do that work, to find an organization that was.
I think that the concept of moral imagination, of seeing problems, and yet being willing to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and building from that perspective, is so critical. And it has been so missing, not only in the charitable sector, but the private sector and certainly the government sector.
MB: It is interesting. Obviously, the book is titled moral revolution, and the word moral has become weighed down with a sort of sense that it’s a simplistic view of the world, ideological and so forth, and a very black and white way of thinking. Whereas, obviously, everything you’re talking about in the book is actually more nuanced. Your notion of morality is very much about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Why did you choose to focus on that particular message?
JN: Of course, I wrote this book prior to this last year, in which words like moral and revolution have taken on new meaning. The idea of “moral” is absolutely the antithesis of a set of rules prescribed from on high, rather it’s a willingness to move from a practice of leadership that has been driven too much based on money, power, and fame. That I can only win if you lose; that I can only be right if you’re wrong.
Instead, focus on what is good for the community. What can I do to serve others, even before I serve myself? The moral here is that willingness to recognize that in an interdependent world, where we have to contend with what our shared humanity really means, it requires a navigation, if you will, between and among different belief systems. That is super uncomfortable. And yet, if we keep to that North Star of our shared humanity, I believe we can build new moral frameworks that are based on an ancient, but an ancient that we all share, not that certain groups feel that they hold domain over.
I think that the concept of moral imagination, of seeing problems, and yet being willing to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and building from that perspective, is so critical.
MB: It seems like for some reason, the public has become more and more drawn to a different model of leader, the sort of leader that wants to strengthen a tribalistic approach and bash people that are different. Why do you think that’s happened? What makes you hopeful that other sorts of leaders could still make a comeback?
JN: It’s such a pertinent and important question. Part of my life history is intermingled with the Rwandan genocide. I started a bank with five women. They ended up playing every conceivable role in the genocide, not only being murdered and being bystanders, but being perpetrators. And so, I really had to wrestle with both. How did that happen? You know that the age-old question of “how do very good people do very bad things”?
If you go back to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s in Rwanda, you had a situation of economic insecurity and a very strong leader with a group of people who reinforced the idea that you should be afraid, and blamed other people for it.
What I concluded, after many years of thinking about it, spending time in prisons, talking to people there, was that we make everything so simple. We have a false binary, we see people as monsters or angels, good or bad, when in fact, monsters and angels exist in every single one of us. And that the monsters are really our broken parts. They’re our petty insecurities, our griefs; they’re our fear of reckoning with who we are in so many ways. Those are precisely the moments where strong men who are demagogues find it easy to prey on those insecurities, blame other people and make us do terrible things. And we’re seeing that.
But I would say equally, Matthew, we are also seeing the antithesis of that. We are seeing a new generation, say “enough”. Find ways to build more diverse, inclusive, hopeful institutions. Recognizing that it’s the harder path in the short term, but it’s also the most resilient and anti-fragile path.
MB: You have a very interesting discussion of identity that goes throughout the book, which builds on that notion that we have a bit of the angel and a bit of the monster in all of us. And we’re not the worst thing that we’ve ever done, but equally this great quote about how we’re not a drop in the ocean, but the ocean in every drop. That gets at this multiplicity of identities that we’re all trying to navigate in the world, particularly if we’re in a leadership role, where we can become very worried about being pigeonholed as a particular thing.
You and I both, we’re white people, people think we’ve had some privileges, although I think in both our cases, we look at other white people and think some of them are more privileged in the lives that they’ve had. But that’s not the only identity that we have. Yet at the moment, we seem to be, particularly in America, in a period of very narrow identity politics. How do we overcome that?
JN: I think we’ve been in these periods before, and overcoming it is to do more practice of using our different layers of identities as a means of connecting rather than of dividing.
I’ve been very influenced and in part trying to make sense of what happened in Rwanda and after 9/11, when we also became very tribal, and just along different lines, by the writer Amin Maalouf, the French Lebanese extraordinary writer, who talks about a hierarchy of identities. He talks about having, as you said, Matthew, multiple identities within us. And it’s not just the ones the identities that we can see, it’s all the identities as well that we can’t see. You know, I’m the eldest of seven, I grew up Catholic, and I travel all over the world. I love color, love music, love South Asia and East and West Africa. We’ve got Global Citizen, community believer, marathon runner.
We are seeing a new generation, say “enough”. Find ways to build more diverse, inclusive, hopeful institutions. Recognizing that it’s the harder path in the short term, but it’s also the most resilient and anti-fragile path.
So how do we hold all those identities and recognize that when one piece of our identity is threatened, it goes to the top of our hierarchy? It can become the only thing that we are, at least in that moment. It’s very easy for other people to impose that identity on us. I think that’s where so much breakage has happened historically and where there are truly wounded communities that we’ve got to reckon with and reconcile with and, at the same time, find ways into conversations that open up our commonalities.
And so, I’m not saying everybody get along. I do believe that we need this time of reckoning in a very powerful way. And, we need to find within it, where we are able to create a sense of the collective, of our shared values, of our common heritage, and move from there. That is not important only within nations, and you see that going on across the United States and in the UK, and, frankly, in all the countries in which we operate, but also globally. I think that’s also what makes this moment complex, and it’s why we need to find those role models, who are willing to go into that uncomfortable territory to see discomfort as a proxy for progress, and to model what this looks like to reach across.
As Jacinda Ardern did after the terrorist attacks at the mosques in Christchurch, in a very quiet, powerful way, not only was able to say, “I see you” to the Muslim community, but to model what it meant to be a New Zealander, and a global citizen, and it’s that combination of listening, seeing, strength, that I think we all need to practice more of.
MB: Jacinda Arden is an interesting, inspiring political example.
Obviously, a lot of the people that you’re working with at Acumen are business leaders, they’re people who’ve chosen to address a social challenge through creating a business of some kind. Acumen provides the sort of long-term, patient capital to support those business leaders in their mission.
I think one of the questions a lot of people are wrestling with, as they look at this current divided world with these tremendous problems ranging from the pandemic through to climate change threat that is looming over us, is should I go into politics? Should I go into government? Should I go into the traditional nonprofit sector? Can I do it through business? How do you advise young people as they come to you and ask, is it really possible to change the world through business? Or would I be better off going into government?
JN: I don’t think there’s a better off, I think there’s more of a self-reckoning. Who are you? Where do you thrive?
But in terms of business, I’ve really come to see the possibilities in this time of so much fracturing. If we’re conscious and being conscious is a big piece of this. I’ve really come to see business as a possible tool for peace.
We do so much work in post-conflict areas where, in some cases, charities have worked for government for a long time, trying to support local communities, and often ended up creating a lot of dependency. Going in and creating a company like Cacao de Colombia in the post-conflict areas of Colombia is hard. It takes longer, because if you build it from that consciousness, that this is about supporting the farmers providing them with more than fair wages, but seriously sustainable income and partnership, well, then you’re not going to build that business overnight, because you have so many barriers to overcome, to build trust, to build skills, to build networks, to build infrastructure in some cases.
And yet, I’ve seen time and again, where a partnership with the Arhuaco, indigenous group of Northern Colombia, or in Tumaco, which is another post conflict area, riddled with the cocaine wars. I’ve seen a community come together, across lines, build trust, income, an ability to plan for the future, and a sense of ownership. We need more of that.
We almost have no choice but to just start using beginner’s mind taking a step, trying, being willing to fail, and letting that lead us to the path toward the next level of solutions.
MB: It’s interesting, though, so many big businesses now feel that they are talking about their social responsibility in a way that was sort of unthinkable ten years ago. And I guess, the journalist in me sort of immediately skeptical about a lot of this. How would you sort out the sheep from the goats in that sense? What tells you that a big business leader is authentic when they’re talking about their social obligations and responsibility?
JN: It’s a great question. I do think narrative matters and we are at the beginning of a new narrative. So, within it are a lot of phoneys. Yet there are those who are making very concrete specific goals, made public to the world, and we can hold those individuals to account and they know it.
I’m thinking about Ken Frazier of Merck, who with Ginni Rometty, made a commitment to not just hire a million African Americans in the next decade, but to help them build their capabilities and skills, so that they move more into their careers.
I’m thinking of Alan Jope of Unilever, who made a commitment to build living wages throughout the supply chain. For a $2 billion company that is just the most audacious goal and I know how hard it is to build inclusive supply chains because Acumen does it.
My inclination is not only to hold to account, but then to see how we can support. Because if we can get those role models in addition to the kind that Acumen has supported sometimes in partnership, then I do think we start to see a shifting zeitgeist.
Equally, we have to call out those individuals who hide behind ESG, or environmental, social and governmental standards, and do a lot of greenwashing. I think that’s beginning to happen. Indeed, I’ve been talking to a number of new companies that are becoming both activist investors and supporting those that they believe in the long-term will create more value because they are thinking about the environment and doing something about it, insisting on better jobs, often in disadvantaged communities. For the long term, that’s what will lead to value. But they also are going after the ones that don’t. I think that’s going to be very healthy for business, which increasingly must play a role, not just to make profit, but to serve society.
MB: You wrote your book, before the pandemic, and I’m wondering, you know, if you were writing it today, what would be different?
JN: Very little would be different, except that I think I would be even more powerfully focused on the opportunities that we have to use the tools of the market, yet not be gentle on the market. I might title the book, “The Moral Imagination and Crisis,” because I think that in every single chapter, whether we’re looking at holding tensions or the way that we listen, or how we partner, or how we use markets without being controlled by them, there is an infusion of moral imagination that is necessary.
I have seen the most stunning new business models emerge out of this moment of so much despair and suffering. Just quickly, two, because I think it starts to give a sense, a real roadmap for the future, which is that we don’t have to be bridled by these systems. We are the system; we can create the system.
One is a company called Every Table in Los Angeles, which is essentially eight restaurants with fast, nutritious, affordable food. The first day of lockdown, they sent out a tweet to their community saying, if you need food, we’ll deliver. Lots of restaurants did that. What Every Table did, though, was remember purpose. If you cannot afford it, in these low-income communities, let us know and we will deliver it anyway. Then they put up an additional link. If you’re willing to pay it forward, here’s a link. Small philanthropists, individual contributors gave $5, $10, $25 to buy food. Over time, government saw this, and government partnered.
They’ve reached 6 million people with meals during the pandemic and wildly increased the number of jobs they have. Now have a plan to create forty franchises over the next three years, enabling their employees to run and own those franchises.
So, the instinct was others first and the recognition that you could build a business, not only with the tools of the private sector, but in partnership with philanthropy and in partnership with government. I believe we’re going to see a lot more of that.
I don’t think there’s a richer life than the kind of life that is possible if you commit to something bigger than yourself.
MB: You said there was a second example.
JN: The second example is in Pakistan. There’s an Acumen Fellow named Sara Saeed Khurram. She always wanted to do telemedicine, but most low-income rural women didn’t want to just have a consultation through an app. So, Sara ended up building 26 clinics. The women doctors in Pakistan would use telemedicine to interact with the clinical worker who would then meet the patients.
The first day of lockdown, the government declared private clinics nonessential because they didn’t want people gathering. So, all she had was her app. Her instinct was the same thing, counterintuitive, give it away. It’s an emergency. She said, here’s my app, it’s free if you need it.
Again, it released this energy. Not only have 350,000 people used the app, but doctors from across Pakistan and beyond Pakistan, in the diaspora, signed up to volunteer their services. Government then partnered. She too not only has a new model now, she’s also the first woman in the country to raise a pre-Series A for a million dollars.
I predict with a lot of confidence that this model is going to be part of Pakistan’s health care system done in partnership between private sector, government sector, and civil society.
MB: I think one of the joys of your book is that there are so many great examples like this that are positive, inspiring narratives. But there’s no sense of this being b.s. or marketing, these are real people grounded in very real situations. Struggling, overcoming struggles, sometimes not overcoming, but then hopefully learning from what doesn’t work. Often, in the cases you have, there’s some amazing impact that’s had for good. And so, for that reason alone, I would commend the book to people who are thinking about how they get involved in building a better world, so much solid wisdom to draw in the book for leadership lessons from you.
The second, is that 35 years into this work, people often say to me, how are you still so passionate about what you do? And I say, you know, I wish they had told me when I got started, that there was beauty every step of the way, even in some of the most disastrous and painful parts.
I would just like to finish by asking you, you have this audience of people thinking about what they can do to change the world, what is one challenge or piece of advice you have for them? Maybe a challenge to them about why now? Why do they need to embrace this “Manifesto for a Moral Revolution”?
JN: Thanks. One of the things I would say that I didn’t fully understand until after I wrote the book, which goes back to the beginning of this conversation, is that this is a book for doers.
We’ve seen the power of saying what’s wrong with the system, and we need people who are articulate and able to do that. Building a new system is long, hard, challenging work. And so, if that comes through the stories, then hurrah, because the work of change is not for people who want to sign up for the work of easy.
On the other hand, I would say three things. One, that it is in the difficult that we find our meaning, that we find our purpose, that we’re both intellectually and emotionally challenged, and that we grow the most, as well as have a chance to do the most in the world.
The second, is that 35 years into this work, people often say to me, how are you still so passionate about what you do? And I say, you know, I wish they had told me when I got started, that there was beauty every step of the way, even in some of the most disastrous and painful parts. And clearly, in this book, there are many of those. But there are also just opportunities for extraordinary connection, finding ways of showing up, seeing physical beauty in sometimes the most awful places. And so, I don’t think there’s a richer life than the kind of life that is possible if you commit to something bigger than yourself.
The advice I would give beyond just starting, is to ask yourself, first and foremost, what is the cost of not starting? What is the cost of not daring? Then having the courage to take that first step, even if you fall flat on your face, like I did more times than I would like to admit. To keep telling yourself that this world needs you. And this world needs the best version of you. I truly believe that we find the best version of ourselves by extending and asking what we can do to bring other people dignity, other people the opportunity to flourish. And maybe that’s the best secret of all.
MB: Well, you’ve written an incredible book that’s so wise and so inspiring, and I commend it to everyone listening to this podcast, Jacqueline Novogratz. Thank you very much for talking with me today for Books Driving Change. Thank you.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.