Acumen CEO: Investing can drive social change

by Jason Wittmer, contributing writer

Bio2013-JNovogratz-160x160In 2008, a mob of 200 boys set a clothing market ablaze in Nairobi, decimating families and destroying an important community hub. Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz was in Kenya at the time, and she and a fellow activist from Sweden quickly realized that without the support of an organized legal system, the only way to rebuild the marketplace was to get the perpetrators to do it themselves. The situation was grim; the boys rebuilt the market they burnt to the ground alongside family members of those lost in the fire.

Experiencing real-life crises like this across the globe inspired Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, to dedicate herself to impact-driven leadership, the subject of her talk at Fordham’s Pope Auditorium on September 15, 2014. She explained how working in some of the world’s poorest nations—and the realities she saw firsthand—led her to establish her firm in 2001. Its purpose? To re-imagine the ways activists tackle poverty and redefine why investors should invest in entrepreneurs.

Ms. Novogratz acknowledged the magnitude of these goals, but urged the audience “not to underestimate the courage it takes to be imperfect. It doesn’t always solve the poverty gap, but it does solve the hope gap,” she said. “I believe that we have a chance to build a world in which all human beings can live with dignity, freedom and choice. It starts with imagining that world and then working together.”

For a woman who witnessed many horrific scenes, including seeing someone killed by a machete in Kenya, Novogratz remains optimistic, embracing the possibilities even in the worst of situations. In her words, “One can’t understand the light without the dark.”

Her solution is to use investing as a means to achieve social change. “People hear ‘invest’ and think ‘returns,’” Ms. Novogratz added. “Instead they should want ‘returns’ in the world.” Her not-for-profit offers investors the chance to do just that, and its growing. Acumen has invested more than $83 million in 75 companies throughout South Asia and Africa, and the organization maintains five global offices in Pakistan, Ghana, India, Kenya and New York.

The organization also offers Global Fellows the opportunity to make a difference where the needs are greatest. Volunteer Justus Kilian shared his experience working at the Gulu Agricultural Development Company in Uganda during his 12-month Acumen fellowship. When he began, he recalled that Ms. Novogratz advised the firm’s Global Fellows that the experience they were embarking upon would “challenge your assumptions and push you out of your comfort zones.” These words proved true when Kilian was forced to report friends to the police for stealing from the company, leaving him to feel betrayed.

Courage was the theme of the evening, and Ms. Novogratz concluded her talk by challenging the audience to “have humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine it as it could be.”

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