Positive Leadership

Building a better world together (with Jacqueline Novogratz)

January 31, 2024 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 8 Episode 4
Building a better world together (with Jacqueline Novogratz)
Positive Leadership
More Info
Positive Leadership
Building a better world together (with Jacqueline Novogratz)
Jan 31, 2024 Season 8 Episode 4
Jean-Philippe Courtois

As founder and CEO of nonprofit venture fund, Acumen, JP’s latest guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, is a visionary leader who has dedicated her career to connecting with people to build a better, more just world. 

Jacqueline’s remarkable journey from Wall Street to the front lines of social entrepreneurship is a captivating story filled with great wisdom – listen now, and don’t forget to subscribe.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

As founder and CEO of nonprofit venture fund, Acumen, JP’s latest guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, is a visionary leader who has dedicated her career to connecting with people to build a better, more just world. 

Jacqueline’s remarkable journey from Wall Street to the front lines of social entrepreneurship is a captivating story filled with great wisdom – listen now, and don’t forget to subscribe.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Before we get started, I want to just tell you about a brand new series I've just launched of bitesize episodes, The Nine Powers of Positive Leadership. It is packed with practical tips and techniques from my incredible guest that you can start using today. So if you are looking to build your confidence, connect with your purpose, and energize and inspire your team, the Nine Powers of Positive Leadership is for you. Episodes one and two are out now.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Can we think about identity as a tool to connect inside me? I have a human identity, a female identity, an athletic identity. There are so many ways that I can connect to another human being, no matter who they are on the planet, across race, class, religion, ethnicity. And if I start from that place, we can see ourselves in each other.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Hello and welcome to Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, as a leader, and eventually as a global citizen. One thing I've learned over the years is that our well-being depends on human connection. When we take time to listen to each other's stories, we can begin to build authentic connections. And it's our connections that help us survive and thrive. My guest today, Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of the non-profit venture, Acumen, is a visionary leader who has dedicated her career to connecting with other people, standing with the poor, and building tribes to address global poverty and social injustice. I was really excited to speak with her about the innovative approaches she's developed, building businesses for people who've been overlooked, taking philanthropy, investing long term, 10 to 20 years. In this episode, she shares great insights on the power of storytelling and where to begin when you're writing your own personal story. Jacqueline's recent book, Manifesto for Moral Revolution is an absolute must read for anyone eager to build a better world. There's so much wisdom in this episode. It's really one of my favourites. I hope you enjoy it. Make sure you stay with us until the very end. So Jacqueline, really great to have you on the podcast. A very warm welcome for a cold New York, which is, I think, where you are.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Jean-Philippe, thank you so much for that warm welcome. I really appreciate it and I'm happy to be here.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Super. So let's get started with some of your roots, Jacqueline. I think you came from a large Catholic family with six siblings, and growing up you moved around a lot as your dad was serving in the military. So what kind of values were foundational to you and your family growing up, and what was it like, actually, with this content moving around as a child? 


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Yes, I grew up in an immigrant family. My grandmother came to the United States, and was the eldest of six sisters, and they all moved to a small town outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, a blue collar town. And so I think their values really dominated our family's culture. Values that start with family, and therefore the idea of duty, of showing up for each other, of accepting diversity within this large group, and I would say hard work for sure, as the immigrant. My father would always say hard work equals success. And then something that came from my mother's side as a woman who grew up with a single mom. Her dad died when she was a year and a half in New York City. I think she brought aspiration into our family as well. And some of my aunts and uncles say my mom taught the rest of the family what it meant to be American, which I think is connected to aspiration, for better and for worse. And what it meant to move around all the time because my father was in the military, which reinforced a sense of duty and showing up. You had to learn very quickly how to adapt, how to meet new friends. And something I never got very good at was then saying goodbye to those friends very quickly, in an age well before social media, so it was very difficult to stay connected once you left. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It must have been super hard to have a sense of belonging somehow, in terms of those communities where you stay maybe a couple of years, and then you move on and try to reset all of that all over again as a child.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: It's funny, I actually think it becomes a superpower of a certain kind of military kid. You definitely have those kids that grew up in a family of constant moving that want never to move again. In our family, my mother… I came from a tribe. And my mother was so great at building a sense of tribe that no matter where we went, we had each other. And so I actually think I grew up internalizing almost being at home everywhere and nowhere, but always tethered to the six siblings of mine and this extended family.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Recently I was speaking to someone I think you know well, Rita Roy, CEO of the Mastercard Foundation, who comes from a very multicultural family as well. You know, she was born in Malaysia and came to the States as a teen. And she spoke about the value of having multiple identities, both inherited and adopted as well, and how she learned early on that part of your job with a small J was to find ways to connect with people on things which are intrinsically human. So my question is, is it something that you experienced yourself, that kind of multiple identities in a way? And can you talk about this theme of multiple identities and the way it helps you grow in your journey, both from the perspective of improving your collaborations in a work environment and your ability on top of that, of course, to serve others. So have you gone through that process yourself?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Well, I actually grew up and came from a family that did not have multiple identities. Everyone in this big family shared an Austrian heritage, Catholic, a lot of shared identity. But for some reason, maybe connected to the fact that my father went to Vietnam, I was always fascinated with the rest of the world. I was always fascinated with the fact that my dad was in Vietnam, and he worked at an orphanage there in his spare time. Therefore, I'd hear these stories of the children and wonder why their reality was so different from mine just by virtue of where they were born. It was the era of the song It's a Small World after all. And I bought in 150%. I wanted to know that world. I wanted to love that world. And if I'm really honest, Jean-Philippe, parts of my own identity that came with the immigrant identity gave me a sense of shame. My grandmother wore black lace up shoes and these cotton house dresses and she wasn't like the grandmothers of the kids I went to school with who took them on holiday. I'd never been on an airplane. I think it took me a number of years to integrate the power of that identity. And now, ironically, that Grandmother Stella, lives inside of me, probably has helped me connect in very deep ways because I literally see her face and her hands in so many rural African women I have worked with over these past 40 years. Because what she shared with them and their identity was that idea of hard work, of faith, of loss. She lost three children before they were five of poverty and yet of a deep, intrinsic dignity. I'd say the person that has most influenced me about how identity works – and I have assumed many, many identities as I've grown through this world – is Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese writer. He actually talks about a hierarchy of identities and says that we all have these many, many identities, some of them imposed on us from birth, and some of us, as Rita said, that we choose, that we take on, and that and so that now in my identity, is, yes, raised Catholic now much more ecumenical. Yes, raised American, now a global citizen. They all exist within me. And that when one part of our identity is threatened, it rises to the top. And too often it becomes our only identity. And that's where we get ourselves into trouble. So I would say I started off with a narrower identity and one that has grown into much more of a kaleidoscopic one that has been one of the greatest gifts of working, and I would say dancing, across the globe in the way that my work has given me the opportunity to do.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Your first job coming out of university was on Wall Street as an analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank. In one of your podcast interviews, you talked about this almost unreal interview where I believe you start the interview by saying that you are not actually interested in having a career in the banking sector, and you are yet applying for that job at Chase Manhattan Bank. So why did you interview for the job in the first place, and how did you manage to actually get hired with such a bad start? 


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Yeah, sure. So going back to the immigrant upbringing. I think it plants the seeds of entrepreneurialism in you and in our family, it was very clear that if you wanted any aspirational good, you had to earn the money yourself, and that included going to university. My parents wanted us, expected us to go to good universities, but they didn't have the income to send us there. And so I worked my whole life, both to get into school and then to pay my way through university, and at the end of those four years, I said to my parents, I've never really had a vacation. I've worked throughout and I want to take a year off now to do what all the other kids have been able to do in their lives, and then I'll go to school. And my parents thought that was a very bad idea, but they knew who I was. And if they told me I couldn't do it, that that would be exactly what I would do. And so they used great psychology and said, it's a good idea, but just do us a favour and at least go through the interview process. I thought that was fair. And so at that time, at my school, they had boxes with the names of companies, companies and the kinds of majors they would accept. And so Chase Manhattan Bank accepted foreign affairs and economics degrees. I had both. And so I put my resume dutifully in the box. And so then I got the job interview, and then I got asked the one question I was not prepared for, which was, why do you want to be a banker? I am constitutionally incapable of lying. And so I just told him the truth, and I just said, I actually don't want to be a banker. My parents made me do this interview, and so I'm really sorry. And he said, that is just too bad then, Jacqueline, because if you got this job, you would be in 40 countries over the next three years. As I explained, all I wanted to do my whole life was travel around the world. And so I, um, I literally said, do you think we might start this interview over? And he just smiled at me. He was like, sure. And I left the room. I knocked on the door again. Literally got up. I left the room. Took a deep breath. I knocked on the door. I introduced myself, and he said, so tell me, Jacqueline, well, why do you want to be a banker? And I said, ever since I was six years old, all I ever wanted to do was be a banker. And thus began the interview.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that interview. Despite getting off to a bad start, the guy sitting across the desk from Jacqueline recognised that she had a lot of spirit, that she wanted to understand the economic and political realities of countries around the world and that she wanted to contribute. A few years later, she was introduced to the work of Muhammad Yunus, the famous Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concept of microcredit and microfinance. And that got her thinking about your own journey and what she could do differently in her life.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: At the time I was in Brazil with Chase and I would spend my weekends in the favelas seeing low income people who had so much initiative but couldn't even walk through the doors of the bank. And I was thinking about, couldn't Chase lend to those individuals, which my boss did not think was such a great idea. But I came across a tiny article about the barefoot banker Doctor Muhammad Yunus, who was an economist in Bangladesh, as you said, Jean-Philippe, who had the insight that very low income people would pay back if they got access to credit. And so he made $30 loans to very, very low income women and saw that 100% of them did pay back. And from that humble beginning, he started the Grameen Bank, which today has lent billions of dollars and catalysed a movement where I believe there are microfinance institutions in 100 countries. Leadership is hard. And at age 83, I don't know if you know this, but Doctor Yunus has recently been sentenced to six months in prison in Bangladesh. And so I've really reflected on the loneliness of the road of leadership, and the resilience and the persistence that it takes and how being part of a community that can actually stand up for you really matters. And it's exciting to see people around the world standing up for Doctor Yunus today, because he's contributed so much to how we think about economics.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Absolutely. And I fully agree with you. Can you go back to that moment, and how much that moment, that article, but also, of course experience in favelas in Brazil, decided you to move to a different path? 


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: It was a moment – the moment of seeing what he had done and then learned that Ela Bhatt in India, Hasan Abed also in Bangladesh, and Michaela Walsh and Women's World Banking that 4 or 5 examples by then – this is way back in 1985 – were operating and that I could be part of that. After making a very strong plea to my bosses, I said for Chase to take that on. And failing at that, I decided then I needed to at least try. And that was the moment for me, after a long conversation with my boss, and it's a long story, then that ends me up first in the Ivory Coast. Cote d'Ivoire. Abidjan. Where I could be an ambassador to women who were creating these microfinance organisations, which is really the work that I wanted to do. But it was early, Jean-Philippe, in this kind of international, non-profit world. When I landed, there was really no support system. The women who I had gone to work with, not only didn't ask for me, but they clearly didn't want me to be there. And, um, to say that I failed, is such an understatement.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I’d like you to share more, because I know it was a painful experience for you. I understand that you shared that publicly, that story. But just to give our listeners some context, you are 25 years old, if I'm not mistaken. When you landed, 25. Beyond Brazil it was really one of your first trips. Maybe the first one in Africa as well. And so you had to be incredibly brave to kind of, you know, assume to be a leader. So tell us more about the characters in that female community in Abidjan. And as they saw you basically standing up one day, showing up and telling them what to do, how did that work? And what happened then?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Well, it was complex in that I was 25. I didn't know a soul. And I certainly didn't know what I was in for. The three female leaders, who were, in a way, vying for that same position – and I didn't understand that – were extremely powerful and extremely strong. I actually didn't go in to be, quote unquote, a leader, but I did go in with this idea that I was going to help women build these microfinance organizations. And what I learned was that there really weren't any microfinance organizations, but there were a lot of really strong women that were talking about what they wanted to do. My first job was to run a 52 country conference for women. And as you said, I did not grow up thinking about women, women's issues. I was very much in a much more of a boy-oriented culture, or tribe. It was very clear that anything that I tried to do was not going to get done, and I didn't understand how to ask even. The lesson for me was that I didn't come first just to listen. I didn't come to hear what others felt, even about me. I came with this idea that I will show them my worth by creating this incredible opportunity and it really backfired. In short, I learned that, you know, I went to save the world and discovered that most people don't want saving.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: In essence, Jacqueline, because all of us, actually awful in a way, go through some tough experiences in our life, professional, personal life as well, where we learn so much. What was the biggest learning you had out of this fiasco at the beginning? 


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Two lessons. Start with listening, immersing, understand who other people are without coming in with your own agenda. The second thing is a lesson that I've learned more and more over the years, which is, real relationships acknowledge that there's good and bad in all of us. And in a way, like I see sometimes today with so many young people, I felt a lot of shame for many of the American policies. It was the 80s, the greed of America at the time. I think when I went, I thought I would find all good in the idea of African community, etc. And when I became effective was when I could acknowledge, going back to identity, Jean-Philippe, that in my own culture there were some really amazing things as well as parts that gave me shame. And to be effective in any other culture, could I approach it as I would approach a full human being with the good and the bad? And the more I could do that without judgment, the more effective I would be.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That's the key. Without judgment, it's so hard to do. So hard. And keeping that humility right all the time. I think it's a very interesting discussion. Recently in my podcast, I had someone else you may know, I think Jacqueline, Angeline Murimirwa, CEO of Camfed. I don't know if you know Angeline. 




JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: She grew up in a in a poor family in Zimbabwe, where girls didn't get the opportunity to continue their studies, which is a common issue still in many, many African cities and places and villages. So because of her great work in primary school, Angeline was selected by the Camfed Foundation, which funded her high school studies. And then she did so well over the years that eventually she joined the Camfed team and she became their CEO. An amazing story showing the importance of female role models in Africa. So, Jacqueline, back to your life now, again after the experience you talked about Cote d'Ivoire and talked about Kenya. I think you also worked on some microfinance banks in Rwanda, along with someone who was very special to you, I think, Felicola. You envisioned a world in which women could have greater control over their lives. What were your aims and ambitions at the times setting up the bank and what did you take away from that experience, again, with women in particular, of shaping that initiative?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Bravo you, Jean-Philippe, for interviewing these strong women like Rita and Angeline. It's exciting, because I think it is a moment for women's leadership also. To take you back to 1986, when I was first invited to Rwanda. And so this was my first invitation in rather than me being imposed on… Big importance. Rwanda had just changed Napoleonic code, which put women in the same category as children and the mentally ill. And so until 1986, women couldn't open a bank account without their husband's permission and signature. We were really starting at a point where there was no economic opportunity for those women. It was mostly a barter economy. And what I learned very quickly, again, not coming with an orientation of women's rights or any of that, but just seeing the reality by immersing now and paying attention, that women wouldn't speak in the room if a man was in the room. But if the man was not in the room, we would have extraordinary conversations. And so our initial mission was quite simple, that we were going to improve the economic condition of women and create more opportunity for future generations. Like I've seen now as someone who has founded multiple organizations, when you start, you understand conceptually what it is that you are doing, but you don't understand it viscerally until you actually begin and start to recognize what you're building. And so we wanted to build this new generation that had economic opportunity and could be real participants in their own nation. 40 years later, Duterimbere, that bank, is a force in Rwanda and equally important and in it is the power of institutions. The women who came through it and their daughters are playing leading roles in the economy. And that is powerful.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It's an amazing legacy as well you built, I mean, through your leadership, I guess, to encourage and to get that to happen.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: I don't think it was my leadership. I think it was, in a way, thanks to learning, by being banged on the head in Abidjan, that the only way we would succeed was that if this were truly a Rwandan institution. So I didn't found it. I co-founded it with five Rwandan women. We were very deliberate in ensuring that I didn't get too far ahead of anybody because this was all I was doing and they had very rich lives. And so by the time I left, it was theirs. And when I go back, no one even knows who I am. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, that's what leadership is all about, is actually getting that to happen without you being involved anymore, by being somehow an inspiration for that movement to happen. Talking about inspiration, Jacqueline. I was, as I said in my introduction, deeply inspired by your book. So I'm going to read just a few lines. I know you've got a book handy as well. Your book again called, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution. There’s a part in the book when you call for moral revolution that helps us reimagine and reform technology, business and politics. You write, what is needed, whether you are working in a high tech or in low income communities, is the moral imagination to ensure that our future solutions and institutions are inclusive and sustainable. You know, in my own life, with my foundation Live for Good, a much smaller one than Acumen, we are unleashing the Nine Powers of Positive Leadership with our young impact entrepreneurs from all walks of life. And one of those powers is how to develop your environmental and social consciousness. So my question back to you is what are the other pivotal experiences or influences that contributed to shaping your own awareness, understanding and commitment to environmental and social issues altogether?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Well, most surely, and ironically, Chase was the beginning of seeing a world that was constructed for one class of people to the exclusion of others. The work in Rwanda especially helped me to understand how low income people are often invisible to policy makers and to corporations. I also think Rwanda helped me understand that the poor live in what I would call a political economy more than a market economy. What do I mean by that? In a market economy, we assume that everyone can interact with some degree of fairness, decide whether they like the price or not, etc. In a political economy, everyone has their hands involved in how things work. In building the Duterimbere bank, I learned very quickly what the status quo was, that it wasn't just that women didn't want to borrow because they were afraid of borrowing from an institution, but their husbands had a role in saying whether they could borrow. I was confronted by many of the village priests who felt that it was unethical for us to charge interest, even though money lenders were charging ten times as much as we were charging. I learned that government officials in some cases were quite threatened about the idea of a women's bank, and on and on. That the status quo that had a role to play in the lives of poor people went far beyond each individual's capacity to change their lives. And so that at the heart of solving problems of poverty had to be not just seeing how much income somebody earned, but whether they had the dignity to make their own decisions, to make their own choices, to know that they could contribute. And that was fundamental in shaping my entire philosophy for starting Acumen and for the work that I've been doing. On the environmental side, I think I came more slowly to that understanding, and I was thinking about why recently. In 1991, a boyfriend and I went to Borneo to do this three week crazy trek in the rainforest. He was a conservationist and really part of the conservation movement. I cared at that point. It was very clear. I was all about poor people and poverty. And we fought the whole time. People, planet, people, planet. One or the other. And it was incontrovertible that we were in the rainforest and we didn't hear any animals. It was the beginning of my opening of my consciousness that palm oil plantations were thriving because precious rainforest was being taken down. But at that point, Jean-Philippe, the environmental movement was dominated by and populated by mostly more privileged men. Yeah. And I didn't see that kind of power or money going behind finding smart solutions to poverty. And so I think part of me felt that it was my responsibility to find ways to use markets to solve problems of poverty, and I'd figure out the environmental stuff along the way. That was a big pivotal point for me of this is really important and I'm going to focus here so that people aren't completely confused by what we do.


I’d like to just pause here to pick up on what Jacqueline says about how solving the problem of poverty is not just about how much money someone has or doesn’t have, but it’s about having the dignity to make their own decision. It’s an important point, and it underlines Jacqueline’s deep level of empathy and ability to listen. Empathy and active listening are essential components of building meaningful connections. By taking the time to understand others’ perspectives and actively listening to their thoughts and feelings, you can build stronger relationships, better trust and mutual respect. When you are working in change and you are building businesses for people who have been overlooked, your job sometimes becomes creating enough openness and demonstrating how much you are listening and giving the permission to tell you the stories they need to tell, so that you can actually help solve their problems together. So, a wonderful transition into the birth of Acumen, Jacqueline. You started, of course, talking about Acumen that you created in 2001, your vision being a world based on dignity, which is the word you've been already using a couple of times, where every human being has the same opportunity. So rather than giving philanthropy away, which is a way as well to contribute by the way, you invest in companies and changemakers in the world. In the early days, you had to work out how you are going to operate, be it for profit or non-profit, and you settled on a new idea called patient capital. So I love you to unpack that idea of patient capital for our listeners. We had one episode about a year ago with Sir Ronald Cohen that you may know, who is a wonderful gentleman as well, who has done so much on social innovation. But tell us more about patient capital and the way you kind of articulate it.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Thanks. So patient capital, especially for creating markets where they haven't existed or worked for low income people, is essentially taking philanthropy and investing long term - 10 to 20 years - in entrepreneurs who are focused on solving problems of poverty. We invest as equity and debt, but primarily as equity. Take positions in companies. Accompany those companies with management assistance, with using our - another jargon - our social capital, our networks, our access to enable them to build. We measure the impact not only the returns. Any money that comes back gets reinvested in innovation for the poor. And that is patient capital. 20 years after starting, we've seen not only that we can leverage every dollar we invest with another $6 as these companies become more commercial, but we've also seen the impact that about $120 million has resulted in a half a billion people whose lives are changed.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That's amazing. I’d like us to peel a little bit more the onion, if you if you don't mind, Jacqueline, on the way it works actually, and I'm going to start with a position of reality, which is based on the latest UN report on the 2030 UN's goals progress. After decades of steady progress, it's quite sad to see that there are more than 575 million people below the poverty level in the world, and 148 million kids with stunted growth, and 45 million below five years old were suffering from wasting. So with Acumen, you've decided to fight poverty by again empowering, growing funding entrepreneurs who tackle some of the most challenging issues lived by people, again, only earning less than $3 a day. So my question to you is, because it's super hard. It's not a science, it's not an art either, it's probably in between. How do you source and pick the right entrepreneurs to focus on the right issues to alleviate poverty? How do you make a bet on a changemaker who can truly change the world, and who can really make it happen, not just having a dream, but who has it in him or her in order to make it happen?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: In a way, this goes back to the tribe of Acumen, which is a tribe of pragmatic idealists. It comes down to character, Jean-Philippe. It comes down to the humility that we will not know. The particular intervention that will make change. What our superpower is, is finding those entrepreneurs who have vision, resilience, persistence, who are able to hold opposing ideas in tension. And so they don't just talk about profit and purpose. They have shown us how they have to make the brutally difficult decisions to enable that balance, knowing that sometimes they will choose purpose and have to find their way over a much longer period of time to get to profit. You show us those types of characters. We'll go with the crazy journey with them to solve a big problem of poverty, and along the way, learn with them and start to build the ecosystem by investing in other entrepreneurs who come along.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And where do you find them? How do you find them?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Well, now it's a lot easier because Acumen is big. In the beginning, it was literally like needles in haystacks. In our very first six months, I hired these two interns and they looked at 700 organizations, and they came up with zero. This is to all start up entrepreneurs. A very wise man said to me, Jacqueline, you're looking for perfection. Choose mediocrity, but just move. Just start. And so I did. And he was right. The first one, it failed, and then you learn. It took a lot of stress off. And we started to make real change.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah. Let's go back a bit Jacqueline on this connection again between social and environmental issues. I think you attended the last COP 28 because I saw you sharing some of your reflections. So you said that you saw countries and organizations recognizing that renewable energy must be the future and that we must create green pathways out of poverty and markets to make the global transition to clean energy become possible. So at the time where still 2 billion people rely on polluting fuels to cook, where 660 million still don't have electricity and when we expect that 75% of carbon emissions will come from low and middle income countries by 2050, can you tell us how much patient capital investment that you funded many years ago are having an impact? And how your recently announced, I think, Hardest to Reach initiative can truly expand an affordable energy access market across all those low income countries in Africa?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Sure, Jean-Philippe. And it actually goes to what we were talking about before, that we're lacking in moral imagination in terms of solving our big problems. We have the solutions as a world. We know how to solve these problems, but the status quo and the types of institutions that we have too often get in the way of allowing those solutions to be extended to people who want to change their own lives. And I think that when we look at electrification, which is SDG7, electrification for all, it is probably the best example of where we have the technologies, there is deep desire on behalf of individuals, we could solve this problem. We can't solve it with business as usual. No neither just looking at traditional investment, nor traditional government, nor charity or philanthropy. So it's a great example of what we're talking about in that it's a story that started in 2007, when 1.5 billion people had no access to electricity. We made the first patient capital investment in a tiny company called d.light, a startup. I would say for the first seven years it wasn't clear whether that company would fail or succeed. That patient capital allowed them to have many failures and keep trying, and our accompaniment allowed us to bring in talent and access like I was saying. By ten years it was very clear that this not only was a company that succeeded, but it was succeeding because it was building markets that had never existed before. People find ways to get themselves energy, but the energy comes in small amounts of kerosene, which is deadly, dirty, expensive, not good for the planet. And so what we needed to do was show low income people that they had a viable alternative. They could pay the same amount of money every day and now have solar, which would be free once it was paid off. And it would improve their income, improve their health, improve their lives. So Acumen continued to invest in about 40 companies that together have brought 230 million people access to electricity off grid, solar. Well, it's a dent when you look at 1.5 billion and how one small organization can enable 40 companies to reach a quarter of a billion people. So that is when we started to think about what would it actually take then to reach SDG 7? Um, and we were able then to look at, first of all, where are the people who don't have electricity? Still today, because now we have about 700 million people, 75% of them live in about two dozen sub-Saharan African nations. We're starting with 16 of them, with a very different kind of facility that is unapologetic in the need for patient capital. 50-60 million dollars of philanthropy, philanthropic-backed investment that we can make with the side by set debt facility that provides affordable debt and incentives so that if companies actually create impact, they can reduce the interest that they pay to zero. It will still only work with government sponsors. The government has to invite us in. All the lessons that I've learned over these last 40 years working with other non-profits that are helping people get access, being cognizant of the security situation in these countries, but what excites me is we have the blueprint. We know how to do it. And so we can go into Somalia and Benin and Chad with very, very low electrification rates. And we can work with entrepreneurs who exist there and people who want to solve their problems. And we can show the world that all these problems are within our reach to solve. We just need the will and the moral imagination, because we have the resources, the skills, and we have the technologies.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love it, Jacqueline, because I think it's one of the best concrete examples of what patient capital is all about and driving that kind of impact after many years of super hard work that goes into such initiatives and already getting a big dent, actually, a quarter of the billion people is actually quite a significant dent already. But I think not accepting the status quo, as you said, rightly so, I love it. Jacqueline is on the front lines of social entrepreneurship, and her story holds valuable lessons for all of us striving to make a meaningful difference in the world. Whilst social entrepreneurs are able to access capital from friends and family and investors to establish proof of concept, they struggle in the later stages, with scale-up, where capital is more scarce and that’s where Acumen steps in. Their goal is to invest philanthropic capital in companies specifically during these stages. Although it takes on average between 7 to 10 years to get to scale-up, when they do, social enterprises are truly transformative. Now I know the time is moving pretty fast, and I’d love to shift gears a bit and talk about your personal leadership journey, Jacqueline, because you've already shared some insights, but there's so much more. I know you can share with us. I'd love to start with mentoring. I think one of your early mentors, John Gardner, that you met in your first year of business school, played a role in your own development, and so did some other people. In the same context, I recently had Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, that you may know as well, and she talked to me about the way she thinks there are two different types of mentors: mentors that you seek out and mentors that happen more accidentally or organically, that actually those mentors can often pick you. So can you tell us actually your own experience with mentorship and the superpowers of mentorship that you've had in your life? And that may be your entrepreneurs you are getting through Acumen as well today as a result of your experience. 


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Such a great question and I haven't fully thought about it, but the way that Indra set it up is really powerful. I think there are those mentors who hold a mirror and maybe show yourself a version that's better than the one that you see in the mirror. And I actually go back to when I was six and I had this amazing first grade nun, Sister Mary Theophane, who somehow believed that I had come down from heaven and she would tell me this. “Jacqueline, to whom much is given, much is expected, and you're going to do big things and good things for other people in the world”. I think that she planted seeds… I was a little six year old kid. We don't do this enough. We tell kids they're special snowflakes and that we give them all prizes, but we don't say, I see something in you. Follow that thread. And I'm going to hold you with responsibility to it. In Rwanda, which was a very difficult time, as you said, there was a Turkish woman named Bilga Ogun. Amazing. And she allowed a level of honesty where I could come and talk about the loneliness and sometimes cry and what it felt like to be fully rejected by sometimes the men in the city and allowed that level of vulnerability without ever making me feel weak. Helped turn it into a strength. And so there's the mentor that allows for that empathetic listening and turning it into possibility. John was pure wisdom. John Gardner was walking integrity. He was the role model that I still hold and have a conversation with every day. 20 years after he died. He almost spoke to me, Jean-Philippe, incoherence. I got offered this ridiculously big job. John. Should I take it? I don't know if I should take it? And he would say, Jacqueline, will this job make you more interesting as a person or would it allow you to be more interested in the world? I'm like, you're killing me. Oh, how come I can't ever take a job just to be more interesting? And he’d say, it's your choice. So I think that kind of mentor doesn't ever give you answers, but asks you the right questions. What they all had in common is they all always let it be known that they had high expectations.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I usually call those people Jacqueline, coaches, actually. One of our problems in my foundation, we call that Coach for Good, people who ask you some pretty deep questions, who actually are mostly asking questions as opposed to giving any response to your problems, which seems frustrating, but it's not, which are all about empowering and growing others by giving them the chance to reflect, to grow, to learn, to test, to fail, and to build confidence over time. So I love your story and I’d like to talk about another incredible strength I think you have in your leadership story and practice, which is which is actually the story of storytelling. There are a couple of examples in my podcast episodes where I got some great examples of that. One very quickly, was Doug Connon, the former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, wrote this wonderful book called The Blueprint. And he told me about this moment where, you know, early in his career, he lost his job. He was pretty down. And he met with a consultant and this consultant gave him the best service. He asked him to write his life story on a couple of pages, and he did that. And that kind of mentor or support function, actually told him that the way he was telling his story was actually not authentic, not real. So he gave him a chance to practice his story and to get to get it right. I was reminded of this story when I read about your fellows program, I think, as well, which supports entrepreneurial leaders, because I believe you ask your fellows to do a similar exercise called the river of life. So I'm not going to explain too much, but I will let you tell us that. So at the end of the day, I do believe that there's a strength to be developed with positive leaders called, how do you build with others? And when you want to build with others, I think it starts by sharing your own experience and your own life story. To talk about who you are, the why you are, and you do what you do and start building that inner confidence with others. Tell us more about your philosophy on life story and the way you believe it’s critical actually to develop leaders’ confidence with people.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: What I loved about what you just said is that it has to come from your own story, your own life. And so the river of life is for all of those individuals who go through Acumen Academy, which is another function at Acumen. We invest in ventures, we also invest in leaders. And we've invested and supported about 1,600 leaders across probably 30 nations now. So to do the river of life, take a piece of paper and literally draw a river. It could just be one line or you could do two lines or you might be an artist and add the different curves and the bends in the river. Write down what happened that had an impact on the many identities that are now inside of you and who you are today and why you lead the way that you lead. How does that flow come into the person who you are. And inevitably, we all see ourselves in each other's stories, often in each other's suffering, because then we realize that the only way we build, we reimagine systems for a world that needs to heal is if we indeed see each other in the one story we can create together, which is our story of shared humanity.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That resonates so much with me, Jacqueline, because I’ve had the opportunity for the last eight years of my life now coaching a few hundreds of young entrepreneurs in my country, and one of the best moments I prefer in those very special, unique moments, 1 to 1 coaching moments, or whatever it is, is those moments where they share their stories deeply. And to me, that's always the revelation moment of what could happen, and coming back to the earlier question about can I bet actually on this entrepreneur to make it happen, to actually share that vision and make it work. And that story is so strong when it resonates with those people. So we are almost at an end. But I have a couple of more questions I need to ask you about leadership. The life story is an important foundation to me as well, like you, and talk about in the manifesto, there's also, of course, an important piece of work on the shared set of values that you have defined for Acumen that other changemakers or social entrepreneurs have defined for their own organization as well. So would you mind talking to us about your manifesto, your statement of values, as well, and how you use it to guide decision making, particularly in the toughest moments of your organization as well, because you have to make those hard calls from time to time.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Yeah. And if you'll indulge me, just to say it out loud, our manifesto goes like this. It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard and recognizing potential where others see despair. It demands investing as a means, not an end. It's the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world, changing the way the world tackles poverty, and building a world based on dignity. Jean-Philippe, we use it every day.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I can see it. I can feel it.


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: In investment committee meetings, someone will inevitably say, I was just in an IC meeting. It was an amazing innovation. Very, very cool. And the question is what percentage of low income people will really be impacted by this? When do you walk away from a donor because it's not the right donor? When do you decide not to partner, even though all of the expectations are that you will partner? And on and on. When you build a culture that has this manifesto at the heart of it – and we revisit it constantly, every Monday morning meeting, we talk about values in action – it really ends up mattering and living.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, I think it's super strong because it goes beyond the mission itself. I'm a deep believer in the power of the right mission for any organization. I think it's wonderful to see the mission as a North Star of the compass. I think the manifesto is even deeper because it gives you the texture, the sensitivity, the wordings that that give you again that guide to say no and to say yes and to make those hard decisions. So almost finishing Jacqueline, because we could spend hours, of course, together, but I know you are super busy, so I'd like you to share some of your secrets because, you know, we've been meeting a couple of times, only this time and another call before. But I saw you in many podcasts, in many videos I try to watch you. And it's very clear that you radiate some a lot of positive vibes and energy coming out of yourself. So my question because it's, of course, something I'm always trying to learn from my guests, being the host of Positive Leadership, is how do you do that? And can you share that with our listeners? What are the routines, the tips, more than the tips, of course, because it takes more than tips for Jacqueline to show up every morning, every day in Rwanda, in New York, somewhere in the world with that positive energy in yourself and available to give it back to others?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Well, first of all, Jean-Philippe, I have to say that you exude positive energy, so I don't think you're here learning all that much, but I really appreciate it and I appreciate your humility. First of all, Nietzsche said that anyone with a strong why can endure any level of how. I think that there's great truth that if you fully understand why you are here and what you are doing, that in and of itself brings a level that goes beyond commitment. John, my mentor, used to say, commit to something and it will set you free. The second is, I believe deeply in beauty as a part of leadership we don't talk about enough. Going through the Rwandan genocide and losing many, many people, and seeing my friends after who had been devastated, I would hear their stories of a level of inhumanity that we're seeing again in the world that made me ashamed. But so would I hear in their stories some of the most extraordinary acts of human kindness and generosity in the middle of a genocide. It's always there. I do think it's almost a spiritual practice to pay attention, to look for it. And that ironically allows you to develop a core of steel.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: In your book, you suggest having people writing their own manifesto. So as a last question, we've got many listeners now across the world, many countries actually from Africa as well. I've got some big countries, a lot of listeners in Nigeria as an example and some others in Tehran, in Iran actually, as well in the US, in UK, etc. As they listen to you, what should they do practically to basically write down their manifesto, to shape their life, their mission in life? What should they do? What's your personal encouragement, coaching, to write our manifestos?


JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: Start by listening to yourself. When you think deep about who you are and what you came to do, what is at the essence of that? It shouldn't be so broad as I'm here to change the world. What drives your curiosity? And then can I follow the thread of that curiosity? As I follow that thread, what are the values that will drive me and that I want to shape this organization? For Acumen, the most important driver was the idea of investment as a means to solving a problem, not as the end of it in and of itself. I grew up in a world where investment was to make money, and then all the externalities, environmental destruction, excluding people, using people as inputs, that was part of the business. That was not going to be our mission. That was not in our manifesto. In our manifesto, investment was a powerful tool. Capitalism has a lot of superpowers. How do we use it in service of solving a problem? Yours will be different depending on what your purpose is. Then what are the mechanisms that are going to be most useful for you? And then there should be a piece of your manifesto around the how. What will drive us to see potential where others see despair? Don't be afraid to use words like patience and kindness, resilience and grit. What matters for humility, for listening, for immersion and the moral imagination: patience and kindness, but also resilience and grit. So what are those values for you? So I would think about it in those three ways: my purpose, my means, and then the values by which I will go after it. 



JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: In a world that often seems driven by profit-driven motives, Jacqueline stands alone as a beacon of inspiration and a testament to the power of compassion and social impact. Her remarkable journey from Wall Street to the front lines of social entrepreneurship is a captivating story that holds valuable lessons for me personally. And something she said that really resonates with me is “commit to something, and it will set you free”. We can’t know where the past commitment will take us, but it can serve as a north star, to guide. Committing yourself to something beyond yourself is not easy, but nothing of importance is. It requires resilience and grit, and at times, the courage to face rejection. Jacqueline’s example may feel like an impossible standard, but all of us have it within us to live a life of purpose. I’m Jean-Philippe Courtois, you’ve been listening to the Positive Leadership Podcast. I want as many people to listen to this story as possible, and you can help. It makes a huge difference if you can take a moment to write, review, or leave a comment and share it with a friend. If you’re looking for more information, head to my LinkedIn page and sign up to my monthly newsletter, Positive Leadership and You. It is packed with tips and recommendations so you can start your own journey towards personal growth and positive impact. Thanks for listening. Goodbye!