Every once in a while you read a book that changes you. That transcends the author and the original story and holds lessons that you can apply to your own work and life, well beyond the context of the book.
“The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz is such a book.
It’s a memoir, recounting the experiences of someone who left international banking to found Acumen, a non-profit that’s “changing the way the world tackles poverty”. But whether you’re changing the world or changing your company, the lessons in the book can help you.
Work in the field
Though she was born and raised in the US, most of Jacqueline’s stories take place in deeply impoverished areas in Kenya, Rwanda, Pakistan, and India. There, she worked with local people to create small businesses. To teach people new skills but also to learn from them.
The way she embraced fieldwork reminded me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s approach in Haiti as described in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” when he said “Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.”
Her stories are often frustrating, and the work is hard and humbling. She failed often. But Jacqueline’s work with individual women is what gave her a deeper understanding of what could work and what couldn’t.
Embrace locally-driven change
Some of her early failures stemmed from trying to import ideas and practices that made perfect sense in New York but, in the field, proved to be impractical. It was only when she worked with local people to drive change locally that she had both the necessary knowledge and the social infrastructure to make a sustained difference.
Embracing locally-driven change also meant giving up control. It meant that her projects weren’t about her. She had a vision but learned that “no single source of leadership will make it happen”. So she committed to creating a system that would identify others who could lead and provide support for them.
Take a systems approach
Time and again she learned the solution wasn’t just about money. Or training. Or technology. Or some specific social change.
It was about all of those things. Fighting malaria, for example, wasn’t just about giving away mosquito nets. It was about supporting local manufacturing of nets at a price people could afford so there was a sustainable supply. Making sure the nets were easy to use. Coming up with creative new distribution methods. (I liked the image of Tupperware-style parties where local women talked of the nets as status symbols: “The color is beautiful, and you can hang the nets in your windows so the neighbors know how much you care about your family.” )
To drive change, she learned to tap into all six sources of influence. “It’s not ‘either-or’ but rather ‘both-and’.”
Learn from doing
When she was just beginning Acumen, she had enough funding but was so focused on planning and ensuring things succeeded that she didn’t have enough projects to invest in.
“…we were in a bit of a panic, and a wise CEO of a healthcare company gave me advice I will never forget. ‘Just start,’ he said. ‘Don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. No on expects you to get it right in the very beginning, and you’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from your early successes anyway. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go.’”
That didn’t mean she was less careful or meticulous. Just that she learned the importance of getting feedback from customers early and often while iterating and adapting. That was the best way to learning which solutions would actually be useful.
Leverage other people and networks
Despite her formidable energy, her ideas, her training, and her time in the field, she was still humble enough and wise enough to leverage other organizations. She got help from institutions as diverse as The Rockefeller Foundation and local microfinance organizations. She worked with a wide range of local entrepreneurs.
She didn’t feel the need to always create or control. Instead she searched for groups that were already doing good work. Then she looked for ways to invest in them and connect them so they could scale what they were doing and amplify the benefits.
When Jacqueline was a young girl, her uncle gave her a blue sweater that she cherished. She wore it all the time until, as a freshman in high school, someone poked fun at her. She insisted on giving it away and her mother and her ceremoniously disposed of it at their local thrift shop.
She didn’t think about it again until, more than a decade later, in the streets of Kigali, Rwanda, she saw a skinny young boy wearing her sweater. Incredulous, she ran over to him. Unable to speak a language he understood, she simply grabbed him, turned over the collar, and saw her name on the tag. For Jacqueline, the blue sweater became a symbol of how we are all connected. And that changed the course of her life.
I gave a copy of “The Blue Sweater” to my daughter. I wanted to give her that message of connectedness and, even more so, provide her with Jacqueline’s example of how we can think differently – about change, our definition of success, and what a fulfilling life might look like.