Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The World Needs You Now

I started following the work of the Acumen Fund nearly two years ago after reading its Founder and CEO's, Jacqueline Novogratz's, book The Blue Sweater. Her book inspired me. I have often thought about the story as I continue my work here and have used that memory as fuel to continue persevering, knowing that I am here for a greater purpose and that there is so much good to be done. Patience, dedication, passion, following your gut, trusting yourself, and the knowledge that we can all make a difference are the key morals I was left with.

In that same vein, I wanted to share this video, hoping that it would inspire each of you in the same way it has me. The video is of the commencement speech that Ms. Novogratz gave at Gettysburg College a few days ago. It has a message that we all need to hear and internalize. Please take a moment and watch - let her words resonate and encourage you. I truly believe that together we bridge the gap and create the kind of world we can be eternally proud to be a part of.

Below is the full-text version of the speech
(since I know that viewing videos can be almost impossible 
for those of us in the developing world - myself included)

Thank you, President Riggs.

David, you’re a hard act to follow. In the past 24 hours as I was listening to your classmates speak, I was thinking that I finally have a sense of what it means to be “Gettysburg Great.” I am so honored to be with you and so honored to be receiving this degree with Karl Mattson who’s such a wonderful person. And I am absolutely inspired to be here with the Class of 2012 as you graduate. I thank you, distinguished faculty, who care so much about the students, the staff, the  team here, the alumni, the trustees who give so much, the proud parents and grandparents who love so much, the inspired siblings and friends – I could not thank you more.

You, the Graduates, have earned this moment… so no matter how exhausted or bleary eyed you might be feeling after last night’s celebrations, take a few seconds to look around at each other.

Look to your left...

and to your right…

and take this moment and feel it.

Because so often life rushes by us and we forget the most critical moments in our lives. It is so important to live the minutes even when the world is moving at breakneck pace.

So breathe it all in and know with your whole heart and body: You did it. You really did it. Congratulations.

I remember being your age like it was yesterday, full of an amazing mix of certainty and a rolling list of questions.  There was the first job –if you could even find one – for like you, I also graduated in a time when the country was just coming out of a recession.

I dreamt of changing the world, and had worked hard to finance my college education so decided to take a year off before starting a career.

As you can imagine my parents thought that was a miserable idea, and yet, my parents are quite wise. So they negotiated with me that I should at least go through the college interviewing process. So I bought a suit, took my resume, and dutifully deposited it in the boxes for foreign affairs and economics majors.

My first interview was with Chase Manhattan bank. I walked into the interview, sat across the table from this handsome recruiter, and he asked me what would turn out to be the easiest and the hardest question.

He said, “So tell me, Ms. Novogratz, Why do you want to be a banker?” I’m a terrible liar, so I said, “Actually I don’t want to be a banker – my parents made me do this interview. I really want to change the world.” He said, “Well that’s just too bad – if you got this job, you would be in 40 countries in the next 3 years, learning all about the economics, the politics, the people of those places.” And the truth was, all I ever wanted to do up to that point was to know the world – to travel it and understand its people. And I was feeling this great opportunity flying away.

So I stared at him and I said, “Do you think we might do this interview over?” He said sure. I left the room, knocked on the door, walked in, extended my hand and introduced myself. He said again, “Tell me, Ms. Novogratz, why do you want to be a banker?” I said, “Ever since I was six years old, all I ever wanted to be was a banker.”

Shockingly, I got the job.

As it turned out, I loved being a banker. I loved how numbers could tell a story, and how smart investment could transform ideas into jobs and sometimes things of beauty.

What I didn’t like was that poor people were not in the mix.  The banks felt it was too expensive, too difficult and too risky to lend to the poor. And low income people themselves were often too frightened to even walk into the bank’s doors.

Three years after starting, I decided to leave the bank and try something different to fill that need.  I had read about Muhammad Yunus who had started making tiny loans to women in Bangladesh a decade earlier – and that inspired me to decide to move to Africa, ultimately, Rwanda, to try my own hand at banking for the poor.

Not surprisingly, it seemed I was the only one I could find who approved of the idea.  My boss told me I was making the worst career decision of my life and gave me a book called the Innocent Anthropologist.  My friends thought I had lost my mind. My little brothers and sisters said they would miss me too much.

Telling my parents, however, was the hardest. Now looking back at what they were going through, I understand. Their daughter, who had a promising career, was leaving Wall Street to move to a continent very few people understood. To a place they couldn’t find on a map. To do something they couldn’t explain to their friends.

But I knew somehow in my deepest being that I had to do it. And that if I didn’t go then, I might never have the guts to do it again.  I also knew how fiercely I loved them and was connected to my family and that I ultimately would not let them down.

And so, with a mix of love, sadness and excited anticipation, I boarded a plane for Africa, and ended up in Rwanda, where I met a group of Rwandan women and together we started the country’s first microfinance bank. And there, I learned first-hand that a small group of people really can change the world.

I tell you these stories because there will be moments in your life when you have to make those hard decisions that can come only from listening to the deepest part of yourself.  And you will certainly have those moments if you decide to venture out and do something few have done before.

Now, I don’t say any of this lightly.  I know it comes at a price.

You will find that people might not always understand you. You might even close off certain relationships.  But in paying that price, you’ll discover who you really are and who you want to be. You’ll discover what you are capable of doing.

And of course, that journey of change and of self-discovery comes with the high risk of falling flat on your face. Repeatedly. I have fallen down and gotten up more times than I can say.  But as that American philosopher John Wayne once said, “Life is getting up one more time than you’ve been knocked down.”

We have become a society craving instant gratification. We want simple answers and clear pathways to success.  But as you all know from the many community projects you’ve undertaken, from the very world around you  – life doesn’t work that way. And instead of looking for answers all the time, my wish for you is that you get comfortable learning to ask the questions.

As the poet Rilke said: “try to love the questions themselves”, he wrote, “as if they were locked rooms or books writing in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the question now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

For me, one of the biggest questions we face today is how to build a world beyond poverty. To confront that challenge, both materially and spiritually, we need to renew and revitalize our systems of government and capitalism. Mostly, we need a new kind of leadership, one based in the notion of moral imagination, of building trust and solutions from the perspective of those being served.

Today’s world is more complex and interconnected than ever before.  Think about it…

The wealthy live better than most kings and queens of history.   At yet, 1.5 billion people – nearly 1 in 5 of us – have never had a glass of safe drinking water.  They still light their tiny homes by kerosene, an energy source used mostly in the 19th century.  And one in three of us have no access to a toilet.
In the words of my young nephew, that isn’t good for any of us.

Ultimately, this divide between rich and poor is too stark and too unsustainable. It strips not just the poor but all of us of our collective dignity.

And people your age all around the world know it. They see it.  And they are calling in the streets for dignity.

The tectonic plates of society are quickly, dramatically shifting. You can hear them creaking, pushing – moving to fever pitch with the Arab Spring, clanging with dissonance of the financial crisis, the hope of the Occupy Movement.  Planet Earth is swirling, full of possibility, yet somehow tumbling with confusion, seemingly not knowing which way is up.

And everywhere, everywhere, people are asking, “Where are our Leaders?”

From my work with Acumen, I am privileged to meet extraordinary individuals all around the world. They dare to dream and put their dreams into action. Usually they fail again and again – until they win, even if their dreams don’t look exactly like they did when they started out.

I think of Shaffi Mather who decided to fix the broken ambulance system in India. In India, if you want to go to a hospital, you call a taxi. If you want to send someone to the morgue, that’s when you call an ambulance. Shaffi decided there had to be a better way. He started with just 9 ambulances donated by friends and family, and everyone thought it was just a fool’s errand. Well today with patient capital invested, and hard work, and lots of bumps along the way, his company now has almost 1000 ambulances, 5000 employees, 1 million served this year. By the end of this year, he will be the fourth or fifth largest, ethical ambulance company in the world.

Shaffi saw something broken and decided to fix it. And if he can do it, so can you.

I think of a group of young leaders, just out of university, I met a week ago in Peshawar, in Northwestern Pakistan on the Afghanistan border.  It is a place known mostly for burkas, for suicide bombers and for desperation, a place where many live in fear.

Yet I met young people there who want to see a different future – and they’re intent on creating it, despite the risks of speaking out, despite the risks of collective action.  They used Facebook and other social media to get more than 4,000 people on to the streets of Peshawar to pick up the litter, whitewash the graffiti-laden walls, and clean up and green their city. They are not waiting around for political leaders to show them the way.

Like Shaffi, they are just doing it.

And they are just like you. They are your counterparts. They dream a better world. And they want to do something about it – even if they don’t know where to start, even if they don’t have the answers. Maybe mostly, they want to be seen. They want to know that their lives matter, that they can make a difference before they die.  Just like I imagine each of you do.

I was so struck that some of you sent in notes to President Riggs who sent them on to me to help me prepare for today’s graduation – and I thank you for that generosity and for the words which so embodied the spirit of “Gettysburg Great.”

Nearly all of you mentioned Community. And learning.  And the idea that you want to meet the challenges of the world in big and small ways.  Just by reading those words of yours, l came to like you.

A lot.

In liking who you already are, I want even more for you to come to know the world, to love the world, and to be in closer touch with counterparts who are like you in so many ways even if those similarities are not immediately evident.

I think of a group of young men I know who live in the vast and sprawling slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
When my book came out, a guy named Kevin, HIV-positive with a 3rd grade formal education, read it. He wrote and then texted me a long review of the book, saying how much he related to me for he had failed just as I had failed and that he, too, wanted to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

I was so taken by this young man who lived on so little income in a shack in the slums that I told him I’d get him books if he wanted to start a reading club. He asked for 100, which I sent, and then he and a few other young men hosted a giant book club in the Kibera Slum to discuss poverty and the book.  That lead the group to start a business plan competition. And then they decided to do the first TEDx in the slums. I know that you all recently held a memorable TEDx here, organized by Steve Meehan and others.

They didn’t have internet but it didn’t matter – they burned TED talks onto CD roms so they could include talks from around the world. They decided they were so tired of seeing only workshops about HIV and microfinance and tired of privileged Americans coming with their smiling faces intent on saving their communities, when in fact, no one was asking to be saved.  So they pulled together the best journalists, graffiti artists, entrepreneurs, and teachers. It caught the attention of the TED organizers, and today, Kevin and his band of brothers have hosted more than 40 TEDx events across East African slums.

Just two days ago, Kevin sent me another long text, this time describing his experience on stage at Doha, Qatar, telling 750  organizers around the world what it takes to do a TEDx and spread ideas in slum communities.

All of us are needed to renew the world.  Every single one of us.

Each of you, more than at any time in history, with the privilege of your Gettysburg degree has it in your hands to serve, to inspire, to work across boundaries to create the future you dare to dream. Your education at Gettysburg has taught you to be curious, to keep learning.  The world needs you more than ever.

The good news is there are so many enormous opportunities for leadership. They are simply disguised as insoluble problems.

Think about the richness of a life focused on what it takes to bring clean energy to millions of people who otherwise would live in darkness. Or finding ways to use technology to crash through bureaucracy and get serious about educating all of our young people, whether they were born in an urban slum or a wealthy suburb.

Each of you is needed. Each of you has the chance to make a dent, if you have the curiosity, determination and focus to do so.

And if I have any wisdom to share, it is this.

1.  Focus on being interested, not on being interesting.  Don’t make decisions according to title or status or position.  Pursue opportunities where you will learn about the world, and build the disciplines and practices you need to contribute.  Follow incredible leaders. Focus more on listening and learning.  The rest will come.

2. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Most are too worried thinking about themselves.  So take risks. Ask the dumb questions.  Fail if you have to – and then get up and do it again.

3. Avoid cynicism. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”  The pessimists can tell us what is wrong with everything, but it is up to the optimists to dare to make the change.

4.  Remember you are standing on strong shoulders. Daily, I’m astounded at how dependent we are on the work and ideas of so many who have come before. I’m not talking only about the greats of history. Before you’ve finished getting out of bed, turning on the light, brushing your teeth with water from a tap, putting on clothes making breakfast and walking out the door of your room, you are benefitting from hundreds if not thousands who have made those simple acts possible.

So walk with humility and a reverence for the human endeavor. Know it is your job to help take that forward in ways big and small.

And know you are incredibly blessed to have attended a school on the hallowed grounds made famous not only by a battle, but by a President whose quest for justice ensured that what happened there would not be forgotten.

“It is for us the living,” Abraham Lincoln wrote…”to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. “  Of course, he was talking about human equality. It is to your generation to extend that fundamental assumption to every human being on the planet.

And if we can, we must. You will hold the spirit of Gettysburg always in your heart. And you will be a part of the school’s own legacy as well.

5.  Finally, remember that inspiring hope in others may be the most radical thing you can do in a cynical world.  Hope may not feed us, but it is hope that sustains us. I’m not talking about an easy, treacly hope, but a hope full of power and love, of grit and resilience. It is inside every single one of you. The path won’t be easy, but nothing of importance ever is.

So, Class of 2012, I congratulate you, I celebrate you, and now I’m going to challenge you…

I urge you to lead your life in the minutes, to live the questions, to walk out of this place and into the world with both arms extended and open to the experiences, good and bad, that life will hold for you…

The world needs you and I know you will not let it down.

I wish you good luck and Godspeed,
Thank you.
Jacqueline Novogratz is the Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund.


  1. great speech! Had you heard about her before this?

  2. Yes, I have. I read her book a few years ago and have followed the work of her organization, Acumen Fund, for a while. She is inspiring in so many ways. This speech is just a glimpse at her insight into this world.