The banker of philanthropy

AMITAVA SANYAL | Updated on May 10, 2012

Ms Jacqueline Novogratz


Jacqueline Novogratz puts out her hands as if she is holding a large crystal ball, her crystal-blue eyes fixed between them. “There's a growing recognition that we are all connected. It's one world, capable and believing,” she says. To those of us who have heard the Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva kutumbakam time and again, it may sound like a worn cliché. But to Jacqueline, it's a font of universal values, a reason to foster a new moral imagination in business, and a tool to nurture ideas that strike at the roots of poverty. It's also the thought at the heart of her book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

The title comes from an amazing coincidence that convinced a then-25-year-old Jacqueline of the force behind the thought. When she was in her teens, before she had heard of Mount Kilimanjaro, an uncle had gifted her a sweater of soft blue wool that ran an image of Africa's highest mountain across the front. She kept wearing it even when her “adolescent curves had started filling out the geographical features”. One day a boy in high school told her classmates that they needn't go far for a skiing holiday, as they could do it on “Mount Novogratz”. The humiliated, infuriated schoolgirl forced her mother to donate the sweater to a charity.

Almost a decade later Jacqueline was in Kigali, Rwanda. By then, thanks to her first job as a credit risk officer for Chase Manhattan Bank, she had had the remarkable fortune of being to 40 countries in three years. After some time in Brazil, where the “vitality of the poor people in the favellas” inspired her to quit her Wall Street job for a life fighting poverty, she landed up in Africa. She founded Duterimbere, Rwanda's first microfinance institution, and a bakery run by women. One morning, while jogging in the hilly capital of Rwanda, she came across a young boy who, from far, seemed to be wearing a familiar blue top. Upon closer inspection, Jacqueline found out it was indeed her old sweater. A blinding searchlight went on in her head.

Where the twain meet

In Delhi recently to launch the Indian edition of her book, she related another unusual turn that brought her to India for the first time in 1988 — to appear for GMAT, an exam she couldn't take at her convenience in Africa. She used the opportunity to travel through India for a few weeks. “I landed up even at the cattle fair in Pushkar,” she says with a laugh. The test result, meanwhile, pulled her to Stanford Business School.

By the time she went back to Rwanda, the country had been changed by one of the most brutal genocides in history. She found out not only about the deaths of some of her colleagues, but also that some of her colleagues at the bakery had joined the perpetrators with machetes. Jacqueline wanted to make sense of the horror with words she wrote as a letter to herself, which “turned into a 10-year love letter of sorts”. Meanwhile, she went on to work for Rockefeller Foundation, a private philanthropy in New York, and in 2001 founded the non-profit Acumen Fund.

Today her connection to this part of the world is manifold. The 50-year-old has been to India more than a couple of dozen times. Over the last decade, Acumen has invested more than $28 million in India — and several more in Pakistan and Kenya — in debt and equity funding for breakthrough ideas of for-profit organisations working on providing water, healthcare and energy to the disadvantaged. The fund puts in not-so-huge amounts of what she likes to call ‘patient capital', or early investment that seeks lower returns than venture capital over a longer period of time. On Acumen's 13-member board of directors are Thulasiraj Ravilla, executive director of Aravind Eye Care System, whose telemedicine venture received Acumen's first investment in the country, and G.V. Prasad, vice-chairman and chief executive officer of Dr Reddy's Laboratories.

The fund's more recent investments in India include Husk Power Systems, a company that turns rice husk into electricity for Bihar's villages; LifeSpring Hospitals, which runs a chain of maternity hospitals in South India; Ziqitza Healthcare, an ambulance service in Mumbai that gained global attention during 26/11; and WaterHealth International, a company whose innovations in providing safe drinking water have been taken from Andhra Pradesh to the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Mexico.

There is a more intimate connection with the region, too. Jacqueline's journalist-turned-entrepreneur husband Chris Anderson was born in Pakistan and schooled at Woodstock in Mussoorie. He is curator at TED, the ideas workshop, where they met when she had gone to make a presentation. “I married in my 40s, by the time our careers had taken shape in different ways,” she says, with a dance of her hands. “We agree that the world needs more global citizens. And we believe that there should be no national boundaries, except when it comes to sports teams,” she adds with a twinkle.

How has she seen India change over the years? “It remains a laboratory for innovations.” Some of the experiences have also corrected her course: “We now understand that market forces aren't enough to fight poverty, you need leaders with moral imagination and models that can scale ... People here are very political and we have to understand those systems.” What about failures? “A few ventures did flop. At one we found them paying one loan off with another. And another company kept two sets of books.”

Her revised checklist for selection these days includes the promoters' clarity of vision, whether the model reaches the masses — “We are not talking about thousands, but millions” — and for “ethical fibre”. Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam, an NGO that works in water and sanitation and one who has known Jacqueline for seven years, says, “She still has curiosity about how things work. She goes into places where angels fear to tread. She is a dynamo.”

But having been blooded in the privileged world of Wall Street and then working among the bloodied underprivileged, wiith what ethics does ‘the dynamo' herself reconcile the two? For an answer, Jacqueline goes back to the missionary intent inculcated by of one of her school teachers: “To whom much is given, much is expected. Yes, they are two different worlds. And I want to build bridges between them.”

The Blue Sweater is published by HarperCollins (314 pages, Rs 399)

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Published on May 10, 2012
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