Woman entrepreneur-philanthropist aims to help eliminate global poverty

Acumen founder and CEO Novogratz speaking at the Acumen Academy SEA Gathering held at Cyberview Resort, Cyberjaya. Photo: Acumen

Success must be redefined to look beyond financial metrics, to instead prioritise social equality and positive change, says Acumen founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz.

“Throughout the 20th century, capitalism and technology have served as the engine of innovation and growth, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty while reinforcing a definition of success based on money, power and fame. But, the 21st century has awakened the world to the downside of those same economic and technological forces, specifically the unsustainable levels of inequality and climate crisis,” says the author of two award-winning books: The Blue Sweater (2010), and Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World (2020).

“We can no longer lead with narrow definitions of success, but we need to operate from a moral framework that puts our shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth at the centre, and not just profit and the individual,” she says.

Novogratz, a recognised leader in the social impact space and a champion for moral leadership, was speaking at the recent "Acumen Academy SEA Gathering: Connecting social entrepreneurs from across South East Asia to scale impact", held in Cyberjaya, Selangor.

Founded in 2001, Acumen has invested in companies, leaders and ideas. The global community invests patient (long term) capital in businesses whose products and services are enabling the poor to transform their lives.

Novogratz’s two decades of work with Acumen have positively impacted nearly 443 million people across Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the United States.

When Novogratz was 25, she left Wall Street to start the first microfinance institution in Rwanda, Central Africa. Photo: AcumenWhen Novogratz was 25, she left Wall Street to start the first microfinance institution in Rwanda, Central Africa. Photo: Acumen

Ever since she was six years old, Novogratz says she knew that she wanted to “change the world”. She considered herself an "accidental banker" when she landed a job on Wall Street.

At the young age of 25, she left Wall Street to start the first microfinance institution in Rwanda, Central Africa.

“Moving to Rwanda was an opportunity for me to explore how I could expand my aspirations for social change,” she says.

“I was inspired by the work of Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for starting the Grameen Bank and pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance,” she adds.

Combining the financial skills she learnt as a banker and her thirst for helping lower-income communities, Novogratz started a microfinance institution for Rwandan women.

“Starting Duterimbere came with significant challenges. My eyes were opened to how the problems of poverty were perpetuated by the broken institutions many were born into. Through our work with women, I realised that the true opposite of poverty was not wealth and income, but dignity. This means a person’s ability to make their own choices and have their choices respected,” she shares.

Novogratz, who is married to British-American businessman and owner-curator of TEDTalks, Chris Anderson, says many young people have come to her over the years, asking how they can change the world and her response to them is to “just start – and let the work teach you”.

Those who truly make a difference in society are the ones who are willing to plunge into uncharted waters and be stretched uncomfortably. Many might be restricted by circumstances and factors beyond their control. Yet, everyone can make a difference – to their families, their communities and beyond – if they just start,” she says.

Gender equality

Novogratz, speaking at Cyberview Resort, Cyberjaya, says that women should never underestimate themselves despite gender norms that might limit them. Photo: AcumenNovogratz, speaking at Cyberview Resort, Cyberjaya, says that women should never underestimate themselves despite gender norms that might limit them. Photo: Acumen

According to Novogratz, when speaking of gender equality, we need to “acknowledge the progress made and challenges that persist”.

“There have been many recent advancements in Malaysia, but female representation in politics continues to be low, despite women accounting for almost half of the country’s population,” she says.

“There’s still work to be done. To achieve women’s equality, we must foster a culture of inclusion and respect, where women have equal access to the opportunities their male counterparts have. It goes beyond a matter of justice as women play a critical role in driving economic growth and social progress,” she adds.

Novogratz says that the women entrepreneurs that she has met during her visit to Malaysia have been “a source of inspiration” and are “exemplary role models”.

By empowering women and amplifying their voices, we can build a society that equips everyone with the dignity they deserve, she says.

“Gender equality is so important because women make up more than half of the global population living in poverty, yet too many are excluded from opportunities to contribute, make their own decisions, or have choices. No nation in the world can truly succeed without empowering all of its population, not just the half who are born male,” she adds.

“At Acumen, we take investing with a gender lens very seriously. We consider not only whether the entrepreneur and her teams are female, but we explore the impact a company has on women. And we measure our impact to continuously improve how we can broaden the influence of social enterprises on women,” she explains.

Sara Khurram Saeed of Sehat Kahani, the digital healthcare platform in Pakistan. Photo: AcumenSara Khurram Saeed of Sehat Kahani, the digital healthcare platform in Pakistan. Photo: Acumen

There are a growing number of positive examples, she adds.

“In Pakistan, Sara Khurram Saeed, struggling with post-partum depression after her first child, asked why 30% of women doctors stop practicing after marriage when the vast majority of rural women had never seen any doctor. She started Sehat Kahani, a telehealth company that currently works with more than 7,500 women doctors around the world to provide quality healthcare to over 2.2 million low-income Pakistanis. Sara has also partnered with the government to integrate telehealth into the public system, and is now expanding to five additional nations.

“In India, Uttara Narayanan started Buzz Women to empower women to take back control of their own lives. She has already trained over 400,000 women through more than 8,000 self-organised groups, focusing on improving their economic situation as well as their communities and understanding of climate change.

“In Kenya, Teresa Njoroge, after being jailed (together with her three-month-old daughter) for a year for a crime she didn't commit, created Clean Start to support women as they transition out of the criminal justice system. Njoroge saw firsthand the plight of women, girls and children who accompanied their mothers into prison, and devoted her life to empower them in preparation for their reintegration into society, so that they would be able to access education, training, and employment after their release,” says Novogratz.

Novogratz has been named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy, one of Insider’s Climate Action 30 leaders, one of the 25 Smartest People of the Decade by the Daily Beast, and one of the world’s 100 Greatest Living Business Minds by Forbes, which also honoured her with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Entrepreneurship. She holds an MBA from Stanford University and a BA in Economics/International Relations from the University of Virginia.

Novogratz’s advice to young women is to 'never underestimate yourself'. Photo: AcumenNovogratz’s advice to young women is to 'never underestimate yourself'. Photo: Acumen

Novogratz’s advice to young women is “never underestimate yourselves".

"We’re taught from young to be ‘a good girl’, to be well-mannered to the point of denying wrongdoings we might have experienced. But, remember this: good girls don’t change the world. True goodness is having the compassion to fight for those whose lives are deeply challenging through no fault of their own. True goodness is to stand up for what is right, even if it makes others uncomfortable,” she highlights.

Novogratz’s motto in life was “borrowed” from her mentor John Gardner at Stanford University: “It’s more important to invest our energy into the people around us, than into how we appear to them.”

“This drive to give back more than we take is also something that we at Acumen continue to advocate for,” she concludes.

Applications for the Malaysia Acumen Fellowship 2024 are now open until Sept 19. More info: Acumen Academy

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