Jacqueline Novogratz: Is 'Patient Capitalism' The Answer To Poverty? Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of Acumen Fund, shares stories of how "patient capitalism" can bring sustainable jobs, goods, services and dignity to the world's poor.

Is 'Patient Capitalism' The Answer To Poverty?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/235824059/235827288" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You have a very specific definition of poverty because most people say poverty is a lack of money, but it's not so simple.

JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ: No. For me, poverty is a lack of choice. It's a lack of opportunity, and certainly, income is a piece of it, but it is not the only piece.

RAZ: This is Jacqueline Novogratz and the way she ended up working on poverty started in kind of a roundabout way with a job interview.

NOVOGRATZ: The interviewer asked me why I wanted to be a banker, and not being one who was able to lie said that I really didn't want to be a banker, but that my parents made me go through the interview process of it so - and then he told me that this particular banking job would have me traveling to 40 countries in three years, seeing the economic and political processes of those countries. And I literally said, do you think we might start this interview over?

RAZ: So she, of course, got the job and she did that for a while, but in the back of her mind, she always felt that there was something missing.

NOVOGRATZ: Banking was wonderful, except it wasn't reaching the poor, who not only had no access to credit in formal terms, but they wouldn't even walk through the doors of the bank.

RAZ: So she quit. She just up and quit and took off for Africa.

NOVOGRATZ: Which was a continent I knew very little about. I just packed my bags and left.


NOVOGRATZ: My first introduction was at the Abidjan airport on a sweaty, Ivory Coast morning. I had just left Wall Street, cut my hair to look like Margaret Mead, given away most everything that I owned and arrived with all the essentials - some poetry, a few clothes and, of course, a guitar because I was going to save the world and I thought I would just start with the African continent. But literally, within days of arriving, I was told in no uncertain terms by a number of West African women that Africans didn't want saving, thank you very much, least of all not by me. I was too young, unmarried, had no children, didn't really know Africa and besides, my French was pitiful.

So it was an incredibly painful time in my life and yet, it really started to give me the humility to start listening.

If I was going to be effective, I had to start by listening. I had to start by trying to understand the context in which I was working in a real way, and not be there from a sense of moral benevolence, but rather from a sense of partnership. And in many ways, the gift of that was immediate immersion and so it happened quickly.


NOVOGRATZ: So I moved to Kenya and worked in Uganda, and I met a group of Rwandan women who asked me in 1986 to move to Kigali to help them start the first micro-finance institution there. And I did and we ended up naming it Duterimbere, meaning to go forward with enthusiasm. And while we were doing it, I realized that there weren't a lot of businesses that were viable and started by women, and so maybe I should try to run a business, too.

RAZ: And what did you find there when you got there, to Rwanda?

NOVOGRATZ: I was introduced to this group of single mothers that were part of this charity project to keep them, quote-unquote, employed making these little baked goods. And I made a deal with this group that if they let me transform the group into a business - a proper business where we rose and fell with our success, that I would take this on.


NOVOGRATZ: First of all, I thought, well, we need a sales team and we clearly aren't the A-Team here. So let's - I did all this training. And the epitome was when I literally marched into the streets of Nyamirambo, which is the popular quarter of Kigali, with a bucket and I sold all these little donuts to people. And I came back and I was like, you see? And the women said, you know, Jacqueline, who in Nyamirambo is not going to buy donuts out of an orange bucket from a tall, American woman? And, I was like, that's a good point.

So I then I went the whole American way with competitions, team and individual, completely failed. But over time, the women learned to sell on their own way and they started listening to the marketplace and they came back with ideas for cassava chips and banana chips and sorghum bread. And before you knew it, we had cornered the Kigali market, and the women were earning three to four times the national average.

RAZ: So you really helped these women get this bakery off the ground.

NOVOGRATZ: My role wasn't to make everything work. My role was to be the cheerleader, the finance person and, also, I could connect us to the embassies and the bigger organizations in town who may not have trusted the group without that go-between. And that's really what allowed us to build this, ultimately, pretty remarkable pocket in Kigali.


NOVOGRATZ: And with that confidence surge, I thought, well, it's time to create a real bakery, so let's paint it. And the women said that's a really great idea. And I said, well, what color do you want to paint it? And they said, well, you choose. And I said no, no. I'm learning to listen. You choose. It's your bakery, your street, your country, not mine. But they wouldn't give me an answer. So one week, two weeks, three weeks went by and finally I said, well, how about blue? And they said, blue, blue. We love blue. Let's do it blue. So I went to the store. I bought all this paint and fabric to make curtains. And painting day, we all gathered in Nyamirambo, and blue, blue -everything became blue. The walls were blue. The windows were blue. The sidewalk out front was painted blue. And at the end of it, we stood across the street and we looked at what we had done.

And I said, it is so beautiful. And the women said it really is. And I said, and I think the color's perfect. And they all nodded their head except for Gaudance, and I said what? And she said nothing. And I said what? And she said, well, it is pretty but you know our color really, it is green. And I learned then that listening isn't just about patience, but that when you've lived on charity and dependent your whole life long, it's really hard to say what you mean. And mostly because people never really ask you. And when they do, you don't really think they want to know the truth. And so that I learned that listening is not only about waiting, but it's also learning how better to ask questions.

RAZ: When you first went to Africa to try to do something, to try to do something about poverty, what is it that you didn't know that you know now?

NOVOGRATZ: I think the most important was that I didn't understand when you look at people living in poverty and you're coming from, not just the west, but you're coming from parts of society where markets work, where government works, you have this assumption that you can use that same lens in identifying solutions. In truth, poor people live in political economies, not market economies. Poor people are in places where everyone has their hands in that community's future, whether it is government or exploitative capitalists in some senses or mafias. That's a very complicated ecosystem, if you will, with which to interact. And that's probably been my biggest growth is understanding that. The solutions will come from more of a quest than a prepackaged set of ideas.


NOVOGRATZ: And so, on a micro level, there's a real role for this combination of investment and philanthropy. And so it was really those lessons that made me decide to build Acumen Fund about six years ago. It's a nonprofit venture capital fund for the poor. A few oxymorons in one sentence. It essentially raises charitable funds from individuals, foundations and corporations. And then we turn around and we invest equity and loans in both for-profit and nonprofit entities that deliver affordable health, housing, energy, clean water to low-income people in South Asia and Africa so that they can make their own choices.

RAZ: I mean, aside from, like, the obvious moral reasons, right, I mean, why should people who have stuff, right, I mean, like what incentives or interests do they have in helping to equalize the income gap?

NOVOGRATZ: Well, first of all, I would never shy away from moral reasons. They're so connected to political reasons, economic reasons because at the base of it is what it means to live in a sustainable world. If we want to create a thriving world as we careen toward 10 billion, we need to move away from seeing the 3 billion, not as hungry mouths to feed, but rather innovators and entrepreneurs and teachers and songwriters. And the more that we see each other, the more there is not only a moral obligation, but a financial, a political and an economic, a social opportunity to build a world where we can truly flourish.

RAZ: In some ways, it's not - it's not even about conquering poverty, it's about giving dignity.

NOVOGRATZ: It's about giving dignity. Believing that you have a chance, as a human being, to be a greater part in determining your own destiny.

RAZ: Jacqueline Novogratz. She heads up the Acumen Fund. She wrote a book about some of the things you just heard. It's called "The Blue Sweater," and she has five - count them - five talks at TED.com, all of them pretty cool.


DICK POWELL: Oh, baby, what I wouldn't do with plenty of money and you. In spite of the worry that money brings, just a little filthy luger buys a lot of things. And I could take you to places you'd like to go. But outside of that I'm no use for dough. It's the route of all evil, of strife and upheaval, but I'm certain, honey, that life would be sunny with plenty of money and you.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show this week on the haves and have-nots. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com, and you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.