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The Blue Sweater - by Jacqueline Novogratz - A Leading Questions review

Our perception of things when we lack physical proximity is often determined by the media we consume. When we come face-to-face with the reality that our perceptions are wrong, and possibly destructive, we need to change the way we think, and what we expect. This truth I believe is at work in our American perceptions of Africa.

Blue Sweater

For many people in my generation (over 50 years old) our perception of Africa was first formed by watching Tarzan movies that were produced during the 1930s and 1940s. The notion of the noble savage became a staple of Western perception. Africa was a land of romance and adventure and Western colonialism. Today, our perception is far more determined by news accounts of war, poverty, famine and genocide.  The one counter to this perception, at least for me, has come from hearing stories and having interaction with missionaries and African citizens who talk about their work and lives there. It is still a place of romance and adventure, but now, creating a place of hope and health with self-determination is the focus. 

It is from this perception that I came to Jacqueline Novogratz's fascinating book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected world. Novogratz is the founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund. Her book is both a memoir and a manifesto. It should be read by everyone who has any sense of connection to places on our planet where people lack the opportunities that you and I take for granted everyday.

She begins her story this way.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I took mine and fell flat of my face. As a young woman, I dreamed of changing the world. In my twenties, I went to Africa to try and save the continent, only to learn that Africans neither wanted nor needed saving. Indeed, when I was there, I saw some of the worst that good intentions, traditional charity, and aid can produce: failed programs that left people in the same or worse conditions. The devastating impact of the Rwandan genocide on a people I'd come to love shrank my dreams even further. I concluded that if I could only nudge the world a little bit, maybe that would be enough.

But nudging isn't enough. The gap between rich and poor is widening across the world, creating a dire situation that is neither socially just nor economically sustainable. Moreover, my work in Africa also taught me about the extraordinary resilience of people for whom poverty is a reality not because they don't work hard, but because there are too many obstacles in their way.

The Blue Sweater is a book of stories. To tell you one is to possibly miss the importance of the flow of ideas and impressions that build a perception about how to address poverty in the world. She writes early on her experience in Africa,

I finally understood: In order to contribute to Africa, I would have to know myself better and be clearer about my goals. I would have to be ready to take Africa on its own terms, not mine, and to learn my limits and present myself not as a do-gooder with a big heart, but as someone with something to give and gain by being there. Compassion wasn't enough.

I think that was the moment when humility in its truest form - rather than an easy but false humbleness - began to creep in. Until then, I'd been too vested in knowing the answers and in being right. For the first time in my life, being right had nothing to do with being successful or effective. I also began to be more honest about what was happening around me - I couldn't stand all talk without action, and too many expatriates and elite Africans seemed to revel in it. I wanted to work directly with poor women themselves.

The Blue Sweater is the story of her growing into this person. The stories are vivid and engaging. We understand because she is an excellent story teller. And she understands that her own transformation is part of the story, and can become our story.

Jaqueline Novogratz's story is also about the kind of leadership that is needed now in our time.

After more than 20 years of working in African, India, and Pakistan, I've learned that solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability, and market strength, not easy sentimentality. I've learned that many of the answers to poverty lie in the space between the market and charity and that what is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.

This is true for all people working in all organizations. Big ideas that are impractical and are not shared by the people who implement them are doomed to failure. Rather, what is needed is leadership that understands how to facilitate the process of idea creation within the context of relationship building. Only from this foundation can the appropriate organizational structures be created to facilitate their success. This is what Acumen and other groups are now doing in Africa and other parts of the world.

The organization that Jacqueline Novogratz created is the Acumen Fund. Here's a brief description of their mission.

Acumen Fund is a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. We seek to prove that small amounts of philanthropic capital, combined with large doses of business acumen, can build thriving enterprises that serve vast numbers of the poor. Our investments focus on delivering affordable, critical goods and services – like health, water, housing and energy – through innovative, market-oriented approaches.

They call this "patient capital." It is so because it is built around quarterly reports, but the sustainability of small centers of commerce and change.

The Blue Sweater is a book about leadership, the kind that is needed today, and what will be known as 21st century leadership in the future.

The entrepreneurs who will help us create the future for all people are individuals who exist in every country on earth. ... They are the ones who see a problem and don't stop working on it until it is solved. They refuse petty ideologies and reject trite assumptions.They balance their passion for change with an ability to get things done. Mostly, they believe fundamentally in the inherent capacity of every human being to contribute.

At the same time, today's most effective leaders have a pragmatic bottom-line orientation that results in focusing on measuring what they accomplish, building institutions that can sustain themselves long after their founders are gone.  They world will not change with inspiration alone; rather it requires systems, accountability, and clear measures of what works and what doesn't. Our most effective leaders, therefore, will strengthen their knowledge of how to build organizations while also having the vision and heart to help people imagine that change is possible in their lives.

Jacqueline Novogratz's story is one of perceptions. What we perceive becomes our reality. What is your perception? Are you open to having it challenged and radically altered? I hope so because if you let yourself be open to a different perception about charity, poverty, Africa, Asia and leadership, you may find your own life deeply enriched and impacted by her story. I highly encourage each of you to read her book and begin to imagine what you can do to encourage this kind of development.

Finally, here is Jacqueline speaking at the TED conference in 2007. It will give you a flavor for what you'll find in the book.

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