How does an average American girl figure into the economic development of Rwanda? And how does her long-discarded sweater get to Kigali ahead of her?
In truth, Jacqueline Novogratz is not so average. With a healthy job in international banking and a burning desire to “change the world,” she found inspiration in the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which lends small sums to poor women so that they can start or enlarge their own businesses. A little research led Novogratz to a similar organization based in New York City seeking an ambassador to African women with the African Development Bank. Novogratz wasted no time in leaving her Wall Street gig and turning her skills, experience, and compassion to non-profit service.
Like most idealists, Novogratz found her good intentions ridiculed and rejected. She was met with hostility and suspicion by co-workers, politicians, and even the intended recipients of aid. Her unshakeable faith in capitalism and the plan to provide loans to the poorest individuals in Rwanda were incomprehensible to the philanthropists who prefer throwing grant money at social problems without a clear understanding of the cultural factors that generate the problems or a coherent plan for analyzing outcomes. Accused of trying to take advantage of the poor by forcing them to repay loans rather than giving them handouts, Novogratz nevertheless clung to her philosophy and to the words of her friend and mentor, John Gardner: “Individuals don’t want to be taken care of – they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential.”
Despite opposition, threats, and a constant clash of cultures and personalities, Novogratz and a group of like-minded Rwandan women established Duterimbere, a micro-finance organization that improved the lives of thousands of Rwandan women and their families. Along the way, Novogratz learned the hard lessons about how to make the world a better place.
Told with a charming, almost cheeky style, The Blue Sweater is a surprisingly breathless read. Novogratz includes details of financial principles where necessary for clarity, but her story is unquestionably about the spirit of human beings. Through the ups and downs of her struggle to connect and inspire the women who never believed their lives could be more than drudgery, Novogratz introduces us to a cast of impressive, eccentric, and endearing characters.
Real life seldom gives us happy endings, of course. After readers cheer the success of Duterimbere, the women who built it, and the women it serves, it is all the more heartbreaking to learn how they are affected by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the part each of them played in the atrocities.
Novogratz is the founder of Acumen Fund, a non-profit that makes investments “in entrepreneurs who are willing to take on some of the world’s toughest challenges.” Built on Novogratz’s experience with Duterimbere and similar organizations, Acumen Fund measures the results of their investments not by objectives achieved on paper but by real world success in both social and financial terms.
Whether or not readers agree with Novogratz’s capitalism model of philanthropy, everyone can benefit from sharing the lessons she learns on the journey. Perhaps the most important insight of all comes from the journey of a blue sweater, donated to Goodwill in Virginia and reappearing a decade later in Rwanda, reminding us that we are all connected.