Prompt: Re-watch the “Bridge People” video from the Week 1 online discussion.  Choose one of the practices presented in MFMR listed below and describe the relationship between this leadership practice and content of the “Bridge People” video.  What does your chosen leadership practice illuminate about the role of bridge people as discussed by Krista Tippett? 

Bridge people video:

  • Chapter 5: Experience Interconnection
  • Chapter 6: Practice Courage
  • Chapter 7: Hold Opposing Values in Tension
  • Chapter 8: Avoid the Conformity Trap

ps. Only choose one Chapter



  • is 400-500 words
  • thoughtfully responds to the assigned prompt making specific references to the relevant course readings
  • uses direct quotations and paraphrases throughout the paper to support your reflection and analysis
  • uses APA citation style to cite quotations and paraphrases. 


Begin Reading

Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page


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To my parents,

Bob and Barbara Novogratz,

who taught me to love the world,


to all who aspire to give more

to the world than you take from it


We make our lives with each other. This book has been

nurtured by multitudes. To all of them I am grateful.

Thanks to my brilliant editor, Barbara Jones, and the

great team at Holt. Barbara, you pushed me to

uncomfortable places, edited with insight and care, and

talked me off a few cliffs. And the book is better for it.

Thanks, too, to Ruby Rose Lee and the copy editor, Jenna

Dolan, who reviewed the manuscript. Thank you to my

irrepressible agent Elyse Cheney and your team for

believing in and fighting for this book. And for being

dreamers who do.

Cyndi Stivers, you are a miracle. Thank you for

accompanying me from the very first days of Sunflowers to

the final editing with thrilling speed and surety. William

Charnock, the shepherd, you always said yes, made my

challenges yours, remained impossibly positive, and kept

me sane. Bavidra Mohan, your thoughtful feedback

illuminated those early, messy drafts. Seth Godin, your

creativity and friendship put wind beneath my wings that

carried me across the world and back. Thank you.

My sister Beth supported my spirit throughout, just as

she did with The Blue Sweater. Beth, I love our

collaborations, and your generosity astonishes.

Carlyle Singer, Acumen’s fearless president, is my

partner in building both an institution and a movement. She

made it possible for me to write this book while remaining

close to the work. Thank you, Carlyle, for modeling shared

leadership and for being a friend.

I could not have completed the book without the

bighearted support of a small and mighty group at Acumen

who helped do whatever it took to organize and reconsider

fragments and journals of stories told and untold: Lindsay

Camacho, Charlotte Erb, Sonya Khattak, and Maureen Klein.

Lynn Roland helped make this our shared book. Thank you

to patient readers who gave truthful, constructive feedback:

Sophia Ahmed, Wei Wei Hsing, Esha Mufti, Chee Pearlman,

and, of course, my mother, the most voracious reader I

know. Thanks to Regional Directors for your patience

through this process, for your ideas, for teaching me more

than you know. Thanks to Sunny Bates, Karie Brown, Leslie

Gimbel, Jeanie Honey, Otho Kerr, and Taylor Milsal for your

endless support.

I feel like the luckiest woman on earth to do work I

adore with people I love. Thanks to the entire Acumen team

across the globe. You model the principles of this book,

teach me daily, and inspire me to be a better version of

myself. Your commitment to excellence has helped build

four new organizations in our extended family—Acumen’s

off-grid energy fund KawiSafi, our agriculture resiliency fund

ARAF, our Latin America Growth Fund, and our spin-off from

Lean Data, 60 Decibels. Each of those teams, too, have

influenced the ideas in this book, and for all of you, I am


I interviewed many Acumen entrepreneurs and fellows

both on-site and at distance and appreciate every visit,

every interaction. Each one of you has taught me more than

I can say. And though many of your stories and lessons

about making capital work for us are not included here,

nothing is wasted. Indeed, the collection of Acumen’s nearly

130 entrepreneurs and 600 fellows around the world

represents a treasure trove of human possibility; all of you

have lessons worth sharing.

Many thanks go to Acumen’s phenomenal board of

directors who encouraged me to write this book in the first

place: our indominable chair Shaiza Rizavi, Andrea Soros

Colombel, Cristina Ljungberg, Hunter Boll, Julius Gaudio,

Kathleen Chew Wai Lin, Kirsten Nevill-Manning, Margo

Alexander, Nate Laurell, Pat Mitchell, Stuart Davidson,

Thulasiraj Ravilla, as well as Dave Heller, William Mayer,

Robert Niehaus, Mike Novogratz, and Ali Siddiqui, who only

recently rolled off the board after many years of service.

Thank you to every advisory member (I’m including those

not acknowledged elsewhere): Jawad Aslam, Diana Barrett,

Tim Brown, Peter Cain, Niko Canner, Jesse Clarke, Beth

Comstock, Rebecca Eastmond, Paul Fletcher, Katherine

Fulton, Peter Goldmark, Per Heggenes, Katie Hill, Arianna

Huffington, Jill Iscol, Maria Angeles Leon Lopez, Federica

Marchionni, Felipe Medina, Susan Meiselas, Craig Nevill-

Manning, Noor Pahlavi, Paul Polman, Kerry J. Sulkowicz, Vikki

Tam, Mark Tercek, Pat Tierney, Daniel Toole, and Hamdi

Ulukaya. For your constant support, thank you. And, of

course, none of this learning would have been possible

without Acumen’s remarkable community of partners,

course takers, supporters, and friends around the world.

When all is said and done, you are the vanguard.

These pages carry the written wisdom of individuals far

wiser than I will ever be. I cannot possibly name all of them,

but the writings of Chinua Achebe, David Brooks, John

Gardner, Anand Giridharadas, Seth Godin, Jon Haidt, Marie

Howe, Chris Lowney, Maria Popova, Bryan Stevenson,

Pádraig Ó Tuama, Elaine Pagels, Amartya Sen, and Krista

Tippett especially have been a gift. I also owe much to the

Good Society Readings and friends from the Aspen Institute,

where I am a trustee and proud Henry Crown fellow.

Thank you to the Rockefeller Foundation who supported

me with a monthlong residency at its Bellagio Conference

Center. That time helped me get started and introduced me

to a community of encouraging friends. Thanks to Akhil

Gupta as well.

Belonging to a big, crazy, loving family not only grounds

me but makes my life richer and my work more effective

and expansive. I’m forever grateful to my parents, Barbara

and Bob; to my siblings, Robert, Michael, Elizabeth, John,

Amy, and Matthew; my in-laws, Sukey, Cortney, Tina,

Nadean, and Mike. To my stepdaughters Elizabeth and Anna

and their spouses, Joseph and Sam. And to the next big

generation of family members who will change the world

along with their peers. It is for you and every other young

person on this planet that I ultimately wrote this book.

Finally, to my darling Chris, for your patient ear, your

constant support, for your forever love, for everything.


1986. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing in a field on a blue-sky

day, surrounded by tall, yellow sunflowers. I am a twenty-

five-year-old former banker dressed in a flowy skirt, wearing

flat, mud-speckled white shoes, my head filled with dreams

of changing the world. Beside me is an apple-cheeked,

bespectacled nun in a brown habit smiling broadly. Her

name is Felicula, and I adore her for taking me under her

wing. Along with a few other Rwandan women, she and I are

planning to build the first microfinance bank in the country.

Today, we’re visiting a sunflower oil–pressing business, the

kind of tiny venture our bank might one day support. We

plan to call the microfinance organization Duterimbere,

meaning “to go forward with enthusiasm.”

All I see is upside.

2016. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing at an outdoor reception

on a starry night, surrounded by men and women in dark

suits. I am the fifty-five-year-old CEO of Acumen, a global

nonprofit seeking to change the way the world tackles

poverty. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and his top

ministers are at the reception to meet potential investors in

a new $70 million impact fund Acumen is building to bring

solar electricity to more than ten million low-income people

in East Africa.

I have become all too familiar with the risks of making

and then trying to deliver on big promises. Yet I’m confident

Acumen and its partners can launch and implement this

fund, and thus prove the power of innovation to help solve

one of the continent’s most intractable problems.

Just before I begin to make a formal presentation to the

group, a young Rwandan woman wearing a navy suit and

low-heeled pumps approaches me.

“Ms. Novogratz,” she says, “I think you knew my


“Really?” I ask. “What was her name?” I haven’t a clue

to whom she is referring: too many of my friends were

murdered in the genocide.

“Her name was Felicula,” she responds brightly.

My eyes well with tears. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “Would

you remind me who you are again?”

“My name is Monique,” the young woman answers with

soft-spoken confidence, her eyes holding mine. “I am the

deputy secretary-general of Rwanda’s central bank.”

Words fail me completely. I am transported back to the

days when Felicula and I dreamed together of a world in

which women would have greater control over their lives.

Of course, we started with a low bar: until 1986, it was

illegal in Rwanda for a woman to open a bank account

without her husband’s permission. Although Felicula and I

and our other cofounders had big dreams to make a

difference, had you told us in 1986 that within a generation I

would be standing before a young Rwandan woman charged

with overseeing her nation’s financial system, I’m not sure

we would have believed you.

In addition to being an enterprising nun, Felicula

Nyiramtarambirwa, along with two other cofounders of

Duterimbere, was among the first three women

parliamentarians in Rwandan history. Early in their

parliamentary tenures, while Duterimbere was just getting

started, the three women felt compelled to take on the issue

of bride price, a system whereby men presented three cows

to a potential father-in-law in exchange for marrying his

daughter. Felicula especially respected the power of

tradition, but not as an excuse for reducing women to


The bill to ban the payment of a bride price passed

easily, but a backlash erupted. Rural women felt diminished.

In their eyes, their economic value had been decimated

overnight. Women and men across the country raised their

voices in protest, and many parliamentarians blamed the

outcry on the rashness of their freshmen colleagues. The

women parliamentarians had failed to understand the depth

of cultural practices in their own nation. They focused on

what could be, but neglected to recognize the world that

was, including the high-stakes realities of politics. In 1987,

just a few days after the bride-price fiasco, Felicula was

killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Some assumed it

was a government-orchestrated killing. The murderer was

never found.

I mourned Felicula, and grieved over losing a person

who gave me a sense of belonging without consideration of

my tribe or religion or ethnicity. But if I had lost a chunk of

my innocence with her death, I also had learned the folly

and danger of unbridled optimism not grounded in the

realities of the communities we wish to serve. I grew in

understanding. And thanks to the elemental work

contributed by Felicula and others, our microfinance bank

expanded, reaching borrowers not only in Kigali but across

the nation.

Then, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide ripped the

country apart, resulting in the slaughter of more than a half

million people, mostly from the minority Tutsi tribe.

Shockingly, one of the cofounders of our beloved institution

of social justice emerged as a leader of that horrendous

bloodbath. After that, I couldn’t help but question all those

platitudes I’d heard about women being more nurturing and

caring than men. Some women, I’d think. Not all women.

Yet, soon enough, like shoots of fragile flowers creeping

upward through granite cracks, a small group of women

leaders came together from across the country to put

Duterimbere back together again. The quiet, resolute

actions of these women who had lost everything but hope

rekindled their resilience and helped repair the nation’s

broken heart.

Thirty years later, not only is Duterimbere surviving, but

it is thriving, and continuing to play its part in Rwanda’s

remarkable recovery. And though the history of the

country’s first three women parliamentarians ended

tragically, Rwanda now has the highest percentage of

women parliamentarians of any country on earth.

Back in Kigali on that night in 2016, I reconnected with

the memory of Felicula, who had started work she could not

complete in her lifetime. She was taken too early, but her

work continued anyway—because she cared, fought fiercely

for her convictions, and brought others along with her. I was

reminded that every one of us stands on the shoulders of

those who have gone before, that every one of us has a

chance to build on the collective knowledge of remarkable

human beings, their achievements, the principles they

cherished. And I was there to reassure myself that we have

infinitely more knowledge, connection, tools, skills, and

resources to tackle the world’s injustices today than we did

back in Felicula’s time.

Or at any other time in history.

The poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from

exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive

where we started and know the place for the first time.”

That night in Kigali, I renewed my commitment to working

toward dreams so big that they may not be completed in my


And I resolved to write a love letter of sorts to anyone

daring to take action in our deeply flawed world.

We are made from what came before. We make

ourselves out of the promises that lie ahead. And we are

always in the process of becoming.

When I lived in Rwanda as a younger woman, cell

phones, the internet, and social media had yet to be

invented. I listened to the news twice daily via the BBC on a

shortwave radio. It was a world of separation: separate

nations, religions, ethnicities, tribes, and genders. Though

that world was terribly unequal and unfair—nearly 40

percent of humanity subsisted on less than a dollar a day—

most of us were blissfully unaware of what was happening in

other parts of our own countries, let alone what was

happening on other sides of the world.

The revolutions in technology and globalization in the

past three decades have changed everything. The rate of

extreme poverty has fallen to 10 percent and cell phones

have connected nearly every individual on the planet. We

can see into each other’s living rooms and gain a view into

one another’s lifestyles. Rights for human beings—and

nonhumans—are expanding. On so many dimensions, the

world has gotten better.

Yet, the same forces that have shaped this world—

technology and shareholder capitalism—hold within them

the potential to destroy us. We are dangerously unequal and

divided. We collectively face the ultimatum of our climate

emergency. And many of the institutions devoted ostensibly

to improving the lives of the many, not the few, are broken,

yet we have not envisioned their replacements.

We need a new narrative. We are too entangled to abide

worldviews based on separation, nor can we look to simple

technological or market solutions. Those stories have run

their course. We will be so much richer, productive, and

peaceful if we learn not only to coexist but to flourish,

celebrating our differences while holding to the

understanding that we are part of each other, bound

together by our shared humanity. That narrative will come

not from above but from all of us.

What we need is a moral revolution, one that helps us

reimagine and reform technology, business, and politics,

thereby touching all aspects of our lives. By “moral,” I don’t

mean strictly adhering to established rules of authority or

convention regardless of consequence. I mean a set of

principles focused on elevating our individual and collective

dignity: a daily choice to serve others, not simply benefit

ourselves. I mean complementing the audacity that built the

world we know with a new humility more attuned to our


Of course, the very notion of moral revolution is a tall

order. Some might call it naïve. But I am not writing with

wide-eyed idealism. Over three decades I have fought many

fights for social and economic change. Much of this time has

been spent building Acumen, investing in social

entrepreneurs who seek to provide essential goods and

services at affordable prices to people living in poverty. The

work has given me a front-row seat to the realities of

making sustainable change in some of the most challenging

places on the planet. What I’ve learned from these

individuals has deeply inspired me; and I want to pass on

those lessons, because they apply broadly.

None of this is easy, of course. I have accompanied

hundreds of change agents through challenges and

sometimes crushing defeats. My face wears the lines of

failures, losses, and far too many sleepless nights.

However, hard battles do not account for all my face’s

creases. Some are etched from smiles and laughter shared

with people who insisted on striving for freedom,

opportunity, and justice against all odds. I have partnered

with good people who have changed their communities,

their companies, their nations, and ultimately, themselves. I

have witnessed people making what others might consider

hopelessly romantic dreams come true—and true not just

for a few, but for millions (in some cases, hundreds of

millions). The actions of these people, not their slogans or

pretty words, have kept alive for me the ideas of purpose, of

impact, of dignity, of love—all separate points on a moral


A new generation is rising, one that is more conscious of

how they live, what they buy, and where they work. Many

are unwilling to work for companies unless those companies

are committed to sustainability and recognize that with

power must come accountability. And a growing number of

companies are listening. I’ve been heartened to see some

CEOs move to stakeholder models, partly in response to

prompting by their younger employees, and because they

themselves recognize the need to change. If you are

working in a corporation, you have ample opportunity to


Cynics might point to a system of governments,

corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to

change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build

the future. Instead, they often use their jaundiced views to

justify inaction. And never before have we more desperately

needed their opposite—thoughtful, empathetic, resilient

believers and optimists on a path of moral leadership.

This book assumes that you are interested in being part

of world-changing human capital that will help solve

problems big and small. Maybe you are a teacher or a

communicator, an activist or a doctor, a lawyer or an

investor, or some new force for positive change. I have seen

people like you alter the lives of schoolchildren and street

children, refugees, the formerly incarcerated; of people

living in forgotten communities and in places ravaged by

war, poverty, or toxic industries. I’ve witnessed you not just

doing but improving the often-unseen work of serving the

sick, healing the heartbroken, sitting with the dying to

remind others that they, too, are good and worthy of love.

Or you might be a philanthropist. The hard work of

changing systems requires financial resources. And just as

there is a new generation of entrepreneurial individuals

focused on solving complex issues, so there is a new

generation of philanthropists, men and women willing to

give not just money but time, commitment, connections,

and big parts of their hearts and minds.

Change is the domain of all of us.

In every country on earth, people are refusing to

acquiesce to the exhausting, deadening news cycles filled

with catastrophe and cynicism, seeking to make good news

instead. These people are deliberately expanding their

circles of compassion, reaching across lines of difference

with a quiet strength forged in all that we have in common.

Our problems are so similar, so solvable. And we are better

than we think we are.

Those I’ve known who’ve most changed the world

exhibit a voracious curiosity about the world and other

people, and a willingness to listen and empathize with those

unlike them. These people stand apart not because of

school degrees or the size of their bank accounts, but

because of their character, their willingness to build

reservoirs of courage and stand for their beliefs, even if they

stand alone.

Of course, this kind of character isn’t built overnight. It

is honed through a lifelong process of committing to

something bigger than yourself, aspiring to qualities of

moral leadership, defining success by how others fare

because of your efforts, embedding a sense of purpose into

your daily decisions.

Change is possible. And because large-scale,

sustainable change is possible, I have come to see it as a

responsibility to be part of that change.

When it comes to a life of making change, there are no

shortcuts. It is hard work, but it is time well spent. And when

you reach the other side of the difficult-to-see tangible

transformation, it is like nothing in the world: a deep,

abiding sense not just of accomplishment but of joy.

I wrote this book because I believe that our fragile,

unequal, divided, yet still beautiful, world deserves a radical

moral rejuvenation. This revolution will ask all of us to shift

our ways of thinking to connection rather than

consumerism, to purpose rather than profits, to

sustainability rather than selfishness. We must awaken to

see workers not as inputs, the environment not as our

personal domain, and shareholders not as all-powerful. And

we need to move away from old models of doing what is

right for me and assuming it will turn out right for you.

If you are looking for a simple how-to guide or step-by-

step instructions for building a company or a nonprofit

organization, this is not the book for you. Rather, this book

is my attempt to bring forward and share the principles I’ve

learned from thousands of change agents, based above all

on the value of human dignity. Each of their stories makes

manifest the kind of moral leadership that looks to the

future not with blind optimism but with a hard-edged hope.

The people whose work I describe in this book have had to

learn to deal with ugly truths while singing songs of the

possible. They recognize that every problem is an

opportunity for us to act.

A manifesto is a public declaration of intentions. This

one is for all who hear the call of moral leadership—guiding

principles to dream and build a better world, coordinates of

a moral compass set by those already leading this journey

of change.

Hopefully, this is for you.

Chapter 1


A few years ago, I spoke at a small women’s university in

the American South. After my talk, I had the privilege of

sitting with a number of the school’s top students. For

several hours, we talked about what was wrong in the world

and what each of us might do about it. “What do you dream

of doing?” I finally asked a bespectacled blond woman who

had been listening intently without uttering a word.

“I want to change the world.”

“How might you do that?” I asked.

“That’s the problem,” she said. “I have no idea.”

Tears welled in her eyes. For a moment, I caught a

glimpse of my younger self.

I remembered looking out at a world I wanted to change

and having no clue as to how to do it. I was at once wildly

bold and quietly frightened, feeling that a bull and a dove

coexisted inside me, worried that I lacked the skills or the

know-how to pull off my ambitions. And some of those

feelings continued even when I became more certain of

possible paths forward.

In fact, many of the words and questions from the

students that night sounded familiar. How can I be of use?

How can I find my purpose? Where will I make the most


When we look back on our lives, we construct sense-

making narratives of who we are and how we’ve chosen to

spend our time. But when we look forward, the path ahead

can feel overwhelmingly elusive. While the fearful student

and her friends pushed for answers, I could offer only

questions and a single piece of advice. For while there are

skills to gain and character traits to develop, there is only

one way to begin.

Just start—and let the work teach you.

Too many who yearn to make a difference become

paralyzed by the fear of leaping without having worked out

every detail. Yet the decision we face is not to chart the

perfect way forward; it is simply to embark on a journey.

Once we’ve taken a step forward, the work will teach us

where to take a second step, and then a third, and so on.

Purpose does not reveal itself to those sitting safely at the

starting block. In other words, you don’t plan your way into

finding your purpose. You live into it.

Childhood memories and reveries, however distant, can

provide clues to our innermost yearnings. As a little girl, I

read stories of the saints. They were printed on cards that

my beloved first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Theophane,

gave me for doing well on tests. Many decades later, my

friend the poet Marie Howe suggested that the stories of the

saints marked the first time we little Catholic girls read of

women who wrote the narratives of their own lives. The

saints were also the first people I encountered who lived for,

and were often willing to die for, an idea bigger than

themselves. Their resolution and valor infected me with a

desire to be of use; I wanted to be like them somehow.

When I was ten, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Howerton,

introduced me to a row of biographies of heroic figures, little

yellow books hidden in a corner of the school library. There

I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and disappear into the

worlds of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the pioneering

doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, the human rights advocate

Eleanor Roosevelt, and so on. These women refused to be

limited by small dreams, and though I was not yet able to

point to a living example of a woman like them, they stood

as beacons of the possible, of lives lived to make a


But if I dreamed of becoming a warrior for love and

justice, my first job out of university hardly fit the bill. For

more than three years, I spent my days on Wall Street as an

analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank. Though I hadn’t planned

on becoming a banker, I discovered a delight in building

financial skills and in understanding the workings of

economic systems, not to mention the side benefit of

traveling the world. Until then, I had never left the United

States. That banking job took me to forty countries, and

exposed me to political and economic realities that I’d

previously only studied in books.

What I didn’t like about banking, though, was the way

our financial system excluded low-income people from

borrowing funds that could change their lives and contribute

to their local economies. Banks required borrowers to put up

twice the value of their loans as collateral, a requirement

out of reach for even the lower-middle class. The private

sector was set up to earn profits, not to ensure that multiple

stakeholders, especially the poor, were well served.

Understanding they had little chance of being part of the

mainstream financial system, most low-income people

dared not even walk through the doors of the major banks.

As the months at Chase passed, a yearning to do

something for lower-income people took root inside me.

That yearning was a clue to the thread I should follow, a

stirring driven by a growing sense of injustice and a desire

to contribute. A weekend in mid-1985 spent walking in the

favelas of Rio de Janeiro, conversing with hardworking

people about their aspirations and realities, convinced me of

what I already knew to be true: nations would develop

equitably only if their low-income citizens could save and


Around that time, a friend showed me an article about a

little-known economist named Muhammad Yunus who had

started a tiny operation in Bangladesh called the Grameen

Bank. Grameen was part of a fledgling sector called

microfinance, which included the Self-Employed Women’s

Association, in India; the Bangladesh Rural Advancement

Committee (BRAC); and Women’s World Banking, in the

United States. These institutions made small loans (from

thirty to one hundred dollars, on average) to millions of low-

income people, mostly women, so that they could build tiny

businesses to support their lives.

Though only about ten years old at the time, the

microfinance sector already was yielding noteworthy results.

Grameen Bank had accumulated data showing that poor

women repaid their loans at much higher rates than their

wealthy counterparts. That got my attention. I started to

dream of leaving Wall Street to work in microfinance.

However, I first had to overcome my fear of diminished

personal income and an even stronger fear of my parents’

disappointment. I was raised the eldest of seven in a

military family and had had to pay my way through

university and take on debt to graduate. Chase had set me

squarely on the path to wealth and a vision of a future with

the bank was tempting. Also, a senior officer at Chase had

recently offered me a fast-track position that would give me

the chance to break barriers for women in the financial


My father did not want me to pass up what he saw as a

once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity. My mother worried

that something bad might happen to me if I worked in a

developing country—or worse, I might never get married.

And, of course, neither of them wanted me to move to

another continent; parents want to keep their children safe.

It did not help that my friends worried that our relationships

would change, and some simply thought I’d lost my mind.

The small voice inside me was shouted down by the

cacophony. I was a born pleaser and cared about what

others thought. But this tendency naturally butted heads

with another side of me, which was daring, justice-seeking,

sometimes even reckless, determined to make a difference

in the world.

Somehow I knew that if I didn’t dare then, I might never

take the risk. Though only twenty-five years old, I could

already name peers who lived provisionally, promising

they’d follow their dreams after they paid off their debts …

or married … or got an MBA. Over time, their lives had

become more expensive to manage, making it even harder

for them to take the leap. I feared living a life of quiet

desperation, to quote Thoreau, and was hungry for a life rich

in adventure.

Some people felt wholly alive in the world of finance;

that wasn’t me. I needed to venture toward a different life.

Yes, I had significant student debt to repay, but I would

figure out the dollars and cents of it all later.

After a few months of research, I discovered what

sounded like an amazing opportunity: to work with

numerous fledgling microfinance organizations across a

whole continent, providing management support and

serving as an ambassador to women interested in using

small business as a tool for change. However, there was a

hitch: the job was based in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, not in

Brazil, where I’d hoped to work. If I was going to make a

sacrifice of career and income, I reasoned, I should sacrifice

for a place whose intoxicating rhythms and colors held

special appeal to me. I knew almost nothing about the Côte


Alas, no opportunity in Brazil was on the table, and I had

to make a choice. I could focus on the substance of my

desire, to become a bridge between low-income people and

the world of finance, or I could obsess over my fantasy of

living in Brazil. I couldn’t do both.

The Jesuits have a powerful saying: “Go where your

deepest yearning meets the world’s greatest need.” I

yearned to contribute to the economic development of low-

income people, to learn about the world, to live in a new

culture. For whatever reason, the world seemed to need, or

at least want, me more in West Africa than in Brazil.

So, I took the job in West Africa. I just started.

I don’t mean to sound cavalier when I say “just start.” I

was lucky to grow up with parents who ultimately supported

my decisions. That is not the case for many who face heavy

implications for rejecting the wishes of their families, clans,

and religious leaders. Indeed, for some people, just starting

a conversation can take gumption. Moreover, there was

truth in my parents’ fears: bad things did happen to me, and

it did take much longer for me to tie the knot than they (or I)

would have imagined.

But no one escapes life without being wounded and

scarred; and I had multiple chances to wed, including when I

lived in Africa. Over the years, I came to see that there are

many ways to live a life. I was “enough” on my own terms. It

would take until I was forty to meet my husband, Chris, and

only then did I realize that I’d been waiting for the love of

my life.

Young people sometimes ask, “But what if I dare and

then fail?” I failed more times than I can count. I moved to

Côte d’Ivoire and was met with outright rejection from those

I had hoped to serve. Yet I learned from my failures, and

came to understand that to rule out failure is to rule out


With each experience, the good, the bad, and even the

ugly, I added tools to my toolbox. More important, I honed

my understanding of myself and how others perceived me,

preparing to listen, learn, and work in partnership. I began

to comprehend that the world does not need another hero—

sustained change results from multiple heroic acts across a

community—and that it was my job to help others shine.

Of course, there are times when nothing seems to be

working, when you don’t understand what is going on

around you, and no one trusts you enough to tell you. But

what separates those who dabble in feel-good endeavors

and those who actually nudge the world forward has nothing

to do with intellect, connections, or specific skills. The ones

whose actions and ideas produce positive consequences are

the ones who stay in the game.

Try. Fail. Then try again. Follow the thread as it unspools.

Just start.

After my bumpy start in Côte d’Ivoire, I moved to Kenya for

a few months, where I continued to stumble in my efforts to

“do good.” Finally, in early 1987, when I was still twenty-

five, I accepted a three-week consultancy in Kigali, Rwanda,

to research the state of credit for low-income women. It

became clear that the only way to change the financial

standing of the women there was to build an institution

tailored to their needs. I didn’t slow down to ask myself who

was I to try to create a financial institution based on a

measly three years’ credit experience as a baby banker at

Chase. I saw a problem to be solved—the banking system

excluded people who were just asking for a fair chance to

borrow and contribute to the economy. And I was already

meeting extraordinary local women who would partner with


Who was I not to dare?

Duterimbere, Rwanda’s first microfinance bank, which I

cofounded with Felicula and others, carved a lending path

for the country’s low-income women and touched the lives

of many thousands. It also changed my life, for good.

Experiencing firsthand the power of markets from the

perspectives of low-income women reinforced my belief in

using the tools of capitalism to enable individual freedom.

The work gave me new insights and skills. In 1987, I

witnessed how global market fluctuations caused local

coffee prices to plunge, devastating the livelihoods of 80

percent of Rwandan farmers—an episode that woke me to

the perils of unbridled capitalism. Had I not taken that first

leap from Wall Street, I would not have learned this. And

had I not persevered after failing in Côte d’Ivoire, I might

have gone home without confronting my own limitations or

discovering my truest gifts. We grow when we stretch, when

we are willing to embrace the uncomfortable.

“Just start” is a mind-set that belongs not only to the young,

but to anyone who hopes to remain productive, vibrant, and

relevant throughout their lives. No one taught me about the

elixir of self-renewal like my mentor, the venerable public

servant John Gardner. I met John during my first year of

business school, just after my initial stretch of work in Africa,

and he represented precisely the kind of leader I aspired to

become. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I’ve

discovered that when you don’t know where to start,

following a leader who inspires you can be a powerful


John started and restarted throughout his life,

participating in his generation’s most momentous decisions,

yet remaining free from society’s pressures to be what

others thought he should be. The sole Republican in

President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, John served as

secretary of health, education, and welfare during America’s

civil rights movement, during which he started the White

House Fellows program and launched Medicare, among

other initiatives. In 1968, he resigned his prestigious

position in protest of the Vietnam War and had to start


Two years later, at age fifty-four, John founded Common

Cause, a grassroots citizens’ movement to hold government

accountable. And in 1980, he cofounded Independent Sector

to support the nonprofit sector. Though in his seventies

when I met him, John would go on to cofound a nonprofit

organization, now called Encore, that inspires older people

to just start again themselves by getting involved in service

organizations across the country.

John’s was a lived and practical wisdom. “The self-

renewing man,” he wrote, “looks forward to an endless and

unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the

claims of life—not only the claims he encounters but the

claims he invents.” He was a half century older than me, but

John’s enduring curiosity, his sense of possibility and

willingness to try made him seem the youngest person I


So, just start. Find mentors you can learn from, whether

in person, online, or in print. And let your experiences teach

you what you have to do next. All in all, it took me nearly

twenty years of apprenticing, putting new tools in my

toolbox, and expanding my understanding of the world

through jobs in banking, development, and foundations,

before my skills, aspirations, and networks came together to

create Acumen in 2001.

I was ready to just start again. I had a theory of how we

might revolutionize philanthropy by investing it as long-

term, patient capital in intrepid entrepreneurs daring to

build financially sustainable solutions to poverty where

markets and governments had both failed the poor. But I

didn’t have many proof points. I remember privately

thinking that I would spend three years doing all I could to

build a “blueprint for change,” and then decide whether

Acumen was an idea worth trying beyond that.

Luckily, I was part of a group of pioneering individuals

who were willing to risk their philanthropy and give their

time for an idea most considered crazy.

That early group cheered on every move forward. At

each step, the work, and sometimes the world, taught us

what we had to do. When the 9/11 terror attacks changed

the global landscape, my team and I decided to work in the

Muslim world. That same thread of human dignity that had

pulled me into microfinance drew my team to invest in

Pakistan, a place previously unknown to me. After ten years

of work in South Asia and Africa, we wanted to do more to

attack the poverty of inequality, and so we expanded to

Latin America and the United States. Each new geography

was a risk, each an adventure.

Each new investment deepened our understanding of

how the world works—and gave us confidence to push the

edges of our work even further. When our companies

identified the need for talent, not just money, we launched a

Fellows program to support entrepreneurial leaders. When

more people applied to become fellows than we could

directly support, we developed an online school for social

change. When we found ourselves unsatisfied with

conventional impact measurements, we created our own

approach to measuring what matters. One thing led to

another, each new step made possible because we had

started in the first place.

Nearly twenty years have passed with Acumen. When

we started, I couldn’t have dreamed the kinds of companies

we would help build: rule-breaking, yet highly successful

enterprises unleashing the potential of millions of low-

income people. I wouldn’t have understood the kinds of

partnerships needed to bring critical services not to just

some people but to all. And though we made a few false

starts, to be sure, because of our efforts and those of so

many others around the world, a new sector exists, called

impact investing. And a new generation has a newer, better

set of tools with which to reimagine and build models of

inclusive and environmentally sustainable capitalism.

All these years later, I am still just starting. I am honing

my purpose, clarifying who I am and want to become.

And I have found in the idea of human dignity a purpose

for which I am willing to live—and, if necessary, to die. And

that has made all the difference.

You may not yet have a crystal-clear sense of your

purpose. That’s okay. It will grow with you. But if you have

an inkling that you’d like your life to be about something

bigger than yourself, listen to that urge. Follow the thread.

The world needs you.

Just start.

Chapter 2



On the morning of India’s winter solstice in December 2015,

Ankit Agarwal could not have imagined that a bunch of

floating flowers would change his life’s trajectory. Ankit was

showing Jakub, a friend visiting from the Czech Republic, the

sights of his hometown, Kanpur, an industrial city known for

its textile and leather tanning factories, built on the banks of

the great Ganges, one of Hinduism’s most sacred rivers. The

two young men sat on the steps leading down to the

Ganges, musing on the meaning of life. As the two

conversed, thousands of the faithful and tradition-bound

entered the waters to mark the shortest day of the year with

blessings and ablutions—and flowers. It was a scene Ankit

had witnessed throughout his life, a colorful but blurry

backdrop to his days.

Despite recent success in his early career, Ankit was full

of angst. He was pondering aloud what it would take to find

contentment and success when Jakub interrupted him,

pointing to the river as if he’d not heard a word from his

friend. Little did Jakub know that his distraction would be the

key to Ankit’s destiny. “Why is India’s most sacred river so

polluted with an endless float of dead flowers?” Jakub asked.

Ankit had always taken for granted the sight of

marigolds, roses, jasmine, and other blossoms drifting in the

Ganges. Daily, millions of people across India brought

flowers and foodstuffs to Hindu temples as blessings for the

gods. Unwilling to desecrate these blessings by disposing of

them in the trash, priests dumped them in sacred rivers.

Rotting flowers and foodstuffs in the water was just the way

things were.

“But look at the scum of chemicals floating on the

water’s surface,” Jakub rejoined, surveying the clothed men

and women wading in the river. “And imagine what those

pesticides and chemicals emanating from the flowers are

doing to those believers as they wade in carcinogenic


At first, Ankit shrugged off his friend’s observation. He

knew the Ganges was highly polluted; he had even visited

some of the factories along the river’s banks. But the sight

of those riotous rotting flowers got under his skin. How, he

wondered, could a tradition considered so essential and so

gentle have such ugly ramifications? And how bad could it


That moment awakened Ankit’s curiosity and offered

him a thread to follow, one that drove his sense of

possibility and unleashed his powers of innovation. The

deeper he dove into the question of solving the “flower

issue,” the more he began to open himself to a more

profound meaning of success. And for him, the timing was


Four and a half years earlier, Ankit had reported to his

first job after university as a newly minted engineer. Waiting

in the company’s reception area, he had noticed a wall filled

with portraits of every employee who’d won patents. “I want

this. I want my picture there,” he told himself. Success, or at

least happiness, began to look like a portrait with a metal

plate inscribed with his name.

So, Ankit drove himself relentlessly, staying late to

complete tasks, often sleeping in the office. Just three years

later, he became one of the youngest engineers in the

company’s history with a plaque on that wall. The whole

team applauded.

Then a strange thing happened. “Instead of jumping

with happiness, it was as if suddenly everything seemed

meaningless,” Ankit explained to me in an email. “I started

to ask what I wanted to do in life, and began to feel the

whole rush was meaningless.”

There had to be more to life than prizes, awards, titles,

or salaries. At age twenty-five, Ankit understood that his

success would come only from focusing on a “challenge that

would improve lives or the earth, really, anything that would

bring about real change.”

Those flowers floating in the river transformed into

blessings for Ankit. Here was a chance to solve a problem

that mattered. Changing the ancient practice of dumping

flowers into the rivers would require confronting a status

quo solidified over many generations. Ankit knew he would

go from being viewed as successful to being considered

crazy by some. But he had attempted the conventional

route to success and found it less than fulfilling. Now he had

a chance to redefine success for himself. Crazy might be just

the ticket.

In researching the “temple flower problem,” Ankit

discovered that Indians discarded more than eight million

tons of flowers yearly into rivers such as the Ganges. The

flowers are covered in a variety of pesticides, including

arsenic, lead, and cadmium, all of which contribute to water-

borne diseases. The more complex the problem revealed

itself to be, the less Ankit connected success to himself and

instead focused on changing the entire system.

He partnered with his best friend, Karan Rastogi, to

create Phool, a company that would solve multiple problems

at once. Phool, in Hindi, means flower. Success to the

company meant the improved health of the Ganges,

measured by the number of tons of flowers the company

was able to retrieve from the temples. Success would also

be measured by the number of jobs the company created,

and particularly by the quality of jobs for disadvantaged


To realize these elements of success required a for-profit

model, according to the two entrepreneurs, one that

ensured financial sustainability and attracted enough capital

to meet the scale of the problem they were trying to solve.

Profits were an important indicator, but the true measure of

their venture’s success would be its impact on all

stakeholders, including employees and the earth.

And, of course, customers. To this end, Ankit and Karan

needed a salable product. They reasoned that a growing

group of consumers was interested in products built on

principles of the circular economy, systems that removed

“waste” from the production cycle by finding ways to reuse

and repurpose it. Ankit and Karan asked themselves what

they could produce from the flower waste that people would

want to buy, and how that product would improve people’s

lives. They spent eighteen months listening to potential

customers and trying to understand what they might value.

One ingenious product they settled on was incense

sticks. Used for cultural and religious practice, incense is

burned daily in many Indian households; however, the

majority of sticks are made from charcoal, which negatively

affects respiratory health. Ankit and Karan reasoned that

they could use what was already being treated as waste to

make flower incense sticks that were healthier and of lower

cost. The flower incense sticks would require minimal skills

to produce and would embody the spirit of the temples from

which the flowers came.

Phool now collects about ten thousand pounds of

flowers daily from Kanpur’s temples. The company provides

each temple with large bins, which are routinely picked up

and taken to a plant, essentially a warehouse and drying

area. To eliminate the flower waste’s toxicity, the company

sprays it with an organic Bioculum. Scores of women then

separate the petals to transform dried organic waste into

incense sticks and warming compost.

As part of their commitment to sustainable business

practices, Phool’s founders dedicated themselves to hiring

women from the manual scavenger caste, one of the most

marginalized groups on earth. Though the caste system is

technically outlawed in India, more than three-quarters of a

million “scavengers” are still consigned to removing

untreated human waste (using flimsy tools such as

cardboard, tin plates, and buckets) from toilets and pit

latrines, which they then must sometimes carry several

kilometers before reaching a disposal site.

These “scavengers” suffer extreme prejudice, often

living at the margins and carrying a heavy yoke of poverty.

Especially in the company’s early years, the Phool founders’

commitment to hiring women from this caste added

complexity and cost to building their business. The

scavenger community was located at the edges of town, so

the company sought to hire a bus to transport the women to

and from work. But it took two months to convince a bus

company to drive them. Then, when the owner of Phool’s

first rented space got wise to the employees’ caste, he

destroyed the factory’s equipment and summarily threw the

company out.

Though Phool sustained devastating financial losses,

Ankit and Karan started over, persisting through clenched

teeth. Ankit’s dream of success had evolved from the days

when only traditional honors mattered to him, and the

founders weren’t going to be cowed by other people’s

narrow-mindedness. As the level of difficulty rose, so did

their commitment to realizing their dream.

In January 2018, Acumen’s India director Mahesh

Yagnaraman and I visited Ankit, an Acumen fellow, at his

factory. Wearing a black leather jacket and jeans, he greeted

us in the open-air courtyard of his factory, where rows of

women sat on tiny plastic stools, concentrating as they

sifted through tangerine, bright yellow, and white flowers.

Inside the warehouse, other women stood in long lines

rolling incense sticks with speed and precision. I tried my

hand at rolling the sticks, and gained instant respect for the

women who worked at Phool. Meanwhile, the women

couldn’t stop laughing at the mess I made.

Our little Acumen group sat for a while in a small room

that abutted the courtyard with Ankit and his wife, Ridhima,

discussing Phool’s business fundamentals. Ankit spoke with

both toughness and tenderness, making it clear that Phool’s

mission to clean the rivers and provide dignified jobs drove

every decision the company made. Only then do they make

the numbers work, understanding that it may take a long

time to build a profitable business that stays true to all its


The company is committed to its employees first. In

addition to providing daily transport, Phool pays well,

provides health insurance, and serves the women tea twice

daily. It also encourages the women to take a bottle of clean

water home to their families at the end of each day. I asked

Ankit why he sent the water home with them.

“Society reminds these women nearly every moment of

their lives that they are outcastes. They are unwanted. But

when you can drink the same water as others do, finally you

can feel equal,” he responded.

We soon moved to the courtyard outside the warehouse,

where a vibrant, multicolored carpet of flowers had been

laid out for drying. A group of women sitting by the flowers

had taken a break for lunch. I requested to join them and

asked how their lives had changed since working with Ankit

and Karan. “I love coming here,” said a freckled woman with

smiling eyes, her hair pulled back. “Before this company, I

had to move from house to house for work and never feel

respected.Life was very difficult. Here, we learn new skills.

We’re with friends.”

Another jumped in: “This is the first time anyone has

tried to teach us something. Sometimes I worry that I’m not

learning fast enough. But these people believe I can do it,

and that gives me confidence. I’m bolder now at home and

in my community. I’m able to keep up with school fees for

the first time, too.”

Another woman added, “I bought my family our first

television, and now the neighbors come over to my house to


A fourth chimed in, stating, “They respect us in this

place. We don’t have to sit on the ground.” I told her I didn’t

understand. “This seat,” she said, pointing to the two-dollar

plastic stool beneath her, “is the first one anyone has ever

offered to me.”

As our discussion continued, the women avoided any

talk of caste, understandably distancing themselves from

all-too-recent humiliations and heartbreaks engendered

from belonging to a group deemed “untouchable.” They

euphemistically referred to their past jobs cleaning up waste

as “domestic work,” and quickly steered the conversation to

their present states of happiness. I was touched by the

women’s gratitude for the opportunity of decent work that

entailed neither degradation nor abuse.

A woman in a caramel sweater over a yellow kurta,

quiet till then, added her voice to the conversation. “It is so

good here,” she said. “We feel fresh being around the

flowers. I like the smell. And it is good that our work brings

blessings back to the gods.”

She was referring to the virtuous cycle of these flowers,

collected from temples and converted into incense sticks

before being returned to the temples as a second round of

offerings. The woman did not mention that many

households that purchased the sticks would nonetheless

refuse to allow the women who produced them to enter

their homes.

“Is there anything you would change at the company?” I


The woman with smiling eyes responded, “I only want

this place to succeed. We must work hard here to help it

grow. That’s all. I only worry that one day it might move

from here.”

By then, Ankit had walked up, himself a paradox of

presentation and values. His somber mien belied the

tenderness with which he spoke to the women. “We’re not

going anywhere,” he assured them gently.

To some, Ankit and Karan’s choice of whom to hire and

how to manage those employees seemed noble but,

ultimately, misguided. It is challenging to make any

company profitable, and they could have taken a much

easier path to building a business. But Ankit and Karan

define success in terms that include more than money.

Imagine the women gossiping and laughing as they

travel in the bus driven specifically for them. Consider what

it might feel like to have tea served to you when you’ve

been considered less worthy than other people your entire

life. Or the joy that comes from earning enough money to

experience a level of self-reliance you’ve never before had.

Picture their children, who now receive fresh drinking water

each night, some of them for the first time. Laughter,

respect, the security of productive work, a sense of

belonging, dignity—these are things that matter the most to

our experience as human beings, yet our financial and

economic systems too often fail to acknowledge them when

calculating “success.”

Although it may take time to change ancient practices,

Phool is using modern market incentives grounded in moral

values. This combination of fundamentals bodes well not

only for the company’s long-term financial sustainability but

for a sense of shared success. The temple priests feel proud

that they no longer are polluting rivers in the name of the

gods. The men who collect the flowers have good, decent

jobs. The rivers are cleaner, making the pilgrims who bathe

in the Ganges and other rivers less likely to fall sick. And

consumers know that by purchasing these high-quality

goods, which have been produced sustainably, they are

providing jobs and dignity to some of the most

disadvantaged women in India. That is the kind of success

everyone can feel good partaking in.

Success doesn’t just wait for us on a distant horizon.

Success is within all of us, waiting for us to live into it. It

exists in the beauty we create, the goodwill we offer, the

ideas we spread, the causes for which we stand, and the

lives we help transform. It shows up in the health and well-

being of our children, our communities; in the way we love

the world and one another. Even if this particular venture

fails, Ankit is already a very successful man, allowing

curiosity and a desire to serve others to guide his life


Of course, the notion of redefining success rubs against

the status quo. Humans are status-seeking beings. We yearn

to be accepted, respected, loved. Our current systems

(economic, political, and social) reinforce a definition of

“winning” based on money, power, and fame. Rather than

being rewarded for what we give, we’re too often affirmed

by what we take.

What if our Golden Rule were not only “Do unto others

as you would have them do unto you” but also “Give more

to the world than you take from it”? That would change

everything. If enough of us pursued that path, the world of

inequality, exploitation, and injustice would slowly be

replaced by a world of inclusion, fairness, and dignity.

The point is this: We are the system. We decide how to

define success, and we can reject purely individualistic

terms. There is much to learn from cultural approaches that

value sustainability over economic progress, or that build in

practices to keep the community more equal. Shiroi Lily

Shaiza, an Acumen fellow from Nagaland, a state in

Northeast India, shared with me how her ancestors

practiced “the feast of merit.”

“When a community member earned significant wealth,

he would be required to host enormous feasts for the

community,” she said. “The person would consider it the

highest honor. He would be entitled to wear a special cloak

and ornament his house to signify his high social standing.

And the villagers revered that person as the pinnacle of

success, especially those wealthy people who, by the end of

their lives, had given everything away.”

Every generation has the opportunity to renew the

values, systems, and structures that define their societies,

and to jettison those that no longer serve. The most

enduring systems are those grounded in fundamental

values based on human flourishing. We can disagree on the

specifics of what humans need to succeed, but if our

starting point is an environmentally sustainable world that

enables all its inhabitants to flourish, then we’ve got the

foundation for a moral framework. Unequal systems persist,

yet they can be reimagined and reformed when people

muster enough awareness and collective determination to

do something about them.

It goes without saying that systems do not change

overnight. In the meantime, the world needs brave people

to create models of companies, organizations, schools,

religious institutions, hospitals, prisons, and governments

designed for a world interdependent and environmentally at

risk. The best will drive themselves relentlessly, exposing

their hearts to the world, understanding that others’

resistance to change is part of the deal we make when we

sign up to reject the status quo. Setbacks are inevitable, yet

as most anyone who has ever tried to change anything will

tell you, it is the difficult, not the easy, that underlies those

accomplishments that ultimately imbue our souls with the

kind of success that sustains.

Sometimes, when we are pursuing intrinsically-driven

accomplishments, progress can feel so unbearably slow that

even those who have already redefined success for

themselves must reevaluate before renewing their

commitment to the work they know is right for them. Benje

Williams spent 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan, as an Acumen

fellow building an outreach team for a drinking water

company that served local slum areas. Less than 5 percent

of Pakistani youths are educated beyond high school, and as

Benje explained, “I was unprepared for the difficulty of

hiring a workforce trained not just in technical skills but in

critical life skills.”

Benje began to dream about building a leadership and

workforce development institute that would train millions of

young unemployed and underemployed Pakistanis—part of

the “youth bulge” defining Pakistan and most of the

developing world. (Sixty-four percent of Pakistan’s

population is under age thirty, the highest percentage of

young people in the world.)

“Pakistan’s youthful generation is a national asset,”

Benje explained during one of my visits, “but only if young

people are able to obtain the necessary skills to widen their

opportunities. Otherwise, an untrained, excluded, and

frustrated youth population will pose a serious problem for

the country and beyond.”

A few years subsequent to his Acumen Fellowship

experience and after earning a degree from Stanford

Graduate School of Business, Benje returned to Lahore and

founded Amal Academy, a nonprofit leadership organization

to train first-generation graduates from secondary- and

tertiary-level universities and place them in good jobs.

This work challenged Benje on every front. He was a

foreigner with no financial resources of his own, there was

no institution of its kind in the country, and those he served

had little or no income to spend. Nonetheless, Benje created

several partnerships that provided revenue and trained

hundreds of young people in the organization’s first few

years. His reputation for effectiveness was spreading, and

his commitment to his work made him beloved in the local

community. Yet, to Benje, something was amiss.

Despite meaningful progress, there are times in every

change-maker’s journey when questions and doubts grow,

multiplying like weeds until you feel you might suffocate. In

January 2016, three years after he founded Amal Academy,

Benje asked if he could come see me when he was passing

through New York. I invited him to join me for a 6 a.m. run

along the Hudson River. The bitter cold, windy morning was

matched by a heaviness in Benje’s usually sunny demeanor.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I’m not sure we’re doing enough,” he said.

The statement stopped me in my tracks.

“I started Amal to change the education system, not

simply to help a few young people,” Benje explained.

I reminded him that “hundreds” did not constitute a few.

From my perspective, he was right on track, three years in,

building a business model that could significantly impact

lives and cover its costs. I’d always found Benje exceptional

in every way—relentless in focus, uncomplaining, effective,

always putting others before himself. I wondered what was

eating at his soul.

Then I remembered: when Benje studied at Stanford, he

was confronted by the lure of conventional success as

defined by outsized salaries and enviable job titles. Some

students there convinced themselves that they had

competed in a “meritocracy” and “earned” whatever they

got. But Benje lived with a different ethos. He understood

that the lottery of life puts humans in a great variety of

starting positions and that luck often trumps merit. Benje

yearned to be of use. To make the right career choice, he’d

had to limit his options.

“The only way I knew to stay true to myself,” he once

told me, “was to wear blinders during the job recruitment

season, and not apply for a single job. I didn’t want to be

tempted by a position with a huge salary. I even deactivated

Facebook and Instagram because the comparison game can

be so paralyzing.”

Many of us will repeatedly face the choice of whether to

make money or make a difference. And though you can

have both, there nonetheless will be times when you must

decide which value is of greater priority. Benje had gone all

in to serve the disadvantaged and make a positive

difference. Given how long it can take to create a significant,

sustained impact, for people with grand ambition, that

decision undoubtedly leads to moments of great stress.

“You’re doing what you set out to do,” I reminded him.

“Be proud of what you’ve built. Most people talk about

change. You’re doing it. And you’ve only started.”

I hated seeing Benje be so hard on himself. I also could

recognize my younger self in him. I, too, had gone all in for

a life of social impact, and I knew well the feeling that the

marketing genius Seth Godin “calls “the Dip,” that moment

(which can feel like forever) when the thing you think you

want to do has gotten so hard that you don’t know if it will

ever work or become enjoyable.

Problems seem much easier to solve from a distance.

New jobs seem easier to obtain; new organizations, easier

to navigate. But that is not how most turn out to be. When

confronting on-ground realities, our expectations regarding

not only results, but also rewards, both psychological and

financial, diminish.

There have been periods in my life when the work felt

so hard for so long that the Dip threatened to take up

permanent residence inside me. Those were not times of

crisis—for emergencies focus my energies. In those times,

like many entrepreneurs, I can muster the power to break

through walls. Instead, the Dip would present itself during

the doldrums like a weighty tumor growing thicker and

heavier, making even fairly minor tasks feel Sisyphean.

My blues hurt more because everyone around me

appeared to be doing fabulously. During my thirties in

particular—I was around the same age as Benje at the time

of our morning jog—I saw many friends from business

school go to work at technology start-ups likely to make

them wealthy or marry people who were themselves

financial success stories. If they didn’t have a powerful

career, they had a beautiful house filled with perfectly

behaved, well-dressed children. Single, without kids,

financially stressed, and unable to describe my work in ways

most could understand, I spent more than a few lonely

nights asking myself if I was enough.

Three years into something new is often just the

moment you hit the Dip: the excitement of your ambition to

change the world somehow fades into the reality of daily

frustrations and creeping fears. Staff members don’t show

up. Funders tell you they’d like to see more proof of your

concept, yet you need the funding to do the work that would

provide the proof. Parents and friends start to ask how

things are going, worried looks stretched across their faces.

You count the number of people you’ve impacted, and it

feels small, insignificant. Those moments can feel

devastating. But they also are precisely when to remember

why you are doing this work in the first place. Friends and

mentors, part of a successful life, help, too.

In the end, as Seth Godin writes, “persistent people are

able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel

when others can’t see it.” Dips are an inevitable part of life

as an agent of change. The key is to use them to enliven

and inspire a better future.

“Look, Benje,” I said. “You’re right. You are a long way

from denting Pakistan’s broken education system. That work

will require a lot of different people, and it still may not

happen in your lifetime. But don’t get paralyzed thinking

about the entire system. Do what you do well. Once you’ve

trained five thousand of those young people—who not only

will have good jobs but will demonstrate character, practice

lifelong learning, and feel part of something bigger than

themselves—you will have created a platform. And once you

have a platform, you can change the system. But first, build

something beautiful.” With that, we hugged and each

rushed off to our mornings.

When I saw Benje again in 2018, this time in Lahore, he

had built a small group of influential Pakistani backers to

provide financial support and mentorship, championing

Amal’s work. Amal Academy had grown into a team of thirty

young, driven team members, including ten of their

fellowship graduates. The organization had trained

thousands of fellows, and forged partnerships with

corporations and universities across the country. Benje had

started a podcast to spread the message that education is

about developing both character and critical thinking skills.

He and his business partner, Ali, had become sought-after

experts on developing workforces—employees as leaders,

as agents of change, rather than workers who simply follow

directions. Tens of thousands of lives are different because

Benje redefined success for himself, and navigated

uncompromisingly toward his north star.

That day in Lahore, I thought of a blogpost Benje had

written, sharing sage advice from a mutual friend: “The

question isn’t just what problem do you want to solve, but

how do you want to spend the next forty years of your life?”

A couple of years had passed since Benje experienced the

Dip. That gentle, brilliant man had become surrounded by

erudite young Pakistanis, each of them committed to service

and to building their nation from a place of values, with

twenty-first-century skills in hand, all of them looking to him

as a role model.

D.light, one of the companies Acumen has supported from

its beginning, has brought solar light and electricity to more

than one hundred million people across the globe. By all

definitions, d.light’s founders, Ned Tozun and Sam Goldman

(whom I describe further in chapter 4), are successful. But

their success goes far beyond the many lives their work has

impacted. By tackling one of the world’s great challenges,

the replacement of kerosene with clean, affordable energy,

the company has offset millions of tons of carbon, created

jobs for thousands of people who contribute to their nation’s

development, and laid the groundwork for a new market in

off-grid energy.

One of d.light’s sales agents is a young woman named

Everlyne. I met her in August 2017, in the city of Nakuru,

Kenya, as part of a visit to examine some of Acumen’s

energy investments. Sharply dressed in a black-and-orange,

collared d.light shirt, black trousers, and heels, her hair in

neat plaits pulled into a ponytail, Everlyne resembled any

young professional you might see in any city.

Everlyne confidently guided us on a thirty-minute drive

outside the city before stopping by the side of a dirt road.

Still in heels, she led us across muddy cornfields until we

reached a village that turned out to be hers. She beamed

with pride as customers in house after house told us how

their lives had changed now that they were able to switch

on a light at night, read, talk to their families—in short, do

the things most of us take for granted. By the time we left

the village, I had no doubt that this young woman was a

born salesperson, able to achieve anything she set her mind

to doing.

It wasn’t until we were in the jeep on our way back to

town that Everlyne told her own story of growing up in one

of the country’s most conservative tribes. “Girls in my

community were not permitted to attend schools. But my

father was different: he wanted me to study. Because there

were no schools for me at home, he sent me to another

village to live with my uncle’s family and do my schooling.

That time in my life was terribly lonely at times, but now I

understand that my education meant a difficult life for my

father as well: the other men in the village rebuked him for

educating me.”

I asked her what the men thought of her father’s

decision now.

“Now they tell their sons to grow up to be like Everlyne.”

In redefining success for his daughter, despite the

obstacles, Everlyne’s father changed the definition of

success for the whole village.

“And what do you dream for yourself?” I asked her.

“First, I want to ensure that I bring electricity to every

household in my village. I want to serve my community and

my country. Once that is done, I want to go to university and

study marketing so that I can start my own company.”

This African dreamer will not allow herself to focus on

individual goals until she fulfills her promise to serve her


Thrillingly, there are people like Everlyne in every town

and hamlet around the planet.

No matter who you are, the world offers you a thousand

opportunities for deeper success. Daily, you might

encounter moments to teach the person in front of you as if

she herself could change the world, to listen with the

reverence that expands the soul of another, to help

someone who cannot help himself. At the end of your life, I

hope the world says that you cared, that you showed up

with your whole self, and that you couldn’t have tried

harder. I hope they say you helped those who had been left

out; that you renewed yourself, living with a sense of

curiosity and wonder; learning, changing, and growing till

you took your last breath.

In the meantime, we’ve got a world to change.

Chapter 3





About twenty miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and

home to the University of Virginia, in the early 1980s

Charlottesville was a town divided. The locals, many of

whom lived in an economically depressed area about a

thirty-minute drive from the university, saw the students as

rich and privileged. Many locals worked at UVA, where they

seemed either invisible to students or served as objects of

ridicule, one-dimensional figures with thick Southern

mountain accents and humble clothing that separated them

from students attired in the requisite Fair Isle sweaters and

khaki trousers.

In the fall of my second year at UVA, a popular fraternity

threw a huge party asking everyone to dress like a local.

The very idea hurt me to think about, and I didn’t attend.

But I also didn’t protest. Then, around Thanksgiving, I

chanced upon a flyer inviting students to donate Christmas

dinner and toys to a family in need. At least this was an

opportunity to do something positive. Inspired, my

roommate and I decided to host a holiday party and asked

everyone to bring food and a toy.

Our band of friends danced and made merry long into

the night. As drinks flowed, a large pile of playthings and

foodstuffs burgeoned beneath our scraggly Christmas tree. I

went to bed smiling, then rose just a few hours later to pack

up my roommate’s red car with a veritable Christmas feast,

complete with a turkey and all the trimmings, and a big

Santa bag full of toys for our “family.” We then took off for

the edges of town, a bit worse for wear but filled with

Christmas spirit and a drive to be of service.

In less than an hour, we arrived in another world: dirt

roads and trailer parks, a couple of gas stations, a

convenience store with a barely visible street sign. We

pulled into one of the gas stations to ask for directions to

the family’s home. I had trouble understanding the thick

accent of the attendant and was mortified to ask him to

repeat himself, though I wondered whether he had trouble

understanding me as well.

Without a road map, my roommate and I managed to

lose our bearings a second time. We pulled the car to the

side of the road, stopping a man clad in overalls, his head

bent downward and his hands in his pockets as he walked

along the street. To our request for directions, he responded,

“Go down that road till the end.” He wore a quizzical

expression as he pointed at a dirt road that appeared to

lead nowhere. “Take the second left and keep going till you

see a sign for Earl’s Woodshed. The house is right behind


Another few errant turns, past some stray dogs and

abandoned cars, and we finally found a big white sign with

“Earl’s” written in red. Sure enough, right behind it was a

humble shack constructed of slatted wood, with small

windows and a porch out front. I stared at the house and

suddenly, desperately, hoped no one was home.

Only then did I imagine how our presence might make

the family feel. Here we were, two hungover coeds with no

connection to this community, arriving from out of nowhere

with Christmas in a bag—or at least our version of

Christmas. Presumably, someone in the family had signed

up for this “service,” but we knew little about the lives of

the people we were hoping to grace with a visit.

And who knew whether they had a clue about us.

A wave of shame engulfed me. “I don’t want to meet

them,” I said.

My roommate looked at me, thought for a moment, and

then agreed. With the car still running, I took a deep breath,

opened the door, ran as quickly as my legs would carry me,

deposited the bags on the porch, and hightailed it back to

the car. We then sped off, driving in silence until we found a

diner where we could talk about what had just happened.

Our conversation ranged from somber recognition to

embarrassed laughter at our own ignorance. We’d

sleepwalked into a situation with the best intentions to do

something positive for our neighbors, though we’d lived in

their city for just over a year and they’d been there forever.

We were glad to bring fresh food and toys to a family that

might otherwise have gone without, but this kind of drive-by

charity felt wrong somehow, for everyone.

Years later, I’ve thought about what I might say to my

younger self about that long-ago day. I would commend the

instinct to make a contribution, however small. But well-

meaning acts of kindness are not enough. I would push my

younger self to move from the blanket statement “I want to

help disadvantaged people” to visualizing herself in the

shoes of those she wanted to serve.

This is where moral imagination begins. But it doesn’t

stop there.

Moral imagination means to view other people’s

problems as if they were your own, and to begin to discern

how to tackle those problems. And then to act accordingly. It

summons us to understand and transcend the realities of

current circumstances and to envision a better future for

ourselves and others.

Moral imagination starts with empathy, but it does not

content itself simply to feel another’s pain. Empathy without

action risks reinforcing the status quo. Rather, moral

imagination is muscular, built from the bottom up and

grounded through immersion in the lives of others. It

involves connecting on a human level, analyzing the

systemic issues at play, and only then envisioning how to go

beyond applying a Band-Aid to making a long-term


Moral imagination is the basis of an ethical framework

for a world that recognizes our common humanity and

insists on opportunity, choice, and dignity for all of us. Had I

approached the Christmas food and toy drive with moral

imagination, I might have started by learning about the

community and the realities those who lived there faced. If I

couldn’t spend time with the families we wanted to serve, I

could at least have asked for information beyond just the

children’s genders and ages, which was the only data

provided. And I might have tried to connect with the family

beforehand, ensuring even the barest of relationships. I

could even have asked to meet just the parents, so as not to

risk spoiling the children’s dreams of a magical Santa-

delivered Christmas.

Listening to voices unheard, a value I discuss in the next

chapter, is fundamental to the moral imagination. So is

gathering knowledge about those we intend to serve. If my

roommate and I were unwilling to gain such knowledge, I

should have found an organization with a long-term

commitment to the community and supported it so that it

could do a better job than we could do ourselves.

The world has changed dramatically in the thirty years

since that winter day in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For one,

technological advances have given us GPS, so that we rarely

have to ask for directions. And the divide between classes

has become a chasm. For the privileged, everything seems

possible: sending spaceships and inhabiting Mars,

enhancing human capabilities by merging with robots, living

forever. But this world of infinite possibility and space travel

can seem impossibly distant to those who feel irrelevant,

vulnerable, or just plain poor. And if the demise of easily

automated, repetitive work engenders dreams of growing

creative endeavors for the highly educated, the end of

stable employment may feel understandably precarious for

those without university degrees.

What is needed, whether you are working in high tech or

in low-income communities, is the moral imagination to

ensure that our future solutions and institutions are

inclusive and sustainable. That takes a particular kind of

capability, one driven by empathy, immersion, connection,

and the willingness to challenge the status quo.

One of the great privileges of my life is to work with

remarkable individuals whose leadership is grounded in

moral imagination. Gayathri Vasudevan of Bangalore, India,

is one of them, though I wouldn’t have guessed that when I

first heard about her company, LabourNet.

In 2012, Acumen decided to invest in education, but we

were having a hard time finding financially viable

investment candidates. A colleague suggested LabourNet,

which already had trained more than a hundred thousand

workers. I was skeptical: I’d seen hundreds of millions of aid

dollars spent on vocational training and “technical

assistance” (nonfinancial training provided by consultants,

usually), most of it wasted. Such programs tended to be

poorly run, with little focus on training workers in the skills

that hiring companies actually needed. That said, I’d not yet

encountered Gayathri Vasudevan, who, I would discover,

defined herself not by the size of her budget but by the

changed lives of those she served.

I met Gayathri on a construction site just outside

Bangalore in December 2014. LabourNet had undertaken a

contract to train workers there, and Gayathri planned to

introduce me to some of her trainees. Dressed in a black-

and-gold silk sari, her salt-and-pepper hair in a pragmatic

bob tucked beneath a bright orange construction hat, she

cut a memorable figure.

I laughed. “Do you wear beautiful saris to every

construction site?”

“Why not?” she responded with a smile that was at once

self-effacing and mischievous. “I wear saris daily. They are

just a part of who I am.”

I was glad Gayathri didn’t feel she had to be anyone but

herself. “Then, how did a nice girl like you end up in a place

like this?” I replied with a laugh, sensing already that I could

go beyond political correctness and be myself as well. “I’d

love to hear your story.”

“For the first three years of my career, I lived in remote

rural villages,” she began. “I was always interested in policy

reform for India, but I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to

influence policies from the safe perch of an office. I needed

to understand on-the-ground realities.”

Now Gayathri was singing my song. First step:


“You know, Jacqueline,” she said, “I had my own

arrogant assumptions when I lived in the villages. I thought

the poor could solve their problems through

entrepreneurship alone. But spending time with people in

their own environments showed me a different reality. The

most vulnerable people tend to be risk averse: when you

live at the edge of survival, life itself can be a risky

proposition. The poor value the stability and predictability of

a consistent job. Most people, wealthy or poor, want to

avoid the potential windfalls and painful losses associated

with entrepreneurship.”

Gayathri continued: “Over the next decades, I also

witnessed well-educated Indians gain lucrative jobs in the

tech sector while three hundred million untrained, unskilled,

uneducated people were left behind with little attention

focused on them.” Armed with enhanced understanding,

Gayathri set out to reimagine a better system. She and her

cofounder, Rajesh AR, started LabourNet to take on the

massive problem of India’s unskilled and underemployed,

which includes 90 percent of the workforce. She was

realistic about the rise of automation, among other

challenges, but it hurt her to see employers treat untrained

workers as merely replaceable inputs.

As in many countries, the informal sector in India exists

beyond the realm of regulation or taxation. Informal laborers

may be self-employed street vendors, beauticians, domestic

workers, personal service providers, mechanics, bricklayers,

tailors, and the like, or they may work for the subcontractors

that form an increasingly complex web of the global

economy. These workers stitch fabric for hours at a stretch;

toil over vats of lye in leather tanneries, inhaling toxic fumes

without gloves and masks; or labor as bar benders,

ironworkers, or cement mixers, forgoing personal safety on

hazardous half-built construction sites.

These are the people too often hidden in the basement

of a global marketplace that demands faster, cheaper

goods. They are the invisible, the nobodies—and there are

more of them all the time. A constant wave of entrants into

India’s labor economy, nearly twenty million people a year,

makes this precarious situation even worse for those who

see no choice but to accept low-status, low-wage jobs at

high risk to their health and, sometimes, their lives.

Consequently, Gayathri has focused her attention on

giving informal workers opportunities to imagine and then

build more predictable futures with some potential for

upward mobility. Doing this required training and supporting

workers with the skills to help them navigate an

unstructured, unstable informal labor market. To achieve

this, she built structures where few existed.

“Shall we go up?” she asked, gesturing to a rickety

bamboo ladder nearby. We ambled up it, reaching the

exposed second floor of the concrete behemoth before

walking across an open platform, past pillars and piles of

concrete blocks, until we saw a wooden door with the

LabourNet logo on it.

Inside, in a small room, forty or so young men, most of

whom looked like schoolboys except for the telltale clothing

of their trade (jeans, neon orange vests, and bright blue or

yellow hard hats) sat five to a bench in front of skinny

tables. The construction workers fixed their eyes on

Gayathri, who walked to the front of the room and greeted

the men with a smile as they stood to welcome her.

Gayathri then proceeded to give a pep talk in Hindi, a

second language to most of these men, who had come from

the far reaches of the country. She told the men that it was

up to them to build skills that could lead to more control

over their lives. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that

these men were earning so little, living so far away from

their homes, working on a structure that would soon house

million-dollar apartments because of their sweat.

“Is this training really enough to change the workers’

lives?” I asked Gayathri after her lecture. And then I added—

lightly, for I know there must be days when this heroic

woman is daunted by the sea of unemployed young people

rising monthly—“or will the system inevitably grind them


Instead of answering, she suggested we speak with the

men themselves. A nineteen-year-old with dark brown eyes

and a fringe of black hair pushing out of his blue hat,

smartphone in hand, spoke confidently of all he’d learned.

“The training is an important start,” he said. “At home, I

couldn’t take care of my family from the farm’s income. Now

I send enough money for my children to attend schools. I

want my children to have better lives than I did. I want to

make them proud.”

“How far away from your family do you live now?” I


“Maybe two thousand kilometers,” he responded—a

four-day trip each way, if all goes well.

The earnest worker reminded me of my grandfather,

who immigrated to Pennsylvania from Austria as a young

man, married at twenty, and hauled ninety-pound bags of

cement each day to give his six children the chance for a

life he was not lucky enough to have. I thought, too, about

the correlation between the right kind of training and the

confidence it imparts. LabourNet’s ethos requires reinforcing

in every worker the notion that they are important enough

for someone to invest in them. Only when we dare to

believe that our future can be different do we have a chance

of making it so.

I wished the young man every success.

As I write this, LabourNet has trained more than seven

hundred thousand workers in fields ranging from

construction to automotive repair to tailoring. Yet, Gayathri

believes this training alone is not enough. From among the

workers LabourNet educates, her team identifies those who

are interested in entrepreneurial opportunities, and then

reaches out to help develop their ideas. The company has

already enabled more than seven thousand people to start

their own companies. I’ve met several of these

entrepreneurs, each of whom employs at least ten people.

LabourNet supports them, mitigating the risks of

entrepreneurship by connecting them with large companies

that need their services, whether they sew school uniforms

or distribute beauty products. In essence, the company

extends its “social capital,” or networks of connections, to

low-resourced but well-trained entrepreneurial individuals

who can, in turn, provide vital services and finally earn

levels of income that are commensurate with their efforts.

By immersing herself in the realities of low-income

laborers and using her moral imagination, Gayathri came to

understand the larger system of workforce development. As

her understanding and effectiveness grew, she gained

legitimacy and a voice that enabled her to advocate for

worker-oriented policies. LabourNet has influenced skills

certification and performance standards in a number of

sectors such as automobile, leather, and infrastructure. The

company has also played a role in prodding the Indian

government to include vocational training as part of the

country’s national education curriculum. Over time, Gayathri

has become a national voice for the unheard. Her work is an

example of moral imagination in action.

From urban India to post-conflict Colombia, moral

imagination is providing a springboard to creative solutions

that acknowledge the vulnerable and respect our natural

resources. The steps that effective, pragmatic, idealistic

change agents take, from empathy to action, tend to be the

same, regardless of how or where each story begins.

In 2009, Carlos Ignacio Velasco, a soft-spoken, whip-

smart young Colombian working as a representative of his

country’s coffee industry in Tokyo, met Mayumi Ogata, a

passionate chocolate connoisseur who had just completed a

four-year pursuit to identify the world’s finest varieties of


After working for years in a premium chocolate

company, Mayumi had wearied of the toll the industry took

on farmers and the earth. More than 90 percent of the

world’s chocolate is produced by about five million

smallholder families, 90 percent of whom earn less than two

dollars per day. And 70 percent of cacao is cultivated in

West Africa, often through unsustainable farming methods

that have worn down the soil. Faced with these alarming

statistics, Mayumi sought new areas where high-quality

varieties of the cacao fruit could be cultivated more

profitably for the farmers and without harming the planet.

Of the many places she’d visited, from Indonesia to

Bolivia, Colombia ultimately captured Mayumi’s heart.

There, she found diverse, delicate varieties of cacao in a

number of regions. But these same regions also had

suffered a half century of civil war, and still bore wounds

from the violence of drug lords, FARC (Revolutionary Armed

Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, and paramilitaries. The lands

rich in cacao also are geographically isolated from

Colombia’s main cities, and education and skills levels are

quite low. Despite the risks, Mayumi assessed that

prospects for cacao production were phenomenal there.

Besides, she loved a challenge.

Carlos had already been thinking about what more he

could do to contribute to his country: those early meetings

with Mayumi in Tokyo set his imagination alight. If Colombia

could be known for some of the best coffee beans on earth,

he wondered, why couldn’t it also build a world-class

chocolate industry? After all, coffee was introduced to

Colombia from Ethiopia in the nineteenth century. Cacao, on

the other hand, was part of the region’s natural inheritance.

Moreover, the post-conflict areas of the country needed

deliberate investment in the land and its people if peace

were to flourish. What better way to contribute than to build

a company that would produce some of the world’s finest

cacao in partnership with local communities? Here, Carlos

believed, was a chance to demonstrate the power of

business, if infused with moral imagination, to produce not

just profits for the few, but prosperity and peace where

communities had for too long felt abandoned.

Carlos and Mayumi cofounded Cacao de Colombia that

same year, 2009, and began to work on building trusted

relationships with farmers’ groups in four different post-

conflict regions. This process would take years, but time

plus conscious effort infused with moral imagination enables


In 2017, two years into Acumen’s investment in Cacao

de Colombia, I had the privilege of visiting a farming

community in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the

highest coastal mountain ranges on earth, located in

Colombia’s far north. There lie the ancestral lands of the

Arhuacos, an indigenous people known for their

commitment to living in harmony with the universe. In those

mountains, Mayumi had come upon an exquisite rare white

cacao guaranteed to produce some of the world’s finest

chocolate. She and Carlos dreamed of forming a partnership

with the Arhuacos to produce a world-class chocolate and

export a philosophy, not just a product, to the rest of the


It was certainly not a given that the Arhuacos would be

interested. They had kept their traditions intact despite

terrors imposed by colonizers, drug dealers, and soldiers.

And they considered the white cacao a sacred fruit, no

longer cultivated or commercialized. Greed-oriented

capitalism posed a new threat. Carlos and Mayumi would

therefore have to earn the Arhuacos’ trust, designing a

transformative partnership—and that took time. The work

required starting with an understanding of local history,

customs, and values before proceeding with mutual respect.

As Acumen’s Latin America director, Virgilio Barco, and I

drove with Mayumi along Colombia’s coast to our meeting

point with the Arhuacos, I asked Mayumi how the

partnership had been built. How had she and Carlos and the

Arhuacos weighed what would be gained and what would be

lost by partnering to grow and commercialize the rare


Mayumi spoke about the spirituality of the Arhuacos,

who believe in the interconnection of all living things. “I feel

a resonance with this idea,” she said. “I was raised with

Shintoism in Japan. We also see the connection between

ourselves and the natural world. Between my own belief

system and the Arhuacos’, I can count more than eight

hundred divinities inspired by water, wind, and earth. I

respond to their spiritualism. I respond to their worldview.

Our mutual understanding helped build trust. They could

feel both my respect and my connection to them.”

A spiritual connection is one way to transcend lines of

difference and locate commonality. Mayumi and Carlos

could also have connected based on other strands of their

identities (their love of nature, their commitment to

learning), but for Mayumi especially, spiritual bonds created

the basis for her deep curiosity and respect.

We arrived at a modest village nestled by the pale blue

sea where it greets a sudden rise of green, towering

mountains. I thought to myself: No wonder the Arhuacos

believe this place to be the center of the universe.

Mamo Camilo, a spiritual leader, and several of his

associates welcomed us warmly and guided us to sit with

them beneath a tree. The Arhuacos wear simple, homespun

white tunics and loosely fitted trousers. The men’s long

black hair cascades out of their white woven caps, which

symbolize the snow-capped peaks of the sacred mountains.

Mamo Camilo, distinguished and serene, though

undifferentiated in dress, clearly garnered the respect of the

other Arhuacos, who made way for him when he walked by

and hung on his words when he spoke.

The mamos (wise guides) exert powerful influence

within Arhuaco communities. Selected as boys, they train

for a decade, learning the philosophy of the Arhuacos, along

with traditional medicinal practices and the arts of listening

and arbitrating differences among people. The day I first

visited the Arhuacos with Carlos and Mayumi, the mamos

spent three hours with us, providing a master class in the

Arhuaco cosmology. The Arhuacos believe that nature and

society are united by a single immutable law of the universe

that has always existed and always will, even after human

beings have left the planet.

“We see your culture as the world’s little brother,”

Mamo Camilo said, with no trace of scolding. “Your people

think the land is for their pleasure alone. Ours is a

philosophy that must grow with maturity. We the Arhuacos

are the elder brothers. We come with understanding that we

must respect all living creatures of the earth. We seek

harmony. Now the land has given us the rarest cacao, and it

is to all of us to nurture and ensure its preservation.”

As Mamo Camilo expounded on the cosmology of the

Arhuacos, he modeled something else: how to own your

power. His confidence and worldview were essential

components of his negotiations. Though economically

“poorer,” his community was arguably richer in spirit and

happiness. And he understood that the Arhuacos had

something to give—not just materially, but in terms of their

philosophy. After acknowledging and affirming the respectful

way in which Carlos and Mayumi had entered negotiations,

Mamo Camilo shared some of his worries about partnering

with those who operate in a modern capitalist system. What

happens to the earth if we see it as a resource but not a


As we walked back toward the village center together, I

noticed some of the young men holding cell phones. I

wondered aloud how the tribe ultimately would draw the

line between needs and wants, and whether entering a

contract with the company might open a Pandora’s box of


“We understand that we cannot live in the past,” Mamo

Camilo said. “To survive, we must engage with the larger

world. Today, our people need phones if they are going to

interact with others beyond the Arhuacos. We need a few

other essential things, like batteries and solar lights. And we

need to continually remind ourselves of our responsibility for

the earth.”

Then he added that they would not have made a deal

with anyone but Cacao de Colombia, because of an earned

mutual respect, but he added a caveat: “We will partner

only so long as our project does not disturb our balance with

nature. If we lose the balance, we will end the partnership.

Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said. I believed I did.

This was a negotiation based not on extraction or profit

alone. The agreement between the Arhuacos and the

company was more covenant than contract, a moral

commitment to remaining accountable to each other, to

showing up, to listening. Spending immersive time together

had enabled each side to understand what the other needed

in order for the relationship to work. For the Arhuacos,

participation with the company was a means to sustaining

their community, enabling it to continue transmitting its

ancestral wisdom to benefit humanity. For Cacao de

Colombia, it was the opportunity to build a successful

business that valued human and natural resources, not only

financial rewards. Both community and company will be

changed by the partnership, just as any relationship of

equals changes both partners over time.

As the company grows and the Arhuacos become

wealthier as a tribe, pressures to conform to “business as

usual” and cut corners or demand faster growth will

inevitably increase. Finding values-aligned investors steeped

in their own moral imagination will be key. But had the

company’s founders not dared first to imagine what could

be, Cacao de Colombia would never have gotten started.

In 2018, the International Chocolate Awards, honoring

the best chocolates in the world, gave Arhuaco chocolates

gold and silver medals in the Single Bean and Micro-Batch

categories. This achievement was possible because of a

Shinto-observing Japanese cacao whisperer; a Catholic-

raised, Shinto-aspiring Colombian entrepreneur; and an

indigenous community adhering to a philosophy based on

oneness with the cosmos. Each had the moral imagination

to extend a hand to those who were different, seeking what

united them and bonding in purpose.

Moral imagination offers a powerful lens through which

to see the world’s potential, recognize its disparities, and

work to address them. Use it widely and practice it wisely.

Chapter 4




On a Sunday afternoon in 2015, I sat with my colleague

Bavidra Mohan in one of India’s thousands of red-and-white

Coffee Day shops. This one was on the corner of Carter Road

in Bandra, a trendy suburb in the western part of Mumbai.

We’d arranged a meeting with Vimal Kumar, newly elected

to the Acumen Fellowship in India. But it was a quarter past

the hour, with no sign of Vimal. I’d usually attribute such

tardiness to Mumbai traffic, but this was a Sunday.

I knew little about Vimal then, except that he hailed

from the same low caste, the scavengers, as the women

Ankit employed to transform temple flowers into incense

and other products. Unlike the women, who felt relatively

voiceless before working for Ankit, Vimal was an established

community leader with a megaphone. He was an activist

founder of the Movement for Scavenger Community, a

grassroots Indian NGO focused on improving conditions for

scavengers and standing for the rights of all people. He was

also earning a PhD, which seemed a Herculean achievement

to me. I wanted to understand what obstacles Vimal had

overcome, and how he had integrated his many facets.

There was much the world could learn from a man like him,

if he first understood himself.

The longer we waited at the coffee shop, the more I

wondered if Vimal might be waiting for us outside. Had I

missed him on my way in? The privileged tend to take for

granted our right to enter most places, including

department stores, banks, elite universities, upscale

restaurants, or even lines at immigration counters. For those

who have been shunned repeatedly, however, or even

“politely” informed that their kind doesn’t “fit,” nothing is

taken for granted. Though already a man of many

accomplishments, Vimal, accustomed to being unseen and

unheard, experienced “the rules” differently than I did.

I left the coffee shop and, sure enough, found him

standing outside, dressed in a yellow shirt and long

trousers, his face moist with sweat. I could have recognized

him from photos I’d seen of his broad, open face, his

penetrating eyes and dark hair parted neatly on the side.

But his smile was a dead giveaway.

“Hello, Vimal!” I said enthusiastically. He extended his

hand. I was unprepared for his soft, gentle grasp.

Instinctively, I pulled him into a hug, and was struck again

by his tentativeness. “Let’s go inside and get out of the

heat,” I said, and he smiled in agreement. As we were

walking into the cafe, I asked him what he’d like to drink

and eat. I pointed to the glass cabinets of croissants,

muffins, and sandwiches. Vimal insisted that all he wanted

was water.

Back at our table, Bavidra and I mostly listened as Vimal

shared stories of his childhood. He counted himself among

the lucky ones. Boys and girls from his caste were typically

denied education and rejected by schools. Sometimes

parents’ own fears—of rejection or failure—were enough to

keep children out of school.

Vimal said he considered himself fortunate to have a

mother who wanted desperately for him to learn what had

not been available to her. She cleaned the toilets at a good

private school whose headmaster allowed Vimal to attend

classes—provided he sit in the back of the classroom. And

though he loved learning, Vimal endured a lonely

separateness from the rest of the boys. Everyone knew he

was considered “untouchable,” and his status was made

more visible by the fact that he could afford only patched,

ragged clothes, in sharp contrast to the school uniforms

worn by the other students.

As he grew, so did his anger at the injustice of a system

that would deny his people the opportunities considered

normal for everyone else. When the first cable company

came to his area, everyone got access to satellite TV except

for those belonging to his caste. Vimal responded by

organizing a group of local boys to tear down every installed

satellite dish. When the company replaced the satellites,

Vimal, now a street fighter, tore them down again,

promising to continue the cycle until the company agreed to

serve scavengers.

“We weren’t asking for any favors,” he said. “We just

wanted the chance to pay like everyone else.”

When the company agreed to make the satellite dishes

available to everyone, Vimal felt vindicated. Though he

wasn’t proud of an approach that involved the destruction of

property, he internalized that the powerless can sometimes

engage the powerful and “win.”

I said that our fellowship focused on nonviolent

approaches to change, yet acknowledged that history is full

of incidences of violence and wars fought by frustrated,

resentful young men with few reasons to hope for their

futures. Vimal admitted that part of him was still motivated

by anger.

“Angry with the system in general?” I asked, “or with

specific groups of people?”

“I’m angry that so many people believed India’s

problems were solved when caste was supposedly

abolished. I’m angry that my community is denied

opportunities for reasons that have nothing to do with our

abilities and everything to do with the circumstances of our


I could feel Vimal seething as he spoke, though there

also was something so gentle about him. I imagined the

warring parts of himself, his own bull and dove, the side that

could take on the world versus the side still battling the

weight of trauma and stigma. Where might he be complicit

in holding himself back? What beautiful parts from his life

experiences might he bring forth to offer the world? How

could our community help him unleash his potential?

“What are you going to do with all that anger?” I asked.

“I’m going to fight for change,” he said.

As we were leaving, Vimal thanked me for hugging him

when we first met. “This is the first time in my life,” he said,

“when I have met someone new and been welcomed as a

friend rather than interrogated as a stranger.” He went on to

say that Acumen was the first organization he’d

encountered where people actually physically touched him.

I was elevated by this opportunity to listen to Vimal

across so many generational layers of structures and

traditions intended to marginalize people like him. I felt

humbled by his humility and elated that he was now part of

our community. Yet, though I consider myself a good

listener, I realized only later that I heard only his emotional

hunger that day, and failed to hear what Vimal could not

say, failed to recognize how physically hungry he was. As

we were in a simple coffee shop and Vimal was officially part

of our fellowship, I had unmindfully assumed that when I

asked Vimal if he wanted food or drink, he’d give me an

honest reply, knowing that I would pay and that the bill

would not set me back much. What the poet Seamus

Heaney would call my “creeping privilege”1 collided with

Vimal’s utter lack of entitlement.

A few years after our first visit, Vimal admitted that he

had waited outside for me because he had no money in his

pocket. What if a server had asked him to buy a coffee or a

pastry? The thought of being seen as a loiterer panicked

him. Then, when I asked him if he wanted something to

drink or eat, he feared I might later request that he split the

bill. Though he’d not eaten in many hours, pride, or shame,

overtook his hunger.

Privilege can deafen us to those who feel less worthy or

valuable. Those for whom the system “works” can easily

become accustomed to the world rolling out a welcome mat

and learn to behave as if every place were our exclusive


Meanwhile, outsiders or those deemed “other,” who’ve

been told repeatedly that they are unworthy or don’t

belong, often internalize negative beliefs imposed on them

by others and make themselves smaller, unable to give

voice to their true feelings, opinions, or desires. If we want

to see someone more fully and demonstrate that we respect

him or her, we must learn to listen not just with our ears,

but with all of our selves—our eyes, the emotion we sense

in the other, our knowledge of their history, of their very

identity. Listening deeply and hearing all that is unsaid is

crucial to gaining awareness of self and of others.

It was another year before I had the chance to talk

directly with Vimal again. The time seemed to have changed

him. His unassuming smile was still there, but the anger was

gone. He described the various seminars he had attended,

how in the early Acumen Fellows sessions he’d start every

conversation by throwing a figurative punch.

“I kept trying to fight,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be

any other way. But none of the fellows would fight back.

Finally, I had to recognize that the other fellows were

genuinely interested in what I had to say. They wanted to

know me. When I finally paid enough attention to accept

their interest, to accept myself, I in turn wanted to listen

more to them.”

If privilege is a possible roadblock to deep listening, so

is clinging rigidly to an outsider identity. We risk holding

ourselves hostage to outdated stories of being unwanted or

underappreciated, failing to hear even direct invitations to

the proverbial table as an equal participant. Only when

Vimal allowed himself to believe that the other fellows saw

him as part of themselves could he in turn see those same

people as part of him. When individual listening is ingrained

in collective culture, the whole community is more likely to


Empowered by a sense of belonging and acceptance,

Vimal began to expand his trust to people beyond the

group, slowly taking greater risks. While running his

organization on behalf of the scavenger community and

studying for his PhD, he also started consulting on questions

of diversity for companies such as Microsoft. He broadened

his view of the world, standing for issues related both to his

caste and to other marginalized groups.

A few months later, in 2016, Vimal and I met again in

Mumbai, this time at the tail end of a weeklong Acumen trip

across India with a group of donors (or partners, as we call

them). My team wanted the group to meet not only with

Acumen investee companies, but also with the fellows, both

to understand the purpose of supporting such a diverse

cohort of emerging leaders and, we hoped, to forge new

friendships and reinforce the idea of a single community

bound by shared values.

The Friday afternoon sun was bright as about ten

partners and ten fellows gathered in Acumen’s offices, a

light-filled space above a major thoroughfare in Bandra. The

office windows, covered with shades in Acumen’s colors

(fuchsia, lime green, violet, and royal blue), overlooked a

handful of trees, though you could hear the sounds of auto-

rickshaws and cars jamming the streets below. The partners

and fellows were there to practice deep listening.

In an exercise inspired by the nonprofit oral history

project StoryCorps, we paired each partner with a fellow and

sent them on a walk along Carter Road, a path that winds

along the Arabian Sea. We hoped the chance to look

outward while moving side by side would soften edges and

enable more intimate exchanges.

Each duo was instructed to walk for half an hour as one

person listened to the other’s story (twenty minutes of

sharing, then ten minutes for questions); they would

exchange the roles on the walk back. A Swedish filmmaker

accompanied an Indian woman engineer; an American

business leader walked alongside an Indian schoolteacher.

The goal was to discover not what made them different, but

what they shared.

Back at the office, the group reunited. The air felt

electric. A number of attendees remarked on the rare gift of

having someone give you their undivided attention. Active

listening, we agreed, is one of the deepest forms of respect.

I asked each person to introduce his or her partner,

emphasizing any common ground they had uncovered. We

had paired Vimal with the American social psychologist

Jonathan Haidt, whose work focused on how we speak to

one another, in part because they were both so interested in

the role of culture in society. And as they were chatting

happily when they rejoined the group, I calculated that they

would be a good duo to kick off the discussion.

Jonathan offered to start. He smiled as he referenced

the good fortune of meeting Vimal, but his voice became

more serious as he spoke. “I know I’m supposed to talk

about all that Vimal and I share,” he said. “But truthfully,

our lives have little in common. I grew up in a privileged

environment as a well-educated American. My parents gave

me every opportunity and every advantage. My children

have even more privilege.

“Vimal,” he continued, “has had to fight disadvantage

his entire life. His mother carried human waste in a basket

on her head, cleaning the village and finally the school.

Vimal was allowed to attend classes, but his mother had no

idea how isolated he was. When he was eight years old, she

invited her son’s entire class to their home to celebrate

Vimal’s birthday. She cleaned and cooked for two whole

days, all the while imagining the joy her little boy would feel

with his friends celebrating him. But they waited all day,

and not a single student showed up.”

Jonathan’s eyes welled with tears. “I have an eight-year-

old son, and I can’t bear the thought of what it would mean

for him to be in a similar situation. No, you see, Vimal and I

aren’t alike. My life has been so easy in comparison.”

Vimal reached over, putting his arm on Jonathan’s


“No, Jon,” Vimal softly admonished, “there is much that

we share. You love India. I love India. We both have studied

marginal groups. We both have two children. Plus, you are a

Jew. You know what it means to be persecuted for no reason

other than something you were born into being. You know

how unfair and unproductive that is.” He paused.

“And besides”—now Vimal smiled—“we both have


When we dare to meet another as a friend, willing to

hear painful and uncomfortable truths, we can discover the

parts of our identities that overlap. We can acknowledge the

other person’s—and our own—yearning to be seen. True

listening is more than the act of hearing another’s words. It

is the unspoken recognition of our shared humanity.

Today, we exchange more words with one another than

at any time in history. Yet how many people are really

listening? Not only are we distracted by our devices, but we

see leaders everywhere doing everything but listening,

becoming louder and shriller in their arguments. With those

who seem opposed to our views, we can be especially like

strangers, acting as if those who speak a different language

should easily understand our words. Our hearts and our

heads are divided at precisely the time when we most need

them to work in tandem.

Those in positions of authority—anyone whose words

might carry greater weight than the voices of others—need

to listen more, and not assume that because the rules work

for them, they know what works for everyone. Yet I’ve also

witnessed nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs undervalue

the experience and knowledge of donors and investors

based on their own narrow assumptions.

Listening effectively can influence the way we perceive

others in all directions. Just as being poor says nothing

about a person’s character, neither does the bank account

that marks someone as rich. In the world of fund-raising,

I’ve witnessed grant or investment seekers categorically

write off the person who failed to approve their request

rather than take the time to listen to the former’s

constructive feedback. Strategically, as my friend and

founding Acumen board member Stuart Davidson says, “If

you want advice, ask for money. If you want to raise money,

ask for advice.” We all yearn to be recognized.

Markets, too, can be a powerful listening device,

efficiently allocating resources to places where customers

are saying most clearly, “We want this.” Think of it this way.

If I offer you a gift, how likely are you to turn it down, even if

it doesn’t quite meet your needs? But what if I treat you as

a customer? You and I might haggle over the price, but as

the seller, I will know a lot more about your likes and

dislikes, about where you want to spend your resources,

than if you were simply a passive recipient of my

benevolent intentions.

Yet markets fail the poor, especially those who lack

enough income to meet even basic needs. When it comes to

health care, education, drinking water, or housing, low-

income people desperate to address critical needs may

have no choice other than turning to moneylenders or

mafias for loans, often at usurious rates. The poor must

accept prices that are many times what the middle class or

wealthy might ever be required to pay. And though well-

intentioned charities might step in, seeing the pain points of

the poor, these nonprofits often bring the services they

believe low-income people need rather than the services the

poor truly require. Few stop to listen to what the poor

actually want, causing those in need to get stuck between

the cheats and the charities, their problems often

multiplying as a result.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A growing group of social

entrepreneurs is turning conventional models of capitalism

upside down and reimagining business from the perspective

not only of the wealthy, but specifically, of the vulnerable.

These entrepreneurs start by listening to the poor with the

understanding that we can solve our problems if we begin

by treating low-income people not as passive recipients of

charity but as customers who desire and deserve a greater

sense of agency to make their own decisions and chart the

courses of their own lives.

Consider the issue of electricity. Thomas Edison

developed the incandescent lightbulb in 1879 and

commercialized its production the following year. It has

been more than 140 years, and nearly a billion people on

earth still have no access to electricity. On the African

continent alone, more than six hundred million people live in

darkness once the sun goes down, losing productivity and

security as well as a thousand other things the rest of us

take for granted.

Energy poverty, as the gap in global electricity is called,

is not just a market failure. It is a moral failure. The world

possesses the technology, the know-how, and the financial

resources to solve the challenge of universal electricity. Our

individual and collective will has been the single most

important impediment to lighting the world. But this is

slowly changing as a small group of social entrepreneurs

combine exciting new clean-energy technologies with

financially sustainable business models that have opened a

path to electrifying homes of the poor while helping to avert

long-term climate crisis. The best of these of models are

grounded in values of listening and paying attention to

behaviors of low-income people as well as their words.

All people desire at least some level of light, and all

require a heat source for cooking. Most low-income Africans

still depend on kerosene-fueled hurricane lamps, a

technology America and Europe ditched a century ago.

Though a ten-billion-dollar market, kerosene as an energy

source is dirty, dangerous, and expensive, but that market

has remained strong because there have been no good,

affordable, accessible kerosene alternatives available to the


There are structural and practical reasons that kerosene

remains in widespread use. First, households are able to

acquire it in tiny amounts. In Kenya, for instance, the

average low-income household spends about forty cents a

day to light a hurricane lantern in the evenings. If a family

falls on hard times, they can skip a night or two of light and

purchase more when better times return. Second, because

such small amounts are sold at a time, merchants build in a

very high profit margin. Mafias, or predatory businesses,

control access to kerosene and often have strong ties to

local government officials. These officials use tax dollars to

subsidize the price of kerosene for low-income people in

exchange for votes. Kerosene is therefore widely available,

and often the only option a poor household has. It provides

energy for light, but at a high cost to the individual in terms

of income, health, and quality of life.

However, despite ingrained hurdles, any system can

change if we care enough. Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun are

two entrepreneurs determined to reject the status quo that

has kept more than 1.5 billion people dependent on

kerosene. And they know how to listen.

Raised in a household of aid workers, Sam grew up

mostly in the developing world playing with boys and girls

who, though woefully lacking in opportunity, wanted to do

the same things he did. After university, he lived in an

unelectrified village in Benin, West Africa, as a Peace Corps

volunteer. He saved money by wearing a small LED

headlamp at night so that he could read and go to the

outdoor latrine without suffering the effects of the

expensive, smoky kerosene that wreaked havoc on his


“For years, I accepted that a state of darkness went

hand in hand with village life,” he once told me. Until, one

night, a kerosene lantern toppled over in his neighbor’s

home, burning down the house and severely injuring the

eldest son.

Sam decided to do something. He began by writing to a

number of companies that sold portable lights, hoping he

might become a distributor. No one responded. His next

move was to apply to Stanford Business School with the

intention of learning how to start the company he could not

yet find. There, he met Ned, an engineer who had recently

worked in Malawi recording the stories of AIDS victims. He,

too, wanted to start a business that would empower the

poor. Both Ned and Sam understood the system that kept

people in poverty as it was, but they focused instead on

what could be done to change it.

Many young entrepreneurs might have been

overwhelmed by the complicated dynamics of low-income

markets. The most economically disadvantaged live in

places dominated by vested interests engaged in the

“industry” of poverty—not just local mafias, but local

politicians, who often have a personal stake in controlling

the funds allocated for a community or region; religious

leaders; and even mothers-in-law who often prefer to

maintain their own privileged status within a social system

that, though broken for most people, works for them. But in

such a corrupt and complicated system, there is almost no

top-down way to solve a problem like electricity access.

From the start, Ned and Sam’s entrepreneurial

advantage was embedded in their experiences in Africa and

their respect for the poor as customers. They started small

and listened closely, all the while imagining the world they

hoped to create. While still at Stanford, they developed a

single prototype for a solar-powered lantern.

In 2007 when Sam and Ned first brought their idea to

my team at Acumen, we didn’t have a lot to work with. Their

business plan for a company called d.light rested on their

assumption that they could sell their lantern for thirty

dollars, the two reasoning that if the average household

paid about forty cents daily for kerosene, it would take them

less than three months to save up for the lamp. The young

entrepreneurs had built some networks, but it was their

character that ultimately convinced Acumen to invest. Our

intuition told us that they were seekers like us, driven by the

right ideals and prepared to back those up with grit.

The d.light founders listened right from the outset. They

asked their customers for ways to improve the product itself

—though at first they learned very little. Real listening is not

a onetime event. If you want to build a solution for a group

that has traditionally had no voice, be prepared to listen

continuously. It may take you longer than you think to hear

what people are actually saying, especially when they have

no reason to trust you.

Of course, Ned and Sam made mistakes and found

themselves in dead ends—for years. That is the price of

building an entirely new market. While, theoretically, low-

income people could pay off a thirty-dollar light over three

months, given the precariousness of their lives, they could

not save enough to meet the monthly payments. And even

if they loved the product, most of them had doubts about

this newfangled way of lighting their homes. Why should

they risk their hard-earned money on something that might

break in a month? Few had seen a product like this in the

marketplace. Better to stay with something they knew.

Sam and Ned took failure in stride, listening for clues as

to what might succeed. They knew they would have to work

harder to earn trust. Building a company infused with

purpose was the founders’ antidote to wariness. That meant

inculcating in every employee a definition of success based

on more than just selling whatever they could to earn a

day’s income; this company was going to light the world.

And every employee needed to believe in that vision

and internalize it. They had to treat every potential

customer with deep respect, showing up repeatedly, asking

questions, and listening to people, even if they didn’t like

what they had to say. In time, d.light began to earn

customers, and the company learned to build real


I remember, years later, when d.light had become an

established company, sitting in a rural hut in central Kenya

with an unlikely trio: Teresia, a pint-size grandmother; her

sweet one-year-old grandson, on her lap; and David, a burly

Australian with a shock of white hair, the company’s Africa

director. We were there because Teresia and her daughter

had purchased one of the lanterns a few months prior, and

we wanted to hear her impressions.

Teresia’s face—calm, lined, square—make me think of

my Austrian grandmother, who also grew up on a rural farm

and knew the sweat of hard work. Though Teresia lived in a

small house that could feel like midnight inside in the

middle of the day, she lit up as she turned on her solar

lantern, telling us how it had changed her life, how even

during daily brownouts in her village, when the grid stopped

working, she was still able to see.

“So, how could the company improve the light?” I asked.

She hesitated for a second, then placed her hand on her

hip, cocked her head to the side, and spoke directly to

David. “It would be good if the light could charge the cell

phone while charging itself as well,” she said. I smiled at the

glint in her eye, the seriousness of her intent. I’d witnessed

so many encounters in which well-intentioned charities

asked people if they appreciated the services delivered and,

inevitably, the beneficiaries nodded their heads and told

them all was well.

But this time, Teresia was giving us advice. We were

listening to her, and not the other way around.

I thanked her for her good comments.

She responded by raising her eyebrow and giving me a

look to indicate that she was not finished making


I loved it.

“Two,” she continued, “you know, batteries for the radio

are too expensive. We couldn’t listen to the presidential

debates this time around. It would be better if the light

could also charge a radio.”

Now she was on fire, waving her arms. Two other

modifications to improve the lantern came in quick


I watched David’s face: he listened to each question and

answered respectfully. And then, inspired by Teresia, he, too,

told the truth, explaining in understandable terms what the

company could try to change and what would be too

expensive. She may not have liked every answer, but she

respected his candor.

Though this simple scene should be the norm in

business–customer interactions, two human beings

considering each other’s best interest—the level of mutual

listening felt extraordinary to me. I’d become accustomed to

witnessing people avoiding telling one another the truth. I’d

seen too many low-income “beneficiaries” pander as

privileged benefactors spoke with arrogant certainty.

This scene was different. The towering man and tiny

woman from disparate worlds were not just listening, they

were seeing each other. They were speaking as absolute

equals. In the space between them, call it love or divinity,

were the seeds of mutual respect, the opportunity for each

of them to be transformed.

By listening, Sam and Ned discovered that once their

customers made the first step from kerosene to solar, they

quickly wanted more. D.light went on to design a suite of

products, ranging from a simple five-dollar lamp for the

poorest up to full home systems that included multiple

lights, a cell phone charger, a radio, and, if they could afford

it, a flat-screen television. As investors, we began to

understand that there was an “energy ladder”: once people

got a taste of clean energy, they wanted more of it.

And why wouldn’t they? Imagine living in utter darkness

once the sun goes down in your home, regardless of where

you live. Now visualize living in a rural area, lying on a mat

on hard ground, hearing the sounds of animals and of

howling winds, not knowing what creatures are crawling

around or over you. Think of being a woman alone with her

small children while her husband works far away to earn

their daily bread; consider her fears that an intruder might

be lurking outside her isolated hut, hidden in the night’s

blackness. Such troubles and terrors add layers of stress to

the weightiness of poverty.

Then picture the dignity of flicking a switch and

illuminating your room. For anyone who lives without

electricity, the feeling can be miraculous. The scores of

customers I have met over my years investing in d.light

have reframed the way I understand the power of electricity.

A radio can stave off loneliness and bring the outside world

into a postage stamp–size room. A light can quell a dark

night’s fears and insecurities. A charged cell phone can

connect you to love and protection.

We miss many opportunities by assuming we have the

answers. Ned and Sam succeeded where many other

endeavors did not because they approached the poor as co-

creators in solving the problem of energy access. Through

repeated listening, they helped their customers realize that

they were there to serve them, not simply to take their


And because the d.light team listened, and did the hard

work to follow up on what they’d heard, more than one

hundred million people now have clean light and,

increasingly, electricity. That is about one-third of the entire

population of the United States.

Sam, Ned, and the d.light team also helped ignite a

clean energy revolution that could change how Africa brings

electricity to all its people, averting long-term climate

change effects in the process. Imagine the human potential,

the human energy, that might be unlocked by this solar-

powered electricity.

Listening is a lifelong process. It requires continual

practice, especially when we’ve become too accustomed to

believing that our own assumptions are correct. I learned

this truth for the umpteenth time on an incredibly hot day in

Bahawalpur, Pakistan, an agricultural center in one of the

country’s most fertile areas, also known for its extremist

madrasas. I’d gone there to meet a group of women

weavers. They were sitting by their looms outside, beneath

a thatched shelter. Their husbands were farmers who

borrowed from our agricultural bank investee, so I knew the

families were building savings.

At the time of my visit to Bahawalpur, d.light was selling

a seven-dollar solar lantern with great success, especially in

East Africa. I hoped to see d.light come to Pakistan, where

the electricity grid reaches only about 65 percent of the

nation’s two hundred million people and, even then, might

bring electricity for only two or three hours a day in some

areas. I enthusiastically described the solar light to the

women’s group, marketing its attributes and asking if they’d

be interested in buying one if we could bring it to their


Twenty pairs of tired eyes stared at me. No response.

I asked again. This time, a heavyset woman with a

husky voice, a brown veil draped loosely over her hennaed

hair, her face shining with sweat, leaned forward on ample

haunches. “We don’t need a light,” she said flatly. “Bring us

a fan.”

For a moment, I was speechless and stared back. “A

fan? I don’t have a fan. I have a light.”

“We don’t want a light. We want a fan.”

“But this is a great light. It will allow you to stay up later.

Your children can study. You can work in the evenings.”

She cut me off: “We work enough. We’re hot. Bring us a


Until that moment, I’d never considered the importance

of a fan as opposed to a light. When it is so hot that even

the cows lie down, a fan can matter more than a light. Plus,

people already had light, even if it came from dangerous,

smelly, expensive kerosene. In East Africa, where the nights

are cool, people don’t ask for fans. But customers are not

the same in every market. Once again, I was reminded that

if you want to serve, you must begin by listening, not


That night at my guesthouse, I took a cold shower and

lay beneath the ceiling fan, grateful; never before did I so

appreciate a fan.

Fast-forward a few years. Acumen began to invest in

solar companies in Pakistan. I visited a family compound in

the Punjab region that appeared unchanged since the

sixteenth century: men in turbans, women in purdah,

farmers using hand tools and plows in their endless fields of

mustard and sunflowers. The family I spoke with had

recently purchased a solar home system from a local

company that included multiple lights, a cell phone charger,

a radio … and a fan. The woman of the household told me

that the fan impacted her children’s ability to study more

than the lights. “The fan keeps the air moving at night and

the insects at bay. My children can sleep, which makes them

better students.” I nodded, remembering what I had learned

during my visit to Bahawalpur.

We miss so much by assuming we have the answers.

Instead, learn to listen with your whole body. Listen with

your ears, your eyes, all your senses. Listen not to convince

or to convert, but to change yourself, spark your moral

imagination, soften your hardened edges, and open yourself

to the world. When we fail to listen to those the world

excludes, we lose the possibility of solving problems that

matter most to all of us. But when we succeed at listening

with all our attention and empathy, we have a chance to set

others and ourselves free.

Chapter 5




If deep listening enables seeing beyond another’s words,

understanding identity can provide potent tools to empower

and unite. Identity can also be a trap, dividing us from one

another, sometimes with toxic or even deadly

consequences. Learning to navigate the many layers of your

own identity, while also expanding your awareness of the

multiple layers of others’, is an essential twenty-first-

century skill, one that can take a lifetime to acquire. Begin

on the path to mastery by discovering the many stories that

can be only yours.

I was born the eldest daughter in a patriotic American

immigrant military family. My childhood memories are filled

with identity-shaping moments: Catholic school and Mass on

Sunday, elders telling me to “be a good girl” (and to earn

good grades), and the constant rhythm of warm, boisterous

family events that usually included polka music and folk

dancing. Each school day, I pledged allegiance to the

American flag; weekly, I made the Girl Scout pledge “to

serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and

to live by the Girl Scout law.” That my dad did several tours

in Vietnam reinforced the ideas of self-sacrifice and

commitment at the core of my sense of self.

On Sundays, I would sit in church next to my mother,

who always dressed up and sometimes covered her head

with a black mantilla, her beautiful face serene. While at

church, she did not reveal the spitfire woman so familiar to

me the rest of the week. Priests and nuns encouraged us to

give “to the hungry children in China,” and though I was

only five or six years old, I regularly dropped half my fifty-

cent allowance in the poor box at the back of the church. An

empathetic child, I grew increasingly aware of the disparities

around me, though I still saw the world as divided between

good guys and bad guys—and I assumed I was one of the

good guys.

As I grew older, my life choices added contours to my

sense of who I was, challenging what I had believed and my

understanding of where I belonged. By my mid-twenties, my

work experience in scores of countries across Asia, Africa,

and Latin America made me yearn to know the world in its

manifold layers. I wanted to belong to the world, too.

The more I encountered, the more I questioned and,

unsurprisingly, the more I changed. With each change, I

came closer to my true self. This required jettisoning beliefs

and practices that no longer served my expanding

understanding of the world or of the identities I was

choosing to inhabit.

At the age of twenty-six, I sat down with my beloved

father and told him that I was questioning whether I could

continue to call myself a Catholic. I still remember the

disappointed, confused look my questioning caused. I loved

the stories and the Gospels, the rituals and music—in so

many ways, I was religious—but I didn’t love how the Church

excluded; its actual practices too often countered my own

beliefs. I could not reconcile that some people were

welcomed into the Church’s community, and others were

not; nor that women were so diminished within the Church’s


I asked him, “I’ve worked alongside people in Muslim

and Hindu and other religious communities and want to

understand more about them. Aren’t their ‘essential truths’

the same as ours?” And didn’t true spirituality have to do

with seeing yourself in every other human being, and they

in you?

Life had been teaching me what sages and saints had

written about for centuries. As the American poet Walt

Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself” in 1855, “I am large. I

contain multitudes,” singing through his poetry to an

expansive identity reminiscent of the words of the

thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi: “You are not a drop in the

ocean. You are the ocean in a drop.”

By this time, I could no longer embrace the idea that my

truths were of a higher or even separate order from those of

people practicing other religions. I was grateful for my

religious education but yearned to explore beyond its solid

edges. I had begun to see myself as entangled with other

peoples and other faiths, ideas I carried within myself: the

ocean in a drop.

It devastated me to hurt my father. The conversation I

had with him challenged me much more than when I

informed my parents that I was leaving Wall Street to work

in Africa. Our debate about religion threatened our family’s

core identity, potentially puncturing the heart of my most

personal community. My heart ached, for I wanted no one’s

approval more than my father’s and mother’s.

“Will you ever go to church again?” my father asked, not

with anger but with quietude.

“I will when I am home with you,” I responded. I didn’t

want to renounce or fully abandon parts of what I’d been

given, but I understood the need to embrace the new as

well. I promised that my deeds would make my parents

proud. I hope to this day that they have.

As I went on to experience more people and places, the

various parts of my identity became more nuanced. As the

saying goes, you will never know the East Side till you move

to the West. By working and living in other countries, I

began to see America, the land of my birth, in more

complex ways. I loved my country’s ideals and felt grateful

daily to be an American woman. We are a can-do nation of

immigrants from all corners of the globe, exuberant in our

sense of possibility, proud to be a place where anyone,

regardless of birth status, can achieve greatness. Even

today, when I run alongside the Hudson River, I silently

salute Lady Liberty, gratefully acknowledging her welcoming

promise to all peoples seeking to make their lives on her

shores and to contribute to the American experiment.

Yet, just as with Catholicism, I also grew in awareness of

the more shameful parts of my American identity, which

continue to limit the nation’s full potential. This includes the

legacies of American imperialism suffered by Native

Americans, the still-open wounds of slavery, and the unjust

number of incarcerated young men of color. I began to

recognize that every one of us, and every society as a

whole, is a mix of light and shadow. In that realization, I

found, and continue to find, extraordinary potential for

growth, for relationships and self-discovery, for a new

idealism grounded in the gritty, sometimes ugly realities of

everyday work to be done.

Thirty years after that conversation with my father, I

feel profoundly grateful for my multiple identities, both

inherited and chosen. Each part of me is a chance to

connect to others. Growing up in a big immigrant family

made interacting with more community-oriented people in

Africa, Asia, and Latin America feel closer to home for me.

My Catholic upbringing helped me connect to other

traditional religious communities, as I understood what it

meant to prioritize family, daily rituals, and prayer, and to

honor religious leaders who interpret holy texts. The

daughter of an army colonel, I am comfortable considering

myself a citizen soldier, and I respect the discipline,

diversity, and leadership grown by the military. As a New

Yorker, I feel a kinship to residents of big cities such as

Mumbai and Karachi, Nairobi and Lagos. My inherited love of

literature has connected me to new places by making

conversations with strangers easier, providing a means of

conveying curiosity rather than tired assumptions about

their societies.

Each of us contains a multitude. The more identities we

carry within, the more chances to discover that we are at

once unique and bound by commonalities. So, as the

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asks, why, then,

do we reduce individuals to a single story, a single identity

that can too easily be infused with our greatest fears about

one another?

I witnessed firsthand the fragility and potential

deadliness of reductive identity during the aftermath of the

Rwandan genocide. I sat in foul prisons listening to women

whom I had considered friends rant about the evil of the

Tutsis while fully believing the Tutsis would have murdered

the country’s other main tribe, the Hutus, had not the Hutus

killed them first. Those encounters taught me that monsters

and angels exist in every one of us.

Our monsters are the broken parts of ourselves, the

shames and hurts and grievances often carried from

generation to generation. If we do not confront them

peacefully yet directly, those broken parts make us

vulnerable to externalizing our pain through anger, violence,

or a deadening bitterness. In times of insecurity, the divisive

language and policies of demagogues prey upon our

weaknesses, urging us to cast blame for our problems on

those who are deemed “other.” Too often, such language

successfully entreats us to do horrendous things to one


I have lost too many friends to violence in the name of

identity. Perhaps this is why I believe so strongly in the

Lebanese French writer Amin Maalouf’s explanation (in In

the Name of Identity) of how identity operates within each

of us. According to Maalouf, we each maintain a “hierarchy

of identities” that rise and fall depending on whether a

particular identity is threatened. When one of our identities

is attacked, it becomes easy to perceive ourselves only as

that identity, for how others see us can have a significant

impact on how we see ourselves.

Think about your own diverse identities—your gender,

religion, race, ethnicity, tribe, sexual identity, citizenship or

refugee status, your schools. Which parts give you pride?

Which parts shame? I’d be surprised if most didn’t give you

both. You might be a vegetarian or a carnivore; an extrovert

or an introvert; an athlete; someone who loves classical

music or hip-hop, novels or nonfiction; a nature lover or an

urbanite—likely, your mix includes at least a few

contradictions. Our personal commitments form aspects of

our identities, too. Now think of those times when a single

part of you felt threatened and you were reduced, either by

others or yourself, to a single identity. The world plays along

in these moments, flattening our sense of self to the point of


My own identity shape-shifts when confronted with the

world around me. I feel more American when I am being

questioned at a dinner party in Karachi about U.S. drone

policy. When I am held at U.S. immigration for questioning

because of all the Pakistan stamps in my passport, I become

equally a global citizen and an American who wants my

country to treat immigrants with greater respect. Perhaps,

instead, we could start by understanding the many

identities inside ourselves, avoid the temptation of labels

and the demonization of others, and search for common

ground in those who might seem different at first blush.

If holding our multiple identities and recognizing that all

people carry myriad identities within themselves is a crucial

step toward navigating difference in an interdependent

world, a second essential skill is understanding how others

perceive you, especially with regard to power and privilege.

Throughout my twenties, I sharpened the first skill by

interacting with other cultures. In my early thirties, a painful

confrontation with the more privileged parts of my identity

had to take place before I could fully learn the second skill.

In 1996, Peter Goldmark and Angela Blackwell,

president and senior vice president, respectively, of the

Rockefeller Foundation in New York, determined to build a

leadership program to confront “the fault lines of race, class

and ideology in America.” Four years earlier, Los Angeles

had exploded with riots over the acquittal of police officers

who’d brutally beaten Rodney King, an African American

motorist. The 1991 beating had been caught on video and

seen hundreds of millions of times (before smartphones or

Facebook). Because of the riots that followed the beating,

more than 2,300 people were injured, 62 were killed, and

the city experienced a loss of more than a billion dollars.

Over the next four years, across the United States, identity

politics grew more hostile.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s most senior leadership

wanted to try to do something about a deteriorating civic

conversation in America. The two leaders of the foundation

tapped me to create and lead this new program. I had

already learned something about navigating differences

while working in Rwanda, and I had tried to become a

respectful listener as well. I loved the idea of confronting the

fractures of American democracy through investing in

diverse young leaders and was elated to build a program

that would support their development. At the same time, I

also felt that I was exactly the wrong person to lead that

program. I was white. My orientation was more global than

local. I had dreamed of investing in businesses that served

the poor, not supporting individuals to lead.

However, the need was there, the opportunity was

there, and no one else had stepped in to build something

like it. My mentor John Gardner, whom you met in chapter 1,

reminded me to be more interested than interesting. “You

will learn to understand the rest of the world better if you do

the work to know your own country,” he said to me. “You’ll

be able to speak with greater humility if you can speak from

experience about the challenges that your own country


After much thought, I decided to start a new chapter in

my life and let the work teach me. Together with a small,

diverse and mighty team, I helped create the Next

Generation Leaders program. The scope of our ambition

thrilled me, though when we started, I had no idea of all

that I’d have to learn to give the program even the slightest

chance of success.

On the first evening of the NGL fellows gathering, as

everyone sat down to dinner, I formally introduced myself.

Twenty-four fellows sat around a horseshoe-shaped table,

representing diverse slices of the American pie, including a

Korean American leader of a community group from New

York City, an African American leader fighting to eliminate

the death penalty, a fighter pilot in the marines, and a gay

Latina activist for immigrant rights, just to name a few. After

welcoming these fellows, I began: “I hope we will use the

group itself not only to explore differences but to

understand one another, so that we in turn might better

understand ourselves.”

Heads nodded as I spoke. Though I was nervous, I

thought, So far, so good.

Given our diversity, I continued, we also hoped to define

rituals as a means of creating shared experiences and, thus,

bonds among us. Each night, before dinners together, I

suggested that a different fellow start the meal by sharing a

poem, a blessing, a quote, or silence. Each fellow could

choose whether to share his or her own tradition, whether

religious or atheist, or to honor another one. What mattered

was the fellow’s gift of reflection and an openness from the

rest of the group to receive it.

An African American minister from Chicago stood up

that first evening, choosing traditional words of thanksgiving

for the meal we were about to eat and ending with a quiet

“Amen.” Many in the group repeated the amen, but a young

African American activist stood and accused me of “making

this a Christian thing.” I reiterated that we hoped to create

the space not for what separated us but for what we shared.

He fired back that people shouldn’t be forced to hear

dinnertime prayers. Heads nodded in agreement.

The evening had barely begun, and I’d lost the group.

Over the next few months, the group regularly devolved

into arguments about identity rather than focusing on how

we might actually solve problems. I hired two elderly white

scholars to lead “Good Society” sessions, a powerful

exercise taken from the Aspen Institute, in which

participants reflect on their own values by interacting as a

group with the writings of philosophers and activists

spanning from Plato to Hobbes, Rousseau, King, and

Mandela. Upset that the readings mostly came from “dead

white men,” some of the fellows refused to participate.

I did not know how to handle the situation, and the two

facilitators ultimately left the session. The same young man

who had raised issues around having a minister share a

prayer made it clear from the beginning that I, a white

woman of privilege, should not run a program built for a

diverse collection of emerging American leaders.

Part of me thought he was right. My own insecurities

stunted my ability to bring my whole self forward, though

that was precisely what I was asking the group to do.

Ultimately, the group avoided rigorous debates about how

society might do better at encompassing our diversity.

Opinions, not reason, dominated. Some fellows remained so

busy defending their own identities that we collectively

failed to make the effort to engage with the identities of


The lowest point of the year occurred at the end of a

seminar, during a go-round in which each fellow shared an

insight or question from the week’s activities. When it was

the African American activist’s turn, he suggested that this

was the right moment for me to resign. I thanked him for his

comments, but I had no answers, not for the unasked

questions swirling in the room and not even for the

questions I’d posed myself.

The weight of the room’s silence and the staring eyes of

the fellows pressed in on my chest, intensifying my feelings

of shame and guilt. Even though I’d put heart and soul into

working with my team to create and fund this program, and

had delivered on the promise of a group that reflected

America’s diversity, I had failed to facilitate difficult yet

constructive conversations. For nearly an entire year, I had

been unable to build a sense of wholeness and a connected

group that could learn from itself. And rather than share the

burden of failure with the group, I erred in thinking that the

program’s deficiencies were the sole responsibility of me

and my team.

Later that night, after a good cry, I finally came to a

reckoning with myself. The young activist had pinpointed

one of the most unresolved parts of my identity: my

privilege. It didn’t matter how I perceived myself. What

mattered in that moment was how others saw me. Until that

experience, I saw myself as an industrious woman from a

big, middle-class family who had paid her way through

college and business school and who would face the

monthly stress of school debt repayments for yet another

decade. As a young person, I was aware that being a white

American afforded me vastly better opportunities, but I also

wanted to claim the “scrappy independent woman” part of

my identity that was unafraid of sweat and hard work.

Yet, if I did not fully see myself as a woman of privilege,

my identity had expanded to include working at the

Rockefeller Foundation with a well-used passport and a

Stanford MBA. If I hadn’t been born an elite, I had certainly

become one, regardless of how I saw myself. Only when I

was able to integrate the person I had become with the

person I once was would I be able to serve in ways that


Finally, I understood: by hiding parts of my identity, I

had been denying myself and others what I could bring to

the table. Because I had not laid the groundwork to know

myself and claim a legitimacy for running the program, I

had never been able to address the polarization that held

the room hostage to identity politics and made it difficult for

everyone to focus on the other issues at hand. I had failed

to recognize that identity, our own and that of others, is

always in the room.

Given all this, should I then resign? My resolve came

slowly but clearly. No. Absolutely not. That young activist did

not have the sole hold on what was right and fair. There

were many in the group who told me privately, and

repeatedly, that they were acquiring new insights and skills,

and they urged me to stay the course. So, I would take this

as an opportunity to grow personally and to expand my

understanding of both the challenges and opportunities

identity brings. I also realized in those days and weeks of

reflection that we would succeed in building a cohort of

diverse leaders who worked across lines of difference only if

we selected people who were open to changing themselves.

Without personal transformation, a moral revolution is


By the second year of the fellowship, I was able to lead

with greater self-awareness and confidence. Rather than

simply “checking,” or distancing myself from, my privilege, I

learned to know when and how to use that privilege of

authority as an asset to create space so that other voices

could be heard. I was more able to recognize, and call out,

when a fellow, holding tightly to an ideological stance on

either extreme of the political divide, was making

constructive conversation impossible. When a fellow

complained in that first year that the Rockefeller Foundation

represented the imperialist capitalist elite, I simply stared,

almost fearing to respond. But during the second year, I

made it clear that everyone in the room, by virtue of

choosing to join the fellowship, would have a new element

to his or her identity. As fellows, they would have greater

access and privilege that, in turn, required additional


I understood that my job was to make the conversation

safe enough for all sides to feel deeply uncomfortable at

times, and to grow from it. It was to challenge anyone who

was throwing around easy assumptions, asking them

instead to ground their perspectives in principles for which

they stood. It was to remind myself and every one of the

fellows that if every one of us was not open and willing to

change ourselves, we would never be able to change the


My painful stumbles at the Rockefeller Foundation gave

me a powerful new set of skills with which to navigate

identity. First, know yourself. Second, be open to the

multiple identities others might carry within themselves.

Third, the person or organization with greater power in a

particular moment must be the bridge that extends

understanding to those with less power. Without this bridge,

real conversations won’t happen.

Keep in mind that privileges tend to fluctuate depending

on context. Every one of us might feel powerful in certain

situations and powerless in others, based on how we

perceive ourselves and how others impose on us their ideas

of who we are. The more you are aware of the power you

maintain in each situation, the more likely you are to gain a

truer understanding of others.

Though I could not have known it at the time, in pushing

me way beyond my comfort zone, that painful year with the

Rockefeller Foundation’s leadership program broke me open

and allowed me to stretch to find new parts of myself. I

don’t say this lightly; I realize that knowing all the parts of

ourselves and being aware of how others see us is more of a

struggle for some than for others, and it can be more

challenging at various stages of our lives. Moreover, some

people have single identities imposed on them in ways that

can be life threatening. This is precisely why understanding

identity—which is wholly different from learning to play

identity politics—is such an important skill to learn and

teach. We grow not in easy times but in difficult ones. In our

moments of greatest division and fear, might we all become

less comfortable and forge more nuanced understandings of

our own identities, thereby opening ourselves up to explore

the identities of others?

In 2015, I traveled to Bahawalpur, Pakistan, to discuss

values and principles of moral leadership with a group of

young Pakistani Acumen fellows who hailed from all parts of

the country. Some young men wore jeans and polo shirts;

others, traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, long tunics

with loosely fitted cotton trousers. Women, representing

about 40 percent of the room, wore a mix of modern and

traditional clothing as well. It was the first time I was

meeting this particular group, but I felt a kinship given our

shared global community.

After I asked which living people would qualify as moral

leaders, I mused that the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner

in history, Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s own daughter, was

the Antigone of our times: courageous, noble, and powerful

in her pursuit of justice.

Half the room agreed with me, some with a sense of

national pride. Half shook their heads in disgust.

“She is a CIA agent,” one young man said.

Another chimed in: “She’s simply a tool of the West. The

rich Americans love her because it fits within their story.”

When I pushed to understand, the group began arguing

with one another, their words flying past me. One of the

members, a young bearded man, sat silently, scowling. I

asked the group to quiet down, and I turned to him: “Why

have you opted out of the conversation?”

“Malala is no hero of mine,” he explained. “Her story

has been manipulated to make the West feel good about


People around the table jumped in, both to protest and

to agree. I asked them to hold back and give the young man

space to say more.

He continued: “I’m from Swat, just near Malala’s village.

We were one of the most progressive places in the country.

We educated our daughters and sons in our valley. But after

the 2004 earthquake, the Taliban came down from the

mountains. They said Allah was punishing us for our evil

ways and began to rule the area. Since then, we have lived

with violence and fear in our midst. Schools were shut. Life

became more difficult for us. Yet the world sees Malala and

thinks we are barbarians who need to be saved by the West.

It is not right. Those same people who love her and despise

us don’t want to acknowledge that the U.S. created the

Taliban to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. And now the

U.S. blames the Taliban for any of the violence to justify

dropping drones on Northern Pakistan, on civilians. Why

don’t we ever hear about girls who escaped U.S. drone

attacks? Why don’t we ever make them heroes?”

He didn’t stop there, but instead described wounds

inflicted on his sense of identity from Pakistanis themselves.

“Even those Pakistanis who say Malala is an angel,” he said,

“don’t hide their surprise that she is so educated. They think

our region is backward, that we are second-class citizens. It

makes us feel more separate and, somehow, disgraced.”

We could have paused, agreed to disagree, honored his

reaction as one justified by his being part of a wounded

community. But we would have lost the chance to dive into

the layers of what Malala represents to so many in Pakistan.

We would have lost the chance to collectively unpack the

statement that “the West loves Malala and despises people

from Pakistan’s northern territories.” Moreover, had we

stopped, that young man may have been known from then

on through the single story of being a Muslim from Swat.

And he is so much more than that. He is a proud Pakistani; a

lover of literature, of dancing, of sports; a university

graduate. He is a father, a son, a brother, too. Also

important, he’s a teacher who runs a school for boys and

girls in his home city, and he has gone to great lengths to

protect girls’ rights to education.

The conversation about Malala threatened his Pashtun

identity. As Amin Maalouf would have predicted, in that

moment, the Pashtun man spoke only from the part of

himself that felt personally wounded—and thus, “Pashtun”

was raised to the top of his “identity hierarchy,” reducing

his story to a single narrative. If we had not had time as a

group to consider the complexities of this man’s life

experiences and the story of Malala herself, we could have

become even more divided. Instead, we deliberately created

space and time for uncomfortable conversations among

people who, above all, valued listening and moral


You might be wondering what happened next, whether

either side was convinced by the other. We never fully

agreed as a group as to whether Malala was an angel or an

agent. Yet most of the fellows admitted later that during

that uncomfortable conversation, something within them

individually, and in the group as a whole, shifted. At the very

least, the larger group came to understand the hurt of

Pashtuns in a more personal way. And at the end of our time

together, one of the more privileged members of the cohort

spoke about the shame he felt for remaining silent in the

past when friends had insulted Pashtuns.

That unresolved conversation also elevated how we saw

ourselves as a group. At the essence of the Malala exchange

was the interplay of human dignity and identity; a yearning

to be recognized and acknowledged; an unspoken promise:

if you do not attempt to reduce me to a single identity, I will

try to see you as a more integrated person as well. While we

may not have fully resolved whether Malala was a hero, this

was the resolution we needed: a commitment to

acknowledge one another not just within the confines of the

room but in the open spaces of the world.

The conversation about Malala prepared me for a

surprising interaction I had in Dubai a few weeks later. I had

been invited to speak to twenty professional women at a

steel-and-glass restaurant atop one of the city’s imposing

skyscrapers. The scene could not have felt more different

from our simple retreat in the agricultural fields of southern

Pakistan. The middle-aged women were dressed

traditionally in abayas (long, flowing black robes) and hijabs

(head scarves), and obviously were very wealthy, exuding

the confidence that comes from operating at the highest

levels of political and professional achievement.

I spoke about my work and my hope to contribute to a

new kind of philanthropy in the region. When I finished, the

elder stateswoman of the group thanked me, then posed an

unexpected question: “What do you think about Malala?”

she asked. She clasped her hands and placed them gently

on the table in front of her.

This time I was prepared. I started from a place of

identity, acknowledging that while she was just a young

woman, Malala had come to symbolize a tension between

the West and the Muslim world, at least for some. I

acknowledged that young women and men have been killed

by the Taliban and by U.S. drones, and that with such

violence, our children and the poor are the ones who lose


And then I shared my own belief that regardless of the

circumstances that made Malala a teenage celebrity, she

was using her privilege as a platform to stand for young

people across the world, and doing so with respect for her

religion, her parents, and her country. She may have been

born a Pashtun girl from Swat, but now she belongs to all of

us, and the world is better for it. I ended with another

acknowledgment of my hosts: “I love this region and

recognize the unholy partnership between fair-weather

friends in both Pakistan and the United States. Both sides

have dirty hands. It is our children who bear the brunt of

violence and despair. It must be to us as women, as citizens,

as mothers and sisters and aunts, to stand for building a

peace that goes beyond politics, so that all children can

grow to become what they deserve to be.”

The elder woman smiled and said, “Yes.” And then she

was quiet for another moment. I wasn’t sure what was

coming next.

Finally, she said, “Thank you. Now we can talk.”

Being aware of and acknowledging the identities others

hold is a key skill for navigating complex conversations.

Once that group of twenty professional women in the room

had become even slightly more trusting, we could speak

more freely of politics and philanthropy, of the situation of

women in the Middle East, and of problems in international


Ultimately, our future as a human race depends on all of

us subscribing to a revolution of morals in which we each

commit ourselves to something beyond ourselves. We spend

so much time focused on what we believe to be true rather

than opening ourselves to the ways others perceive the

world. A peaceful, sustainable planet demands that we

celebrate our individual multiple identities while recognizing

the one thing we have in common: we are all human beings.

We are born equal by virtue of our precious, blessed, wild

humanness—and that is enough to bind us to one another.

Each of us is the ocean in a drop.

Our shared humanity is strong and vast enough to

encompass our beautiful diversity. Think of yourself as a

bridge extending forward so that others might walk across.

Commit to stretching beyond your comfort zone to meet

those whose realities are different from your own. You might

be surprised at what you find on the other side.

Chapter 6



I was a child of the 1960s, a time of heaving change, when

cracks surfaced in ancient institutions and the tightly woven

fabric of society began to loosen. In fourth grade, girls were

allowed to wear “nice pants” on Fridays to public schools,

and even my Catholic elementary school stopped requiring

uniforms. Through Vatican II, Pope John XXIII transformed

the Catholic Church’s relationship to the modern world. The

birth control pill was introduced, and movements for civil

rights and human freedoms broke out across the globe.

Even then, most girls refrained from sports, took home

economics in school to learn to cook and sew, and were

taught to be polite at all times.

Luckily, my parents believed that their growing tribe of

boys and girls could do anything. When I was nine, my

father coached a middle school football team in Fort

Leavenworth, Kansas. He brought me to practice one day,

and some of the boys teased him: “Coach,” they said, “you

didn’t tell us you had a girl.”

“Yup,” he said, “but she’s as tough as you are.” He then

challenged two of the boys to a pull-up competition with me.

I wanted to die of embarrassment—until I was actually in

the competition; then I wanted to win. And, at least in my

dad’s memory, I did. My mortification gave way to a secret

pride in being physically strong, a self-perception that

became a superpower. In an age when most girls were

cheering on the sidelines for boys playing sports, I wanted

to be nowhere but on the field itself.

Necessity prompted my parents to instill a scrappy

entrepreneurial courage in their brood. Raising seven kids

on a military salary was no easy feat. When my brothers

and I complained that “everyone else’s moms” bought them

Levi’s jeans or Converse sneakers, our mother would give us

the evil eye for wanting to be like everyone else. “You don’t

need to wear brand names,” she’d say, disappointed. “You

are Novogratzes. But if you seriously feel the need to be like

other people, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll cover the cost of

plain jeans or sneakers at the Army Post Exchange, and you

pay the difference for the branded ones.”

My parents believed that each of us was capable of

doing anything we set our minds to. And having someone

play the role of encourager is one of the biggest gifts any of

us can receive. It reinforces the courage that comes just by

believing you count, that you’re capable of something. (It

doesn’t really matter what that something is.)

As a result of my mother’s deal making, we were always

looking for entrepreneurial ways to earn income for greater

independence and, sometimes, to buy those Levi’s. I started

babysitting when I was ten, then went on to work behind the

ice-cream counter at a Howard Johnson’s at fourteen before

ultimately bartending while still in high school. And I made

and sold Christmas ornaments door to door to earn enough

money for school trips. Each experience required facing into

discomfort—knocking at the houses of strangers to

introduce myself, to ask people to buy things I’d put my

heart into making. I had to learn to deal with rejection, to

make decisions for myself and to handle money. And while

the first or second or sometimes tenth time I tried

something might still feel uncomfortable, each experience

expanded my worldview, even the most incremental of

victories imparting me with the belief that life could be a

great adventure if you were willing to dare.

Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the

ability to look fear in the face and continue to walk forward.

All of us have something that frightens us, whether or not

we admit it, and there are as many forms of courage as

there are of fear. Only by nurturing our courage will we

prevent our fears from making and then keeping us small.

Childhood gave me the courage to take physical and

entrepreneurial risks, but it did not prepare me to speak

truth to power. The institutions that grounded my youth did

just the opposite, in fact, reinforcing the idea that girls

especially were supposed to be “good” and respectful.

Though I might have imagined myself a maverick, I also was

groomed to be polite and considerate, without being honest

or tough enough to ask for what I truly needed.

As a child, when I most needed courage to use my

voice, I lacked any skill or sense of my own power

whatsoever. After a long night of babysitting, a

neighborhood father drove me home. He parked the car in

our house’s driveway, turned to me as if to say good night,

and suddenly began kissing and forcing himself on me. I

pleaded for him to stop, and fought to get out from under

him, but I was also, somehow, polite until I managed to

wriggle free.

I was twelve years old. I can still remember my outfit: a

pink gingham button-down shirt tucked into bell-bottom

jeans with little houses embroidered around the waistband

and an oversize pink comb in the back pocket, my long hair

in braids tied with little white ribbons. I had never before

kissed a boy nor really even considered the possibility.

I rushed into the house and saw my brave, loving father

talking at the kitchen table with one of his best friends. The

only word I could muster was hello. I scrambled up the

golden shag-carpeted stairs to the bathroom and jumped in

the shower wearing all my clothes. Sitting in the bathtub,

the water pouring over me from overhead, I felt dirty and

ashamed, confused and hurt. I never babysat for that family

again, coming up with all sorts of excuses to avoid doing so.

For decades, I gave no external voice to my internal

hurt, at least not to adults. I must have believed, or known,

somehow that saying aloud what had happened would upset

the social order of my world. I knew that my parents would

have been devastated. My father was the kindest man I

knew, and he had returned from Vietnam only months

before. My mother was fierce, fearless, and focused when it

came to raising her brood. I could not bear the thought of

hurting either of them.

I dreaded the very notion that my father might injure

the neighbor in his desire to avenge me. And what of the

man’s wife and children? I convinced myself that silence

was a better option. I had neither permission nor practice to

say aloud the true things that might need to be said, even if

they harmed the reputation of a respected member of the


Forty years later, when I heard the news of the

neighbor’s death, I felt an unexpected sense of freedom.

Now I understand that I was caught in a system that

required the silence of the weak in order to protect and

maintain the privilege of the strong. We remain voiceless

because we fear rejection, shame, or letting others down.

We stay silent when bad things happen to us or to those

around us, afraid of losing status or love or the security of

home. We want to keep our jobs or maintain the peace or, in

some situations, stave off further violence.

Thankfully, systems that privilege some groups over

others have begun to erode. A generation is more willing to

confront ugly truths, openly recognizing that acts by some

to denigrate or hurt others are unacceptable. People are

finding others to stand in solidarity with them, even if they

live in different communities. For any of us to be free, we

must all be free.

Finding one’s own voice and using it is one of the most

difficult kinds of courage to develop. It grows from

discovering and valuing our most authentic selves,

regardless of the systems and structures that otherwise

might attempt to define us. For those who’ve been injured,

this requires courageously confronting our own trauma and

injuries. But courage is a muscle. The more we exercise it,

even in small ways, the more courageous we become.

Sometimes life gives us opportunities to do the right

thing, even at a possible cost to ourselves. In my first job, I

recognized a worrying pattern in a Swiss bank that had

significant loans outstanding with Chase. It looked to me as

if the bank would fail. The country director in Geneva

ridiculed me as a baby banker who clearly had no

understanding of the way Swiss banks operated. My boss

discouraged me from politically ruffling powerful feathers.

But I had triple-checked my work, and I knew that my job

was to raise concerns, even if the worst-case scenario never


And so, I did. After an anxious, wakeful night, I sat at a

big wooden desk across from the bank’s towering, powerful

country head. My knuckles were white from gripping the

seat beneath me, and I felt as if I were in a roiling storm at

sea. My voice quaking, and resisting the urge to vomit, I

relayed my conclusions to the disdainful country leader.

Later, I submitted my report to the global credit committee.

I didn’t sleep for the next two nights, anxious that my

findings might result in the loss of my job.

A few days later, the bank failed. My reputation was

burnished, and I internalized the importance of speaking my

truth, even through trembling lips. I also tried to remind

myself that things could have gone differently. The bank

might have stayed afloat, and my boss could have seen me

as a troublemaker. But at least my integrity, even if known

only by me, would have remained intact.

That experience fueled my courage to stand up for my

beliefs when I switched from banking on Wall Street to

microfinance in Rwanda. A local priest had accused our

microfinance organization, Duterimbere, of usury (charging

illegally high interest), though we charged women just 12

percent a year to borrow versus the informal moneylenders,

who charged as much as 10 percent per day. Knowing I’d

survived my initial discomfort at Chase, I was more

prepared to confront the cultural guardians in Rwanda. In

Rwanda, the stakes were higher, for they were about not

just my career but our organization’s very mandate.

Even after I was gaining the courage of my convictions

and learning to fight for my beliefs, I still lacked confidence

in another area of my life: public speaking. When it came to

speaking in front of groups, it took me longer to learn that

fear is conquerable if you confront it, understand what lies

beneath it, and then face it, often repeatedly, until you

make it a friend. As with most hard things, that takes


The particular fear of public speaking showed up early in

my life and persisted. When I was a teenager, my knees

would knock whenever I had to make a presentation. On

Wall Street, we had to study public speaking as part of our

training. After witnessing my nervous laughter and rapid-fire

speech, my instructor told me that I was perhaps the worst

public speaker she’d ever encountered. That single

comment set back my confidence even further. But I knew

that public speaking would be an essential skill for leading

change, so I looked for opportunities to present to small

groups, sometimes staying up half the night to practice. If a

speech went well, I’d gain a bit of confidence. If it was a

flop, I’d think about what I could learn from the experience.

It took years to get to the point where I sometimes even

enjoyed public speaking.

During this process, I also learned to calm my nerves. As

a young woman, I’d listened to the advice of those who told

me to “pump myself up” before speaking. That only

stressed me further. “Imagine the audience naked,”

someone else suggested. But that image distressed me.

Pretending I was a superhero served to keep the attention

on myself, and didn’t work, either.

It took years to realize that I had it all backward. Rather

than focus on myself, I needed to direct my attention to the

audience. I was speaking, after all, as a messenger, not a

protagonist. My job was simply to be an instrument of love,

I’d remind myself, whether to inspire thought or provoke

action. Rather than attempting to stare down my ego, I

would try to allow my ego to dissolve. This approach turned

out to be a grounding mechanism, enabling me to get out of

my own way and do what I had come to do.

All of us are at times strong and at other times fragile,

certain and unsure—these contradictions are part of the

human condition. Sometimes, the same people who display

nerves of steel when negotiating high-stakes deals find it

almost impossible to provide difficult feedback to beloved

employees. Each act requires its own kind of courage, and

few of us are fearless in every situation. Some people fear

being viewed as imperfect or unworthy; instead of

courageously communicating mistakes or failures, they hide

small problems, denying partners or friends or investors the

chance to help rectify the situation. Sometimes those same

problems grow into full-blown disasters, making manifest

the very fears the person tried to avoid.

At Acumen, we’ve lost important investments because a

team member lacked the confidence to advocate for a risky

deal, assuming others would think him crazy for proposing

it. But if you want to play it safe, you shouldn’t get into the

business of change. Change involves risk, and risk, which is

not the same as recklessness, requires courage.

Institutions can try to make it easier for people to take

risks, but it is up to each of us to practice small acts of

courage so that we build muscles to do the right thing.

Regularly, we should ask ourselves, what is the cost of not

daring? Of not trying? Of not speaking up when it matters?

Practice courage until you become courageous. Think of

fear not as a bad thing, but simply as a mechanism to alert

you to emotional or physical danger. The more you confront

what lies beneath the fear, the more you can tackle it

through repeated confrontations and small victories. Those

wins, ultimately, will prepare you for the times when the

world needs you to stand bravely in the fire and take on the

seemingly impossible.

And even then, for some, there are times (hopefully

rare) when the stakes of change suddenly rise to a matter of

life or death, when you have only fraught options and you

find yourself flying without a net. In such situations, what

separates those who are able to master their fears from

those who run or hide is purpose.

One leader with this gritty, muscular courage, one

fueled by a singular purpose and commitment to

community, is Andrew Otieno. A mild-mannered man of

slender build, Andrew worked as a senior leader at Jamii

Bora Bank, a Nairobi-based nonprofit microfinance

organization imbued with an ethos of self-help and mutual

support. In addition to serving as a senior leader of Jamii

Bora, Andrew also founded and ran a health clinic close to

where he was born in Kibera, the largest urban slum in


Life threw many challenges at Andrew, giving rise to a

steely toughness to backstop his temperate demeanor. But

even he could not have imagined the gut-wrenching

fortitude he’d have to muster after Kenya’s 2007

presidential election caused an eruption of tribally driven

violence that left Andrew’s cherished community raging with

riots and fires.

Andrew oversaw Jamii Bora’s office in Kibera. The

lending operation served tens of thousands, including the

more than 1,700 merchants who operated out of the fabled

Toi Market, one of East Africa’s largest open-air bazaars.

Known for selling secondhand clothing and just about

everything else, Toi was a vibrant, colorful, glorious mosaic

of tiny kiosks that enabled millions of dollars to flow through

the marketplace, supporting the livelihoods of nearly a

hundred thousand people each year. It was there, on the

edge of the market, that Andrew’s office sat, witness to an

artery of economic growth and opportunity. For some, that

market provided the best route out of poverty.

One night, during the raging post-election weeks of

rioting, a couple hundred young men looted and razed the

market in a massive brawl that left many wounded and

several dead. In the morning, all that was left on the

hallowed ground of Toi were ashes and charred stumps that

indicated where market stalls had once stood. The

community was not only traumatized, but left with no place

to work, and most were at risk of falling deeper into poverty.

Toi could easily have become a war zone.

The young men’s night of destruction had been fueled

by wounds of identity and a desire for vengeance. With their

rioting, the men—mostly unemployed, and many of them

gang members—had aimed to “reclaim” land they believed

was rightfully theirs. Kibera had been established as a land

grant to Nubian soldiers who’d fought on behalf of the

British Army in World War I—albeit without a formal title to

show this. Over time, other tribes migrated to Nairobi, and

Kibera, its population exceeding two hundred thousand, was

declared an informal settlement in which all land belonged

to the government. Presumably, many of these young men

were descendants of the Nubian soldiers and thus wanted

“their” land back.

Yet, without Toi Market, the community as a whole lost

its primary economic artery, its lifeline to commerce, and its

connection to the larger city. Merchants had lost their wares,

which for most accounted for nearly everything they owned.

Some residents had lost family members. All of them lost

some sense of security, for there was no one visible to

protect them.

Andrew Otieno could have only one purpose at this

point: rebuild the market.

How to do that, though, in the face of the young vandals

who had terrorized the community? Since the post-election

violence, the international NGOs and even the police had

stayed away. And the community had been left on its own.

But Andrew understood that he was not fully alone. The

founder of Jamii Bora, an irrepressible Swedish woman

named Ingrid Monro, had spent decades committed to

building an organization in which people helped and

accompanied each other. Because she had immersed

herself in the Kibera community, Ingrid also understood the

life-or-death importance of the marketplace. She recognized

that while Andrew and other local leaders had to lead the

rebuilding of Toi Market, she had a form of social capital to

offer them: connections to international agencies. While

Ingrid traveled to Europe to raise money to rebuild Toi

Market, Andrew remained in Kibera to navigate at the local


In early 2008, soon after the worst of the riots, I met

Andrew in Jamii Bora’s bright offices in a more central part

of Nairobi to discuss a different matter related to Acumen’s

investment in the organization. The calm and beauty of the

city stood in stark juxtaposition to what I’d heard about the

ugly violence and danger in the slums just a few miles away.

Andrew and I spoke about the Toi Market situation and how

so many people in Nairobi were going about their business

as if nothing had happened to their neighbors.

“For many,” Andrew said, “Kibera is both in our own city

and a different world altogether.”

He asked me to go with him to see the market. No, I

said. I didn’t want to show up as a voyeur, and I knew there

were enormous security risks. But Andrew would not hear of

it. “No outsiders will go and witness,” he said, “so no one

understands the situation. We are left on our own. If Mama

Ingrid fails to find the money, you might need to help us,


The fires were still burning in Kibera when we arrived,

and reports of continuing violence jangled my already tense

nerves, though I found comfort in Andrew’s calm and sober

grace. The Jamii Bora lending office, situated at the market’s

edge, had been ransacked. There was not a single desk or

chair or computer in sight. Still, a long line of women sat on

the floor, hoping they might borrow again, or at least speak

to someone.

Andrew and I, along with his colleague Gabriel Kadidi,

ventured into the empty marketplace, past young men

hammering stakes into the ground to mark their territory. A

number of merchants shuffled around their old work spots. A

man folded newly washed baby clothes on a tiny bench that

he carried in and placed in the spot he’d rented when there

was still a market. “Who do you think will risk the danger to

come here to buy baby clothes?” I asked, needlessly

reminding him that violence was still widespread.

He sighed. “Probably no one. But I’ve no food for my

family and nothing left but hope.”

As if on cue, a man in a tan jacket ran over to Andrew to

tell him that, on the other side of the market, a few hundred

feet from where we stood, a muscular young man in a dark

blue T-shirt and jeans had struck an older man’s bald head

with a machete. The man in the tan jacket and another

resident then carried the wounded elder to a beat-up car

parked by Jamii Bora’s office. In the chaos, I never learned

what happened to the perpetrator, but the injured man

survived. There were no police in sight.

I couldn’t help but juxtapose the scene with the

perfectly folded baby clothes piled amid the burning embers

of the marketplace. I desperately wanted to flee.

“How will you get this market built in light of the danger,

these tensions?” I asked Andrew. “Who will help you do it?”

I could understand Andrew’s urgency, but I could not

see how he would pull off the reconstruction—not soon

anyway, and not without more violence.

“We will find a way,” Andrew whispered, his face


I hated to leave him. I was returning to a place that

provided me every opportunity and liberties I too often took

for granted—freedom from fear, freedom from abject

poverty, freedom to travel. Here in Kibera, despite the

destruction and even the deaths, despite the burned-out

storefronts, razed marketplace, and marauding young men,

ordinary citizens would still get up, get dressed, and go to

work. They would find a way to bring their children to

schools taught by heroes—more ordinary citizens doing

extraordinary things. This experience with Andrew renewed

my commitment to become braver myself, to show up more

fully, to be more compassionate.

A few months later, I was back in Kibera. Astonishingly,

so was the market. Ingrid had raised the money, and

Andrew had overseen a peace process that would rival the

Oslo Accords in bringing sworn enemies into cooperation

and agreement. I asked him to walk me through how he’d

managed to erect a thing of beauty from a heap of ashes

and rage.

“It wasn’t easy, but I took one step at a time,” he said.

First, he’d searched the refugee camps and discovered the

leaders of the looting: a local gang member and his

sidekick, let me call them David and Jonah. Andrew

explained his plans to rebuild the market and restore peace,

and he told the men he hoped for their blessing. The men

shouted that they wanted revenge, not peace. Their

intention was to build two hundred houses where the

market stood, one for each member of the gang. Waving a

machete, Jonah threatened to kill Andrew if he didn’t

comply. Andrew didn’t move. He recognized the men’s

grievances and restated his goal to rebuild the peace—and

that he needed their help.

I’d meet David later that day. He was handsome, with

dark skin, high cheekbones, cool black eyes, and a steely

expression. His hair was cut close to his head, and his

muscular arms were as solid as granite. If Jonah could

threaten with his weapon, David’s eyes made it clear to me

that he’d killed people before.

Andrew had neither the tools of a trusted judicial system

nor the funds to offer reparations. The currents of identity

tore differing truths through the tortured landscape, and

Andrew could see only imperfect options each way he

turned. He understood from the start that without security,

he’d have to find a solution to peace that included the

young vandals. The thought sickened him: rather than

punishment, these men were being rewarded for the

destruction they’d wreaked. But the trade-off for that

injustice was a functioning marketplace that served


A few days after the failed first meeting with David and

Jonah, Andrew had returned to the refugee camps. David

and Jonah still thought he was nuts, but David decided they

might as well listen to this man who was willing to be as

crazy as they were, just in a different way.

By that time, the residents at the camps were starving.

The UN agencies were slow in distributing foodstuffs, and

the market was not functioning. Jamii Bora had been given

the job of distributing food to residents in the camps, but

Andrew knew the food itself was vulnerable to looting now

that the market was gone. He also understood that those

most likely to create trouble were the same young men who

had razed the market in the first place. So, he made the

risky, albeit strategic, decision to hire David and his guys,

both ensuring that residents could access needed food and

taking a step toward building goodwill with the young men.

As he said to me, “No outsiders were securing the peace. I

had few options, so I chose one with the greatest chance of

meeting the community’s most urgent needs.”

In time, Andrew, stressing the potential gains each

would make, negotiated a deal in which all sides would

contend with some loss. He aimed for solutions grounded in

realities of the community itself that positively touched the

broadest swath of people. He hired the gang members to

rebuild the market, and then negotiated with the market

residents to allocate two hundred stalls to the gang, one for

each of its members. The utmost he could achieve was

imperfect, and the imperfect would claim almost everything

Andrew could muster within himself.

The young men didn’t quite get houses, but they now

each owned a business and a chance to rebuild their lives.

To the market residents, Andrew offered an uneasy peace

and the chance to get back to work, to stand again on their

own two feet.

“Look, if you help these boys, we will have the market

running again,” he said. “If you don’t, there will be trouble,

because the boys believe this is their rightful territory. And

there is nowhere else for them to go.” To me, Andrew

acknowledged that he had struggled mightily to find a way

to arbitrate between competing truths. What made that

arbitration possible was focusing on his goal and

communicating as often as he could—with everyone.

With no good options, Andrew found the courage to

make a compromised decision, acknowledging it was the

best he could do. His effectiveness at bringing the

community along with him was a master class in leadership.

While many organizations temporarily left Kibera after the

violence, Andrew committed personally to keeping Jamii

Bora operational. He showed up daily to his empty office at

the edge of the market in case problems or disagreements

arose, aware that while the short-term fix was a new

marketplace, healing the tensions and wounds beneath

could take much longer.

Andrew survived unimaginable pressures. He risked his

reputation and his life for his community. And he himself

seemed surprised by his bravery, which was ignited and

sustained by an abiding commitment to his people, his

place, his nation. We cannot choose what happens to us, but

we can choose how we respond. In courageously confronting

ugly realities, and by knowing not only what he stood for but

for whom he stood, Andrew collaborated with other brave

men and women. Together, they prevailed in rebuilding a

market and restoring peace.

Andrew’s challenges were extreme, but they are not

unique. Leaders all over the world must contend with

situations in which they must “navigate the gray” or look

unflinchingly at ugly truths and make a decision anyway.

The only way to survive and thrive is to acknowledge the

imperfections, to say aloud that you could not be trying

harder, and sometimes, to compare your outcomes to what

would have been had you done nothing at all.

All this takes courage, and gaining courage requires

practicing it.

The same night that the young man lifted his machete

and struck an innocent elder in the Toi Market, I flew to

Switzerland. The next morning, surrounded by happy,

wealthy children bundled in warm winter coats against a

backdrop of fluffy snow, I suddenly experienced a sense of

vertigo. Images of the violence I had experienced over many

years rushed through me: a farmer holding the barrel of a

shotgun against my throat on a lonely road in Mexico; three

men in Tanzania attacking me on a beach; a random guy

waiting at a bus stop in Guatemala City pointing his gun at

me. My brain was in overdrive. I thought of the man who

inexplicably punched me in the gut as I walked down Fifth

Avenue early in the morning on Valentine’s Day, and the

man in Malaysia, physically smaller than me, whom I think I

hurt more than he hurt me. I was always a fighter in the

moment, but these incidents were rising up to haunt me.

I wept for my younger self, for the friends I’d known

who’d been wounded or murdered for their beliefs or for

merely being in the wrong place. I wept for the images of

the bodies of people slain in Rwandan churches and the

layer upon layer of violence that is part of human society.

Since that night, there have been other moments when

an image, whether in the newspaper or on the streets,

summoned these painful memories, bringing back the taste

and smell of fear. The fears would arise like Harpies,

screaming. It took years for me to recognize that I would

defeat those demons not by using the fallback skills of my

early identity (courageously confronting the “enemy” and

shaking off the pain or, more truthfully, running away from

it), but by accepting my own vulnerability and self-doubt. It

was only when I began to love the imperfect and broken

parts inside of me that I could show up with my whole self.

I’m still working on it.

I finally understand today what I wish I had known long

ago: If we see ourselves only as victims, we risk failing to

recognize our own fallibility, and this makes it impossible to

accept the flaws of others. If we see ourselves or others only

as perpetrators, we extinguish possibilities of redemption. If

we refuse to see at all, we trap our diminished selves in

darkness, relinquishing hopes for growth and renewal. In all

such cases, we thwart our potential for wholeness.

The neighbor who attacked me as a twelve-year-old girl

may have been told he was worthless his entire life. I’ll

never know. The man with the machete in Toi Market may

have internalized a sense of irrelevance and invisibility,

making it easier for him to cast blame for his hurts on

another tribe than to take personal responsibility for them—

just as it is easier for the wealthy people in his larger

community to blame him alone rather than acknowledge the

structural impediments to this young man’s flourishing as

well. The cycle of violence, internal and external, individual

and structural, can be endless.

Unless we have the courage to stop it.

No one escapes life without broken parts. When we find

the courage to repair what is broken inside ourselves, to

reconcile the hurts we’ve internalized and the hurts we’ve

inflicted on others, we can finally renew our fragile world.

We can finally comprehend that our individual and collective

wholeness is necessarily enmeshed. This kind of repair

requires moral courage, the will to face fears and to fight for

those who are unlike us, especially those outside our own

families or tribes.

So, practice courage. It will prepare you for those times

when you, and the world, need it most.

Chapter 7





“I would be happy to give you money if you promised you’d

build five million houses, but five hundred?” The wealthy

venture capitalist spoke with an almost comic level of

disbelief. “Can’t you be a little more audacious?”

It was 2004, and I had traveled to Palo Alto, California,

to an office on Sand Hill Road, the storied “Main Street” of

Silicon Valley. I sat in a large glass room across from a man

with a mien of certainty and the insistent mannerisms of

someone for whom time is definitely money. The venture

capitalist had made a gazillion dollars betting big in fast-

paced technology start-ups, a few of which had created

billionaires, at least on paper, seemingly overnight. The

irony that I was there to pitch the idea of “patient capital” to

this person was not lost on me.

“Patient capital,” I said, “is an approach to early-stage

investment in entrepreneurs who are stepping in where

markets and government have failed the poor. Acumen’s

patient capital approach is straightforward, but new.” I went

on to explain that we raise philanthropic donations and

invest for ten years (or more) in companies that serve the

poor. We bring management support, introduce new

markets and networks, and make a long-term commitment

to partnering in order to impact the lives of the poor. Patient

capital focuses not simply on maximizing profits but also on

holding the tension of both social impact and financial


The VC did not conceal his allergic reaction to the idea

of trade-offs. “If you build a highly profitable business that

people value, it will grow virally,” he said, using a popular (if

overused and misunderstood) Valley term.

“Yes,” I said, “but we can’t assume that we’ll build a

profitable model in the short term. Reaching people with

limited income and hobbled trust requires a balance that

harvests the strengths of both markets and philanthropy.

Finding that balance doesn’t happen overnight.”

I started to explain that we had just invested in a new

development community outside Lahore, Pakistan, that

aimed to construct five hundred houses. Building a

development for slum dwellers on land so barren it

resembled a moonscape would require not just

infrastructure such as water and electricity, but also

creating Pakistan’s first-ever mortgage product for low-

income people that was sharia-compliant (governed by

Islamic religious law).

The VC stopped me again. “But five hundred houses?

That’s not very interesting.”

“It will take time to build trust among low-income

people who have had scam artists sell them houses on

paper and then disappear,” I said. As in most developing

countries, Pakistan’s urban poor tend to live in large,

informal slum settlements on the outskirts of town, with

little or no government infrastructure. It took time to

navigate the bureaucracy and corruption endemic to low-

income housing everywhere. And the product had to be

priced so that people who paid forty or fifty dollars per

month in rent could afford to buy a house.

I could hear myself growing defensive. Something in the

VC’s manner made me feel rushed and inarticulate. I was,

clearly, failing to persuade him.

“I still don’t understand why you’re thinking so small,”

the VC repeated. “This is the problem with social enterprise:

you work at the margins without really changing anything.”

He said he might be interested in five million houses. “But

five hundred houses?” he repeated. “Why even bother?”

Now it was my turn to be frustrated. Hadn’t the VC

heard the challenges I’d just described? By then, I’d spent

more than twenty years trying to make change in low-

income communities, and understood the complex ground

realities that made solving poverty so challenging. When

you are investing in a technology platform company such as

Google or Amazon, yes, you can reach millions of people

seemingly overnight. But housing for the poor? If it were

that easy, there wouldn’t be a seven-million-housing-unit

shortfall in Pakistan. (Today, the number is closer to ten


“Why even bother?” I responded. “Because if you don’t

bother, we’re stuck with the status quo. And that isn’t

working for the people who most need change.” I repeated

the reasons we needed to be both patient and urgent. “We

will be audacious,” I said, “as soon as we have a model that

can grow to scale. Creating that model requires innovating

in unknown territory.”

The VC was unconvinced; he passed on the opportunity.

My conundrum was one common to anyone introducing

a new approach to solving old problems. While I could paint

a vivid picture with lived experiences of what had not

worked in international development, I had no proof of how

the patient capital model did work. I could only describe

what could be. And there was little my team and I could do

about that except to continue to seek and support

innovations that might succeed, and accompany them until

they did.

I left the meeting feeling diminished by my failure to

convince the VC of the merit of the patient capital model

and daunted at the thought that it might take years before

the model was taken seriously.

It was even more confounding for me to see investors

who had rejected a patient capital model turn around and

give millions in philanthropy to splashy top-down ventures

with little chance of long-term success. In the early 2000s, a

number of well-intentioned entrepreneurs-cum-donors made

grand proclamations about building thousands of schools,

adopting communities, or fashioning merry-go-rounds as

creative ways to pump water. These were big bets on

scaling solutions, with audacious promises of massive short-

term payoffs. Missing from the equation was the humility to

start by listening to what the poor actually needed and

wanted, to focus on building a business model that actually

worked, and only then, to focus on growing the solution to

reach millions.

After a few years of enormous spending, many of the

projects failed, leaving empty schools, broken wells, and

more disenfranchised and mistrustful communities. The

philanthropists moved on—some having learned from the

experience, some blaming the communities rather than

examining their own choices. Solving complex problems is

rarely accomplished with a silver bullet or a single approach.

Effective leaders looking to bring about change have no

choice but to hold opposing values without rejecting either.

The venture capitalist was right in that we must have

the audacity to imagine a different future. John F. Kennedy’s

audacious vision for landing on the moon inspired a nation

to do the impossible. We must have the kind of audacity

that drove a new generation to build technologies that

changed the way humans interacted across the globe. And

we must balance that audacity with a new humility that

considers and is accountable for the unintended

consequences of our actions.

If audacity and humility must be balanced to shift

systems, so must accountability and generosity. Our current

institutions have traditionally leaned toward one or the

other rather than encompassing both. We assume the

business sector is more accountable and efficient; the

charitable sector, more generous. Because Acumen bridges

both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, co-investors have

phoned me more than once to demand that Acumen make a

grant to help an ailing company we were both supporting.

One memorable call came from an irate co-investor in Africa

who reached me on a Saturday morning at my home in New

York City. He was unhappy with my team’s insistence that all

co-investors work with the troubled company on the same

financial terms. The investor believed that Acumen alone

should bail out the company, which was navigating

treacherous financial waters.

“Why us alone?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t you also

support the company?”

“You are patient capital,” he responded. “You can afford

to help.”

I almost laughed out loud, for he represented a much

larger and richer institution, one that could presumably take

much more financial risk than Acumen.

“We can be generous, yes,” I said, “but equally, we

focus on accountability. If you are interested in the future of

the company, we’ll work through how best to do it together

—and take equal risk in doing so.”

My response triggered a powerful reaction. “You get on

stages and talk about love,” this investor said, “but when it

comes down to it, you’re just like everyone else.”

I was taken aback. “I’m sorry, but our focus is patient

capital. It is not stupid capital,” I said, deliberately using

language that I thought would resonate with him. I believe

in love, to be sure. But real love requires setting

expectations and helping people gain the capacities to meet

those expectations. That entails being willing to have

uncomfortable conversations, to know when and how to

step in financially, and to understand when a bailout creates

dependency. Real love is not a soft skill. In this particular

case, we needed to send a message to the ailing company,

and the market, that all investors believed in the company

and were working together to turn around its operations—

head and heart.

Those who see the role of business as solely to make a

profit often employ either-or thinking. But presupposing that

profits alone signal the existence of social good limits our

ability to think creatively, collaboratively, and

constructively, not to mention realistically. The mirror

image, relying solely on charity or government, is limiting as

well. In a world of interdependence, we will flourish only if

we move to “both-and” thinking, integrating purpose and

profit, generosity and accountability, the community and the


Holding on to both-and thinking requires sustained

effort. It is much easier to focus on profit alone or to ignore

financial discipline and throw money where your

heartstrings tug you. But if you are looking for easy

solutions, you probably will not realize substantive change.

In 1527, the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli

wrote about the tensions between leading with love or fear,

two proxies for generosity and accountability. While

Machiavelli’s Prince preferred fear, young leaders often tell

me that they would rather lead with love. But if fear or

accountability on its own can be punitive and diminishing,

love or generosity alone can create dependency and

entitlement. With both, progress hangs in the balance.

As the world becomes more entangled and institutions

more diverse, the capacity to hold opposing values without

rejecting either has emerged as a critical skill for solution

building. Consider a simple mantra: “Use feelings of

discomfort as a proxy for progress.” The disquiet may not

make decisions easier, but it will help you identify the forces

you are dealing with, buttressed by both conscience and


Jawad Aslam, the young man who created the five-

hundred-unit housing development I describe at the

beginning of this chapter, perfected the art of holding

opposing values. It took him many years, but learning to

allow for and acknowledge dual perspectives, he was able to

build homes, not just houses, for a community that had

always scraped by on the margins.

I met Jawad in Lahore in 2006, about a year after he’d

arrived. A Pakistani American from Baltimore, he’d had a

solid career in commercial real estate until the events of

9/11 roused in him a yearning for more. He experienced

firsthand the mistrust that many Americans began to harbor

about Muslims and felt his own religious identity deepen.

The time seemed right to travel to his parents’ homeland to

try to be of use.

Once in Pakistan, Jawad apprenticed with Tasneem

Siddiqui, one of the nation’s gurus of affordable housing,

who offered him the chance to lead a project called Saiban.

In order to sustain itself, the Saiban housing development

needed to be profitable. From the beginning, Jawad was

more interested in building community than merely

constructing physical pieces of property. All people would be

welcome as potential homeowners, provided they were

there to live and actively participate in the community.

Unlike many developers of affordable housing, he felt

responsible for basic services, a sense of security, and an

enabling of social cohesion. In turn, he asked residents to

help tend the parks and common spaces, thus forging a

sense of community while also empowering individual

households to gain choice and freedom.

The nexus of these contradictory forces was the

community mosque. People of all faiths were welcome to

live in Saiban—and they came, not only from the slums of

Lahore, but some from as far away as Karachi, a fifteen-hour

drive. The home buyers represented most sects of Islam,

with a small number of Hindu and Christian families (in

Pakistan, Hindus and Christians each represent about 2

percent of the population). Each sect wanted to use the

mosque for prayers on a daily basis.

But as there was only one mosque, giving every sect

exactly what it wanted was infeasible. In Jawad’s mind,

there was no better way to reinforce the idea of a shared

community than to ask all Muslims to pray together—and

that would require some loss of individual autonomy, an

independence each sect had enjoyed prior to moving into

this new place.

At first, Jawad’s view that the mosque could and should

be shared isolated him: few agreed with him. In modern

Pakistan, it is unusual to see mosques filled with Muslim

worshippers of different sects; a Christian corollary would be

Catholics and various branches of Protestants attending the

same Sunday service. But Jawad conceived his seemingly

radical idea as a chance to renew values of community

within the context of modern diversity.

Moreover, there was precedent in Pakistan for sharing a

mosque. Until the early 1970s, diverse members of a

community would gather together in the local mosque each

week to pray, whether they were Deobandi or Barelvi, both

Sunni sects, or even members of a Shi’a sect.

Rather than capitulate to the modern tendency to want

only what is good for ourselves, Jawad insistently argued for

what was best for everyone. He carried this idea of the

commons in tension with his commitment to encouraging

each family to build their own house in whatever style

suited them. While the residents appreciated the freedom to

reflect their individuality in the homes they built, many

residents disliked the idea that they would have to share the

most sacred time of each day with people whose traditions

diverged, however slightly, from their own.

Month after month, Jawad negotiated, cajoled, and

arbitrated among the competing sects. “There were times

when we had to stop meetings altogether because people

became physical,” he remembers. Residents wanted to feel

comfortable and safe “with their own.” Still, he never lost

sight of his fundamental objective: a peaceful, diverse

community that would ultimately reinforce a sense of


Finally, after more than a year, Jawad and the elders

came to an agreement. The community elected a highly

respected imam, who led daily prayers as all sects sat and

prayed together.

My husband, Chris, and I were planning to visit Jawad at

the housing development in May 2010 on what turned out to

be the day after terrorists attacked two mosques in Lahore,

murdering nearly one hundred people during Friday prayer.

The tragedy was a cruel reminder of how hatred and fear of

the other can lead humans to engage in abhorrent,

murderous acts. Stunned and saddened, we decided to stick

with our plan, almost as an antidote to the shocking

violence the city had just witnessed.

As we made the twenty-five-minute drive from

downtown Lahore to Saiban, Chris and I sat in tense silence.

Any unspoken anxiety vanished, however, as we arrived and

walked across familiar parks filled with laughing children,

their parents relaxing beneath tall trees I’d seen planted

years before as tiny saplings. A big-armed woman sold

candy and trinkets out of her tiny shop to chattering

neighbors. For a moment, we forgot the violence just a few

miles away; this tiny pocket of the world was tranquil,


Chris remarked that the community also was more

vibrant than some suburban neighborhoods he knew in the

United States, where households appeared distant and

isolated from one another. I recalled the hardships Jawad

endured in the beginning of Saiban’s existence, as he tried

to convince residents to take responsibility for maintaining

their collective green spaces. He had planted those trees,

hoping neighbors would join him; at the time, they merely

thanked him for his efforts but offered no support

themselves. He tried shaming people. That didn’t work,

either. But as more houses were built, a friendly competition

naturally arose among various blocks as each tried to make

their park the best. The result, finally, was a beautiful semi-

urban oasis.

We approached a group of elders, all men, sitting

outside the mosque conversing with one another. They told

us of their pride in the community, how it had become a

place of hope for residents. Their children attend good

schools, they said. Jobs had come, too, and buses regularly

transported workers to town. As for the mosque, all was

good, the elders said. One of the men mentioned that

during the recent spate of sectarian violence across Lahore,

their community was one where the peace was never


I reminded Jawad of the extraordinary number of

grueling, uncomfortable hours he personally had invested in

listening to individual needs and balancing them with his

vision for a robust community.

He smiled. “Everyone here is a migrant from the city,”

he said. “Some come from as far away as Karachi because

they’ve heard this is a welcoming place.” He continued:

“Nobody migrates by choice. There’s always some hardship

or reason why people have to leave the place they originally

called home. Our job is to try to facilitate that process for

them. And they in return have to learn to live with others

who are different, which leads to some kind of loss for them,

too.” In short, Jawad had deliberately built a community, not

just a development of individual houses.

Finding and maintaining the right balance between the

individual and the community, freedom and belonging,

competition and collaboration, requires moral leadership

precisely because that balance can be discovered only by

inviting constructive conflict for the betterment of the

whole. Done correctly, efforts like Jawad’s can serve as a

model for new social infrastructure with the potential to

bring out the best in people, asking each of us to manage

the inevitable inherent tensions required to live in a

community where all are valued.

If we ignore the tensions within ourselves, our

organizations, and our societies—if we keep the conflicts

internalized and unmentioned—they don’t disappear.

Instead, as soon as we begin navigating complex issues and

decisions across lines of difference, those conflicts become

exacerbated. The key is to recognize and give voice to the

tensions in ways that both sides of a debate can hear, a

sometimes thankless task, to be sure, yet fundamental to

the practice of moral leadership.

In the winter of 2017, a group of about twenty Acumen

fellows from India and Pakistan organized a series of video

discussions among themselves. Most of these fellows hadn’t

previously met; and indeed, some had never had a direct

conversation with any person on “the other side” of the

national lines dividing India from Pakistan. But tensions

between the two countries had been rising, and the two

groups were eager to practice transcending the boundaries

that separated them.

The groups of fellows from both countries created

ground rules and reminded themselves to seek some truth

in what the others were saying. They dared to utter the

prejudices they held about one another. Mostly, they

listened. The conversations were brave and tender; and

sometimes, excruciatingly stressful.

I had the privilege of checking in with each group

afterward, and I remember a Pakistani woman sharing

almost apologetically how nationalistic she felt at times

during the video encounters. “Suddenly, I became purely

Pakistani and experienced moments of mistrust that gave

me shame afterward,” she confessed. This led to an

important conversation about identity, and the ways in

which it can impede our abilities to reach out to understand

another’s perspective.

While visiting Mumbai a few months after the video

sessions, I spoke to a group of Indian Acumen fellows. The

conversation was again grounded in identity, but what

happened next was a powerful example of the challenges of

holding tensions when belief systems push us to retreat to

comfortable corners. One young man said he’d felt proud of

participating in the conversations, reaching across cultural

and political differences in troubled times, so he posted a

screenshot of the video call on Facebook.

“Almost immediately,” he said, “I was deluged with

hatred. What hurt most was that some of the most outraged

responses came from childhood friends.”

At home that evening, he shared his experiences with

his parents, hoping for empathy. Instead, he met a dark wall

of rage.

“It was bad enough that you decided to become a social

entrepreneur,” his father scolded. “Now you are consorting

with the enemy. Your uncle died in the Partition. We have

family in the Indian Army.

“You must decide whether you are with your family or

with the enemy,” his father continued. “You must decide if

you are a true Indian.”

The young man looked at me ruefully, and asked, “Is it

possible to be both an Indian patriot and a global citizen?”

Hearing those words was heartbreaking, though I

shouldn’t have been surprised. The early twenty-first

century has witnessed growing strains that reinforce in-

groups that find strength in creating mistrusted out-groups.

I said to him, “If you define patriotism as being the best

at the expense of other peoples and nations, and if you

blame others for your own problems or refuse to engage,

then you cannot be a patriot and a global citizen.”

He stared as I spoke.

“But,” I continued, “if you are willing to model a sense of

belonging that translates into responsibility for the national

good, and if you believe in celebrating the remarkable parts

of your nation with the rest of the world, while recognizing

exceptional aspects of other nations, then you are indeed a

patriot. And the world needs more of such patriots.”

Just as any solid relationship or familial unit needs to

include strong individuals to thrive, so a family of nations

requires healthy countries to work toward their own

wholeness and contribute to the global community. Today’s

problems (climate change, inequality, refugees, outbreaks

of disease and terrorism) know no national boundaries. We

will solve them only if we can hold the uncomfortable

tension of national priorities on the one hand and the

urgency of our global challenges on the other. We must

commit to building sustainable neighborhoods, companies,

and nations, each of them locally rooted and globally

connected, each giving more to the world than it takes.

Can I be a patriot and a global citizen?

Absolutely. Proudly. Even if sometimes uncomfortably.

In every country, we hear similar conversations. Our

fears can propel us into corners where we hold ourselves

hostage to ideologies that reinforce differences. We stop

listening to the other side, fearing loss to ourselves, even if

we don’t fully understand what that loss might be.

In the United States, for instance, fear of immigrants

and refugees has driven neighbors into two angry camps.

“Build a wall!” one side screams. “Open borders,” the other

side retorts with equal rage. The actual details of either

position don’t seem to matter as long as each side feels

satisfied with its own righteousness.

By allowing polarities to dominate a debate, we free

ourselves from facing the painful trade-offs and costs that

every choice entails. And we deny ourselves the opportunity

to rediscover that we are better than we think we are.

We will not have any hope of finding humane, effective

solutions until we quiet ourselves enough to hold the truths

that, though seemingly opposite, do exist on either side.

What if we slowed down enough to reach out and identify a

truth or even a half-truth in what the other was saying? Both

sides, one hopes, would acknowledge that there are no easy

solutions to immigration in a world besieged by poverty,

inequality, and climate change; a world in which the

populations in rich countries are shrinking while the number

of people in poor countries is growing. The population of the

African continent alone is expected to double by 2050 and

nearly quadruple by 2100. Only by daring to recognize the

uneasy truths that lie far, far apart will we gain the chance

to solve our common problems.

Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and

rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Eight

hundred years later, we have a chance to breathe new

meaning into this ancient wisdom. A modern moral

revolution demands that all of us hold contradictions, even

stark ones, within ourselves as well as between ourselves

and others. For each of us, the first step is to reach across

the wall of either-or and acknowledge the truths that exist in

opposing perspectives.

When engaging someone whose views are opposed to

your own, consider taking these three steps. First, seek, with

eager curiosity, the truths in the other side’s argument.

Second, take a figurative stride, even a small one, toward

the other, acknowledging where there might be common

ground. And third, hold tightly to the essence of your whole

self, while embracing other aspects of your identity lightly.

You must be open to change and learning if you expect the

other side to be the same. Whether we’re talking to an

impatient venture capitalist or tiptoeing through a political

minefield, these skills can help us find better ways forward

that may not please everyone but will bring more of us


After repaying Acumen for the loan to Saiban, Jawad

Aslam went on to create a for-profit housing development

based on a similar model. Nearly a decade after he first

arrived in Pakistan, he successfully sold half that housing

company, providing Acumen and other investors with

double-digit returns. He also raised twenty-five million

dollars from a strategic partner who had deeper experience

in housing than we did to build sustainable communities

across all of Pakistan.

And still, Jawad balanced opposing values in the way he

shared success. Rather than keep the 50 percent of shares

from the sale of the company for himself, he split them up

among its employees, including the young man who serves

the tea. Jawad has proven that mortgages can be made

affordable to the poor—and sustainable to lenders.

As I write this, I cannot help but think of that long-ago

conversation with the Silicon Valley VC. I wonder what that

venture capitalist would have made of Jawad’s

accomplishments today. In addition to building eight

hundred homes, he has built a model for affordable,

sustainable community development from which countless

others can learn. He helped housing policy in Pakistan

become more transparent and accessible. In short, he lives

a life capable of inspiring other change-makers across the


Though Jawad repaid our investment in his company

with a healthy financial return, our partnership with him is

forever: he is now on Acumen’s Global Advisory, helping us

navigate new challenges. Even if things had turned out

differently and his entire housing development had failed,

by holding firmly to his mission, embracing the tensions,

and finding the courage to stand apart and do what was

right, Jawad would have built something valuable: his


When we dare to understand the other, we find the

seeds of our best selves.

I can’t help but think of the housing crisis facing San

Francisco. In that city, so close to where the VC and I had

our long-ago conversation, some of the most successful

companies in the world must confront the unintended

consequences of the economic boom they’ve created:

widespread homelessness, a by-product of inequality. How

valuable would Jawad’s learning, experience, and character

be to that city today? Here, again, solutions will require both

audacity and humility.

In every family, organization, community, and nation,

there are fields in which we all must dare to meet. A moral

revolution demands that all of us do more to reach across

the wall of either-or and to acknowledge the truths that

exist at the opposite poles. Most of our solutions lie in the

truths or partial truths on each side, “out beyond ideas of

wrongdoing and rightdoing.”

Chapter 8




A few months before the financial crisis of 2008, a

prominent Swiss banker invited me to serve on an advisory

council for a new fund he was developing. The fund would

invest in microfinance institutions that, in turn, would make

small loans (from thirty to a few thousand dollars) to poor

women in the developing world. “This fund is going to

generate the highest financial returns in our portfolio,” the

eager professional said, “and there is little risk associated

with it.”

I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. “So, you’re asking

me to join an advisory in which a Swiss bank plans to earn

their highest returns from the poorest women in the world,

at little risk to the rich? Doesn’t that sound odd to you?”

The banker quickly responded, “Don’t think of it as

making money off the poor.”

“How should I think of it, then?” I asked, “especially

given your pitch that this fund will generate the highest

financial returns of all the funds you manage.”

The banker became a bit sheepish. “Fair enough,” he

said. “But don’t you agree that a fund investing in

microfinance banks is a step in the right direction? This will

bring more money into a sector that needs to grow. This is a

chance to do well by doing good.” He added, “It would be

great to have a voice like yours interacting with a bank like


His flattery pricked a slight feeling of mistrust.

“Traditional investors with no background in low-income

markets looking for high returns make me nervous,” I said.

“But you will meet wealthy investors on the advisory

and build a relationship with our bank, which could help

your own fund-raising,” the banker responded.

I paused to work out what was bothering me. The Swiss

banker seemed genuinely thrilled that his fund was creating

a positive impact. But at the same time, he’d structured a

conventional financial vehicle in a system that rewards

greed without considering whether or how that system

would deliver on its promises to “do good” for the poor. My

feelings were complex. I was, and am, a believer in the

strategic imperative of providing low-income people access

to affordable credit to enable them to enhance their

capabilities and choices. And we at Acumen had invested

our own patient capital to help build several microfinance

institutions when we believed our investment would be most


Then it dawned on me. The key difference between the

Swiss banker’s approach and that of Acumen lay in how we

each perceived means and ends. The banker saw financial

returns as his end. If the poor were served—well, that was

an ancillary benefit. He had never visited the microfinance

banks in which his funds had invested; he’d never met any

of their low-income borrowers. My mistrust was not of him

as a person but of a system that would make decisions

based on short-term profitability, not on whether those he

professed to serve were seeing positive changes in their


Distance easily dulls our moral imagination. In the

banker’s case, just believing that he could sell a product

that allowed investors to “do well by doing good” was

enough. He had geographical distance from those who

would be making and taking out the loans, and that afforded

him emotional distance, too. What mattered to the banker

was generating high returns for his shareholders. What

mattered to me was something else. I wanted to use the

tools of the market as a means to solve poverty, not as an

end. We were playing in different arenas, with different

intentions. I thanked the man for his kind offer, but passed

on the opportunity to join his board.

When a product for the very poor is marketed as doing

good while generating outsized profits at zero risk for the

very rich, a moral question is born. In a world of extreme

inequality, what kind of economic system is just? By

conforming to a system structured solely to maximize

shareholder returns, we avoid taking personal responsibility

for the answer to that moral question.

Conformity to traditional market priorities is a trap that

can make it exceedingly difficult to do what is right.

Decisions that depend on moral choice, not transactional

effectiveness, are rarely straightforward once you are clear

about what’s at stake. If I had decided to join the banker’s

board in order to influence the fund’s ongoing activities,

yes, I probably would have met influential people who could

have helped Acumen. But I ultimately needed to know that I

would be partnering with someone who was at least open to

going against the grain of shareholder capitalism.

A few months later, when the financial crash occurred,

the economic system got a reckoning—and most everyone

was touched by it. In the United States, many on Wall Street

and on Main Street alike lost fortunes. Millions lost their

homes. Most traders agreed that the financial system had

gotten out of control. Still, they defended their actions,

arguing that they never did anything illegal, unable or

unwilling to wrestle publicly with whether what they did was

right. Meanwhile, millions of people with no financial

cushion, caught up in the promises of “easy money,” had

risked their futures and paid a dreadful price. In the end,

everyone lost. As for that Swiss banker, he never got his

microfinance investment fund off the ground.

No matter how determined we are to do the right thing,

we all fall prey to conformity traps within the system we’ve

chosen. We want to “win,” to appear successful, respected,

or powerful, so we cut corners and tell little white lies. We

hold our itching tongues when people around us demean

those from another group—not because we are bad people

but because we don’t want colleagues or friends, religious

leaders or classmates, parents or siblings, to think we are

weak, disloyal, naïve, unsophisticated, or foolish. And

sometimes, in the longer term, we end up causing harm; we

end up becoming the person we said we’d never be.

Our anxieties germinate in the systems we inhabit. Who

are we measuring ourselves against? Whose opinions

matter to us? What does winning even look like?

Mustering the moral courage needed to do what’s right,

not what’s easy, requires knowing when conformity is a

force for good and when it instead muffles our conscience.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “groups are

more immoral than individuals.” By shifting the blame to

systems bigger than us, we tend to convince ourselves that

we have no choice but to “go along to get along.” But if you

dare to act on dreams of change, you must find the guts to

stand apart while also building the relationships needed to

design better systems.

The warning signs of traps nearby read almost like a bad


It’s just business as usual.

Everybody’s doing it.

And I don’t want to look stupid.

If I don’t do it, someone else will.

No one else is saying anything.

Don’t the ends justify the means?

I really don’t have another choice.

I wouldn’t do this just for myself.

People are counting on me.

Besides, I’ll do it just this once …

Self-justifying phrases, uttered by you or those around

you, separate you from accountability. Like the banker who

was emotionally removed from the people his fund would

have impacted, it’s easy to insulate ourselves from our

actions. But we can make the choice to be guided by our

own moral compass and play for the long term. Stay close

to people who keep you honest and who will stand by when

you feel isolated, or worse. Keep in mind that business as

usual remains that way until we change our definition of

what is “normal.”

It’s also easy to be a critic who regularly finds fault

rather than proposes solutions or, better yet, risks her

reputation attempting them. So, avoid the trap of

perfection, not just the trap of conformity. If you are a

builder, there will undoubtedly be times when you have no

choice but to compromise in service of a greater goal. Think

of the gray areas Andrew Otieno had to navigate to

reconstruct the market in Kibera. Moral leadership requires

the judgment to make the right short-term compromises so

as to realize the long-term change we seek.

Rejecting conformity outright is required for change.

Until 1865, slavery was business as usual in the United

States. The abolition of legal slavery began with those few

courageous individuals who dared to go against the moral

conventions of the time, conventions endorsed, in many

cases, by teachers, parents, religious leaders, and, again,

the law itself. Many who protested paid the ultimate price

for their actions, and the abolition movement required

strong allies to stand with them before the tide turned.

If you are a change agent, then you are by definition a

nonconformist. You stand for something. Get used to the

awkwardness of turning right when everyone else turns left,

and pursue what you know to be true. And before you

partner or invest, do your homework to understand a

person’s character rather than be swayed solely by

charisma or connections. I have been burned more than

once by trusting someone because they had received

ringing endorsements from people I admired.

In the same year as the financial crisis, Acumen

invested in a company led by a magnetic, capable

entrepreneur. (I’ve withheld the name of the company and

country to protect innocent people.) At first, the

entrepreneur gained significant momentum, and local

recognition, for his highly efficient and profitable company.

Our team was swayed to invest partially due to the

entrepreneur’s commitment to allocating a percentage of

the start-up’s services to the poor. But the first time I met

with him, after we’d invested, I was left with a nagging

feeling that something was wrong.

Sometimes your gut recognizes what your brain initially

misses. Within eighteen months of our investing, the

company was thriving financially and creating significant

impact. At the same time, our local team discovered that

the entrepreneur was keeping two separate sets of financial

books—one for us and a much-less-profitable one for the tax

collector. When we brought this to the entrepreneur’s

attention, he explained matter-of-factly that “everyone does


Acumen has a strict ethics statement that every

investor signs. The practice of keeping two sets of books is

illegal and unethical. What, we asked ourselves, should our

next move be? Here, too, we risked falling into the

conformity trap. We assumed that if we took the case to

court, we would fail. And when we reached out to a few

investors to ask how they handled such issues, more than a

few suggested that the practice of using two sets of books

was, indeed, “business as usual.”

We knew what we had to do, but it is not easy to write

down profitable investments, especially ones demonstrating

social impact. Writing off our investment would result in a

hefty financial loss to Acumen. Yet, if we did nothing, we’d

reinforce unethical behavior, reduce our legitimacy as

champions for impact (even if only in our eyes), and take a

painful hit to our own integrity. “Everyone does it” cannot be

society’s or any organization’s standard for decision making.

But doing the right thing can be soul crushing and

frustratingly lonely when peers or colleagues would rather

you “won” according to the rules of the status quo.

Our team at Acumen conferred: Were we willing to write

off our investment completely if we couldn’t find someone

to buy our stake? Were we willing to go to court, given an

unreliable justice system? And what if we could convince the

entrepreneur to change his ways? Were we willing to extend

our trust to him again?

We reached out to the entrepreneur to give him a

second chance. He refused, reiterating that keeping two

sets of books was accepted business practice in his country.

I realized that our real failure had been in doing too little to

understand this misalignment of values before we invested.

Corruption is a disease with epidemiological patterns

that spread and fester. The poor suffer costly and

sometimes harrowing permanent consequences: health

services and police protection are sometimes denied unless

bribes are paid, and those unable to pay, often innocent

people, lose their health, their freedom, their livelihoods,

and even their lives. Systems grow so corrupt that people

feel incapacitated unless they participate in the brokenness

of it all, and the potential of everyone to live with dignity is


The Acumen team decided to exit the company. We sold

our shares at a relatively small loss to another impact

investor that didn’t mind investing in a company that was

compromised and preferred to focus on its potential impact.

For a year after the sale, we watched the company grow in

its reach and prosper financially, gaining media coverage for

its impact. Some, I’m sure, wondered whether, in this case,

the ends did justify the means.

Some months later, I picked up a local newspaper and

saw the face of the entrepreneur looking straight out at me.

He’d been arrested for corruption. I hated to think of the

people who’d lose basic services, yet I was relieved that we

at Acumen had found a way to extract ourselves before the

investment devolved into crisis. I was reminded again of

why we invest in character, in those people willing to stand

apart from the crowd, sometimes opening themselves up to

looking foolish but always willing to grapple with doing the

right thing for their customers, employees, and society, not

just for the sake of profits.

Would the story still be persuasive if the entrepreneur

had been wildly successful? I think it would. Acumen had to

establish a norm, a code that our team and our companies

would live by. In creating more just, inclusive, and

sustainable systems, the means, not solely the ends,

matter. You make change when you model change.

Even when you are proven “right,” it is

counterproductive to revel in righteousness. Even as we at

Acumen breathed a sigh of relief that we’d exited the deal, I

knew that luck had also played a role. I’m certain that we’ve

made other mistakes in assessing character, and I have

never met a single person without flaws, starting with

myself. The best we can do is aspire to live with integrity, to

tell the truth and expect the truth from those with whom we

partner. Flaunting the moral high ground when others fall

does little to compel them or us to do the hard work of self-

assessment with honesty and humility. Your greatest calling

card is your reputation for integrity. Treat it like gold, though

it is worth even more.

A few years ago, one of the Acumen fellows cheated on

his expenses. Like Acumen’s entrepreneurs, our fellows sign

statements of ethics, which make clear our expectations for

their conduct when they join the Acumen community. Those

statements reinforce an ethos that we are striving to uphold

qualities of moral leadership. The community creates a

support system for mutual accountability.

My senior team at Acumen was split on what to do.

Some believed the fellow should be expelled from the

program immediately. Yet he was deeply remorseful and

asked for the opportunity to redeem himself. His boss

reinforced his otherwise stellar performance and character.

After thinking long and hard about the situation,

consulting both the fellow and two people close to the

situation, my senior team agreed on giving him a second

chance. We asked the fellow to write a letter to his boss and

to me, sharing lessons learned. He also wrote a letter to his

cohort of fellows, and a few weeks later, his in-person

apology led to a powerful conversation about the

community’s norms and expectations. Everyone grew from

the experience, and to this day, the young man has

continued to excel not just in what he does but in who he is.

While every situation is different, one thing remains

clear. As the American civil rights advocate Bryan Stevenson

has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve

ever done.” Stevenson explained this idea: “I think if

somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if

somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them,

they’re not just a thief.” If we banish someone from the

community before considering all the circumstances, if we

let go of a basically good person who has a fierce desire to

grow and contribute, look how much we miss.

Our modern instant-feedback society offers ample

opportunities to shame and blame, sometimes with

destructive and even deadly consequences. Say a young

person is caught cheating on an exam or stealing from her

organization’s petty cash. Perhaps, she felt great pressure to

send money home to her parents. Maybe she was testing

the system, or just being thoughtless. Although this is the

first time she’s violated the group’s ethical contract, when a

peer discovers what she has done, he posts a statement of

outrage, publicly shaming the young woman in question.

Within an hour, a barrage of angry voices rises in a pile-on

of shock and humiliation. Notions of restoration or

redemption, essential aspects of healthy communities, may

quickly feel futile.

The scene is uncomfortable and all too familiar. Can we

instead pause, try to understand, and focus on solutions?

Might we all take a few moments of reflection before we

comment on social media, thinking about what our words

will mean to the person in question and the whole


In the early years after the Rwandan genocide, everyone in

the country possessed the powerful and necessary right to

accuse others of war crimes. That freedom also empowered

some to use “I accuse you” for nefarious purposes, charging

innocent neighbors because of past grievances having

nothing to do with genocidal actions. Others made

accusations purely out of greed. On a visit to the country in

1997, three years after the genocide, I remember the

almost unimaginable anxiety and despair expressed

privately by people who had been unjustly accused of

horrible acts. Even a baseless accusation could tarnish a

reputation by planting seeds of doubt in a society already

plagued by mistrust.

While the circumstances are usually less dramatic, the

internet enables all of us to be instant judges, which in

some cases unleashes roaring mobs. Our online lives bring

us close to those who think and feel like us. This is

wonderful in many ways, but it also creates conformity

traps. If we’re not careful, we can get swept along in toxic

forms of groupthink and mob behavior. We thus have a

corollary responsibility to balance judgment with

judiciousness, a responsibility requiring self-imposed

discipline. Thankfully, the world is full of role models carving

paths to what is right for all of us.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist attacked two

mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing fifty people in

the middle of their Friday prayers. Refusing to conform to

tired conventions such as speaking compassionately to the

victims, sending thoughts and prayers, and blasting the

murderer’s name across global media platforms, New

Zealand’s thirty-eight-year-old prime minister, Jacinda

Ardern, quickly called for changes to the system. She

refused to use the name of the terrorist and moved within

days to change outdated gun laws. With compassion and

toughness, heart and head, the prime minister led with all

her humanity, bringing out the best not only in her own

citizens but in people across the world.

Constrained by neither female nor male stereotypes,

Jacinda Arden acted swiftly to protect her nation’s people

and stood with moral courage for those who had suffered

most. Her nonconformity set her apart in ways that invited

others to participate. Taking the prime minister’s lead, tens

of thousands of New Zealanders gathered to honor their

Muslim neighbors. Women of all ethnicities turned up

wearing headscarves, as their prime minister did. Even the

global media respected Ardern’s leadership, refusing to

splash the name of the terrorist across the world, thus

denying him his twisted lust for infamy. Rather than simply

mirroring those who had gone before her, the prime minister

set a new standard for a powerful moral response to hatred.

Each of us has opportunities to avoid conformity traps

and offer the world the best version of ourselves, whether

we are a prime minister, a teenager, or a corporate leader.

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden started a youth

movement in 2018, waging a one-girl protest to fight

climate change that eventually gained the attention of the

entire world. America’s most effective advocates for gun

reform include teenage survivors of a mass shooting in 2018

that killed seventeen students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas

High School, in Parkland, Florida. Young people are raising

their voices and calling for change, and the world is taking


Brave CEOs, too, are standing apart. Bob Collymore, the

beloved Kenyan CEO of Safaricom, made public his net

worth and challenged his peers to do the same, though few

followed his lead. He fought corruption relentlessly and

modeled an ethos of service continuously. What made him a

true nonconformist, however, was the way he lived the

minutes of his life. Some of his closest friends grew up and

worked in Nairobi’s slums. During a time of heightened

terrorism, Collymore fasted for Ramadan to demonstrate

solidarity with Muslims.

“Never be ashamed of who you are,” he would tell

young people. “Never let people decide how you should feel

about yourself. A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Bob died too young, at sixty-three, but because he

dared to be his own man, his influence will last for


We often start out wanting to be like others until an

external event or situation forces us to confront the toll

society’s strictures impose on those who are different.

Gayatri Jolly, a privileged young Indian woman, grew up

assuming she would join her family’s successful home care

business as one of its first women directors. She attended

the “right” schools in the United States and studied business

to prepare herself. But back home in New Delhi, Gayatri

found herself spending two years sitting in her family office

feeling ineffective and, too often, ignored. Everyone,

including employees, assumed she would work for her

family only until she found a suitable husband. Instead,

Gayatri told her father that the arrangement wasn’t

working. And then, with his support, she moved to New York

City to study at the influential Parsons School of Design.

While at Parsons, Gayatri decided to build a company

that designed and manufactured beautiful clothing, a

company led, run, and aimed at women. Her social

enterprise, which she called MasterG, would also train

women to become masterjis, or expert pattern makers, a

profession that in South Asia was held only by men at the

time. Well-intentioned friends and relatives urged her to

aspire to be a designer with her own collection, a much

more conventional, status-oriented route. For Gayatri, the

price of nonconformity was hearing others make light of her

desire to “help the poor” as if she were simply a “failed

designer” on a mission.

Though aware of her privileged position in society,

Gayatri knew what it felt like to be invisible in her own

family’s business, and thus a sort of outsider. Time would

teach her to use her sense of invisibility as a gift. Coupling

that with her empathy for underprivileged and underserved

women who had none of her access, she was able to

imagine using her privilege as a bridge to them. She

followed a thread, an instinct—that she had the skills and

knowledge to offer the garment industry—and in doing so,

served a group that had for too long been invisible.

In early 2017, I visited Gayatri’s training center on the

edge of a semi-urban hamlet called Gwal Pahari, on the

outskirts of New Delhi. The village, home to the traditional

Gujjar community, is a place with high reported levels of

child marriage and domestic abuse. Female feticide is also

common. Indeed, some of the young women in Gayatri’s

program suffer chronic illness from repeated illegal

abortions, forced on them by families who did not want to

welcome additional daughters. Yet a growing number of

young women either escaped their families or found ways to

secure their blessing to join Gayatri’s MasterG training


The tailoring room, a place usually associated with poor

working conditions, was bright and filled with young women

in their late teens and twenties, all of them moving through

different stages of pattern making and stitching classes.

Some sat at sewing machines; others learned to make

patterns. Gayatri had taken her lessons from Parsons and

extended them to these women.

Beyond practical skills, the program teaches the women

to think more freely, to create and give voice to their

knowledge. Asked regularly for their opinions and their

decisions, often for the first time in their lives, these women

necessarily confront the socialization that required them to

be seen but not heard, to be nice and know nothing, and to

believe that they were worth less than a man.

“Our community must break the pattern of prejudice

against women,” Gayatri says frequently, her pun intended

to communicate action both to the women she serves and

to the industry she hopes to reform. “To change the system,

our women must begin by changing themselves.” Gayatri

dreams that some of the trainees will become celebrated

outside the studio and serve as role models for young

women across India and the world.

One of the masterjis, a petite young woman named

Rajni Mourya, was slight of build with long hair and wide

brown eyes and was attired in a bright pink-and-white dress

with flouncy sleeves. Rajni’s father, an informal laborer, had

died when she was a teen, leaving her with a sick and

debilitated mother and younger siblings to support. Upon

her father’s death, she dropped out of university to scratch

out a meager income by providing tailoring services in her

local area.

“Girls like Rajni weren’t meant to succeed,” Gayatri told


Life changed radically once Rajni joined the MasterG

Fashion Design and Skill Development Program. Seeing how

Rajni cut patterns and tailored garments for her class

assignments, Gayatri perceived a rare talent, and I soon saw

what she meant. Rajni is now working full-time with Gayatri,

pattern making and stitching for the company’s upscale

clients across the world. She is also pursuing a degree via

distance learning.

Rajni stood at Gayatri’s side to welcome me to MasterG.

Rajni was learning English, so Gayatri did most of the

talking. “We’re going to make a jacket as our gift for you,”

she said, beaming, adding that Rajni would be the one to

take my measurements and do all the tailoring and

finishing. Gayatri pointed to a small room where Rajni and I

and a couple of the young women who could help translate

would gather. While Rajni was expertly taking my

measurements, I asked her what her dreams were.

“I want to be a Somebody,” she said, adopting language

commonly used at Acumen. I smiled.

As she was taking the last measurement, it was Rajni’s

turn to smile. When I asked her the reason behind her ear-

to-ear grin, she blushed. “I got your measurements

perfectly,” she said. “I don’t need to change anything.”

“Anything of what?” I asked, not fully understanding

what she was talking about. Her friend explained that she

and Gayatri had already blocked out the pattern earlier, and

Rajni was fairly certain of my measurements.

“But we’ve never met,” I said, stating the obvious. “How

were you able to guess my measurements with such


She seemed puzzled by my surprise. “Oh, madam, I

watched you on YouTube,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s

how I could guess. I know your colors, too,” she added. A

few minutes later, she showed me an array of silks, each

dyed a different jewel tone, all perfectly curated for me.

A generation ago, Rajni would likely have lived a life

trapped by tradition and poverty, with limited freedom and

little ability to support her family financially. Now she has

access to a world-class education, a support system, and a

steady income. She has a chance to dream in ways not

afforded to most young women in her community, nor in

any previous generation. Like Gayatri, she dared to be a

nonconformist and, as Gayatri regularly says, “break the


Of course, Rajni and the other young women sometimes

have to switch their mannerisms, behaviors, and even the

way they speak when they are at home in order to survive

in their communities. They still regularly face situations in

which they pretend to know less than they do as a survival

mechanism. Some hide their work and, most definitely, their

dreams from family members. But more of them are moving

out of bad marriages, setting up shops of their own, finding

their voices, and building strength in the unity they offer

one another. Already, the MasterG women are becoming

role models for a new generation: Gayatri has trained more

than a thousand of them, all of whom were tired of waiting

for someone else to give them freedom.

Gayatri sees technology purely as a tool. She attracts

customers based on her unique talents and then uses online

communications to connect customers across the world to

expert pattern makers like Rajni. In this way, she extends

her privilege, her social capital, to bridge two worlds. Her

pattern makers gain skills, self-confidence, and increased

income. Customers are able to see the direct impact of their

choices. If we learn to control it and not be controlled by it,

technology does not have to divide us. It can be used to

feed and strengthen relationships.

As for Gayatri, I have no doubt that she will be a famous

designer. But her success will be a shared success. As Rajni

and the other young women learn to trust themselves and

fly, they will buoy Gayatri as well, enabling her to break

ever more patterns. Instead of striving to gain a seat at the

proverbial “table,” she is building a table of her own.

The difference between Gayatri and that Swiss banker is

that Gayatri avoided conformity traps. They both wanted to

do good for the world. The banker, however, believed his job

was to protect the short-term interests of his shareholders

by valuing profit above all else, even though when markets

turned, the most vulnerable stakeholders lost most. In

contrast, Gayatri devised in MasterG an inclusive business

model that refuses to see the world as separated by us and

them, profit and purpose. Indeed, the urgent challenge for

our times is to reimagine capitalism as a tool to enable our

wholeness rather than to reinforce our separation. There

could be no better blueprint for those of us who believe in

the need for a moral revolution, and only those who are able

to sidestep conformity traps can meet this challenge.

Chapter 9







When I started Acumen in 2001, many prospective donors

insisted we should be a for-profit fund. We were investing

patient capital in mostly for-profit companies, they

reasoned. If we used philanthropy to support for-profit

investments, we would muddy the waters. At the same

time, some nonprofit leaders flatly rejected out of hand the

idea that we would use business as a tool for change. After

a talk I gave in Bangladesh during Acumen’s early days, an

earnest young person accused me of being a “rapacious

venture capitalist, earning money off the backs of the poor.”

That hurt. But, as I have learned, making all sides

uncomfortable can be a signal that you are on to something.

I hear echoes of a similar conversation between

generations. The older generation, especially those who

lived in state-dominated economies like those in Eastern

Europe, China, Russia, India, and large parts of Africa,

remember lives of limited choices and opportunities and

tend to favor free markets. The younger generation, who

experienced the financial crisis of 2008, a calamity fueled

by unbridled greed, convincingly points to the ravages of

capitalism: inequality, divisiveness, climate change. Each

group clings to its own version of reality.

Let me make a plea for nuance.

On the one hand, markets, the part of the economy that

fulfills the needs of customers with products and services

provided by businesses, have a fundamental role to play in

healthy societies. At their best, markets efficiently allocate

resources to meet the greatest demand. As long as

individuals have access to them, markets give people

control over their own lives rather than leaving them to the

whims of government or charitable benefactors. Think of the

massive emergence from poverty over the past thirty years,

a billion people around the world supported by the opening

of markets (along with interventions such as better health

care and education).

On the other hand, if markets enable individual

freedom, they also create inequality. Unchecked, capitalism

overlooks or exploits those who cannot afford to pay;

insufficiently considers the well-being of employees; and

does not integrate onto balance sheets the cost of poorly

utilizing earth’s precious resources. The result is a

profoundly unequal society in which the wealthiest feel

above the system and the poorest feel left out altogether. In

other words, capitalism without restraint is not good for any

of us.

Moreover, when certain groups are barred from markets

because of politics or prejudice, they can’t participate fully

in society. Remember Vimal, whose community was denied

the opportunity to purchase a satellite dish for their

televisions until he and his friends fought to be served?

They weren’t asking for favors, only access to markets as a

form of freedom.1

Knowing how to use and build markets is one of the

most powerful tools we have for solving our problems. If you

want to change even a small part of the world, learn to use

the best of what markets can do while keeping them in their

place. Resist the allure of short-term profit making, but don’t

reject the market entirely. Hold the tension. Use the market

as a listening device (I explain this in chapter 4) and let it

teach you what people value alongside what they can


Indeed, the notion of the market as a listening device

can be a powerful starting point for understanding both

private and public problems. When Acumen first explored

the issue of safe drinking water, a basic human need, we

saw countless water filters designed to change the lives of

the poor. But the inventors of those technologies often failed

to let prospective clients’ needs and tastes inform their


Consequently, they learned far too late that people care

a lot about their water’s clarity, taste, and convenience, not

to mention its price—in many urban and, increasingly, rural

areas, the poor pay much more for water than their wealthy

counterparts. Even if water is provided by the government,

listening to poor “customers” is critical to any program’s

success. By failing to listen to the market, hundreds of

billions of well-intentioned funding has gone down the drain.

In sectors such as energy, people with low incomes will

pay for products and services when they see tangible gains

on their investment. If I sell you an affordable solar light

and, over time, save the money you would normally have

doled out for kerosene, you are likely to tell your neighbors

about it. That the solar light is cleaner, healthier, and

significantly improves your lifestyle doesn’t hurt, either.

But in other sectors, such as education, lower-income

earners may not be able to afford what they need. If I offer

early-childhood education facilities but charge enough

tuition that the school at least breaks even, that leaves out

the poor. I believe that every child in the world deserves an

education that will allow them to contribute to the best of

their abilities. So, does that mean public education is

government’s responsibility alone?

I used to confidently assert that the only way to enable

fair opportunity to all children was to insist on public

education for all—until I visited scores of schools in India

and Pakistan. There, government-financed public schools

are riddled with bureaucracy and corruption. Classrooms

tend to be run-down and equipped with broken furniture or

no furniture at all; and for the most part, neither teachers

nor students show up for class. As a result, in Pakistan, 40

percent of low-income parents send their children to private

schools. Low-income parents hungering to educate their

children are willing to struggle and pay mightily for a better


While we might demand that governments improve the

quality of education for all children, how do we again hold

the tension and use markets to build alternative models that

serve the poor a high-quality product? By listening to the

market, social entrepreneurs can identity what parents can

afford to pay and then define the gap between that amount

and the actual cost of delivering quality services. In the

short term, philanthropy might fill that gap. But in the

longer term, the only way to rectify the situation will be for

government to step in.

Let’s stand back from economic ideologies and start

with the human problem we want to solve. We need a full

understanding of the problem from the perspective of all

stakeholders; only then can we determine the right kinds of

capital (as well as the partnerships) needed to make the

solution work. If you believe, as I do, that all human beings

deserve access to affordable, quality education, to

electricity, to primary health care, to a minimum level of

clean drinking water and the like, then we need financial

models that ensure universal access.

As I discussed earlier, Acumen has always seen its

patient capital investments as a means to solving problems,

not an end. In other words, the end or purpose of money is

not simply to make more money, but to create something of


To place that in a moral framework: the more value our

investments create, especially for the poor and vulnerable,

the more we value our investments. Philanthropy enables us

to take outsized risk—and time—investing in companies

disrupting systems to serve the poor. Profits are a means to

the sustainability of the innovations we support and,

eventually, to ensuring that we also can cover our costs in

the long term. Acumen’s success hangs in the balance of

two points on our moral compass, impact on one side and

financial sustainability on the other.

Consider a complex issue like sanitation. People in the

developed world take for granted having toilets that flush

waste into enormous sewage treatment networks. In the

developing world, however, 2.3 billion people rely on an

outhouse or latrine, or else they defecate in the open air,

which can lead to disease and often a loss of dignity.2

Indirectly, poor sanitation imposes a higher cost on

women than on men. Schools that lack safe toilets typically

see significant drop-out rates for girls once they begin

menstruating, as they have no place to tend to their

personal hygiene needs. And rural areas lacking any toilets

whatsoever force women to relieve themselves in fields,

where they are vulnerable to violence from passersby.

Local governments, international aid agencies, and

charities have all attempted unsuccessfully for decades to

build latrines in slum areas. But without a plan to remove

the waste and sustain the management of those toilets, the

latrines quickly overflowed, creating stench and toxicity. No

wonder traditional investors have stayed away from the

business of providing toilets for the poor.

Solving such a complicated problem for one-third of the

world’s population could seem overwhelming—but not to

David Auerbach, Lindsay Stradley, and Ani Vallabhaneni,

who met at MIT’s Sloan School of Management as graduate

students and went on to found Sanergy. The three had each

lived and worked in low-income communities, and they

understood the connections between poor sanitation and

diarrhea, cholera, and other water-borne diseases in slum

areas especially.

The Sanergy founders were agnostic as to whether to

take a for-profit or nonprofit approach to the problem; what

mattered was solving it. In 2010, they traveled to Nairobi,

Kenya, and found a smallish slum community of about forty

thousand people where they could immerse themselves in

learning and experimentation until they found a solution

that worked. They used the market as a listening device,

and considered every stakeholder group.

Mukuru, like the rest of Nairobi’s slums, was known for

“flying toilets,” the practice of defecating on paper inside

one’s home and then tossing the bundle onto rooftops

outside. The Sanergy founders met with many residents

there who were willing to pay for a better, cleaner solution,

especially as they were already in the habit of paying to use

filthy toilets as a last resort. Individual entrepreneurs saw

business opportunities in the owning and operating of

toilets, and Mukuru, like all of Kenya, needed good jobs to

employ its youth. Building a network of clean and

sustainable toilets there made sense.

But before Sanergy could begin operating, the team

needed to find local entrepreneurs willing to extend trust to

three foreigners who had not yet proven their business

model. “We just kept showing up,” cofounder Lindsay

Stradley explained. “For weeks, we would go into the slums

and talk to people, until we made it clear we weren’t going

anywhere. The problem of waste had gotten out of control in

Mukuru, so people were desperate to try a new solution.

Plus, the entrepreneurs we connected with saw a business

opportunity for themselves that also would do good for the


Sanergy’s business model seeks to create value out of

waste. The company manufactures toilets and sells them to

the entrepreneurs, or “franchisees,” for about five hundred

dollars per toilet (a cost financed mostly via microloans).

Sanergy employees then collect the waste from the

entrepreneurs on a daily basis and compost it. In the early

years, the founders lacked an answer to one of their biggest

questions: what to do with the waste once it was collected.

Might the government and others eventually come to see it

as a resource rather than simply a cost? That would depend

on whether the company was able to turn the waste into

fertilizer that met health standards and that local farmers

would purchase. The team would gain insights only by


The founders correctly assumed the franchisees would

repay their loans on the toilets with proceeds from their

customers. Still, as it turned out, Sanergy needed both

grants and loans before they could build a whole system to

move waste effectively. They used grants to advertise their

new service to local residents and for research into how best

to compost and convert the waste into useful, salable


I visited Sanergy’s office in Mukuru on a Sunday

afternoon in October 2015. The slum’s narrow entry road

was lined with tarpaulin-covered kiosks crammed willy-nilly.

Alleyways snaked between ricky-ticky houses made of mud,

with open sewers running alongside. Lines of colorful

laundry hung among the houses like prayer flags, and

children were dressed in their finest clothing from a morning

spent at church. A little girl reminded me of a princess from

a Velázquez painting, her delicate hand daintily holding up

her long, silky, scalloped blue skirt to avoid its becoming


Lindsay Stradley met me at Sanergy’s small but lively

office, which was filled with young people from around the

world. She had just had her first child, but still came daily to

the office to meet with local toilet entrepreneurs, solve

problems with them, and grow the business. To show me

Sanergy’s business in action, she led me out of the office,

striding in front of me through the muddy streets wearing

jeans and bright yellow rubber boots, a huge smile on her

face, clearly in her element.

We stopped in front of one of the toilet kiosks to meet

Leah Gachanga, a square-jawed businesswoman with soft

brown eyes. A colorful scarf was wrapped around her head.

Leah proudly told me that she’d already grown her

enterprise from one to three toilets, netting about five

dollars per day on top of what she and her husband earned

running a clothing store. Lindsay and I stood outside the

bright blue toilet units with “Fresh Life” (Sanergy’s local

brand) painted in yellow on the sides. Just outside the units,

Leah had set up a vanity station, complete with a mirror and

washing stand. Like all Fresh Life agents, she charged about

five cents per use for adults, two cents for children. She

took care to clean the toilet after each customer left, and

each day, young men in Fresh Life uniforms arrived to

collect the waste in sealed containers, leaving the toilets

fresh and odorless.

Leah relayed how much she loved contributing to her

community. “Before Sanergy,” she told me, “there was so

much human waste right outside our houses. We would walk

home, especially in the rainy season, and mud would rise so

high that your boots became covered in an awful mix. Now

the pathways are clean. Disease has fallen. I’m helping to

make my community cleaner, and that makes me proud.”

Moreover, her efforts have changed the prospects for her

family. “My customers have provided me with enough

income to buy a home and educate my children in good

schools,” she said. “Fresh Life is good for all of us.”

Lindsay and I continued walking along alleyways to the

composting unit. Though Sanergy had been operating for

several years by then and had seen significant interest from

local farmers in its fertilizer, the company still lacked the

European equivalent of FDA approval verifying that the

product met health standards. When approved, the fertilizer

delivery service would create good jobs and play a vital role

in the community’s health, culture, and business


Lindsay, David, and Ani had focused maniacally on

building a sustainable company that could solve a critical

problem and, over the long term, provide a positive return

to shareholders. But what they needed at that moment were

patient investors who shared their values and aspirations.

Though many loved the vision, most investors still wanted

proof of the company’s profitability before they would

consider making a bet on Sanergy. The proof would only

come later, making it all the more critical for the Sanergy

founders to find investors who understood markets, yet also

were willing to experiment and learn what it would take to

build a sustainable, impactful model for change.

For patient investors, Sanergy’s impact is significant. By

March 2019, Sanergy had sold more than 2,500 toilets to

local entrepreneurs, created more than 2,750 jobs, and

provided affordable, hygienic sanitation services to more

than 100,000 people, removing in excess of 6,000 tons of

waste each year. That’s about 600 big dump trucks full of

human waste, which is composted and converted into

organic fertilizer before being sold to commercial and

smallholder farms. Major corporations interested in selling

organic food products recently expressed interest in the

fertilizer, which would bring the company’s supply chain full


Mukuru has been the main beneficiary of Sanergy’s

work. Disease rates have fallen, and education rates for

adolescent girls have risen, as young women now have safe,

private toilets to use at school. Community members feel a

deep sense of pride in their homes, a benefit that matters,

even if it is not always easy to measure.

The Sanergy founders have built a model that works,

and are now looking to partner and grow the business

significantly. Thrillingly, the city of Nairobi is interested in

joining with the company to bring sanitation to all people.

And the company continues to raise both grant money for

research and development and investor capital.

Within eight years, Sanergy has become an example for

patient investors, smart philanthropists, and city

governments that are serious about solving a significant

public health issue. The company’s founders dreamed of

providing a blueprint that governments could use to deliver

“off-grid waste management,” enabling the world’s urban

poor to improve their health, comfort, and dignity. Using

moral imagination, the right kind of capital, and a circular

business model that seriously considered all stakeholders,

Sanergy’s intrepid founders have succeded in turning waste

into gold.

The more you understand how markets work, the better

you’ll be able to put markets in their place. The more you

gain the tools needed to build financial viability into any

endeavor you pursue, the more effectively you can solve

intractable problems. Understanding markets is also critical

to seeing and correcting some of the intrinsic flaws in our

global economic system, blind spots that rely

disproportionately on the toil and sweat of the working poor,

holding them in a perennial cycle of indebtedness and


For example, agricultural markets have flourished for

hundreds of years at the expense of the poorest farmers,

the people who actually grow the food and drinks that

nourish us. In Colombia, more than a half million smallholder

farming families grow, pick, and export some of the finest

coffee on earth. Yet the vast majority of these farmers live in

poverty, often unable to cover the costs of production.

In 2009, Tyler Youngblood, a freelance writer and coffee

enthusiast, found his imagination ignited by the rich, wet,

emerald hills of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. His

curiosity drove him to meet everyone he could in the coffee

industry and learn as much as possible about Colombian

coffee production and its markets. His empathy for the

coffee farmers urged him to ask: why was it so hard for

them to make a living?

Almost everyone Tyler met pointed to the complicated

global supply chain for coffee, which has been in place for at

least a century. Millions of farmers grow coffee beans of

varying qualities, then handpick the coffee cherries and sell

them to domestic buyers and exporters at prices

determined by global coffee futures. The exporters sell the

coffee to roasters abroad, who in turn sell bags of high-

priced coffee beans and lattes to the end consumer.

Why, Tyler wondered, were farmers beholden to a daily

global commodities price, which was known for wild swings

(from under a dollar to three dollars per pound) and had

little to do with the realities of their production costs, when

consumers paid the same amount for lattes regardless of

commodity prices? Why, in an age of transparency, given

that 25 million of the world’s poorest citizens grew 80

percent of coffee produced, wasn’t there a more ethical way

to organize the industry?

Imagine being a farmer who drudges for months each

season, investing your savings and time and not knowing

what you will be paid until the day you deliver your harvest.

You want to be able to sell your produce at fair prices.

Ideally, you’d like “fair” to be a price that not only covers

your costs but rewards your hard work with a

commensurate financial return or profit. This is not what

most coffee farmers experience. The majority of Colombian

coffee farmers operate at a net financial loss. No wonder the

average smallholder farmer is fifty-seven years old—most

farmers’ children decidedly do not want to become farmers.

Tyler dreamed of designing a system that started from

the farmers’ perspective. He knew this would entail

ensuring a supply chain that compensated farmers fairly

while also delivering a premium product to consumers. Isn’t

that the real point of markets, anyway, to ensure a fair and

reasonable exchange of goods in ways that create value for

all parties involved?

The result of Tyler’s inquiry is Azahar, a coffee company

that makes the markets work for farmers as well as

everyone else along the supply chain. The company buys

coffee directly from smallholder farmers because single-

origin beans yield higher prices from international buyers. To

ensure just pricing, Azahar works to understand farmers’

costs of production and negotiates a long-term, fixed-price

contract with roasters. These contracts between farmers

and Azahar can yield prices two times higher than the global

commodities price.

In return for their partnership, Azahar insists on the

highest level of integrity from the farmers—timely delivery

and no mixing of different qualities of beans. The company

is able to pay so much more for the beans because it has

developed a network of sustainable coffee consumers who

want to know who is growing their coffee and how those

people are treated. When I was in Colombia in November

2018, the world price was just about one dollar per pound;

Azahar was paying the farmers, on average, two dollars per

pound. The well-paid farmers are loyal to the company and

consistently deliver the highest-quality beans.

I witnessed this sense of shared prosperity in 2017,

when Acumen’s Latin America director, Virgilio Barco, and I

traveled to Nariño, in the southwest part of Colombia,

bordering Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean. The land around

Nariño is rich, verdant, and productive, perfect for growing

coffee. Yet, like the Arhuacos who cultivate cacao in the

north, the farmers who grow coffee in the southern region

suffered greatly during the fifty-year civil war. Azahar was

changing not only daily realities but future possibilities.

In Nariño, we met with a group of men and women

farmers who had participated in an early revenue-sharing

experiment with Azahar. Long, lonely hours toiling in the sun

had carved creases of austerity and weariness into their

faces. Most of the farmers stood quietly in a circle wearing

jeans and cowboy hats, their eyes cast downward. Tyler,

dressed in a white button-down shirt and jeans, his longish

brown hair behind his ears and scholarly glasses perched

above a mischievous smile, broke their silence with a simple

hello. Then all eyes turned to him as he explained that

thanks to an American buyer, each farmer would receive a

bonus for the harvest based on additional premiums to be

paid by the company.

One by one, the farmers approached the group’s

accountant, who sat on a simple stool in front of a small

wooden table, checking handwritten ledger paper for the

amount of beans each farmer had delivered. The farmers

accepted the bonus in cash, usually with a wide grin, as the

group applauded proudly.

I asked one of the men what he would do with his new

income. “I’m saving to buy more land,” he said. Tyler

explained that for the first time, Colombian smallholders see

the potential to earn a good living in coffee, but only if they

own more than two hectares—and most farmers in Colombia

own less.

“You seem happy today,” I said to a cluster of farmers.

“But is this company really different from the other coffee


“Azahar cares about us,” one farmer responded. He had

jet-black eyes and a thick fringe of hair to match. “They

aren’t here just to make money from us, but to help us earn

money, too. We trust them.”

“Our job is to build a community of trust,” Tyler

explained to Virgilio and me over dinner that evening.

“Specialty coffee depends on a supply chain with trust at

every link. Our buyers depend on us to sell them single-

origin beans with no mistakes; they need to trust that we

will deliver the highest-quality coffee. Our customers need

to trust that our farmers are paid sustainably. And our

farmers need to trust that we will adhere to our fixed

agreement, paying the best prices in a timely manner. They

need to know that we will show up. We have to do this

outside a traditional commercial or legal framework. We

have to do it because it is the right thing to do.”

The phrase a “community of trust” resonates; it unites

the many stakeholders of social enterprise, linking the

hands and minds of those who produce and deliver our daily

bread and everything else we use. The reality of creating

such a community is another story. Many peers and

investors think Tyler and others like him are insane to pay

double the world coffee price.

Tyler took a conventional economic model and turned it

upside down, understanding that farmers needed to be fully

included in the supply chain, not as inputs but as dignified

human beings whose long months of work produced daily

cups of joy for the world. It took the courage and creativity

of nonconformity to build a business based on the

production costs of the farmers, not on maximizing sales to

the buyers. It took persistence fueled by a belief that trust,

empathy, and mutual accountability are the bedrock of

healthy societies.

In November 2018 we met Tyler again, this time at a hip

yet elegant retail Azahar store in a popular section of

Bogotá. Every table was filled with residents talking,

working, and drinking Azahar’s fine coffee. “When I got here

in 2010,” Tyler said, “Colombians couldn’t find much high-

quality coffee from their own country to drink. All the good

stuff was exported. It feels good to be part of changing


Market fundamentalists may ask how entrepreneurs

such as the founders of Sanergy and Azahar make good

decisions while balancing multiple bottom lines. With the

single metric of profit, the results are binary: you are either

profitable or not. But profit doesn’t take into account the

natural resources we consume, the pollution we create, and

the employees we empower. Nor does it grapple with issues

of fairness that operate in systems with wildly unbalanced

power dynamics. The shareholder capitalist system also

does not value the social and environmental capital some

businesses are creating (which, in some cases, is

enormous), focusing only on short-term profitability. But

human beings created the current systems that govern our

lives. It is up to human beings to change and evolve those


The current economic system keeps the attention on

what we can count (profits) rather than on what we most

value (our children’s health and education, the quality of the

air we breathe, just compensation to the poorest, etc.).

Companies and investors tend to allocate financial and

human resources to achieve the highest possible financial

returns, and even some impact investors count it as a bonus

rather than a requirement when social impact is also

achieved. The expense of corporate resources on fairly

integrating smallholder farmers into the supply chain,

training women and minorities, and protecting and

strengthening the environment tends to be relegated to

Corporate Social Responsibility or philanthropy. Yet, only

when companies regularly quantify and value nonpecuniary

but fundamental human and environmental benefits will we

see a more inclusive, sustainable market system.

Like many of our peers, the team at Acumen and I have

been working for many years to develop new approaches to

measuring social impact as a complement to quantitative

financial analysis. In Acumen’s early years, like most socially

oriented organizations, we counted “outputs” (the number

of toilets produced, the number of people trained or jobs

created). That approach gave us a sense of scale, but it fell

short of showing whether our companies were effective at

helping people lift themselves from poverty. And we wanted

to hold ourselves, and our companies, accountable for doing

just that.

The cell phone revolution led to the ability to

communicate with thousands of low-income customers

simultaneously. In 2015, building on the work of others,

Acumen developed Lean Data, an approach to measuring

impact using cell phones. Using this approach, Acumen can

simultaneously text thousands of customers of a given

project or company, asking a series of questions from which

we then deduce invaluable information such as income level

and whether using a certain product has had a positive or

negative impact on its user. We learn what people value, or

don’t, about a specific project. Low-income customers

answer these questions very seriously, so that companies

know how to serve them based on what they actually need,

not what we think they need. Lean Data is a step forward in

treating the poor as customers, not victims.

For example, remember the solar lighting company

d.light from chapter 4? Acumen has invested more than

thirty million dollars in companies like d.light that are

bringing off-grid solar electricity to low-income people

around the world. We hope to realize financial returns yet do

not expect to compete with traditional venture capitalists on

a returns basis alone. Instead, we are counting on our

portfolio of companies to bring measurable change to the

lives of many. Our energy companies, reaching well over

110 million and counting—does not disappoint.

Consider these results. Lean Data surveys have

demonstrated that solar light results in low-income people

staying active an extra hour each night. Children study

about an hour more as well. Customers tend to place high

value on the security and peace of mind that electricity

brings—harder to quantify but important. Our investments

also have kept more than seven million tons of carbon

dioxide and black carbon from being released into the

atmosphere. Over one hundred million lives are better. And

most important, we know in what ways those lives have

improved because the people living with the solar products

have told us so.

Imagine if more of us allocated our resources, placing

social and environmental impact on an equal footing with

(or higher than) financial returns. Everything would change.

Using markets without being seduced by them does not

require a degree in rocket science, but it does require

fortitude to move beyond a profit-alone mentality. The

process starts with focusing first on purpose; considering all

stakeholders; using the right kind of capital; hiring

competent, values-aligned talent; and measuring what

matters, not just what you can count. We are the ones who

choose the kind of economy and society we inhabit. We can

continue to play by tired rules that work only for the few, at

the expense of the many, or we can imagine and build new

rules that work for everyone. It is all within our individual

and collective grasp.

Chapter 10






If you want to create or renew systems, small is beautiful

but scale is critical. Changing systems for the poor, not just

the rich, requires understanding how to use markets and

how to partner with government, which means moving from

small-scale purity to the messy and complex thickness of

scale. I’m not talking about growth for growth’s sake

though. Rather, I’m underscoring the need to recognize the

problem you are solving and then executing a strategy to

either replicate your business model or partner to expand

your model’s reach. Neither path is easy. But if you are up to

the challenge, you could enable widespread transformation.

In the summer of 2007, I was speaking at the Aspen

Ideas Festival to a crowd of a couple hundred wealthy

people, mostly Americans, about Acumen’s latest

investment, an ambulance company in India. The Indian

government was spending more than a billion dollars

annually on emergency services, yet in Mumbai (the

country’s financial center and largest city), only a few

emergency service units actually functioned. At that time,

the emergency medical sector across India was notoriously

bloated and corrupt; 90 percent of people traveling in

ambulances were already dead and en route to the morgue.

It was common knowledge that if you wanted to get to the

hospital quickly, you were much better off calling a taxi.

Earlier that year, Acumen’s India team had invested in

Ziqitza, a social enterprise with the singular mission of

disrupting the emergency services industry in India. The

company had begun operating with nine ambulances as a

purely private business: 80 percent of clients paid market

prices to be transported to private hospitals. The company

made a deliberate commitment to ensure that the other 20

percent of its clients were low-income people who paid only

what they could afford.

Ziqitza was committed to an anticorruption policy,

sharing Acumen’s belief that strong action was required to

break the inevitable correlation between corruption and

poverty. We knew that the risks of disrupting such a massive

industry were enormous, but the combination of the

inclusive business model and the character and

commitment of the founders reinforced our conviction in

making the investment.

Under that white tent in Aspen, one of India’s most

eminent businessmen raised his hand to ask a question.

“I applaud your ambition,” the great man said. “But did I

hear you correctly? Nine ambulances? Mumbai is a city of

seventeen million people [by 2019, more than twenty-two

million]. Are you seriously backing a group with only nine

ambulances?” The businessman continued, his doleful

lament by then so familiar that I could have filled in the

words myself. “This is the problem with social enterprises.

They are mediocre businesses run by smart, idealistic

people and have no hope of changing anything except at a

small-scale level. This sideline approach distracts from the

real issues and takes pressure off government from doing

their job.”

My face flushed. The businessman’s statement felt like

censure, a personal rebuke made public in front of my peers

at an esteemed institution where I served as a trustee. I

sensed a wave of doubt about our model sweeping the

audience. Heads nodded in unison.

A snippet from a Mary Oliver poem arose inside me like

a good friend: “Let me keep my distance, always, from

those / who think they have the answers.” Bring on the

skeptics—we need them—but those of us who want a better

world have little use for critics who armor themselves with

rigid certainty, especially if they propose neither assistance

nor solutions.

“At least we’re trying,” I said, “and nothing else seems

to be working. Why would we not try?” I was a believer in

social enterprise precisely because the big players who

dominated systems rarely had the creativity, daring, or

nimbleness needed to disrupt the status quo. Yet I wasn’t

certain that we would succeed. Indeed, the odds were

against this company. But Ziqitza would learn only by trying.

And so would we.

That day in Aspen, I wish I’d known then what I

understand now: that visionary builders who reshape entire

industries perceive the big picture while working to get their

initial operating model right, even if that model starts out

small. These audacious individuals must possess the

character to withstand naysayers and bullies.

Of course the founders of Ziqitza started small. As with

Jawad in his dream of affordable housing in Pakistan, they

were out to build something that had not succeeded in India

prior to their efforts. The group required time to experiment

and fail until they discovered how to run a high-quality

ambulance service with a decidedly social objective. Once

the model was in place, the company could then more easily

partner with government to reach a scale that served


While I was less articulate in that Aspen tent than I

would have liked, a number of factors persuaded me that

my team at Acumen had made the right bet on Ziqitza.

First, the founders had started their business to solve a

problem with which they had a deep sense of personal

connection. Years earlier, in the southern Indian state of

Kerala, Shaffi Mather, one of Ziqitza’s five founders and its

team leader, had nearly lost his mother when she woke up

choking and couldn’t find anything but a taxi to take her to

the hospital. Around that same time, the mother of Shaffi’s

cofounder Ravi Krishna was traveling in New York City when

she collapsed on the sidewalk. Ravi’s mother’s companion

called 911, and within minutes they were met by trained

medical personnel who provided effective assistance on the

spot, saving Ravi’s mother’s life. Why, the founders

reasoned, shouldn’t India’s people expect a similar


Second, when the time came to scale up the business,

the Ziqitza cofounders would be ready. Like Shaffi and Ravi,

the other cofounders, Sweta Mangal, Naresh Jain, and

Manish Sacheti, had experience working in different

divisions of large corporations, learning to manage talent,

build effective supply chains, and grow technology

businesses. They knew how to lay the groundwork for scale.

And, last, we at Acumen believed in the character of the

founders. Shaffi Mather reminded me of a bull in a china

shop, filled with the right kind of ambition, enthusiasm, and

energy, if not always with grace and mindfulness.

If anyone could pull off a major disruption in a broken

and corrupt industry, this guy and his partners could, even if

they did not yet fully understand their project’s exact path

to growth.

When I told Shaffi about the Indian businessman’s

disparaging remarks, he simply shrugged. “You know what

Gandhi said about society-changing innovations?” he asked.

“First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they

fight you. Then you win.”

But if vision, the right skills, and character got Ziqitza to

the starting block, the Indian businessman’s question

nonetheless dogged me. I wondered how the company

would raise additional investment capital, given its

commitment to providing 20 percent of its customers with a

significant subsidy. We had invested because Ziqitza was

dedicated to an inclusive business model. Yet how, I

wondered, could we protect our investment to serve the

poor while supporting the company’s clear need to grow


In the early years, the company grew organically,

serving thousands of low-income people who’d never before

had access to ambulance services. That was a good start,

but given our focus on the poor, the company wasn’t

reaching enough low-income people to justify our large

stake. A few well-intentioned potential investors suggested

that it would do better financially and reach more people

overall if it targeted a higher income bracket and removed

the requirement to serve low-income people.

“You can always go down-market once you’ve built a

viable model,” one American investor told me.

True, I thought, but how many years would that take?

The idea sounded too much like business as usual: serve the

wealthy and give back through the side door only once

you’re flush with profits. Ziqitza had at the core of its

business a vision to serve all people, and we needed to do

what we could do to protect that vision while also helping

the company expand.

In 2008, a year after I spoke at Aspen, an established

U.S.-based emergency services company explored

purchasing a significant share of Ziqitza, sensing its long-

term financial potential. Though thrilled to see such interest,

I worried about whether this more profit-oriented entity

would agree to devoting 20 percent of its services to the

poor. The next morning, I called Shaffi, and he agreed that

Ziqitza would change its bylaws to make explicit the

company’s commitment to serving the poor before any

shares were sold. That bylaw change strengthened trust

between Acumen and Ziqitza. We were both learning to

build for purpose and profitability.

Then, tragedy. On November 26, 2008, I was celebrating

Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, with my family in New

York when a teammate called and told me to turn on CNN:

Mumbai was under siege from terrorists. The Taj and Oberoi

hotels, two of the city’s finest, were burning; people were

trapped inside and many were believed dead (in total, 174

were killed and more than 300 wounded). I couldn’t believe

this was happening in my beloved Mumbai. Tears streamed

as I watched footage of desperate, terrified people running

through smoky streets.

Next, to my amazement, there appeared in front of

every burning building, bright yellow ambulances—our

ambulances—each equipped with capable medical

personnel and all the up-to-date technology required to

respond to the acute needs of disaster victims.

The ambulance drivers, I later learned, ran headlong

into the burning buildings, despite the presence of terrorists

killing anyone in their path. Somehow, every driver survived

while rescuing more than a hundred of the terrorists’

intended victims. Lives were saved because of this little

company—and everyone in our global community felt part

of it. For all of this, thanksgiving.

A few months after the tragedy, I shared a simple lunch

with the ambulance drivers on the rooftop of the company’s

office at the edge of Mumbai. I asked a driver who was

relatively short in stature but of sturdy build what had made

him act so courageously on the day of the attacks.

“There was too much need,” he said. “When the

commandos came, I followed them into the hotel. We saw

the attackers with their guns firing. A commando pushed me

to a corner where I would not be seen by the terrorists. We

waited for the terrorists to move to another room and then

we pulled wounded people out of the hotel. There were so

many people in pain. So, we went back in. We came back

the next day and the next day, too.”

I praised the driver’s humility, and asked again how he

had stared down the threat of death and acted anyway.

He answered, “I’m a driver who can help save lives. It is

my duty to do so, madam.”

Here was a man who earned just a few dollars a day. His

character was a reflection of the company that valued and

nurtured character in every employee. To me, his courage

made him a giant.

I wasn’t alone in being moved by the effectiveness of

the company. Though still relatively small, it managed a

swift, competent response, earning the respect of Indian

bureaucrats charged with bringing public emergency health

services to their states. Soon, Ziqitza was invited to

compete for state government contracts to provide free

ambulance services. In pursuing these tenders, it could now

point to its track record as well as its ethics.

Thus began the company’s transformation into a

private-public partnership, and to a level of growth that

would eventually make it one of the largest emergency

service companies in the world. As of 2019, Ziqitza operates

more than 3,600 ambulances, employs 12,000 people, and

has delivered more than 4 million patients to hospitals.

Moreover, by moving from a private-sector company to

partnering with the government, it was able to extend its

services to those who previously were excluded from the

emergency health care system altogether. In 2014, Acumen

did a Lean Data study of two of the states where Ziqitza was

operating and found that more than 75 percent of those

served were poor, an almost complete flip of the client ratio

when the company was private.

But that impressive scale and the company’s increasing

inclusiveness came neither easily nor without a cost. To

make such growth possible, Ziqitza’s leaders needed the

humility to stare down the realities of their business. That

may seem oxymoronic, but the opposite approach would be

to assume that you can simply build a better service or

product and watch the world beat a path to your door.

Humility is needed to recognize the barriers in your way.

Audacity is key to imagining a different future regardless,

firing up the resolve to overcome impediments to your goal.

For Ziqitza, those realities included the complacency,

bureaucracy, and corruption that often go hand in hand with

doing business, as many Indian government officials in the

ambulance industry demanded petty (and not so petty)

bribes both to win and maintain contracts. In March 2019 in

Acumen’s Mumbai office, Shaffi and I had a long talk about

government. He said there are “good officials, bad officials,

and indifferent ones.”

Ziqitza cofounder Sweta Mangal tells the story of

dealing with one particularly vexing official who demanded

a 5 percent “fee” each month before he would process the

government payment, which the company needed to pay its

employees. The company refused.

“Each month, he would delay,” Sweta said. “That delay

would result in us being slower to pay our drivers and other

workers, who lacked any financial cushion to absorb even

minor shocks. We would explain to our team that the late

payments were due not to a lack of competence on our part,

but because we stood by our values. The employees were

proud to work for us, but some also reminded us that you

can’t eat values.” Sweta added that those conversations

humbled and hurt; and reinforced the founders’ resolution to

stay the course.

As the company continued to refuse to pay the bribes,

the government official grew more aggressive, at one point

calling Sweta to demand payment. He had apparently

forgotten that ambulance companies record all phone calls.

You might think the shame of being recorded in the act

of extortion would be enough to quell someone’s appetite

for corruption, and for a few months, demands for bribes

ceased, at least from that one official. Then, at one point,

the local government represented by that official accused

Ziqitza of corruption, which we took very seriously at

Acumen. There were times, in truth, when it would have

been easier for Acumen to walk away, but we had signed up

to be patient investors, partners in disruption. Moreover, we

believed in government and the potential of the right

private service providers such as Ziqitza to partner and

make good on government’s obligations to its citizens.

Some might ask, why even bother partnering with

government when there are so many challenges and


First, government itself is not corrupt. Individuals may

take advantage of systems that need improvement, but that

doesn’t mean that all people working in government are

corrupt. As Shaffi would say, you have to find “the good

ones.” And there are plenty of thoughtful, principled,

courageous individuals in government doing what they can

to change broken, corroded systems. They can be powerful

change-makers and allies, so keep an eye out for them. You

might also consider working in the public sector yourself.

Second, partnering with government is essential for

getting quality health care to the rural poor. Markets alone

will never succeed in protecting our most vulnerable from

disease or misfortune, but companies such as Ziqitza can

help government achieve its goals of serving its citizens and

protecting its most vulnerable.

Eventually, Ziqitza gained a reputation for transparency.

The company came to know which government officials

shared their values and which did not. The best local

government agencies discussed their own challenges and

problem-solved directly with the company. Over time, these

various “good” partners and Ziqitza wove a web of trust

that only intensified.

Our most disadvantaged communities could avoid many

every day tragedies if our public systems were built on twin

pillars of character and competence. I saw this in 2014,

when visiting Ziqitza’s branch office in Bhubaneswar, the

capital of Odisha, one of India’s three poorest states. Before

Ziqitza’s partnership with the local government, an older

fisherman said to me as tears ran down his face, “I saw too

many family members die when we had to use a bullock

cart to get them from my village to the hospital. Now, the

gods have come, madam. We can save ourselves.”

I got the sense of a “before Ziqitza” and an “after

Ziqitza” way of thinking and behaving.

Sumit Basu, the thirtysomething regional manager of

Ziqitza Odisha, recounted stories of a terrible cyclone that

ripped through the state a year prior. “We had every

ambulance at the ready,” Sumit said. “Over two nights with

the cyclone, the company’s vehicles drove thirty-seven

pregnant women to safety and delivered at least one

healthy baby inside an ambulance. Not a single life was lost.

Our region has seen great tragedies, and lost thousands due

to cyclones in the past. But Ziqitza and the government

were fully prepared this time. We worked together.”

Solving humanity’s toughest problems requires no single

hero, but a system of people, companies, organizations, and

government that rally around a common enterprise. Ziqitza

could offer operational efficiencies and nimble decision

making, but the company had to partner with government

to reach millions of low-income people in need of their

services. Government required the high standards, quality

of service, and efficiencies delivered by the private

company. Workers, whether manning call centers, driving

ambulances, or serving as medical technicians, had to look

beyond their own needs and operate from a sense of duty

and service to the greater good. Ziqitza’s rules and

practices have now become the standard benchmarks for

ambulance services across India.

The road to trust and effectiveness for Ziqitza was long

and, at times, arduous. The company’s story of creating and

maintaining reliable, productive partnerships carries

important lessons for every organization that wants to

extend beyond what it does well on its own.

First and foremost, be clear about your purpose and

honest about what you bring to the table, as well as what

you hope to take away. Are you and your partner values-

aligned and committed to learning together? Are you willing

to compromise and be clear on those compromises, not in

an easy “the ends justify the means” way, but in that gray

area that recognizes the imperfection of the world—and of

every human being? To create change, we have to be willing

to be uncomfortable without losing sight of what is most


Partnering effectively takes time and commitment. If we

believe that a moral revolution requires everyone, we must

become skilled at building trusting partnerships across

sectors. Honing this skill almost always requires a shift in

both assumptions and behaviors. Nonprofits need to let go

of suspicions that all corporations are greedy, exploitative,

and unconcerned with the earth, while still holding to

account those who are greedy and exploitative. For-profit

companies must drop the assumption that all nonprofits are

full of woolly headed, morally righteous do-gooders who get

nothing done, while still calling on the carpet those who are

ineffectual. And many of us must shift our lazy assumptions

about other sectors, giving up presumptions about

government (“corrupt and ineffective”), media (“liars”),

philanthropy (“entitled and disconnected”), and technology

(“monstrous and self-serving”). Of course, some people and

organizations fit these assumptions, but when we refuse to

see the humanity in those who share a desire to create

change, we miss the chance to amplify our work and realize

our mission. And we are all needed to build more just and

inclusive societies in which each individual counts.

Yasmina Zaidman, Acumen’s chief of strategic

partnerships, wisely counsels, “If I could have one wish—

and this is something I try to practice myself—it would be to

enter a new partnership with greater openness to what the

other side can offer and a courageous vulnerability to

sharing fears—and with the patience to take the time it

needs to build trust.”

In other words, commit to the commitment itself.

Sometimes, what looks like a great partnership at first

might ultimately let you down. My heart has been broken by

corporations that told a good story of purpose, but in the

end were focused on business as usual. One phrase I dread

is “We want to be part of radical change as long as it

doesn’t impact shareholder value.” That is a clear moment

for pushback, or for a difficult conversation, at the very

least. It is a chance to try to bring your would-be partner’s

focus back to the problem you’re trying to solve together. If

you cannot do that, you may need another partner.

If, however, you find a corporate partner that recognizes

that its global supply chain is broken and wants to explore

models to make it more inclusive and sustainable, try to

support that partner as it fights its internal battles. As with

government, some of the most courageous change agents I

have met work in large corporations. They are aware of the

risks involved in rejecting the status quo, but they do so

anyway. For them, partnering with external allies staves off

the solitude that comes from being a lone questioning voice

and also helps them bolster the firm’s legitimacy in

delivering on its promises to stakeholders.

Some partnerships fail; it’s part of life. If a partnership

sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If donors insist that

you “collaborate” with another organization whose mission

or values do not seem aligned, spend time making sure that

the misalignment truly exists, and then say no gracefully.

Be wildly cautious when an organization calls and says,

“We love what you do. We should find ways to partner.” If

they cannot articulate why to partner, how to partner, or,

most important, to what end, you won’t have a partnership;

you’ll have a mess. Ironically, sometimes those you see as

least like you may be exactly who you need for what you

want to accomplish. So, start again with your mission and

an understanding of which skills, markets, and

communication outlets enable you to realize the good you

are creating for those in need.

What if you are starting out with just a giant, uplifting and

daring idea and no resources, networks, or money? How do

you even begin to find the partners who can help you realize

your goal? There are few better stories in my experience of

impact investing than the one about a chicken company in

Ethiopia that started out as a ragtag operation with

founders who’d never before seen live chickens yet went on

to change the fortunes of millions of poor farmers. Today,

they are providing financial opportunities, improving health

outcomes, transforming an industry, and in so doing,

helping to strengthen a nation.

That story begins in 2009, when an American named

Dave Ellis spent a year in Uganda working for a well-

intentioned start-up NGO that never got off the ground.

Most of the Ugandans he met wanted jobs, which convinced

him that poverty would not be solved by an act of charity.

The next year, encouraged to try something different, Dave

and his partner, Joe Shields, traveled to Ethiopia, a country

of one hundred million people, with a small amount of

investment capital in search of a business that would enable

them to make a greater difference.

Soon after arriving in Tigray, a region in northern

Ethiopia near the border of Eritrea, Dave chanced upon the

right opportunity: The government owned a six-hundred-

thousand-square-foot defunct chicken operation and was

looking for a partner to make it productive. The only

problem was that it contained not a single healthy flock of

chickens. Under past management, most of the chickens

had died.

Though Dave had grown up in Chicago and had never

encountered a live chicken, he was undaunted. The lease for

the factory was within his financial reach, and the

opportunity he saw was enormous. In the region of Tigray,

an estimated 58 percent of children were malnourished.

Eggs are an inexpensive form of protein, and chickens

generate income. Moreover, a new generation of Ethiopian

leaders was looking to partner with private-sector players to

jump-start a flagging economy.

Unlike the cofounders of Ziqitza, the ambulance

company that initially was private, Dave, Joe, and a third

cofounder, Trent Koutsoubos, put their company into

partnership with government from the start; they assumed

that “all they had to do” was raise baby chicks to egg-laying

age (forty-five to sixty days) and then sell them to

government extension agents, who would be responsible for

selling the chicks to smallholder farmers across the country.

To fledgling entrepreneurs Dave and Joe, this plan sounded

straightforward and easy.

The first night the entrepreneurs were on the farm with

newly purchased chickens, two of the chicken houses

caught on fire from an electrical malfunction, and the

founders had to carry the frightened birds outside in their

arms. Once things settled down, the company restarted

operations and set a date with government extension

workers to pick up a major order of baby chicks exactly

thirty-five days after they were born.

The workers showed up with fifteen trucks—a month

late. By then, the company founders had already scrabbled

to sell the baby chicks to whomever they could find; this

was another setback to operations, resulting in more lost

money that the founders didn’t have. As for the extension

workers, they had no choice but to return to their posts with

empty trucks. Trust on both sides plummeted.

Dented but undaunted, Dave and Joe went back to the

drawing board. The cofounders reviewed what had

happened and reminded themselves of their purpose. They

were in Ethiopia to build a successful chicken operation that

would feed the poor and change the lives of farmers. They

reconsidered their own strengths and weaknesses as well as

those of their various partners.

Try. Fail. Learn. Start again.

This time, Dave and Joe tried selling one-day-old chicks

directly to the farmers, but the farmers were both poor and

overworked, earning on average $350 a year. Smallholders

can afford to buy just a few chickens at a time, and they

have multiple constraints that prevent them from finding

the right vaccines, the most effective feed, and the means

to keep the chickens safe at night, when predators such as

foxes and dogs roam about looking for vulnerable, fluffy,

chirping yellow snacks. In short, raising baby chicks from

birth to forty-five days (after which they could thrive in a

village environment) took time, money, and expertise, none

of which the smallholders had.

Though operations faltered again, Dave and Joe were

gaining a better sense of the farmers’ and the government’s

potential as partners. While Ethiopia’s state-run enterprises

may have lacked some efficiencies, the government’s

agricultural extension workers, who knew and lived among

smallholder farmers, were highly trusted. The government

workers thus represented an enormous asset to the

company—if Dave and Joe were willing to discern those

functions where government workers were most capable of

delivering. Dave explained: “We saw that we could work

with local government offices to mobilize demand for the

chickens and educate the farmers. The government also

helped us reach last-mile areas we could never reach


So, the cofounders changed the model again. The

company, which Dave and Joe named EthioChicken, now

breeds chickens and incubates eggs, selling them a day

after they’re born in batches of one thousand to “agents,”

individual entrepreneurs who raise the chicks for the next

forty-five to sixty days. EthioChicken provides the agents

with the vaccines, feed, and other supplies along with the

inputs and advice they require to succeed. Then the agents

help the farmers by selling three to four chickens at a time

in collaboration with government extension workers. Once

the chickens are at egg-laying age, they stay close to home

and eat most anything, making them the perfect investment

for a poor farmer.

In August 2017, Dave and I met Yohannes, a nineteen-

year-old who had signed up to serve as an agent, raising the

tiny chicks until they’d grown old enough to sell to individual

farmers. We stood together in the corrugated tin shed

Johannes had constructed to house two thousand chicks.

Wearing wraparound sunglasses, a black watch, a white lab

coat, and an amulet around his neck, Yohannes waved his

delicate, long-fingered hands enthusiastically as he shared

with me his success. A couple of years prior, he’d taken a

loan from a local microfinance organization to purchase his

first batch of a thousand chicks. “I knew that I had to keep

those chicks healthy and alive,” he told us. “I slept in the

room with them every night. EthioChicken gave me advice,

and the government helped me until I could sell all the

chickens. Now I am a happy man. All my brothers and

sisters go to school and are happy, too.”

We’d been speaking for a good half hour before

Yohannes shared that he’d taken a risk with the company

because his life depended on it. He and his five younger

siblings had been orphaned, and the teenage Yohannes was

responsible for their collective welfare. His risk and diligence

paid off: by the end of 2017, he had sold fifteen thousand

chickens, all to smallholder farmers. That year, his earnings

exceeded ten thousand dollars, an astronomical sum in a

country where most people earn a dollar a day.

In 2019, EthioChicken sold over 1.5 million one-day-old

chicks every month to 5,500 agents who earned anywhere

from $1,000 to $10,000 a year. The agents sell to about 4

million farmers, who represent nearly 25 million family

members. By our estimates, EthioChicken is annually

injecting more than $200 million into Ethiopia’s economy.

The company has grown to 1,200 employees, all but 4 of

them Ethiopian. In the five-million-person region of Tigray,

where EthioChicken started, malnutrition rates have fallen

more than 11 percent. The government credits EthioChicken

with much of that gain in nutrition, and it has integrated

chicken rearing into its overall agricultural strategy.

EthioChicken learned to partner—with the government,

with agents, with Acumen as an investor, and with charities

such as the Gates Foundation. Each of these partners

brought something different to this enterprise, while

remaining committed to the same goal. Getting

EthioChicken on its feet may have taken longer than either

Dave or Joe thought it would when they started, but by

partnering with government, the company helped make

Ethiopia a model for empowering smallholder farmers with

chickens and their eggs as a source of both income and


What struck me most about Dave’s and EthioChicken’s

approach to partnering was, again, not only the audacity of

their vision, but the quality of their humility and, therefore,

their ability to build trust. Dave speaks openly about the

mistakes the company made when he and Joe first arrived in

Ethiopia. He recognizes that they initially assumed they had

the answers, rushing to share what they themselves were

bringing to the table. They first had to listen more closely to

what the government needed in order to help its people—

and only then act.

Dave and Joe also realized that they could not partner

alone effectively. They needed the assistance of people such

as Dr. Fseha Tesfu, their soft-spoken but resilient Ethiopian

national sales manager, who manages EthioChicken’s

relationship with government. On the government side, the

state minister for livestock, Dr. Gebregziabher

Gebreyohannes, was a believer in the company’s potential

from its early days, backing them up as they hit inevitable

speed bumps along the path to success. After all,

individuals, not institutions, create the relationships that

lead to change.

Dave models building trust with those at all levels of an

institution, and all kinds of stakeholders. I have watched him

interact with agents, farmers, and extension workers with

enormous humility, shaking everyone’s hand; speaking in

Ethiopia’s official tongue, Amharic; eating the local food

with the exuberance he brings to everything; and praising

the goodness he has discovered in his adopted country. In

never forgetting that you are a guest, you are more likely to

be accepted as a local.

In 2014, recognizing the company’s ability to deliver,

Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’

Region offered EthioChicken a contract to take over two

more failing farms, this time on a fixed-payment

arrangement. “I don’t think we would have been as

successful without working with the Ethiopian government,”

Dave told me. “The government allowed us to build trust

very quickly with smallholder farmers. And to build a market

that has changed the game.”

I was recently asked if it was possible to teach people to

build trust. Yes, I believe so. Given that trust is our rarest

currency, we have no choice but to teach our children, and

one another, to be trusting and worthy of trust. You build

trust by showing up, by listening to what someone else has

to say, by keeping promises. You build trust through shared

endeavor and by the consistency of your words and actions.

You build it by admitting mistakes and by communicating

both when things go well and when they fail. You build trust

by knowing your values, living them, and being clear with

others that you will not violate those values.

Most of our grandmothers could have given us this

same advice.

Chapter 11




In 1987, while I was building Duterimbere, I also helped a

group of unwed mothers transform a charity project into a

bakery business. I’d recognized that too few

microentrepreneurs in Rwanda employed people beyond a

couple of family members, so I decided to try my hand at

building a business, foolishly assuming the endeavor would

be easy. The women already knew how to bake, and there

was a ready market in the fancier offices in town. Moreover,

there was no real competition at the time.

But in the beginning, no matter how hard I tried to make

things work, we failed. The women didn’t show up on time.

They stole from the bakery. They were too fearful to knock

on office doors and introduce themselves, looking at the

floor when anyone spoke to them. The women had few

marketable skills, no trust, and little entrepreneurial drive. It

took me a while to identify the entanglement of forces that

kept these women from taking advantage of this “market

opportunity.” They were from poor families, and most were

illiterate and unskilled, divided from mainstream society and

divorced from their own sense of worth.

So-called “respectable people” kept their distance from

such poverty, referring to the poor women as “prostitutes”

and seeing them as second-class citizens, at best. The poor

and vulnerable continually suffer from poverty’s many forms

of violence: dangerous physical environments, miserable

schools, inadequate health care, and untrustworthy courts.

In turn, many poor and vulnerable people inflict a further

sense of unworthiness on themselves. I began to

understand what Rousseau meant when he wrote in The

Social Contract that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is

in chains.”

Intuitively, I adjusted the role I played, no longer simply

a manager, but a coach, a cheerleader, a friend. Each

Friday, I’d hold sessions to teach the women how business

worked in ways that connected to their realities, not mine.

We practiced saying hello to strangers. I joined them to try

to convince shopkeepers to stock our baked goods. I was at

the bakery most mornings when they arrived, and we

celebrated small victories together. And sometimes we

laughed, joyfully and boisterously. Their challenges in the

bakery became mine to solve not for them but with them.

Though frustrated daily, I found that I liked the person I

was when I was around these women. I discovered ways to

hold a mirror to their inner beauty and potential, and they

reflected back to me the best parts of myself. Appreciation

revealed itself in an unexpected smile, a hug, or a collective

cheer when our sales finally began to creep upward and the

number of stolen goods declined to zero. Yet our shared

journey was more than one of mutual gratitude. In time, the

women began to earn more than most of their peers while

building a business, seeing a steady income, and

establishing self-esteem. Finally, they had unearthed a

sense of dignity inside themselves that no one could take

away from them.

Without knowing it, I was learning to practice the

principle of accompaniment.

Accompaniment is a Jesuit idea, meaning to “live and

walk” alongside those you serve. It is the willingness to

encounter another, to make someone feel valued and seen,

bettered for knowing you, never belittled. Guiding another

person, organization, or community to build confidence and

capabilities requires tenacity, a disciplined resolve to show

up repeatedly with no expectation of thanks in return. This

kind of accompaniment requires the patience to listen to

others’ stories without judgment, to offer skills and solutions

without imposition. It is to be a follower as well as a guide, a

humble yet aspirational teacher-student focused on

coaching another with firm kindness and a steady presence.

With those you aim to serve or lead, your job is to be

interested, to help make another person shine, not

demonstrate how smart or good or capable you yourself are.

Accompaniment is especially important when partnering

with those who are from places or families that have been

traumatized or marginalized by war, violence, isolation,

aggression, or by drugs or generational poverty.

Accompaniment recognizes that for many individuals and

communities, spiritual poverty is as devastating as material

poverty. The simple act of showing up and connecting with

another’s humanity can help a person rekindle hope in ways

they might not otherwise have dreamed of doing.

Think of someone in your own life who saw the best

version of who you could be, even when you couldn’t see

that version yourself. That person could be a parent, sibling,

mentor, teacher, coach, or boss who dared you, pushed you,

equipped you with the skills to succeed; a friend who told

you hard truths constructively, perhaps with toughness but

bolstered by determined love, all with the end result of

making you feel bigger, more awake, more here. If you can

think of just one person who accompanied you like that, you

should count yourself lucky.

Now think of the people who feel left out—those living in

poverty, in conflict areas, sitting in prison, or struggling in

refugee camps. Many in those communities are exposed to

endless callousness and constant criticism. Often, they

internalize the perceptions that others impose on them—

that they are predatory, parasitic, unfit, unworthy, or


Despair is not the singular domain of the poor. For all of

us who have suffered unimaginable loss or who are in crisis

or physical pain, just getting out of bed can sometimes be

an act of courage. For anyone experiencing loneliness or

despondency, there is great power in knowing that while

you have to do the hard work of change on your own,

someone out there has your back.

I’ve always been drawn to businesses that integrate the

spirit of accompaniment into their operations. I moved to

Africa in 1986 because I’d seen how banking had overlooked

the poor and was inspired by the earliest microfinance

models, which lent money to low-income women and

imparted them with skills, confidence, and community. One

of the most inspiring of these was the Self-Employed

Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, a trade union for

ragpickers, brick crushers, women who carry huge loads on

their heads, and the like. Based on an ethos of strength in

unity and a pro-poor philosophy, SEWA has grown to more

than two million members. Though the women of SEWA may

have limited material assets to claim for themselves, their

union membership is their bond to one another, and it is

upon this bond that SEWA extends microloans to them.

In 2015, on a cold and bitter January day in New Delhi, I

met Deepa Roy and Shruti Gonsalves, two of SEWA’s

directors, to travel with them on a visit to Acumen’s new

investee, SEWA Grih Rin, a housing finance subsidiary that

provides loans to women who lack legal title to their land

and thus are unable to obtain mortgages to improve their


Together, we drove more than two hours on

crisscrossing highways whose twists and turns made me

nauseated at times. As we traveled farther from the city, the

spaghetti roads relaxed and narrowed, carrying us past farm

fields and barren industrial areas, until we reached Savda

Ghevra, a massive resettlement project for people rendered

homeless by slum clearances undertaken mainly by the

Indian government to remake parts of Delhi for major

events such as the Commonwealth Games. Even before we

reached our destination, I couldn’t help but imagine the

four- to five-hour round-trip bus commute people living in

the area endured daily to look for work in the city.

The unpaved settlement lanes were lined with a mix of

brick and poured-concrete houses painted Candy Land

colors, as well as temporary shacks patched with bamboo

poles, sheets of plastic, cardboard boxes, and random

pieces of fabric. Soon we arrived at a two-story structure

painted a startling aqua green with a narrow, banister-free

exterior staircase zigzagging sideways along the wall from

ground level to a door on the second floor. A diminutive

woman with salt-and-pepper hair fastened in a neat bun

waited for us in the second-floor doorway wearing socks and

sandals and a mauve kurta layered over a burgundy

sweater and loose homespun shawl. A cataract clouded one

of her bright eyes.

“My name is Dhanpati,” the woman said, inviting us into

her small, clean, unheated home with pink interior walls. We

settled into white plastic chairs for what would be a three-

hour conversation. Dhanpati began by telling us about her

“happy life” in the slums near Connaught Place, in Central

Delhi, where she’d grown up knowing everyone and was

confident she belonged. Describing the slum clearance that

changed her life in 2008, she began to weep. “It was raining

the day they came to evict us,” she said.

The bulldozers knocked over her house and the

dwellings of her longtime neighbors as if the structures were

made of cardboard. The destruction became a harrowing

storm of concrete and dirt, a lamentation of photographs,

papers, and other mementos that churned and settled in the

dust, all that remained of a once-vibrant community where

she and her family lived and worked and dreamed.

Dhanpati’s voice dropped to a whisper. “We were

promised an allotment for land, but you had to pay seven

thousand rupees [about a hundred dollars] to process the

allotment, and most of us didn’t have that kind of money.

So, we lost everything.”

For six years, Dhanpati’s family of ten lived in a tent in a

mustard field. “At least,” she said, “we were close to the

resettlement area and did our best to navigate the system,

even if so little of the system actually worked.” In the

meantime, while her family was seeking some sort of

assistance, Dhanpati began working at the supposedly free

public toilet in the area. “Since government does not show

up,” she said, “I clean the toilet and charge people per use.

They are happy I am there. Otherwise, it would be too


The opposite of accompaniment is separation. To enable

the violence of slum clearances and other systems that strip

people of life’s possibilities requires a separation among and

within ourselves. We reduce people to statistics in ways that

dehumanizes them, keeping ourselves at a distance from

the ugly realities of our decisions—or our inaction. We tell

ourselves there is nothing else to be done. We blame

victims’ hardships on “the system” or characterize the poor

as being unwilling or unworthy. We prefer not to know.

Thus does separation lie at the core of poverty. When

policy makers decided to build a stadium in that Delhi slum,

Dhanpati lost the only home she’d ever known. She felt

humiliation in her homelessness, and shame in her inability

to afford school for her children or find adequate health

care. She bore the cost of too many cold and sleepless

nights, accustomed to the loneliness that comes from

feeling forever on the outside looking in, far away from her

community. As Dhanpati told her story, her eyes flickered

with both fight and desolation.

The separation that divides human beings also creates

divisions within people, making them feel that they are less

than others, that they are not worthy, that they are not

enough. In reconnecting and reconstituting our common

bonds, in accompanying one another, we have the greatest

chance for renewal in our work, in our communities, and

also within ourselves.

I asked Dhanpati if she trusted anyone.

“I trust only myself.”

“What about SEWA?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “Yes. I trust them.”

I asked why.

She looked around the room. “The people from SEWA

visit,” she said. “They fulfill promises. They lent me the

money to build my home. They call me by my name. It is

the only place in my life where I hear my name aloud. I am

Dhanpati when they come.”

I asked her to say more.

“Women like me lose our identity as soon as we marry.

We are called wife or daughter-in-law or mother, but never

our real names. SEWA makes me feel more important, as if I

am somebody. I am Dhanpati. My name means ‘Lord of

Wealth.’ I am somebody.” Then she added proudly that she

was current on her loan payments.

SEWA accompanies its female members, trains them

with skills, and holds their hands when needed. At the same

time, SEWA Grih Rin understands that it cannot and must

not simply solve their members’ problems, but must enable

the women to solve problems for themselves. In turn, the

women show up for one another.

SEWA Grih Rin’s accompaniment of these women

signals the union’s fight for the rights of the self-employed,

the landless, and those who would change their own lives if

given the chance and skills. The female members know that

the institution is there to support them.

Accompaniment is a way of upholding your commitment

to another’s success. After her year as an Acumen fellow

with a Rwandan coffee company that purchased beans from

some of the poorest farmers on the planet, Australian-born

Ramya Waran accepted a full-time job with the company,

running operations while the CEO negotiated contracts with

specialty buyers and maintained a more external presence.

Ramya loved working with the farmers, and took great pride

in being a female leader who supported women to lead


Sadly, that coffee company ultimately failed. While

investors, including Acumen, focused on what it would mean

to shut it down and do what was necessary to repay its

creditors, Ramya turned her attention to the three hundred

smallholder farmers who had lost their livelihoods. Despite

her own exhaustion and working without a paycheck for

months, Ramya stayed on the job until every farmer felt

secure and connected to a new company.

I will never forget my phone conversation with her. I was

walking down a blustery New York City street while Ramya

was up late in Kigali. “While the company is operational,”

she told me, “the best thing I can do for investors is to

ensure a fair and profitable company. But with investors out

and the company shutting down,” she continued, “I have to

focus on the farmers. Isn’t that what we mean when we

commit to standing with the poor? The bankruptcy wasn’t

their fault. They are the most vulnerable stakeholders of all


When faced with excruciating decisions involving

divergent stakeholders, I call to mind and am inspired by

Ramya’s fierce determination to accompany the farmers.

She had no financial cushion, and she was living in a foreign

country, yet not for a minute did she allow the situation to

be about her. Ramya was there to accompany the farmers,

to stand with the poor so they could carry on with their

prospects intact after the company that had trained and

supported them collapsed.

In times of both success and failure, we can choose with

whom we stand. Going beyond yourself to enable others not

just to persevere but to thrive lies at the heart of

accompaniment. Twenty-first-century capitalism rewards

money, power, and fame, not the immeasurable impact we

have on a person’s confidence, their courage, or their ability

to, say, remain in school or even to make it through another

day. This failure to recognize important work imperils us all.

By rewarding only what we can measure, we perpetuate

systems that fail to honor that which we value most—and

the price we pay is nothing less than our collective soul. But

we can choose to build new systems grounded in a moral

framework premised on the belief that we are here on earth

to serve others and to sustain our planet for the next

generation. That starts with the simple, dedicated act of

accompanying one another.

At a time when elements of the developed and the

developing world exist within every country, the principle of

accompaniment is universally relevant. As countries become

wealthier and more unequal, they inevitably become more

individualistic and fearful, breeding grounds for isolation,

loneliness, and mistrust.

Many models of accompaniment in the developing world

are based on the understanding that people yearn to

belong, to be cared for, and that individual communities

thrive when they are parts of larger communities. In other

words, human beings thrive when we believe someone

cares about us. It isn’t much more complicated than that.

During the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, many organizations

employed a community health worker (CHW) model,

enlisting and transforming ordinary community members

into health workers who accompanied their neighbors. The

CHWs would show up at the homes of HIV-infected patients

to make sure they were eating correctly and taking their

medicines. The best of these health workers emotionally

accompanied the ill, making them feel seen and worthy. In

turn, the CHWs become valued members and leaders of


Manmeet Kaur, an American daughter of South Asian

immigrants, worked both in South Africa and India, where

she experienced the CHW model firsthand before returning

to New York to pursue her MBA. In 2013, she founded a

company in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood called City

Health Works, which aims to integrate CHWs and coaches

into the U.S. health care system. She’d seen unskilled South

African women receive a few months’ training and then

support patients with HIV, often with remarkable results.

“Why couldn’t residents serve as peer counselors in the

States?” she wondered.

In Harlem, as in much of the United States, significant

numbers of residents suffer from chronic diseases such as

diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. Manmeet reasoned

that partnering directly with these patients could help them

modify their lifestyles and provide companionship while also

saving the government and insurance companies a

considerable amount of money.

On another wintry January day, this time in 2017, I went

to City Health Works to visit a local health coach named

Destini Belton, an African American whose uncluttered attire

(black pants, a red sweater, and stud earrings) and pulled-

back hair were paired with a straightforward personality.

Personable, smart, and matter-of-fact, Destini spoke to me

as if we were old friends while we walked to a colorful

community center in Spanish Harlem. Inside the center, we

passed a gym full of young boys playing basketball, and

then a dance hall where older men and women were

dancing salsa, finally to arrive at a room filled with thirty

women and three or four men playing cards or bingo or

mah-jongg. A petite elderly Chinese woman walked from

table to table offering oranges and powdery cookies.

We joined a group of black and Latina women who were

gladdened to see Destini and who welcomed me warmly. We

talked about their lives and what it felt like to be clients of

City Health Works. Maria, wearing a wool cap and holding a

cane, spoke about how much she loved feeling part of

something. “Destini takes me to the grocery store and

teaches me how to shop for healthy foods,” she said. “I

appreciate that. These people know what they’re doing. We

go on walks, and Destini checks in on me to see that I’m

taking the right meds. Whenever I have a problem, I just call

her.” As Maria spoke, the other women at the table nodded

their heads in agreement.

“But are you healthier?” I asked.

“You bet I’m healthier!” Maria exclaimed. “I’ve lost

weight and I feel good. It’s been a long time since I had to

go to the hospital.”

I turned to Destini and asked for her reaction to so many


“It does make me feel valued,” she responded. “I had a

dead-end job before this one, just working in retail. But now

I’m being trained. I’m contributing to the community and

my family.”

I asked Destini what she appreciated most about her job

as a health coach.

“I teach the women how to do better at eating and

shopping,” she said. “And they appreciate it. Some have a

better sense of hope now. They’ve been suffering from the

same diseases for so many years, and now they are seeing

for the first time that they can feel better if they manage

their issues.”

“Has seeing the women changed you?” I asked.

“I feel more important now, and my own eating also has


“Why do you think your eating habits have changed?”

“If you’re the coach, you’d better practice what you

preach!” Destini responded. “Being a coach is helping more

than my patients. It’s helping my whole family and some of

my friends, too.” I realized as she spoke that in teaching one

family member how to take better care of their health,

Destini was impacting extended families, including her own.

As Manmeet later explained, “We teach our health

coaches to start by asking three questions of their clients:

What are your fears? What are you struggling with? What

motivates you to live a longer life? After a couple of visits,

clients might disclose more sensitive struggles that are

contributing to their poor health, whether they fear taking

their medicines or are too ashamed to go to local food

pantries. The health coaches learn to listen, and the clients

feel seen, because our coaches have similar life

experiences. People from vulnerable situations are not just

defined by their situations. They have individual and

collective strengths.”

As for the health workers, Manmeet added, some have

told her that they observe themselves “leveling up,”

acquiring new skills and believing more deeply in

themselves because the company assumes they can do

more than they imagined for themselves.

City Health Works now has accompanied more than two

thousand clients in Harlem and is taking the model to other

parts of New York City. Manmeet has proven that the model

lowers overall health costs, securing state contracts that will

allow her to build a profitable company.

People sometimes ask how “accompaniment” scales as

a principle. I would say that how we support one another is

an ethos, a way of seeing others—and ourselves. If we

spread that ethos, and if we celebrate those who do it well,

then accompaniments and the benefits from them will only


Accompaniment is not only for a business or an

organization. It is a framework for a more inclusive, caring

society. Wherever people feel lonely, isolated, or anxious,

there is an opportunity: to prevent chronic disease, to

support the elderly, to take care of the very young, to help

the sick and suffering, to help prisoners feel less alone, and

to enable the formerly incarcerated and drug users to get

back on their feet. All of us will at some point need to be

accompanied. All of us have the power to accompany

someone else in need.

At the end of my day in Harlem, I reflected on its

connection to that chilly visit to Dhanpati’s pink house on

the other side of the world. I was mesmerized by her story:

Dhanpati’s was a narrative of an entire system that people

like her across the world are expected to navigate though

every card in the deck is stacked against them.

That day, Dhanpati noticed that I’d not stopped

shivering from the freezing air since we’d arrived. She

offered us hot tea and biscuits. We declined, knowing the

family would have to cross the street to buy water and milk

for the tea. But Dhanpati would not accept my refusal.

“If I visit you, you will give me tea. Now you are visiting

my home. I will do the same.”

I accepted the milky sweet tea gratefully, delighting in

the shot of sugar and heat. Dhanpati instantly offered me a

second cup. My desire to take it was slowed only by my

sense of shame. By now, the entire family had joined our

conversation and was waiting patiently for us to be sated

before they served themselves.

The irony of Dhanpati’s attentiveness and her focus on

service—her accompaniment—was not lost on me. Who was

the real giver here? In that tiny teacup was an ocean of

grace provoking me to examine how often I failed to pause

and notice the needs of those right in front of me. I had

much to learn from Dhanpati, and from the way SEWA Grih

Rin accompanied her so that she could accompany others.

This is the secret of accompaniment: I will hold a mirror

to you and show you your value, bear witness to your

suffering and to your light. And over time, you will do the

same for me, for within the relationship lies the promise of

our shared dignity and the mutual encouragement needed

to do the hard things.

Whatever you aim to do, whatever problem you hope to

address, remember to accompany those who are struggling,

who are left out, who lack the capabilities needed to solve

their own problems. We are each other’s destiny. Beneath

the hard skills and firm strategic priorities needed to resolve

our greatest challenges lies the soft, fertile ground of our

shared humanity. In that place of hard and soft is

sustenance enough to nourish the entire human family.

Chapter 12





“Aren’t you too old to be so idealistic about Africa?” a

prominent Nigerian businessman taunted me with a smile

during a 2009 dinner party in a posh home in Accra, Ghana.

Around the long rectangular table with me were eighteen

West African businessmen and my colleague Catherine

Casey Nanda. The air held the scent of frangipani and


Catherine and I were at that table to introduce Acumen

to potential philanthropic supporters in West Africa, to paint

a picture of what Acumen was capable of igniting in the

region, and to set the stage for raising local funds.

Catherine had already shared anecdotes of potential

investments we would make in Nigeria and Ghana, stories

that offered strong testimony to the potential of our work.

The night had been progressing swimmingly.

Then I launched into a perhaps too-rhapsodic address

about Acumen’s work from a more global perspective. The

man’s question about my idealism took me by surprise. His

words were skeptical; his tone, cynical. I was conscious of

my race, my outsider status, and the larger stakes of this

first meeting to introduce Acumen to West Africa. At the

same time, I experienced the man’s provocation as an

affront to what my team and our collective work

represented. Into the center of that table, with its starched

and pressed linen and its sterling silver, attended by

uniformed men wearing pristine white gloves, the

charismatic questioner had thrown down a gauntlet.

I reached across the finery to accept the challenge,

asking the man what he meant by his question.

“Just what I said,” he responded flatly. “Aren’t you too

old to be so idealistic about Africa?”

Now all eyes were on me.

“I choose idealism as an antidote to cynicism,” I said,

locking the man’s eyes with my own. “That doesn’t mean I

don’t see the ugly or the challenges. I’m trying to picture

how I would inspire an audience by describing only the

continent’s underbelly. Isn’t West Africa much more than


Internally, I could feel the presence of two voices, one

telling me to put a muzzle on my mouth; the other one

urging me forward. “Would you rather I spoke about some of

my experiences with incompetence or corruption or abject

indifference?” I asked, as the timbre of my voice gradually

crescendoed. “For I could give a lecture on any of those

topics. I could also share anecdotes of elites who talk a big

game of love and peace only to let down their countrymen

and women, knowing that as long as they are in the ‘right

clubs,’ the world will applaud their riches and ignore their

misdeeds. Or I could recount times I’ve been held up,

mugged, assaulted, robbed, and threatened. I could speak

about colleagues of mine who fought for justice, for years,

only to be murdered during the Rwandan genocide; or

describe others who capitulated finally to their insecurities

and their thirst for power, ultimately joining the perpetrators

of that bloodbath.”

I took a breath, if only to stem my swelling emotions.

“Sometimes,” I concluded, “there are days when I have to

fight a hardening of my own soul from seeing too many

people treated like throwaways. So, yes, I can paint the

opposite of idealistic for you. But as the Nigerian author

Chimamanda Adichie says, there is more than a single


Of course, I can tell stories of lightness and darkness

about every country I know, especially about my own

nation. But we were talking about a continent that had

shaped my identity and, in many ways, had taught me what

real love is. Anger rose inside my chest like a clenched fist

as that part of me that had committed to showing up with

real love, not easy love, felt threatened.

And the man had questioned me on the wrong night.

Or maybe it was the right one.

I was in the middle of a family crisis that seemed to

parallel our dinner discussion. A month earlier, my thirty-

five-year-old sister, Amy, had undergone brain surgery that

had left her entire left side paralyzed. The surgeons had told

her she might never walk again. She was in rehab in New

York City, and we knew, regardless of the outcome, that the

road ahead would be a long one.

But you don’t want to mess with my sister. Amy

understood the prognosis; we all did. She knew that parts of

her body would be slower to return to mobility, if they ever

did, and that other parts held more potential. She was

studying every kind of therapy imaginable, supported by a

tight community of family and friends who accompanied

her, aware that in the end, she was the one who would have

to do the excruciating work of recovery. And my sister kept

to a single narrative: You don’t get to choose what happens

to you. But you do get to choose how you respond.

“When I’m in the room with my sister,” I said to those at

the table, “we listen carefully to the surgeon’s dreary words,

but we don’t dwell on them; instead, we talk about the

wedding my sister Amy is planning with her prince of a

fiancé. I tell her how much I’m looking forward to dancing

with her.”

I continued: “Some might say that is foolish optimism—

or too idealistic, but I believe you become the story you

choose to tell. While my family can accompany my sister,

that’s all we can do. Amy has to do the heroic work of

fighting every day. She is focused and tough. And she

refuses to acquiesce to narratives that would have her

accept what many see as inevitable.

“And you know what?” I continued. “Mark my words: I

will dance with my sister at her wedding.”

I paused long enough to notice that everyone had

stopped eating.

“Make of it what you’d like, but I am dedicated to

contributing to the growing movement of enterprising,

committed, capable, ethical, and public-spirited African

social entrepreneurs who are serving their communities,

nations, and this very continent. I am betting on individuals

who will not be hemmed in by other people’s narratives.

“Look, the negatives I described about Africa are truths,

just like those that my sister’s surgeons hold about

probabilities of recovery. Equally as real, however, are the

stories of astonishing creativity and hard work on this

continent. Kenya’s mobile banking technologies have

leapfrogged services in the West. Nigeria’s Nollywood is the

third-largest film industry in the world. I’ve met brilliant

scientists, technologists, doctors, musicians, poets, writers,

philanthropists, activists, teachers, and, yes, even

politicians here, all of whom are focused on serving the

greater good. I have been humbled by the wisdom of people

in this region who’ve known great suffering yet still are

determined to try to give and to forgive.

“It is all here. All of it. The question is which stories will

we tell, those reeking of despair or those imbued with a

hard-edged hope.”

The man’s mouth broke into a toothy smile. “Hey,” he

said, “I’m a journalist. I’m paid to be skeptical.”

“I get that,” I replied. “I just have to beat the drum for

hope, you know, as a radical response to cynicism.”

He insisted he wasn’t cynical, just skeptical, and

everyone laughed. Maybe because the discussion was so

real and so raw, Catherine and I found ardent supporters

that night, people whose efforts helped us build a program,

now based in Lagos, Nigeria, whose stories of possibility

Acumen and scores of fellows and entrepreneurs can now


The job of the moral leader—which is the job of all of us

—is to learn to tell the stories that matter, stories that unite

and inspire, reinforcing our individual and collective

potential, and paint a picture of the future that we can build

and inhabit together. Stories that matter are not stories that

demean, deride, divide, ridicule, belittle, blame, or shame.

We must take the harder path of telling stories that hold our

truths, both the ugly and the beautiful, while remaining

laser-focused on the possible.

Stories matter, for they have consequences. The stories

we choose to tell often define who we become. Indeed,

recent advances in science are proving that the narratives

we tell about ourselves and others influence even our health

and longevity. Show me a happy person, and I will show you

someone who owns her own narrative, who shares most

happenings in positive ways and tragic events as turning

points rather than end points.

In consciously shaping our personal narratives, we find

the freedom to become our best selves, and can do more to

accompany and inspire others. Take the case of Teresa

Njoroge. An elegant young Kenyan woman with a successful

career in banking, in January 2011 she was jailed, along with

her three-month-old daughter, in the Langata Women

Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, Kenya, for a crime she

didn’t commit—for a year. Teresa could have told a story of

being a victim, a story of bitterness, rage, or revenge.

Instead, she claimed a more positive narrative for herself,

turning a tragic and costly miscarriage of justice into a

springboard for service and possibility—and without letting

the broken criminal justice system off the hook.

Teresa shared the story of her arrest during one of my

Nairobi visits in 2017. “I loved my career and everything

that went with it, especially the status and prestige,” she

said. “But then I handled a fraudulent transaction

unknowingly. The police arrested and charged me with

fraud, and that same arresting officer told me that if I paid

him ten thousand dollars, the case would disappear.

“Even if I had the money,” Teresa continued, “why

would I pay a bribe when I had done nothing wrong? I spent

the next two and a half years in and out of courts, fighting

to prove my innocence. It was humiliating to see my face

and name in newspapers and on television. And then, just

before the court date, the court offered me the chance for

freedom—if I paid fifty thousand dollars. But the

investigation had produced no evidence whatsoever of any

crime, so I had no fear of conviction. I refused to pay, and I

found myself locked behind a prison gate.”

The prison guard in Langata issued Teresa a number as

a proxy for her name. As a prisoner, she was given a loose-

fitting black-and-white-striped cotton uniform to wear just

like everyone else. Though her first days in the prison were

full of trepidation, Teresa quickly came to understand how

many of her fellow inmates had simply fallen through the

cracks of society, ending up in jail after having been falsely

convicted, or used as a scapegoat in corrupt systems where

the poor and most vulnerable bear the brunt of society’s


Living as a prisoner, among prisoners, Teresa came to

reinterpret the misguided stories we tell ourselves about

those who are incarcerated. “Too often, we criminalize

poverty,” she said. “Poor women are arrested for lacking

licenses to hawk their wares on the streets. Technically, they

are breaking the law, but they are trying to sell what little

they have so that they can survive. The same applies when

mothers sometimes steal tiny portions of food to feed their

children or find medicines to keep a sick relative alive.

Again, they might be guilty, but aren’t their stories more

about broken health systems, broken education systems,

broken economic systems? Don’t those stories matter more

than the individual infringements of women and men cast

aside by society before they even had a real chance to


Teresa resolved to work on the challenges of the

criminal justice system. “My time in prison was a blessing in

disguise,” she reflected.

Upon her release, she founded an NGO called Clean

Start, to help female prisoners gain the skills and confidence

to participate as full citizens of society. This mission has

become part of who she is: “Daily, I think about the women

in prison and those who have left but are kept out of

society’s opportunities. Daily, I wonder how their children

are faring.”

Teresa’s story begins with the narrative that matters

most to her—her own. The truer we are to the details of our

inner and outer lives, the more universal those details

become. In time, Teresa’s story has become the story of all

imprisoned people. By hewing to her own deepest realities,

she has been able to extend empathy toward prisoners as a

collective group and acknowledge that she is in them, and

they, in her.

The moral leader elevates, providing pathways to

redemption and meaning. Teresa’s narrative is not just

about enduring hardship. It is also about second chances,

and taking charge of your own life. She now enters jails

willingly, lovingly, and finds in the female inmates a life

force that enlivens her spirit and fortifies her will.

The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl

wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In

that space is our power to choose our response. In our

response lies our growth and our freedom.” The narratives

we choose to tell ourselves and others can be extremely

consequential, steering us toward roads of despair or

pathways to freedom. The choice is ours to make.

Of course, the space “between stimulus and response”

is no space at all for those who respond emotionally or

defensively to every Facebook post or tweet. Social media

encourages us to post fabulous stories and images, to

curate our personal “brands” based on “best of” lives lived

externally. Meanwhile, our internal realities may painfully

diverge in comparison, making it even more challenging

than in previous generations to be honest with ourselves

about who we are and who we want to be. But the ability to

tell stories that matter starts with the story of self. Those

narratives must be truthful and vulnerable, and grounded in

self-awareness, if we hope to engender trust and enable

self-discovery in those around us.

We fail in this accounting if we reduce our own narrative

to a single defining story. I’ve known too many people who

cling to a narrow definition of themselves, repeating the

same story so many times that they divorce themselves

from their own words, thereby limiting their potential for

growth. I once knew a man who started every introduction

recounting his youth, how he would lie on a mat beneath a

yellow moon, his belly empty and aching as his mother

pretended to cook over an open fire while, in reality, stirring

nothing but water. He shared this narrative in ways that

captivated every audience—at least, the first few times they

heard it.

Over time, I realized that my friend used his childhood

story less to teach or illuminate than to protect from

rejection of the man he had become. While that

impoverished boy would always be a part of him, he had

since become a privileged adult with significant

opportunities and responsibilities. By failing to integrate his

new story into the old, he neither made peace with that

frightened, hungry little boy nor fully acknowledged his

older, successful, complicated self. Consequently, everyone

was cheated from knowing the fullness of him in the

present; and he lost most of all.

In that same vein, diminishing ourselves to elicit

sympathy or pity from those more powerful than ourselves

might result in short-term material payoffs; but those

narratives risk reinforcing negative biases and spiritual

depletion. I once visited a private school for underprivileged

but talented youth in East Africa, and I was overjoyed by the

quality of the young people I met there. At the same time, I

became increasingly dismayed at the way each of them

introduced him- or herself. A beautiful fourteen-year-old girl

with a veil draped softly over her head shared her name and

then immediately launched into her story as a poor village

girl who was beaten by her recently deceased father. A few

minutes later, I met a fifteen-year-old boy dressed in a

perfectly pressed school uniform, his hair neatly combed. He

shook my hand professionally. Before I could ask a question,

he told me that his parents were poor and had no means to

educate him. A third and then a fourth youngster handed

me similar stories of suffering.

My head in a whirl, I thanked the young people for their

time, then excused myself to seek out the headmaster. I

found him outside the school’s well-stocked music room—a

tall, balding man in a blue suit. “Your students are

remarkable,” I began. “I could imagine each of them

running a company, a school system, or even a country in

their lifetimes. But I also feel uncomfortable with the way

they introduce themselves. Rather than painting pictures of

endless, hopeless poverty, why can’t they present

themselves as the highly talented students they are, young

future-oriented people who have earned a right to attend

any school on earth and succeed?”

The headmaster spoke plainly and slowly. “Most visitors,

especially donors, want to know that we use their money for

poor children who would not have the opportunity for

education without them. Philanthropists want to feel good

about their giving; we are simply helping them do that.

Without their funds, there would be no school.”

“But what about the young people themselves?” I

asked. “Doesn’t this beggar approach lock them into

presenting themselves as poor and grateful, rather than

talented and brimming with potential? What message does

this send to the students? And doesn’t it reinforce the savior

complex in wealthy individuals?”

The headmaster’s expression was a mix of

understanding and irritation. “It is hard to raise money,” he

said, and sighed.

I agreed with the hard part, though I deplored his

methods. We will not build strong institutions or confident,

capable people if we don’t tell the whole truth. And we

diminish ourselves when we tell—or heed—stories that

reinforce negative stereotypes.

On the other hand, if we spin yarns from hyperbole and

empty promises, we feel like frauds. I was lucky to be raised

by a mythmaking mother who infused her children with the

belief that we could be anything we wanted to be, provided

we worked hard and didn’t quit. And I was regularly cut

down to size by a rowdy bunch of siblings who, even today,

remind me of the foibles of my youth, making it impossible

for me to take myself too seriously. Stories shape and then

reshape each of us. Stories matter.

Too many children are raised on narratives that reinforce

a sense of inferiority or meekness. Some of those children

grow into adults who never escape society’s low

expectations. Others seem imprisoned in bitter allegories of

their own making. Somewhere along the way, they forgot

that our stories are not set in stone. We might inherit

stories, but it is up to us to craft the narratives of our lives,

just as Teresa, the falsely accused banker, did.

We are raised on stories about characters in bedtime

fables, proverbs, religious texts, and family anecdotes;

these shape our worldviews and color our moral

frameworks. Many of the narratives we inherit also demean

other people. Think of Vimal, the Acumen fellow who, as a

boy, was repeatedly told myths about his caste, deemed the

lowliest of people, humans who deserved no livelihood other

than cleaning toilets or removing human waste. That story

was a “fiction,” if you will, to borrow a meaning for that

word from the Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari. For what is

caste if not a story written by a group of people long ago to

explain the world to themselves (and others) in ways that

protected their privilege by making others inferior and

giving a false sense of order to society?

Our most inspirational leaders share stories of human

possibility in which we can see ourselves; consider the

speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and

Nelson Mandela, for example. Creating counternarratives

that refuse to divide and diminish requires a reclamation of

the parables and histories of people too often unheard,

eliciting from them insightful, true stories that resonate with

everyone’s humanity. Good news lies in spectacular role

models of fortitude and forbearance, decency and dignity,

models who exist in every hamlet and slum, in every city

and on every isolated mountain.

Recounting tales of possibility also impacts the culture

we create. If you want to inspire courageous acts of

integrity, celebrate those who act with courage. As the

philosopher Plato wrote, “What is honored in a country is

cultivated there.”

As the ambulance company Ziqitza began to expand

across India (as told in chapter 10), the founders knew that

the question of culture was paramount to their success. The

company built its reputation on delivering effective services

without bribery or corruption, and that demanded shifting

the expectations not only of the private and public partners,

but of the drivers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs),

and patients as well.

The right stories reinforced those values.

“We are talking about people’s lives,” said Sumit Basu,

the company’s regional manager in Odisha. “What else

matters when you have this responsibility?”

Sumit relayed the story of Pratap Kumar Sethi, an EMT

who noticed an open wallet beside an unconscious man

thrown from his vehicle during an accident. Pratap gathered

up the wallet and found $350 in rupees, more than several

months of his salary. He carried the wallet to the hospital,

holding it tightly until the man involved in the accident was

conscious enough to receive it.

At Ziqitza, Pratap’s story was cause for celebration. The

company made him a hero, elevating him as a role model

and getting local media to spread the news and reinforce

the company’s values. The drivers told me how proud they

felt to be part of a company that was “good,” and stressed

that seeing Pratap celebrated publicly inspired them to do

the right thing as well. Ziqitza cofounder Shaffi Mather later

affirmed that a stronger culture translated into more

effective results.

Our hope for a moral revolution rests on telling stories

that unite, that challenge stereotypes and easy prejudices,

and that ultimately reinforce our dignity. Telling those stories

effectively, however, requires a humility that acknowledges

the light and dark in all of us. When you dare to tell your full

story, you will inevitably touch people who relate to your

most vulnerable elements. And as you dive into the more

painful stories from your past, you may find clues to help

shape the story of who you want to become.

At Acumen, we ask new cohorts of fellows to do an

exercise called River of Life. First, the fellows pair off and

discuss the twists and turns of their lives; then each fellow

shares his or her story with the full group (twenty or so

people). Each narrative contains moments of success and

joy, and inevitably times of sorrow or hurt, tragedy or

shame—and sometimes all of these. They tell of childhoods

trapped in crushing poverty, of tragic losses borne too

young. They have grown up in refugee camps, or they have

lived in terror of the Taliban, Naxalites, paramilitaries, or the

police. They have been betrayed; they have been

abandoned. Some have suffered physical or sexual abuse.

The stories make you weep. Every fellow has a story worth

telling, all of them adding to the story of us, a story still


Listening to people share stories of trauma or loss within

their life trajectories is a profound reminder that our

tragedies neither define nor destroy us. How we respond to

our trauma plays a much greater role; and therein lies the

groundwork for the most important stories we can write, not

with pen and paper but in the way we conduct our lives. The

stories shared during the River of Life exercise are

reminders that some individuals choose service and

kindness or commit to fighting for justice in order to defy

the darkness.

Shameem Akhtar was born to a thirteen-year-old father

and a fifteen-year-old mother in a speck of a village outside

a small city called Mirpur Khas, in the vast desert of Sindh,

Pakistan. Shameem’s father, just a boy himself, was initially

devastated at bringing a girl into the world. The story for

girls in his tribe was that of being unworthy, a burden. He

and his wife wanted more for their child.

Shameem’s father had an elder brother, one of the first

in his family to attend university. The elder suggested that

the young couple raise Shameem as a boy—dress her as a

boy, treat her as a boy, and, most important, educate her as

a boy. No girl of their village had ever attended school, and

this plan would allow her to learn.

Thus began Shameem’s adventures as a little boy,

climbing trees, riding bicycles, and attending school. While

her cousins stayed indoors learning to cook and clean,

Shameem sat at the feet of elder men during jurgas, or

councils, absorbing the rules and practices of political

negotiations. Unlike the village girls, she had the chance to

read newspapers, ask questions of male elders, and dream

of other places.

During a long discussion with Shameem at Acumen’s

Karachi office in July 2018, she shared with me the

contradictions of her childhood: “I felt sorry for the girls in

my village but disliked spending time with them, for they

spoke about clothing and makeup, things that bored me. It

made no sense that the boys had the same hands and feet

as I did, yet were treated so differently. I studied hard to be

the best in my class and prove what girls could do.”

I asked her if she had dreaded finally “becoming” a girl.

“Yes, very much,” she admitted. “By the time I was

sixteen, the villagers could see I was female, and many men

insulted my father. Maybe they didn’t like watching a

daughter do better than their sons.” And though being

treated as a boy gave her physical and mental confidence,

Shameem still feared walking alone in a dress at the

university she was then attending.

And her story was not hers alone. Though her father

was not yet thirty when Shameem left for university, he

accompanied her through every challenge. When she

expressed her apprehension to him, he said simply, “I didn’t

raise you to be afraid.”

Though her father endured misunderstanding and

ridicule for the way he raised Shameem, his determination

that she succeed never wavered. This is a story of a father’s

love as well as of a daughter’s courage and capability.

When we dare to push the edges of comfort, the

narratives we tell ourselves can shape-shift and transform

the world. After university, Shameem learned of a job

opportunity with a regional NGO a five-hour bus ride away

from her village. Again, she asked for her father’s blessing;

and again, he said yes. But she was the one who decided to

live a story that would have no limits, regardless of the

costs. Her education had gifted Shameem with dreams

unavailable to “people like her,” and she was not going to

squander them.

Shameem’s new job exposed her to her country’s

diverse people and places, and also to its poverty. “Now I

could see how much more privileged I was than poor women

who were dying in childbirth because they were too far from

a hospital, or whose poverty forced them to choose which of

their children to feed.” Her perspective broadened further

when, as an Acumen fellow in 2015, she met with leaders

from across her country.

In 2016, inspired by the life choices of others, Shameem

decided to leave her job at the NGO and return to her region

to bring education to other little girls. By then, parents of

children were more amenable to the idea, especially those

who had witnessed Shameem’s family receive the money

she sent back home. But nothing prepared her for the

feeling of “seeing a classroom full of little Shameems”

looking back at her as she told the stories of Nelson

Mandela and other history-making individuals. Those bright,

shining faces were worth the cost of her two-hour bus ride,

twice daily, to reach the schools. In the course of the next

few years, Shameem would also earn her PhD.

Shameem’s narrative is filled with layers and lessons—

about the value of education, the power of courage, and the

strength that comes from having someone in your court. Her

story also reveals the incalculable potential lost when we

deny any human being the freedom to learn and contribute.

And Shameem does not need anyone else to tell her

story. In November 2017, I had the great privilege of

curating a session for the TEDWomen conference in New

Orleans, a session in which Shameem participated. She

arrived from Karachi on Halloween night, and the city

streets were overflowing with residents in outlandish

costumes, portraying every ghoulish, irreverent celebrity

character and personality imaginable. Shameem took it all

in stride, though I assured her that Halloween in New

Orleans was not the only story of that city.

Two days later, she stood proudly onstage. The TED

conference had given this child of the desert, born to

illiterate teenage parents, a platform to speak in her own

words, on her own behalf. In return, Shameem spoke for

every child who has been overlooked because of their

gender, race, ethnicity, class, or disability.

Our collective story is a mosaic of narratives that inspire

our better selves, counter those who would divide us, and

reveal the hidden gifts and capacities that the world would

rather not see. The story of us is ultimately that of love

forever unfolding. And no story matters more than that.

One more thing: one of the most indelible memories of

my life is dancing wildly with my sister, Amy, at her epic,

unforgettable wedding.

Chapter 13





In November 1992, several friends and I trekked the Borneo

rainforest accompanied by two hardy guides, Mustafa and

Gun. We were there to explore the forest ecosystem, natural

and human. The trip was rough going at times; we trudged

for weeks along narrow pathways through dense,

unforgiving vegetation. We would have been wearied by the

intense humidity that kept our clothing perpetually damp

had a constant flow of leeches not jumped onto our limbs

and distracted us with more pressing concerns. At night,

random bugs and enormous beetles had a way of crawling

into our sleeping bags. Our fresh food ran out after a few

days, leaving us with only heaping piles of rice and canned

sardines for meals. Yet, we daily experienced wonder and

were regularly astonished by the lushness of layered jungle

terrain punctuated by shafts of sunlight peeking through the

filigreed forest canopy overhead.

Our guides were delightful. Though their English was

basic at best, Mustafa and Gun helped us witness firsthand

the cost of human activity wrought by commercial logging,

stopping to point toward groves of tree stumps and wide

roads plunging violently into what used to be fertile forest.

We didn’t spot a single mammal on the journey, and heard

just one gibbon call out to others. As for the local people, an

“Indonesianization” policy had consigned nomadic tribes to

reservation-like villages, uprooting them from their homes

and denying them their culture.

In the course of our journey, I began to see more clearly

the symbiotic relationship between human beings and the

environment. Men hauled teak and other hardwoods from

the rainforest to sell across the world, animals lost their

habitat, and humans lost part of the world’s lungs. Native

peoples could not sustain themselves under the onslaught,

and the entire world paid a price. Here, at the source of our

shared ecosystem, the violence of poverty and greed were


Both guides seemed to sense when I was feeling nearly

overwhelmed by the destruction wrought by human beings’

thirst for things. In those moments, the guides would

attempt to distract me from my ruminations, directing my

attention to an exotic orchid or tangled vines or moon

shadows dancing across the trunks of skinny trees

shimmying in the night breeze. I’d find in the astonishing

beauty around me a sign of life urging itself to survive. I’d

also hear an admonition of what we would lose if we didn’t

repair the world.

On one of our final nights in the rainforest, the Borneo

journey gifted the group a moment of transcendence. At the

end of a long, sweltering day, we rested in a small clearing.

We were all bone-tired, unrestored by the sticky sponge

baths we’d taken in a nearby blackwater creek. We ate what

we could of our regular canned dinner and then sat silently

with our guides beneath a veil of mosquito netting. Knowing

we were nearing the end of our adventure, I was desperate

to convey my gratitude and admiration to the guides.

With no knowledge of Bahasa, the guides’ language, I

could express only rudimentary thoughts through my words.

But if we lacked a common language, I reasoned, maybe

there were songs we shared. I started to sing, hoping I’d hit

a tune the guides would recognize. After trying and failing

with at least a dozen songs, I finally chanced upon one of

my favorite Christmas carols: “Silent night, holy night, / All

is calm, all is bright…”

Upon hearing the familiar tune, Mustafa and Gun both

smiled and began to sing. The others joined in, and our little

group became a choir, harmonizing in four languages:

English, Bahasa, German, and French. I felt myself extended

not only to my fellow journeyers but to the forest around us

and all its living things. Long, arduous days immersed in

nature had stripped us of artifice, granting us access to a

deeper level of “knowing” somehow. The night’s flickering

lights and unbidden symphony illuminated the possible,

expanding my soul’s longing to know that all could be


Silent night, holy night.

When we finally could sing no more, the six of us held

hands for a moment and bowed to the divinity we

experienced in one another.

That night, I went to sleep full of awe and secure in my

belief of an illimitable consciousness that binds us with all

living things. I silently recommitted to work toward human

dignity and a more sustainable earth. And I understood then

that skills and resources are not enough to solve our

problems: we must ground our systems in a spiritual

foundation big enough to sustain our astonishing diversity.

Such a foundation is based on the notion of transcendence,

that all living things are interconnected, that we are

deserving of dignity.

Humans’ growing awareness of our interdependence is

driving people across the planet to reimagine and try to live

by a new set of guiding principles. I see this in the growing

army of social entrepreneurs across the globe, including

those you’ve met in these pages. Some are devoted to

expanding human possibilities. Others are fighting to save

the planet, to reverse the march of so many species toward

extinction, to temper the destructive elements of

technology. No matter your field, there is much to learn from

activists imagining and building new systems together for

our twenty-first-century world.

For example, environmental and animal rights activists

are pressing, sometimes successfully, to enshrine

“nonhuman rights.” In Colombia in April 2018, a group of

twenty-five young people won a court ruling to “recognize

the Colombian Amazon as an entity, subject of rights, and

beneficiary of the protection, conservation, maintenance

and restoration.” New Zealand and several U.S. states have

won similar cases.

This was a game changer based on a moral framework:

if corporations are, for legal purposes, given “personhood,”

and if rivers and forests can have rights, so might animals.

Groups across the globe are beginning to argue that some

mammals like chimpanzees, elephants, and orcas should be

assigned certain rights to protect their survival. These new

frameworks are manifestations of the belief that we can,

and must, transcend our individual needs and desires to

build structures that work for and sustain all of us.

More than a quarter century since that night in the

Borneo rainforest, my youthful aspirations feel affirmed

when I see the progress we are making in reimagining a new

economic system that is both inclusive and sustainable. Yet,

I’m bemused when young people earnestly ask me how I

can be so old and still so passionate about my commitment

to work toward dignity, despite all the inevitable setbacks

and failures. I feel a growing sense of urgency to do more in

the decades that lie in front of me. All of us know that the

work of change is hard, that it is long—sometimes decades

long, sometimes lifetimes long.

So, how do any of us sustain? Every change agent must

find within herself the strength to carry on through the dark

times and the courage to push against a resistant status

quo, not just for a couple of years but, potentially, for

decades. Anger can go a long way, yet it eventually whittles

the soul. External awards may be reinforcing, yet whatever

comfort they provide is fleeting. Any honor bestowed by

others can be taken away. There must be something more,

something that nourishes the spirit and makes slogging for

years through the mud and grime of social change bearable.

I have found sustenance in a part of the journey that

few talked about when I began: beauty. To paraphrase Dr.

King, there is beauty in struggle. There is beauty around us,

beacons of the possible, especially if we still ourselves long

enough to recognize it. Beauty inspires and motivates.

Beauty sustains. The key for each of us is to define what

beauty means for us, to think of it not as superfluous or

indulgent but as an essential part of what it means to be


Life is hard—which may be why humans have insisted

on creating beauty in even the darkest times and in the

meanest places. In every poor community I’ve ever visited,

beauty manifests. Think of tribes the world over that

embellish bowls and farm implements or weave evocative

imagery into everyday fabrics. In the harsh climes of India’s

and Pakistan’s deserts, women collect water wearing the

brightest colors imaginable, multiple clay pots stacked on

their heads and steadied with confident arms encircled with

sparkly bangles. In war zones, I’ve witnessed little girls

walking down dangerous streets in pretty white party

dresses. Even in the grimmest slums of Kampala or Lagos,

women hang beautifully embroidered, diaphanous curtains

to cover walls made of corrugated tin patched with

cardboard and coffee cans: beauty for survival, for bringing

life itself to parched and tired places.

Beauty is an expression of human dignity. It resides in

the work of showing up, of extending ourselves and bringing

kindness when we feel like being anything but kind. Beauty

lives in the narratives of those who are striving to overcome

profound obstacles just to survive. It thrives in the bonds of

human connection and the quiet moments of contemplative

reflection. Let beauty be a powerful touchstone, not only to

reinforce your own resolve, but to rejuvenate those you


The practice of paying attention is a form of beauty, a

kind of prayer, connecting us in ways that elevate. Hone

that skill so you can encourage it in others. In the 1990s, I

volunteered at Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation center

on the Upper West Side of New York City. My job was simply

to talk to the female clients. Unsure of how to break the ice

and move to deeper topics, I thought I’d try prompting

conversation with a poem, and chose Maya Angelou’s

“Phenomenal Woman.” I suggested we go around the room,

each of us reading one line, thereby linking ourselves with a

daisy chain of words.

As we started to take turns reading, it became clear that

some of the women were functionally illiterate. As I listened

to one woman stumble over the first word in the poem

—“Pretty women…”—I felt ashamed that I’d set them up for


Then something magical happened.

The woman sounded out, “Pret-ty” and then reached

toward the group as if to grab the second word.

The other women, in turn, leaned toward her, their

mouths forming the “wo” sound in “women,” lips puckered

as if to blow her a kiss. Soon they were a unified voice,

quietly urging, cheering at the end of each line. By the last

stanza, we were a chorus, a proud group of women singing

from the rooftops: “’Cause I’m a woman / Phenomenally. /

Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.”

Reciting that extraordinary poem created a gentle

opening for us, a way into a deeper conversation about

what it means to be a woman, and that, at least for a

moment, made the future a little less daunting.

The beauty in that room at Phoenix House stemmed

from the collective witnessing of another person visibly

overcoming a challenge. We are most lovable when we are

vulnerable. But the feeling of shared victory was episodic.

Everyone but me had to wake up the next morning and

recommit to the grind of rehabilitation. The work of personal

transformation can be brutal. Daily practices can

supplement small victories at the edges if only to remind

ourselves and each other that we are good, that we are not

alone. Otherwise, the work can feel too hard.

And what of those who are committing to reforming

entire systems, not only their own lives (which can be

difficult enough)? Those people require mastering a sense of

personal grounding, as well as the business practices

needed to make a change process succeed. On both counts,

there are few examples like Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy,

founder of India’s venerable Aravind Eye Care System. At

age thirty, he was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, yet he

did not allow the disease or anything else to hold him back.

Instead, he dedicated himself first to overcoming his

physical ailments and then to becoming one of the most

highly skilled surgeons in India.

At fifty-eight, the age when his peers faced mandatory

retirement, Dr. V left the Indian civil service and embarked

on a quest to end treatable blindness. He had seen the toll

of blindness on his fellow citizens, especially the poor, who

could not afford cataract surgery. He also understood the

nourishment that can come from serving others and knew

he had a gift to offer the world. Unfazed by his age,

infirmities, or lack of significant financial resources, he just


In 1976, in a tiny house fitted with merely eleven beds

in the south Indian town of Madurai, Dr. V founded Aravind

Eye Care System, resolving to provide eye care services to

all people regardless of their ability to pay. Then he went in

search of the most elegant and efficient solutions to

bringing cataract surgery, affordably, to millions of India’s

poorest—and to do so with a financially sustaining business


I first met Dr. V in 2002. He had driven himself to meet

me at Madurai’s tiny airport and was standing at the gate

leaning on a wooden walking cane, his hair thick and white,

a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As he drove me into town,

he described his beloved Aravind Eye Care System like a

young man excited by ideas and possibilities and recounted

how he acquired knowledge wherever he could find it.

“We had to build a system that was fast, low-cost, high-

quality, and accessible to the poor,” Dr. V explained.

He told us how in his search for effective business

models, he was taken by the American fast-food company

McDonald’s, which broke down operational processes into

distinct, repeatable practices. The Aravind Eye Hospital

would do the same, he decided. Surgeons stand in the

operating theater and do what they do best: perform

cataract surgeries. Trained health workers prepare patients,

deliver them to the operating theater, and then take them

to the recovery rooms, where other health workers support

the post-op processes.

Had Dr. Venkataswamy integrated only McDonald’s

values of efficiency and accountability, his business model

could have made him a very wealthy man. But Aravind’s

mission was to eradicate blindness among the poor, and Dr.

Venkataswamy believed in the interconnection of all things.

His spiritual philosophy undergirded a business model that

was driven, first and foremost, to provide eye care to all

people, regardless of their ability to pay, and to treat the

poorest with the respect and dignity they deserved.

In other words, Dr. V’s spiritual philosophy, which put

the poor first, required toughness and discipline that far

exceeded the skills and resolve of businesses pursuing

profits alone. That same philosophy sustained his focus on

his mission for forty years. In turn, Dr. Venkataswamy

integrated those values into every operational aspect of this

nonconforming eye hospital system.

Aravind Eye Hospitals remains one of the most powerful

pro-poor business models I have ever encountered. “It is not

enough to provide essential eye care to the blind for free,”

Thulsi Ravilla, the genius businessman who worked closely

with Dr. V, explained to me. “Our starting point was

ensuring that all people could access eye care. If you want

to serve the poorest, you have to consider and integrate

their costs of giving up a day’s earnings and paying bus fare

to and from the hospital.” The result of Aravind’s efforts has

been to deliver world-class health care to more than fifty-

five million low-income patients, half of whom do not pay.

Dr. Venkataswamy’s spiritual grounding kept him

focused on creating an operational model that would

succeed only if it effectively served the poor. Taking time

daily to replenish and renew his commitment to his mission,

he was up well before the sun each day; spent hours in

reflection and meditation, reciting Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem

Savitri; and reminded himself that divinity exists in the

interconnection of all things.

To meet Dr. V was to experience a man who remained

present in the here and now, focused on human potential

with no trace of despondency. It was impossible to refrain

from smiling around him, as his spirit and unbridled laughter

lit up a room. In his own words, “Intelligence and capability

are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something

beautiful.” For more than thirty years, Dr. V sustained his

vision with the wisdom of an elder and the curiosity of a

child. Though he died in 2006, his legacy is alive in the

minds and vision of millions who have been changed for the

better because he existed.

Dr. Venkataswamy confidently wove his understanding

of the material world and its realities with his unabashed

belief in human interconnectedness and dignity. Whether

you are fighting to solve poverty, to heal the earth, to

reform the criminal justice system, or pursuing a host of

other aims, there will inevitably be moments when the more

established world makes you feel like a fool for “not

understanding business” or “being soft” or for trying too

hard. Remember, again, in those times that real love is a

hard skill. I also hope you can find rituals, whether religious

or decidedly nonreligious, to sustain and connect you more

fully to the realization that we are on this fragile planet for a

short time, that we are here together, that all we have is

one another. And that you are enough.

I’ve been moved to see young people breathe new life

into ancient rituals. Fahad Afridi, a Pashtun Acumen fellow in

Pakistan, told me that when he touches his head to the

ground in prayer, he is reminded to pause and feel gratitude

for the earth, for all we are given. In this I heard echoes of

an Acumen India teammate, Karuna Jain, who shared her

family’s tradition of starting each day by feeding seeds to

birds outside their home as a touchstone for our

interdependence. Others pursue yoga or meditation; they

might read or listen music, or dance, or walk or run in

nature. What matters is pausing long enough to pay

attention, to hear yourself, to bring a small respite to the


There are a thousand ways to reconnect to the here and

now. The Jesuits practice a daily examen, a quick check-in

with themselves, once at noon and again at the end of the

day. I have adapted a shortened four-step version. In the

morning, set your intention for what you hope to do or how

you hope to be during the day. At noon and/or in the

evening, step back and assess how you are doing and what

you’re learning from both success and failure. Third, forgive

yourself for where you failed. And fourth, express gratitude.

When I remember to incorporate this short practice into my

day, I feel calmer, more focused, more grounded.

There is wisdom in practices that entreat us to pause, to

breathe, to contemplate what we are here to do. It takes

only a moment to remind myself that my very life depends

on the millions who toil planting the food we eat, making the

clothes we wear—and that our interconnection demands

some sort of reciprocity. I try to start most days reading a

poem—Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Seamus

Heaney, Maya Angelou, and Marie Howe are among my

favorites. Poets trade in the universal, the transcendent, the

awe-inspiring simplicity of the world. The silence between

their words is almost a meditation itself.

My most consistent and timeworn ritual is to go for a

morning run. I love to feel my body come alive as the world

wakes up, to breathe in the colors of the sky, to mark the

changes in seasons, to explore new places and rekindle

delight in being alive. No matter how bad things get—and

thirty-plus years of working on poverty is a long time—a run

restores my spirit and readies me for the day. Of course,

these are simply my practices employed to help sustain my

life’s work and hopefully make me a better leader. Whoever

you are and whatever you do, I hope you can find your own

ways to make time to nourish your spirit and find a sense of

wholeness even when the world is trying to break you. I

hope you balance action with time for reflection.

A decade ago, when I published The Blue Sweater, I was

surprised to receive so many letters from readers who

voiced their desire to be of use. None moved me, though,

like the long text message I received from a man named

Kevin George Otieno, a resident of the Kibera slum in

Nairobi. Kevin had found the book through an Acumen

fellow, Suraj Sudhakar, who was working at a company that

operated pay-per-use city toilets according to a different

model from that of Sanergy. Kevin was hanging around the

toilet operation, asking about Suraj’s work. Eventually, Suraj

offered him a copy of my book—on the condition that Kevin

write and send me a review.

A few weeks later, I received a long text from Kevin:

“I’m just like you,” he wrote. “Like you, I have failed many

times. I was only able to complete third grade. I am HIV-

positive and out of work. But if you have failed in your life

and still made so many changes, then it gives me hope that

I can, too. And just like you, I also want to help bridge the

gap between rich and poor.”

I was speechless, glad that documenting my own

failures could help someone so different from me overcome

some of his fears. After reflecting for a day or so, I wrote

Kevin back. “If you’d like to give my book to other friends

who might enjoy reading it, I’m happy to send copies to

you,” I wrote. “But I’d like to hold a book club to hear from

your friends.”

“Deal,” Kevin replied. “I’ll take a hundred.”

So began the Blue Sweater Book Club, organized by

Kevin, his friend Alex Sanguti, and five others. Despite their

hardscrabble lives (selling eggs on the street, working as

laborers, sometimes earning the equivalent of about thirty

cents for a day’s work), they each found time to distribute

the one hundred books to fellow slum residents.

Driving through Kibera’s muddy alleyways the day of

the book club meeting, I was unprepared for what I saw.

More than a hundred people were crammed into Mama

Hamza’s community center, a corrugated-tin box of a room

outfitted with white plastic chairs. I felt overcome with

shyness, acutely aware of my privilege while writing about

poor people living in slums like this one. I desperately did

not want to let this group down.

The self-proclaimed “controller,” Kevin kicked off the

event, cheekily warning the other club members that he

would cut off anyone who was long-winded. “This is about

the future,” he proclaimed.

Alex went next, speaking about experiences that had

taught him that tribalism and nepotism were barriers to

one’s goals in life.

“If you ate a meal or slept with a roof over your head

last night,” he said, “remember that many have it much

worse than you do.”

The two were a hard act to follow. The slum dwellers

asked many questions—how to start a business, how to find

funding for a local project—and I did my best to respond.

Then a young woman, slender, short, and muscular, wearing

jeans and a dark cotton blouse, piped up from the back:

“I’m a teenager and a single mother. I have no money,

and I’m HIV-positive. How can I be a leader? Who will follow


I stammered through a nonresponse, citing Jesus and

Muhammad, and then some people whose names no one

there recognized. I was embarrassed to have drawn a blank,

as I knew so many audacious, competent leaders of humble

backgrounds from this young woman’s city. But at just that

moment, out of the crowd, a beautiful woman in a flaming

red dress stepped forward. I recognized her at once: Jane.

We’d met through Jamii Bora, the Nairobi-based

microfinance organization. Her story was full of

backbreaking challenges, yet she was a survivor.

Jane spoke directly to the skeptical young woman, from

her own experiences. “If you had known me ten years ago,

you would not believe I am here today,” she said. “I was a

prostitute for seven years before I came to Jamii Bora. By

then, I was also a single mother with HIV. Jamii Bora taught

me to sew, and now I am a tailor. My children are happy.

And I feel so lucky that I volunteer at the health clinic to

counsel people who have just discovered they are HIV-


“I grew up very poor. I could not follow my dreams to be

a doctor because of what life gave me. But now, in some

ways, I’m better. You see, doctors, they give out pills. But

me, I give out hope.”

Jane began to turn around and then stopped, looking

again at the agitated teen mom. “Everyone can be a

leader,” she said. “Don’t make excuses.”

The larger conversation continued, and I tried to direct

more of the queries toward the other people standing in the

room, but the questions to me continued. And just like Kevin

in his original text to me, many people started their queries

with the phrase “I’m just like you, but…”

I started to feel like a fraud.

“I appreciate your generosity and your humility,” I

finally said, “but the truth is, you are not just like me. I live

in a good neighborhood in New York City and attended some

of the country’s best schools. I hold an American passport

and my skin is white. I travel around the world and know the

freedom in my privilege. I hope I never take it for granted,

but my life is very different.”

Mama Hamza, the irrepressible entrepreneur in charge

of the community center, broke into a huge grin. “We know

that,” she said. “Yes, you are privileged. But still, you fight

for issues we fight. You care about the changes we want to

make. You fail and sometimes succeed—like we do. You see

yourself as part of us. This is what makes us like you—and

you like us.”

On the way back to my hotel, I shared a van with

Catherine Casey Nanda and Jocelyn Wyatt, two younger

colleagues who have since become close friends. We drove

in silence through Kibera’s still-muddy streets, each of us

lost in thought, my heart lodged in my throat. Something

had happened in Mama Hamza’s center. We had all shown

up simply as ourselves, to learn and gather in communion.

I was no longer that young woman trying and failing to

lead a diverse group of young Americans when I could not

fully acknowledge my own identity. I wondered what had

taken me so long to remove every mask I’d ever worn and

finally show up as no one else but my truest self.

The transcendence of that experience at Mama Hamza’s

was another reminder that we are part of something bigger

than ourselves. Instead of kneeling in a grandly lit cathedral

or a mosque with soaring ceilings, we stood together in a

dark, makeshift community center in an impoverished slum,

yet the ground in Kibera on that night felt no less sacred.

That precious moment continues to feed my commitment all

these years later. That evening, I was able to acknowledge

the beauty inside myself and, in so doing, make it easier for

others to acknowledge what was good and beautiful inside

them. The theologian Howard Thurman has called that quiet

recognition “the sound of the genuine.” When we reveal our

most genuine selves, not only do we invite the same from

others, but the choice to work toward something beyond

ourselves becomes inevitable.

Finally, when times are terrible—and few of us escape

living without experiencing tragedies and sorrows—there is

sustenance in beauty manifested in service, in the arts, in

rebuilding what has been destroyed. In 1994, I had the

immense privilege of sitting alone with fabled dancers of

Cambodia’s Royal Ballet at their modest studio in Phnom

Penh. During the mid- to late 1970s, under the Pol Pot

regime, the Khmer Rouge army murdered over a million

Cambodians, targeting intellectuals and artists. Just thirty

classical dancers survived the war, and only three remained

living when I visited to learn about their work as part of the

Philanthropy Workshop, a program I had created at the

Rockefeller Foundation.

A petite gray-haired woman dressed in wide-legged

yellow trousers and a deep red jacket imparted her

recollections of the refugee camps after the war. She was

elegant and graceful, with a perfect carriage. “I would lie in

my cot,” she said softly, “and try to piece together the

dances but could only hold on to fragments,” she recalled.

“You see, our dances have been passed down through each

generation orally, for more than a thousand years. Only we,

the dancers, held the keys to reviving this part of our

nation’s heritage. I desperately hoped that other dancers

might still be alive, trying to remember, as I was.” These

women’s recollections were links to the dances’ revival—and

their immortality.

Once the surviving dancers had found one another, they

pledged to train their grandchildren’s generation—their

daughters’ generation had already grown too old—in the

ancient techniques of the Royal Ballet. She spoke calmly,

slowly, her gaze straight at me while tears trickled down her

face, not once lifting her hand to dry her cheeks.

Suddenly, little girls pranced into the studio for practice.

Watching the class, I was mesmerized as the elderly women

stood at the center of the room clapping to beguiling

rhythms of age-old music played by old men with slender,

creative hands sitting at the edge of the dance floor. Little

fairy pixies pirouetted around the women, a circular rainbow

of fluttering iridescent silks surrounding slender, wise old

trees. The bland room metamorphosed into an enchanted


After unimaginable bloodshed and loss, I thought to

myself, there is dance. There is a new generation to teach.

And in that new generation is a chance for rebirth. The

elderly dancers, nearly annihilated, were honoring what was

most beautiful about the nation’s past and building it into

the future, forging a hard-edged hope out of suffering,

beauty, and faith.

Faith does not have to be religious, and prayer can take

a thousand forms. We are on dangerous ground when “faith”

becomes associated with political parties, or when

nonbelievers are seen as heretics rather than seekers. A

moral framework for an interdependent world has no place

for religious practices that divide. What matters instead is

that we agree to at least some shared moral principles that

enable our collective human flourishing. In whatever form

faith takes for you, I wish you a reservoir from which you

can draw sustenance. May you find ways and rituals to

remind you to be present in the world, to be grateful.

When you are broken or exhausted—and you will be—

remember beauty, gratitude, faith, and love. Remember

that in the struggle, there is a beauty that endures.

Remember that there will be beauty in moments of tragedy

as well as in times of shared celebration. But most

important, remember that beauty is inside you, if you let it


Chapter 14


A few times a year, I run or walk uptown along New York

City’s Hudson River to pay homage to a hero from my

childhood whose example has accompanied me throughout

my life. At the entry to Riverside Park, under soaring oak

trees, stands a giant-size bronze statue of Eleanor

Roosevelt, human rights activist and one of America’s most

venerable First Ladies. Mrs. Roosevelt’s figure, attired in a

simple dress and a spring coat, leans casually against a

boulder, her hand at her chin, her distinctive face in restive

contemplation. Silently, I thank her for her service to her

country and the world.

Because she dared, the world is a different place.

Because she had the courage to stand for those who were

excluded, my life as a woman is radically better than it

would have been had I been born in her era. Because she

maintained her faith in the goodness of people while having

a front seat to one of the darkest times in human history, I

try to assume that same goodness in others.

Mrs. Roosevelt embodied principles of moral leadership,

renewing her commitment time and again to remake an

imperfect world. If she harbored inner doubts, she

nonetheless displayed a willingness to confront her fears

and undertake exceedingly demanding and sometimes

delicate tasks in service of her commitment to others. I can

only imagine the tensions Mrs. Roosevelt had to balance—

first, as a wife and First Lady who sometimes openly

disagreed with her husband’s policies; and second, as a

leader who believed in and fought for the rights of African

Americans, low-wage workers, and women in her country

while also embracing the duties of America’s responsibility

to fight a world war. Hers was a public life with its own share

of private pain, in which she grew in wisdom and

effectiveness until the end of her days—because she tried.

As a young woman, Mrs. Roosevelt was not particularly

aware of race issues in America. But as the wife of a

president fighting a war over human rights in Europe, and

with the encouragement of resolute African Americans

willing to speak their own truths to power, she expanded her

understanding. She listened. She took valiant, unpopular

stands to push for expanded rights for African Americans. In

return, she was called a Communist, a traitor, and, I’m sure,

much worse. But as she practiced acts of moral courage,

she became more courageous. And through it all, she lost

neither her humility nor her audacity.

In 1946, the world was only beginning to recover from a

war of murderous destruction: thirty million lives lost, many

because they were deemed by some to be less valuable

than others. A manifesto was called for to renew the world’s

most urgently needed values. Mrs. Roosevelt’s crowning

achievement was chairing the United Nations Commission

on Human Rights. She played an influential role in drafting

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in

December 1948 the UN General Assembly proclaimed as the

international standard for human rights. In it, Mrs. Roosevelt

and her coauthors set forth a rights-based framework with

the hope of protecting future generations from the horrors

the world had just endured.

That Declaration, one of history’s most aspirational

expressions of what we owe one another as human beings,

established human rights as a moral principle to be

nourished and protected. The Declaration is based firmly on

the equality of all human beings. By virtue of being born

human, the document argues, every person should be

guaranteed the right to be treated as nothing less than

human. Consider the opening lines of its preamble:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the

equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human

family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the

world.” In this single principle, the immutable value of

human dignity stands front and center.

Without doubt, seventy years later, most countries still

fall short of meeting some of the most basic rights, whether

it be the right to equal protection of the law or the right to

education and a “fair and adequate living standard.” Read

the Declaration’s principles and it becomes impossible to

resist shaking your head at how far the world remains from

the aspirations inscribed in it many decades ago. Reread it

and you might discover gaps where more aspiration is in


Some disagree with the Declaration’s core premise.

Cynics and strongmen may scoff that the Declaration of

Human Rights is hopelessly idealistic or unrealistic. Others

would willingly trade off political freedoms (of free speech or

the protection of minorities, for instance) to know their

economic rights are protected above all. In unstable times,

humans’ fear of scarcity, hurt, and loss causes too many of

us to lean on the false security of privilege by excluding or

blaming others.

While imperfect, the Declaration has endured as one of

the most important documents of all time. It has been

translated into more than 330 languages, and while not

legally enforceable, it has assumed a moral and political

significance, inspiring generations to protect the oppressed

and those who speak out on their behalf. It has served as

the basis for constitutions and treaties, setting forth

standards for expanding what is owed every human being if

we hope to live with true dignity.

I am far from being an expert on Eleanor Roosevelt, yet I

wonder what she would have thought of the early decades

of the twenty-first century. I imagine she’d have been

pleased by the continued expansion of individual rights and

freedoms, and astonished by how individualistic yet

interdependent we have become. I’d guess she’d have been

curious about the juxtaposition of the possibilities and perils

of a technologically connected world. She would almost

certainly have recognized the continued relevance of her

belief that human rights begin “in small places, close to

home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on

any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the

individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school

or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he


Though our greatest threats are divergent from those

Eleanor Roosevelt’s generation faced, in many countries

around the world there is a chilling symmetry in the

spreading fear of the “other.” The burgeoning refugee crisis

prompts one to ask: who is responsible for masses of people

who, no longer able to survive on their lands, have no

choice but to leave behind everything and everyone dear to

them? Climate change, the phenomenon most critical to

humanity’s shared future, was not even contemplated in the

mid-twentieth century. The earth is witnessing the

extermination of species at a shocking rate, imperiling our

food supplies, our oceans, and the equilibrium and beauty of

nature. A new declaration infused with the moral

imagination of a new generation might consider not only our

rights, then, but our responsibilities, recognizing that if we

do not sustain the earth, human rights will die along with

our species.

In a time of low trust, such a manifesto will not come

from on high—certainly not one that will guide our daily

actions. Yet we face threats that carry within them perilous

consequences and untold opportunities—not for some, but

for the human race as a whole—challenges requiring each of

us to renew the values of human dignity, basic rights, and

decency. When we finally muster the courage to change

ourselves, only then can we change the world.

Freedom does not exist without constraint. Saying aloud

those values that bind us, whether we start with our

families, our organizations, our communities, or our nations,

is a start. Aspiring to live those values is the next step.

Within each of us lies the basis for the only revolution that

will save us: a moral revolution.

In 2011, we at Acumen put into writing our deepest

beliefs about the work we do to use investment as a tool for

social change and to build a community of remarkable

people—social entrepreneurs, fellows, philanthropists,

impact investors, committed students, and agents of

change. I offer you Acumen’s manifesto here simply as one

example of a declaration of principles that guide a

community dedicated to being part of the moral revolution

called for by our divided world. This declaration of principles

is aspirational, but it has become a moral compass, a daily

reminder of who we aim to be and who we practice being:

It starts by standing with the poor. Listening to

voices unheard, and recognizing potential where

others see despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end,

daring to go where markets have failed and aid

has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not

control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to

see the world as it is, and the audacity to

imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the

ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to

admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and

grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that

rejects complacency, breaks through

bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing

what’s right, not what’s easy.

It’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical

world. Changing the way the world tackles

poverty and building a world based on dignity.

Acumen’s manifesto has served our global community

well. The phrase “It starts by standing with the poor”

confronts us in every investment meeting and at every

management session as we grapple with how to ensure that

our work favorably impacts low-income populations. The

idea of “investing as a means, not an end” requires that we

balance financial returns with the goals we seek. Balancing

patience with urgency, calling out our own failures,

committing to resilience, yet knowing when to call it quits—

our commitment to these values sets standards that better


And we’re far from perfect: though a sense of humor, of

joy, and a willingness to forgive ourselves and others are

not included in the manifesto, they nourish and sustain us.

My team and board have had many discussions about

the word poor, and how language can be limiting.

Ultimately, Acumen has maintained the word poor because

we see poverty simply as a lack of choice and opportunity;

the word says nothing about a person’s character. Indeed,

some of the richest lives I have ever encountered have been

lives of scarce means, while others with the financial

advantages of kings have been desperately lacking in spirit.

Although we don’t mention the earth in our manifesto,

Acumen’s community assumes that if you care about

poverty, you will also focus on climate change, which

continues to harm the vulnerable disproportionately more

than the wealthy. This set of guiding principles has provided

steady grounding, especially in those times when solid land

is unavailable.

I have also observed with awe how embodying values

can ripple across lands and oceans to unexpected places.

Don’t underestimate the impact you can have as a parent, a

teacher, a colleague, an organization builder. When I started

Acumen, I dreamed of touching the lives of millions, though

the actual community we directly worked with was relatively


If you include only the philanthropists, entrepreneurs,

and fellows with whom Acumen interacts directly, then two

decades after its founding our work reaches thousands. If

you include the participants who have taken our online

courses for social change, Acumen’s principles have

affected hundreds of thousands. But if you count the low-

income people whose lives are tangibly different because a

community of individuals decided they could do more for

the world together than any one of them could accomplish

alone, our efforts have impacted hundreds of millions.

To be of use, a manifesto based in a moral framework fit

for the twenty-first century must connect with values that

transcend nation, culture, religion, race, and class.

Identifying a minimum set of values, though essential, is not

always straightforward. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I’ve

reflected on how many people in Acumen’s community were

raised to hate other members within our global circle.

Whether with fellows, entrepreneurs, or the customers our

companies serve, I’m regularly in conversation with people

whose parents taught them that certain neighbors were

“bad” or “evil.” The global community comprises groups of

deeply wounded people from places or of ethnicities,

genders, or sexual identities under grave threat of


Yet cutting across every line that attempts to divide us

is the growing recognition that we are bound to one another

by virtue of our shared humanity and quest for dignity. I’ve

been inspired by many people who grew up in communities

that rejected other traditions but are now choosing to

embrace a universal truth: there is divinity in each of us,

and we are connected to something greater than ourselves.

And whether you believe that dignity comes from God or

is inherent simply in our having been born human, the end

result is the same. Every one of us deserves to be seen, to

be respected, to determine his or her own life. Every one of

us is owed a fighting chance to flourish.

From the beginning, my partners and I built Acumen as

a deliberately diverse community, not for its own sake but

so that we could use that diversity to know and to learn

from one another how to navigate the growing tensions in

our world. We wanted to affirm our differences without

erasing them, arriving at a sense of wholeness based on

commonly shared values.

That commitment to one another and to shared values

requires a willingness to confront obstacles to listening, to

seeing, to making true human connection. The work of

building our community requires being open to other faiths,

cultures, and traditions, to celebrating what is most

essential in each of them while building the courage to

speak up about that which no longer serves. We commit

ourselves to being members of a single human family,

beyond any nation or religion, caste or tribe. This work is

difficult and it is long, but it is the work of the moral

revolution, the only way to build a future that will sustain us.

Your organization or business might work from different

foundational principles than Acumen. The point is to reflect

and put your purpose and values into words to serve as your

own compass for decisions and actions, not only as an

organization but as individuals.

Statements of values can guide actions and reinforce

bonds of community—if they are lived. I’ve seen religious

communities mask terrible acts with beautiful words from

sacred texts, and I’ve witnessed philanthropists make

change in one area of their lives while engaging in unethical

practices elsewhere. To unite any group, let alone the world,

in common purpose requires role models and business

models that demonstrate values made manifest.

Muhammad Ali, an Acumen Pakistan fellow, is one such

role model who relentlessly lives his values. I first met him

in 2014, while leading a two-day seminar with his cohort of

twenty fellows. This group of fellows and I again used

literature as a springboard to conversation aimed at

clarifying each individual’s values, as well as identifying

common beliefs held by this very diverse group of human


When we first introduced ourselves, I was struck by

Muhammad Ali’s unassuming manner. He wore simple wire-

frame glasses, his dark hair combed to the side, his

mustache neatly trimmed, his button-down shirt and khaki

trousers perfectly pressed. He spoke broken English in a soft

voice that made him appear a bit shy at first. I imagined him

working in an accountant’s office. This could not have been

further from the truth.

Once he opened his mouth, Muhammad Ali quickly

impressed me with the quality of his ideas, grounded in

ancient texts, and his commitment to putting his ideals into

action. His values were based unyieldingly in the inherent

worth of every child and an insistence that it was society’s

duty to protect all children.

By the time I met him, Muhammad Ali had spent twenty

years rescuing children caught in the dark world of human

trafficking. In 2004, he’d founded Roshni Helpline, to identify

and rescue the missing children of the dispossessed.

Muhammad Ali spoke with understandable anger about

sexual assault, false adoption, prostitution, child labor—just

a few of the myriad reasons a child goes missing in Karachi

every day.

Muhammad Ali railed against the inequitable system

that rallied the police, media, and community members to

search for a single missing child of privilege while thousands

of poor children who disappeared each year across the

country drew little to no notice; they were left to experience

their terror alone. Few resources, either philanthropic or

governmental, focused on the children who lived at society’s

furthest edges.

Fighting human trafficking requires confronting the

ugliest parts of ourselves, sides that many would rather not

see. To better understand how Muhammad Ali’s values

translated into results, in 2017 I drove with Acumen’s

Pakistan director, Ayesha Khan, to a Karachi slum area

known for high levels of insecurity and violence and climbed

a pale-blue staircase to the small second-story office of

Roshni Helpline.

There, Muhammad Ali recounted how his mission to

protect vulnerable children had led him to discover one of

his most deeply held values: the power of a diverse

community. “In the beginning, our organization had little

money or staff,” he explained, “and I soon recognized that if

we were going to find a lost child, we could only do it with

the full support of the community we were trying to serve.”

He ultimately called upon the police and relied on a complex

informant system of thousands of local volunteers, including

shopkeepers, street children, and Karachi’s transgender


Transgender community members, a highly visible but

discriminated group, have been fundamental to Roshni’s

success. Though they can be seen begging on streets and

dancing at weddings in Karachi, transgender folks typically

exist at the margins, with little access to jobs or income,

living in informal housing with “chosen families” of people

like them. Where others regarded transgender people as

outsiders, Muhammad Ali recognized them as potential

partners. “Traffickers often move children through

underground routes that include bus stations, where

transgender people can often be found. They were willing to

help and have been our best volunteers.”

During our visit, I had the privilege of sitting with

several of Roshni’s transgender volunteers. The group

leader, Hina Pathani, wore a flowered shalwar kameez, her

dark hair pulled back into a bun, tendrils framing her face.

She explained that while she and other transgender

volunteers had little money, they took great pride in their

work. “I love my country,” Hina said. “I want to be known for

contributing, for doing something that makes me proud, and

not to be seen as less than others.”

Muhammad Ali set free the potential of community

members who collectively became the superpower enabling

Roshni’s success. To date, the organization has saved nearly

four thousand people, most of whom are children. Only

through enlisting the help of the marginal and vulnerable

could Muhammad Ali succeed, finding the strength to do

what traditional child protection systems could not.

Muhammad Ali knows that four thousand people may

not sound like a lot to outsiders, but each of those children

represents a family. Each of those children represents a life

to be lived. Muhammad Ali’s work, which reveals the best of

human conscientiousness countering the worst of human

depravity, reminds me of lines from the poem “The

Pedagogy of Conflict,” by the human rights activist and Irish

theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama:

When I was a child,

I learnt to count to five:

One, two, three, four, five.

But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I


One life.

One life.

One life.

One life.

One life.

In a world that too often views our most indigent

children as throwaways, Muhammad Ali is a candle burning

to ensure that we behold the unseen.

Despite his local effectiveness, Muhammad Ali lacked

access to financial and human resources to expand his

reach. This is where our responsibility for extending social

capital to voices unheard cannot be overestimated. Since

becoming associated with Acumen, Roshni Helpline has

worked with no fewer than ten fellows who’ve volunteered

services in marketing, communications, technology, and

government affairs. A few months after I visited, the

Acumen team took a small delegation of our philanthropic

partners from Pakistan and the United States to see

Muhammad Ali’s work firsthand. A few of the locals had

never been to the part of town where Roshni worked; nor

had they ever had a real conversation with transgender


By the end of the day’s visit, the philanthropists had

agreed to fund Roshni’s entire budget for the following three

years. Wealthy individuals signed on as ambassadors,

spreading the word about Roshni’s work and raising enough

money to build a safe house for traumatized children.

Putting the Acumen manifesto’s values into action, the

philanthropists encouraged Muhammad Ali to be audacious

in his plans, yet they maintained the humility to listen to

what the founder of Roshni most needed rather than

imposing their own desires.

Momentum built. The Karachi police requested that

Roshni Helpline train its officers to be of better support. A

local paint company sponsored artists to paint portraits of

the missing children on the elaborately decorated trucks

that drive across the country—and within months, a child

who’d been missing for seven years was rescued. Fifteen

years after Muhammad Ali founded Roshni Helpline,

Pakistan’s Supreme Court is making the kidnapping of

children under age eighteen a cognizable crime, which

means the police now will have the authority to investigate.

By valuing not only the individual but the communities

that support that person, Muhammad Ali has tapped into

many people’s urge to be of use. The transgender

volunteers along with philanthropists, designers, marketers,

artists, a public relations company, and others are

demonstrating what is possible when a diverse group of

individuals unites to reweave the torn fabric of society.

When we do this, we recognize not only our powers to heal,

but our entanglement with one another. We gain the chance

to remind ourselves that we are in this world together, that

all we have is each other, that, to use words of the poet

Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest.”

James Kassaga Arainaitwe is an Acumen fellow from

Western Uganda who lost both parents and all four of his

siblings to disease, including AIDS, before he was ten years

old. Kassaga (his preferred name) was raised by his

grandmother, a gentle battle-ax of a woman fiercely focused

on giving her grandchild two treasures no one could take

from him: self-discipline and an education. When local

schooling options ran out at age eleven, she put Kassaga on

a bus alone for the three-hundred-kilometer journey to the

childhood village in southwestern Uganda where the

nation’s President Museveni maintained his personal home.

Kassaga’s grandmother figured the small boy would

somehow find a champion to help him meet the president’s

family and secure a scholarship to school.

His grandmother’s risk paid off. Because of his tenacity,

Kassaga met the country’s First Lady, and not only found a

place to learn in Uganda, but went on to attend Florida State

University on a full scholarship.

As an Acumen fellow, Kassaga worked in Bangalore,

India, at Gayathri Vasudevan’s LabourNet, the company

described in chapter 3 that provides effective vocational

and entrepreneurial training for low-income workers. On

weekends, Kassaga would volunteer at a school for low-

income students. That experience reconnected him with

what had initially saved him: education.

Dots connected: During his time in India, Kassaga met

Acumen fellows who’d worked with Teach for India, a part of

the powerful Teach for All network founded by Wendy Kopp.

They began a brainstorm that would expand to include other

fellows who were designers and strategists. Soon, Kassaga,

aided by an Indian community of trusted partners,

conceptualized and created Teach for Uganda.

In times of growing fears and divides, citizens are the

future of a new global diplomacy. Values-driven communities

can expedite making global ambassadors of all of us. The

India fellows had forged a bond with Kassaga over their

shared experiences with Acumen and their belief that every

child deserves a basic quality education. As Kassaga later

wrote me, “Their tireless sacrifice for an organization in a

country they’ve never stepped foot in reveals more than

just their love for me. It shows the interconnectedness of

humanity. To them, I was not seen as the ‘other.’ I became

their brother, and they became my sisters and brothers. It is

the African spiritual ideal of ubuntu, or ‘human kindness,’

that forever unites me with them.”

Kassaga is supported in myriad ways by Acumen’s

Ugandan fellows, who provide him with training,

connections, a needed ear, and what we at Acumen

affectionately call a “one-armed hug”—enough support to

stand with someone, but not so much that you disable

them. With the support of a local and global community

behind him, Kassaga is primed to make Teach for Uganda a

success, unleashing the energies of a new generation and

bringing back the best of what other regions have to offer to

the country he calls home.

A revolution of values is one that necessarily relies on

countless, immeasurable daily heroic acts. Unified in the

pursuit of dignity, we can serve in a thousand ways.

Fortified by one another, we can choose to celebrate role

models who help others succeed. Strengthened by a

commitment to shared values, we can build meaningful,

productive relationships across lines of difference.

Consider writing your own manifesto. It should start with

what is most important to you, the world you want to create

—in your school, local community, or company. Next,

consider the means you will need to achieve those ends.

What are the obstacles you face? The tensions you must

hold? What kind of person do you want to be as you live

your purpose? If you can envision your horizon, you can

build a pathway there. It will inevitably be a long, twisting

one, sometimes turning back on itself entirely. But I hope

your path will be joined by many others, drawn to that

mission, purpose, and values to which you subscribe.

All of us are needed for a moral revolution. It doesn’t

matter where you live, the size of your bank account, or

what you do for a living. The world needs you to flex, to

stretch to uncomfortable levels, to build your moral

imagination, to listen more deeply, to reckon with your

sense of identity, and to open yourself up to understanding

the layered inconsistencies and differing perspectives of

others. It requires each of us to partner better, to tell stories

that matter, and to embrace the beautiful struggle.

Critically, a revolution of morals requires each of us to

rethink success, asking ourselves whether we are doing

enough to serve others, whether we are enabling others to

help themselves, whether we are kind. We must find the

courage to recognize, integrate, and accept the light and

dark sides of ourselves so that we can bolster and integrate

our larger communities. Finally, we must have faith that we

can solve our biggest problems, trusting that we can bridge

our divides because we are connected, because we can see

one another, because our shared destiny is dependent on

the dignity of every one of us.

Whoever you are and whatever you do, the world needs

you to lead. There will be times when happiness may feel

elusive and the horizon impossible to reach. But remember

that each day, we wake up to another chance to renew the

world. Daily, we have a choice to recommit to the work we

came to do. Daily, we can reconstitute the promise of hard-

edged hope.

After the horrendous terrorist attacks in the fall of 2015

in Paris and California, Baheira Khusheim, an Acumen fellow

from Saudi Arabia, wrote me an email from a hospital in

Houston, Texas, where she was accompanying her father as

he underwent treatment for cancer. The Saudi consulate

had called her, she wrote, to ask her to be cautious when

moving about. Friends suggested she remove her headscarf

so as to avoid facing discrimination. Muslims, they said,

were at risk of counterattacks.

After some consideration, Baheira decided, “If I do not

stand up to show the world a different face of my religion,

who will?” The irony of sitting in a cancer ward where so

many women covered their heads with scarves was not lost

on Baheira. She could wear a scarf in solidarity with the

cancer patients, she reasoned. Why couldn’t she wear one

out of respect for her religion?

The following day, Baheira, her head covered, made a

trip to a nearby grocery store. The young Saudi woman self-

consciously was walking down the vegetable aisle when a

stranger rushed up to her. His intense expression sent her

into a mild panic. Then Baheira noticed the bouquet of

flowers in the stranger’s hand. “I bought them to bring to

my house,” he explained. “But when I saw you here in my

hometown, I thought I’d give these flowers to you instead.

Thank you for your courage in showing your Muslim identity

during this difficult time.”

About a year later, I was invited to Saudi Arabia to

launch the Arabic translation of my first book, a gift made

possible by our four Saudi fellows and scores of young

people who felt close to Acumen’s mission. Many people,

including some from Acumen’s own community, expressed

disapproval that I would travel to the country given its poor

human rights record. But I was there to engage with young

people who hungered to be part of the world.

Three of the Acumen fellows there, Yousuf Alguwaifli,

Shahd Al Shehail, and Lujain Al Ubaid, hosted me in Riyadh,

introducing me to many young people who impressed me

with their knowledge of other cultures. Many expressed a

deep desire to help change their country while also keeping

and sharing the traditions that made them proud, such as a

shared commitment to family and the region’s unmatched

hospitality to guests.

On my final morning in Riyadh, I took a taxi to the

airport. Though I’d previously been welcomed graciously by

everyone I’d encountered, the driver treated me

disdainfully, almost shouting at me to adjust my hijab and

abaya, the black headscarf and gown worn there to cover a

woman’s head and body. Sitting silently, I felt humiliated,

reminded for a brief moment what the powerless experience

a hundred times a day. Then, as I was putting my bags

through security, a surly worker harassed me. I focused

again on holding my composure, reminding myself not to

allow his disrespect to inform my actions.

Nonetheless, I was shaken up by both incidents. I

spotted a coffee shop in the terminal and made a beeline for

the comfort of a latte. As I was standing in that line, a Saudi

man approached me. He was carrying several boxes of fresh

dates in his arms. I wondered what was coming next.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but I watched that man attempt

to humiliate you in the security line. You kept your grace

through it, and I want to thank you for that. But watching

the interaction made me feel ashamed. I don’t want you to

leave my country thinking you are not welcome. I don’t

want you to think that kind of behavior is acceptable to us.”

I smiled and said thank you.

“Please,” he continued, “take these dates home. They

are full of sweetness. Take them as a gift from myself and

my fellow Saudis. Enjoy them with your friends and family.”

I thanked him profusely but tried to refuse. Laughing, I

added, “Plus, there must be twenty pounds of dates in your

arms. I can’t even carry all those!”

He insisted I take them, helping devise a way for me to

hold them more easily. And then he added, “Knowing you

have them will do me good. Don’t you think we need

reminders of how much love is out there?”

Yes, I said. I do. I do.

As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote long ago, the work of

renewing a world based on extending dignity to every being

on the planet begins in small places, close to home. As we

go through life on this tiny, blue planet, the only home we

know, imagine the changes that might arise if we each took

a step toward making it a home in which all of us could

participate, where each person could flourish with peace

and justice and a sense of wholeness for many, many

generations to come.

The world is waiting for you.


Chapter 4: Listen to Voices Unheard


0. 1. From the poem “From the Republic of Conscience.”

Chapter 9: Use the Power of Markets, Don’t Be

Seduced by Them

0. 1. The economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen powerfully articulates

the idea of access to markets as a form of freedom in his book

Development as Freedom.

0. 2. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water

Supply, Sanitation and Hygeine’s 2019 update report, Progress on

Household Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene 2000–2017: Special

Focus on Inequalities, more than 4 billion people live without safely

managed sanitation, even if some of them have access to a toilet.


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Jacqueline Novogratz is the New York Times

bestselling author of The Blue Sweater and founder

and CEO of Acumen. She has been named one of the

Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy, 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 honored her

with the Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for

Social Entrepreneurship. In addition to Acumen, she

is a sought-after speaker and sits on a number of

philanthropic boards. She lives in New York with her

husband. You can sign up for email updates here.


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MANIFESTO FOR A MORAL REVOLUTION. Copyright © 2020 by Acumen Fund. All

rights reserved. For information, address Henry Holt and Co., 120

Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10271.

Lines from “The Pedagogy of Conflict” by Pádraig Ó Tuama, originally

published in Sorry for Your Troubles (Canterbury Press, 2013).

Reprinted by permission of author.

Cover design by Karen Horton

Cover photograph of book cloth © Andrey Khokhlov / Alamy Stock;

cover photograph of fabric stripes © Fotosoroka /

The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

Names: Novogratz, Jacqueline, author.

Title: Manifesto for a moral revolution: practices to build a better

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Description: First edition. | New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2020.

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1. Title Page

2. Copyright Notice

3. Dedication

4. Acknowledgments

5. Introduction

6. 1. Just Start

7. 2. Redefine Success

8. 3. Cultivate Moral Imagination

9. 4. Listen to Voices Unheard

10. 5. You Are the Ocean in a Drop

11. 6. Practice Courage

12. 7. Hold Opposing Values in Tension

13. 8. Avoid the Conformity Trap

14. 9. Use the Power of Markets, Don’t Be Seduced by Them

15. 10. Partner with Humility and Audacity

16. 11. Accompany Each Other

17. 12. Tell Stories That Matter

18. 13. Embrace the Beautiful Struggle

19. 14. Manifesto

20. Notes

21. Selected Readings

22. Also by Jacqueline Novogratz

23. About the Author

24. Copyright

  • Title Page
  • Copyright Notice
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Just Start
  • 2. Redefine Success
  • 3. Cultivate Moral Imagination
  • 4. Listen to Voices Unheard
  • 5. You Are the Ocean in a Drop
  • 6. Practice Courage
  • 7. Hold Opposing Values in Tension
  • 8. Avoid the Conformity Trap
  • 9. Use the Power of Markets, Don’t Be Seduced by Them
  • 10. Partner with Humility and Audacity
  • 11. Accompany Each Other
  • 12. Tell Stories That Matter
  • 13. Embrace the Beautiful Struggle
  • 14. Manifesto
  • Notes
  • Selected Readings
  • Also by Jacqueline Novogratz
  • About the Author
  • Copyright