Convocation 2018: Keynote Speaker Jacqueline Novogratz

Convocation 2018: Keynote Speaker Jacqueline Novogratz


That was one of the nicest introductions
I’ve ever had in my life, thank you, Jasiel. And to your mother,
I love Ghana and it looks like your son is gonna make both countries proud. The Dean really spoke in the most powerful ways about
welcoming everybody and congratulating everybody, and so I will leave that
part, but what I want to say to all of you is how extraordinary it is to be
here on this most amazing day, in this most incredible city, at this most
extraordinary time in history. You guys represent the future because you already
have signed up for lives of public service at a moment that we need it most.
And as Jasiel said, this has been my life, and so I really feel that I’m with
my tribe today. And I couldn’t be more proud, more and more honored to be with
you. So here’s to you. And the one thing I would add is that as you reflect
on the friendships and the achievements that you’ve made, not only take time to
pause on who you’ve become and who you want to be, but take time to say thank
you; because one thing I’ve learned is that those are two of the most important
words we can say. Jasiel talked about leaving Wall Street at age 26 or 25 and
moving to Rwanda, and I know that a lot of you have also undertaken taken real
leaps of courage, but watching you and thinking about you today has really made
me think about those times. I was actually loving the work of banking.
I loved how numbers told a story, but what I didn’t love was how the poor were
excluded even from walking into the doors of the bank. And I hail from an
immigrant family, and my grandmother by all technical reasons was poor. She never
thought she was poor, and so by the time I was in my twenties I had come to
understand that poverty tells us nothing about a person’s character.
Poverty only tells us about their income levels, and so it didn’t make sense to me.
And that was really what propelled me to do a little research on the emerging
sector of microfinance. And then just move. I didn’t wait. I found an
opportunity in West Africa. I hit a series of roadblocks, big failures,
and I didn’t stop. I ended up, through those mishaps, in Rwanda, where I met a
small group of women who wanted to do something about women’s economic
situation. And so I suggested we co-found the first microfinance bank
in the country. And we did. And I learned that a small group of people, if
they’re focused on a common goal, can really make history in at least a small
corner of the world. The work was super difficult. Lots of lonely nights; no shortage of tears. But more important, to learn what
it means to reject a status quo, is by definition going two steps forward, and
one step back. And yet, it also taught me that change is possible. But experience
also gave me something that surprised me: courage. Because when I told my family
and friends that I was leaving my career to move to a country very few people
even could locate, they all told me I was crazy. And then when I went to Rwanda, and started this microfinance institution, the community told me I was a little
girl, and I was definitely crazy. What I’ve learned since then, is when people
tell you crazy, that’s often the best indication that you’re probably on to
doing something right. So get in the habit of doing something you fear,
remember that each time you practice courage, you gain courage. Think of it as
a muscle you build for when you need it most. And right now we need it most. In time I also learned that my own
successes and failures had much less to do with circumstance, structures and
systems and more to do with character. My own, and those around me. It was only when
I learned to listen – not with the intention of convincing other people of
my solutions, but with the intent to listen to what they had to say, to
understand their perspectives – with the intent to change myself – that I started
to succeed. And then for more than a decade after that experience, I continued
what I would call a sort of apprenticeship. So if you sometimes
wonder where you are in the path, just be in that place, because the skills you
build, the tools you amass, and probably most important the leaders that you
follow, whose actions show you the kind of person you want to be, help you
build a toolbox for what you most need and want to do. Through that period I
came to understand that I was obsessed with the power of markets and the
potential of philanthropy in government. But really I didn’t understand why we
started with those as ends in and of themselves, rather than saw them as means
to solve critical problems. And so when I started Acumen, thinking we might
revolutionize philanthropy, I came to understand very quickly that what we
were really trying to do was change the underlying conditions, so that we could
ultimately make philanthropy not needed. As Jasiel said, we started Acumen in
2001, and we invest what we call patient capital in entrepreneurs defined
by their character. Men and women willing to go where markets and government have
failed the poor. They’re trying to solve the toughest problems that we face;
healthcare and education, energy and agriculture. And not only have we
invested in more than 100 companies, but we’ve supported 450 young leaders around
the world, who were earlier in their trajectory. I can’t imagine a better education than plunging into this world of investing
social capital. Not only have I learned where markets
and government do work and where they fail, but I’ve learned about
sectors I didn’t even know I wanted to learn about. Artificial insemination in
the dairy cow industry, drip irrigation, solar micro grids, rice
gasification to produce energy. But it’s been extraordinary. But those are lessons
for another day. Because when I have stepped back after these 17 years, I’ve
recognized that what separates the solutions that succeed from those that
fail, go back to what I learned as a young person. They have very little to do
with the systems and the structures, whether we’re in a stable country or a
post-conflict area; they have everything to do with character. Conversely, when
I look at our failures, almost always it’s because of a lack of character, or a
flaw in character. It might be an entrepreneur that does what’s easy
rather than what’s right. Or they lack the resilience to stay the road. Or what
we would call the moral imagination to be truly curious about the people
they are serving. The kind of character that leads to success can be summed in
two words, moral leadership. Moral because right now, more than any time in history,
we need leaders who are more focused on other people, on making change, than they
are themselves. And leadership, because the world has changed radically for your
generation. No longer can we focus on a single bottom-line whether it be profit
or an ideology. But we’ve got to recognize what it will take in a highly
complex world, to solve the problems. We can’t depend on profit, we must focus on
stakeholders. Our problems demand nothing less from us, and because there
is no road map, developing more leadership requires a
compass – one that points to the flourishing of all human beings – if we
really want a world of dignity. And that is for this generation to help us
understand how to do, and I believe there is no generation like you who can do it. I thought that while there are many points on this compass I would share just four. First, what we need to do as moral leaders is
redefine success. The zero-sum model of “I win, you lose” cannot sustain an interdependent world in which we all rise and fall together.
Instead we need brave individuals driven by a new metric. One that looks at
success based not just on how the wealthy fare, but on how the poor and the
vulnerable are included. Sam Goldman was working as a Peace
Corps volunteer in Benin, when his neighbor’s kerosene lantern tipped over
and burned down the house and nearly killed the eldest son. That was a moment
that Sam woke up and realized that 1.5 billion people on this planet have no
access to electricity – they live in the dark one hundred and thirty years after
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. And so he decided to do something. He
didn’t wait. Now, he didn’t even have an engineering degree, but when he went to
business school he met his partner Ned Tozun, and he did. And together they
designed this $30 solar lantern. Their business plan was really a lot of
assumptions. We invested in them anyway, and what we didn’t understand then was
that these guys not only had to figure out how to build a company, they had to
create a new market that didn’t exist. That’s hard. It took more than a decade of experiments, of failures. Countless hours spent listening to
customers, changing products to meet their needs. Sam and Ned spent many years earning very little money, raising a lot of money, partnering with companies, trying out solutions that
often failed. And in truth there were many times where they weren’t sure they
were going to succeed, and I wasn’t sure either. But I would remind
myself that we were on board because we’d bet on these guys to take on the
resilience. Not on their business plan but on the fact that they would never quit.
Change takes time. Sometimes young people tell me what
they’re going to do in the next three years, and once they’ve done it, then
they’re going to move on to the next thing; and I shake my head, and I’m tempted to
show them a picture of Sam and Ned when they started D.Light. They were grad
students, just graduated like you guys, and they were young and hip, and they had
full heads of hair, and now it’s been more than a decade, and they’re still
incredibly youthful, big smiles, really hopeful and completely bald.
I’m just saying. And yet, because they dared, those two young men and their teams have brought light and, increasingly, electricity to 82
million people. They’re just getting started, a new industry has been built.
That is success. They are lighting the world. Second, moral leadership requires
building muscles of moral imagination, and this is an amazing moment for that.
It means having the audacity to imagine the world that could be and the humility
to see it as it is – a humble audacity if you will. Emily Stone was working in an environmental firm when she came upon
the fact that the hundred billion dollar chocolate industry is actually fueled by
five million smallholder farmers, 90% of whom make less than $2 a day, many of
them living in indentured servitude. Now Emily likes chocolate a lot, but she
loves justice. She’s an amazing woman, and decided that she was going to start a
company. But she was going to ignore the global commodities price, and figured while the retailers were selling premium chocolate
for $12 a day, ignore the price that we paid to the farmers. So maybe we can
imagine a new business model altogether. So she works with small holders. She
understands their production costs, and then she negotiates a fair margin which
is sometimes two to three times what the global commodities prices are. The
negotiations are difficult because she also promises full transparency through
the supply chain. So everyone from the purchasers to the farmers understand the
pricing. It’s been difficult, but what she’s done that is most important for
you is to build a community of trust. The farmers are moving out of poverty and
they are building their own agency. The chocolate companies are
getting the highest quality chocolate they have gotten. We have a new model for
how we might redefine capitalism. Third, moral leadership requires the skill of
building partnership, sometimes across truly uncomfortable lines. It has
been so thrilling for me not only to work with entrepreneurs around the world,
but also in the United States. Entrepreneurs that refuse to be boxed in
by working simply in government or in the private sector, or in civil society. A
twenty-something, young twenty something doctor named Manik Bhat, started a
company called Healthify – a for-profit platform that could
actually connect the health insurance companies with government, with social
workers, with low-income people themselves. His insight was that if we
could look at every low-income person as a whole person, and then use the
technology, the platform, to link their social workers to all the different
services, we could really reduce the costs that health insurance is right now
bearing. He’s had to learn the language of medicine, markets, policy, the poor. And he’s done so brilliantly. Listen: remember that name,
Healthify, because I think it will be another model for how we bridge left and
right in this country and start to remind ourselves that together we can
solve our toughest problems. But we have to get used to the moral leadership
quality of building uncomfortable alliances. Finally, moral leadership
requires holding two contradictory ideas and rejecting
neither. This is a massive challenge for our generation. Especially in this age of
rapid fire response on social media, where nuance is rarely rewarded. We move
too quickly to outrage and blame. It is “I cannot be right unless I prove you wrong,
or just say you’re wrong.” But a winner-takes-all society strips us of
our individual humanity. It diminishes us, enabling a vulgar laziness with language
that divides and shames, and too often humiliates. The real winners are cynicism
and fear and there are no greater allies of the status quo than those two. At
Acumen, as I said, in addition to investing in companies, we invest in
young leaders; and we try to give them tools to transcend lines of difference.
And so last year when there was so much conflict over Kashmir, our Indian fellows,
separately from our Pakistani fellows, each were feeling frustrated that they
were only having conversations about what was happening with one another. And
so they dared to have a conversation across national lines, using technology,
again. Having a Skype conversation. And the conversations were nervous-making,
they were uncomfortable, they were awkward and difficult. But because they
dared, they also found their best selves in these conversations. And one of our
Indian fellows was so proud, that he put a screenshot of the conversation on
Facebook. And for that he was rewarded within the
next minutes with a barrage of hate, including from some many of his
so-called friends. It got worse when he went home and saw his parents, who
expressed their deep disappointment in him. They said: “You know, it was bad
enough that you decided to become a social entrepreneur, but now you’re
consorting with the enemy. So you have to make a decision, are you a patriot? Are
you part of this family, or are you with them?” And after the experience, he wrote
me and he said: “Can I be a patriot and also a global citizen?” It’s one of the
biggest questions of our time. Of course you can. Of course we must. We can love
our countries and at the same time be curious about other places and other
peoples, other nations. Most important, we can learn from them. We can share what’s
best that we have to offer. We can hold on to a strong sense of identity without
presuming that the wounds of our own past are more legitimate than the
wounds of another’s. Being a patriot and a global citizen should be mutually reinforcing. But don’t be tricked by language, because
that’s another big trap for this generation. The Indian fellow’s parents
weren’t speaking about patriotism. They were speaking about nationalism. That is
an entirely different kettle of fish. Nationalism is an arrogant love of
country, based on notions of us and them, blaming others to justify one’s own
superiority. And in an interdependent world, in which we all rise and fall
together, it no longer serves. Patriots love their country with a sense of duty
to seek its betterment, including having the hard conversations; it includes
renewing our values and confronting what it will take to lead to a better place.
Patriots see themselves as part of a greater whole. An either-or world limits our chances for shared humanity. In our
interdependent world we must reject false polarities, for there is a space
that connects love of country and love of worlds, that bridges left and right
and that goes beyond shallow judgments of right and wrong. The opportunity,
indeed the imperative, of moral imagination, of moral leadership, is to
create a set of values, principles and possibilities in which we can all see
ourselves. That requires navigating the contradictions, holding them. Your
generation also has the chance to drop the excess baggage carried by mine. But
don’t jettison everything, for there is great wisdom in our histories. Seek it
out. It is to you to learn to carry forward what is most beautiful from the
past, and have the courage to let go of that which no longer serves. As I’ve said,
the work of change is not easy. But you know that already. You’re at Wagner
because you have signed up to embrace the difficult, to serve. And I promise you:
if you focus on developing your character and not your career only, if
you practice the principles of a leadership focused on the world, and not
simply yourselves, you will find a richness and joy in the privilege of
being part of the greatest questions of our times. 30 years after starting this
work, I finally understand at a visceral level what Martin Luther King spoke
about when he used the phrase, “the beautiful struggle.” For the work is hard,
it can be bitter at times: but when you get through, even in the smallest moments,
you find a beauty not only in the world but in yourself. I have found the deepest
soulful connection to my own humanity, as I have connected and learned about
others’ humanity. And maybe the biggest gift of all is that the older I get, the more I see beauty in everything. And so if there’s one thing I
leave with you today, it’s this: the world needs you to be the leaders and foot soldiers of a moral revolution. Leave the Wagner school with a sense of
confidence in what you have learned, with each other to accompany you, and with
what you know, but with responsibility too. Because if
you dared to act with moral leadership, I believe with my entire soul that you can
be the best generation this world has ever seen. You can imagine and build the frameworks and the institutions that make the world
more inclusive, less wasteful, more sustainable, more loving. It’s up to you
because you have the tools and the skills – everything that you need. And your
promise, our promise, is nothing less than a world in which every human being is
able to flourish. For if I have learned one thing in my life, it is that we do
not get dignity as a human species until every one of us has dignity. And so I
wish you godspeed and good luck. And today an amazing celebration for who you
are, what you bring, what you will do. Here’s to the class of 2018!

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