By Jacquline Novogratz – Commencement address, spring 2017
Leadership is a practice. It is a way of living. Moral leaders count success not by wealth or power or fame, but as the amount of human flourishing their actions release into the world. By the way they protect and give voice to the vulnerable, the poor.
You don’t have to be old or experienced to lead. You have to be awake. To dream. And then to do the hard work of following through on that dream.
Too many of us wait. We tell ourselves that the problems are too big; our skills and resources, too small. That is fear talking.
I think of two women I met in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.
I was giving a talk for my book, The Blue Sweater. About a hundred slum dwellers had gathered in Mama Hamza’s community center, a structure made of corrugated tin filled.
The most pointed question came from a fierce 17-year-old. Her voice full of pain, she accused me: “You say anyone can become a leader but what about me? I’m HIV-positive, a single mother without schooling. You don’t have any examples of leaders like me, do you?”
I drew in my breath.
Before I could answer, a beautiful woman in a bright red dress stepped from the shadows, stating confidently: “I’m a leader in my community. I teach tailoring skills to young women. I volunteer at the HIV-AIDS center – and though I’m not a doctor that gives out pills, I’m a leader. Because me, I give out hope.”
“And I am just like you.”
She spoke without apology. “I was a prostitute and a single mother,” she continued. “I am HIV-positive and I live in this same slum. Just like you.”
“Don’t limit yourself.”
All of us can lead. Not doing so is simply a failure of imagination. Of moral imagination. Moral leadership also requires being willing to fail.
I have failed more times than I can remember. When I graduated from university, I was lucky to get a job on Wall Street, the kind that made my immigrant, military family proud. But three years later, I decided to quit and move to West Africa against my parents’ sage – and strong – advice. The stakes were high – for me, failure meant letting everyone down. I feared feeling ashamed, not to mention broke.
And then, I did fail. Within months. Partly because I carried an attitude of “saving the world.” But I quickly learned most people don’t want saving.
I moved to Kenya and tried supporting a women’s financing group. No one wanted to hear my advice. I failed again. But I didn’t give up. I learned that I had to change my approach if I wanted to make change in the world.
Finally, I got an opportunity in Rwanda and helped found the country’s first microfinance bank. One of my co-founders was a Rwandan nun named Felicula. I loved her. She embodied courage and grace. Felicula led a movement to abolish the traditional practice of bride price, paying a father with cows or money to marry his daughter. For her efforts, Felicula was killed in a mysterious hit and run accident. At the age of 25, I saw the terrible price that some people pay for rejecting the status quo.
That failure took a piece of my heart.
Those early years brought days and nights of deep loneliness. Yet, the learning was immense. Much of the way we work at Acumen can be tied directly to my early years of trying and failing. Repeatedly.
If you rule out failure as an option, you rule out the boldest successes as well. Cultivate in yourself the courage to take risks and the openness to fail. What separates those who make real change are those who get up when they fall down, and try again. Those who persist and thus develop in themselves a reservoir of grit and resilience.
Remember, your job is not to be perfect. It is only to be human. With flaws and frailties as well as strengths and the brilliance that is also part of our shared humanity.
Remember that you build courage by practicing courage. There may still be times when life throws curveballs that demand more courage than you could have possibly imagined. In those times, it can take courage even to get out of bed.
Lead anyway, the best you can.
Acumen Fellow Teresa Njoroge is a remarkable Kenyan woman who chose courage even when faced with the unthinkable. Her first job after university was at a bank where she made a solid living – and enjoyed the good life, as she said.
Until she was accused and framed with a crime she did not commit.
Her lawyers told her she could pay a bribe to avoid prison, but Teresa refused. She had nothing to hide. She was innocent. But life can be unfair. Though there was not a shred of evidence against her, Teresa was sentenced to a year in prison, which she served with her three-month-old daughter.
Teresa could have seen her situation as reason for rage or self-pity, feelings that would have been justified. But she refused to accept that narrative. Theresa chose to see her challenge as an opportunity.
When she left prison, she created Clean Start, a social enterprise that transitions former prisoners successfully back into society. She took the darkest time in her life and transformed it into a thing of beauty. Into hope.
Psychiatrist 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.”
We can choose to see life’s difficult circumstances as reason for pity or self-doubt or anger at our own shortcomings. Or we can view them as opportunities, chances for growth, the backbone of stories that can only be our own.
So live out loud.
Learn from the wild contours of adventure. Get good at wiping away the inevitable splattering of mud and let your shine come through.
Just never bow to cynicism. For cynicism is merely an excuse for distance, for inaction. It is a proxy for fear. And it makes us small. Hold to hope instead. Let it be your radical affront to the cynics everywhere who would rather you didn’t try.
My work with Acumen—investing patient philanthropic capital in companies solving the tough problems of poverty—is my privilege. For I work with an army of individuals who stand for hope, who stand with the poor.
In India, Sanjay Bhatnagar runs a company called Water Health International, an Acumen investment based outside of Hyderabad. Proving that the poor deserve and will pay for clean water required fighting on every front. But 12 years later, the company now brings safe, affordable water to 8 million people everyday in India as well as Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
In Pakistan, Acumen Fellow Shahid Rehmat saw his community attacked and hundreds murdered by terrorists in his park in Lahore, Pakistan. Yet he refused to bow to hatred and violence and responded by showing up. He runs interfaith workshops, brings people together across divides, and thus plays a role in helping to heal the world’s broken heart.
And in the U.S., we are investing in a growing group of entrepreneurs, like Manik Bhat, a 26-year-old who turned down medical school to fix America’s broken healthcare system. These men and women see potential where others see despair, who refuse to be cowed by left-right divides and are using business as a means to solve tough problems like health care and workforce development. Their actions remind us that, while ideology divides us, solving our shared problems unites us.
Don’t ever forget your collective voice, your collective leadership. As a generation, you have the chance—and duty—to help build a world in which every human being matters. The world needs you to help us learn to see each other, to listen to each other. To find our way to each other.
So if there is one skill I urge you to practice in these divided times, it is listening. Learn to listen from a place of inquiry, not certainty. Learn to listen, not simply to convince. Learn to listen as an act of love.
This is where the moral imagination begins. If you can listen with your whole self, you can cross any divide.
Just remember that the path to change is long. Especially for big dreams. And who are you not to dream big? Life is too short, too precious.
I shared with you the story of Felicula, the nun I loved when I lived in Rwanda. Well, last year, I was back in the country, only this time it was to launch a $100 million off-grid initiative to bring safe affordable solar energy to the rural poor.
I attended a formal function with the country’s ministers and business leaders to launch our work. A young woman approached me, dressed in a conservative blue suit. “Ms. Novogratz,” she said. “I think you knew my auntie.”
“Really?” I asked. “What was her name?”
“Felicula,” she said. “I grew up hearing stories about the two of you.”
My eyes filled with tears at hearing the name of the friend and mentor I’d lost so many years ago. This woman, Monique, Felicula’s niece had grown up to become Deputy Director of the Central Bank.
If you had told me 30 years ago that this next generation of women would grow up to run Rwanda’s financial system, I would have realized that our dreams to improve women’s economic condition were too small.
I saw in that moment that while Felicula had been murdered and the institution we started was weakened by war, the work continued. I understood then that I was in Rwanda simply carrying on Felicula’s work, work that could not have been completed in her lifetime. And that my work includes investing in the next generation so that you can continue what will not be completed in mine.
In this, we give meaning to each other, we keep one another’s spirits energized and alive, we inspire what is good and right about being human. While none of us will change the world alone, collectively we can build a movement of moral leaders working with hard-edged hope and, thus, build the world we dare to dream.
So dare. And dream.
Make a commitment and go to where your true longing meets the world’s pressing needs. And you will find before you even realize it that you are living a life of meaning in a world that needs you more than you know.