On Being with Krista Tippett

Jacqueline Novogratz

Towards a Moral Revolution

Last Updated

May 21, 2020

Moral reckonings are being driven to the surface of our life together: What are politics for? What is an economy for? Jacqueline Novogratz says the simplistic ways we take up such questions — if we take them up at all — is inadequate. Novogratz is an innovator in creative, human-centered capitalism. She has described her recent book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, as a love letter to the next generation.

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Jacqueline Novogratz Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen, a venture capital fund that serves some of the poorest people in the world. She’s also the author of a memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.


Krista Tippett, host: The world keeps changing, and moral reckonings are being driven to the surface of our life together: who will we be to each other in our communities, our nations, our globalized world? What are politics for; what is an economy for — and education, and health care, and borders? Jacqueline Novogratz is a voice I respect on the inadequacy of the simplistic ways we take up such questions, if we take them up at all — the necessity of moral imagination and the cultivation of character alongside all of the so-called hard skills that are no longer serving us.

This is at the heart of her book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World. It feels important to me, in a moment like this, to look below the radar of rupture — to see models and practices that work, and that in fact can take up the huge hard problems. Acumen, which Jacqueline Novogratz founded and leads, is an exercise in creative, human-centered capitalism: a venture capital fund that serves some of the poorest people in the world — people whose incomes have previously excluded them from the power of the market.

Jacqueline Novogratz: I think, in this moment of such peril and possibility, if we tapped into that stirring, that awakening, we really could build a world like the world has never seen before. And if there was ever a decade to do it, it’s this decade.

Tippett: And this century may require that of us if we’re to flourish in it, right?

Novogratz: I think this century does require it of us. I’m not a shame person, but man, I want future generations to look back on us and say, “Look how hard they tried,” not “Look at how blind they were.”

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Jacqueline Novogratz began her career as a traditional investment banker. While still in her twenties, she helped start the first microfinance bank in Rwanda. And Acumen helped start the field of impact investing, which so many have now entered.

Jacqueline, I think you use the language of “moral imagination.” You’re the only person I know who uses [laughs] those words as much as I do. And really, moral imagination, moral revolution, moral courage — that’s what we’re going to talk about. And so I’m just curious, to start, about where you would go with your earliest memory of what the word “moral” meant when you were growing up in the 1960s, in your big, Catholic, Austrian-immigrant, military family.

Novogratz: I think the word “moral,” for me, conjures up first-grade classroom of Sister Mary Theophane in West Point, Highland Falls, New York, looking at a poster of a rice bowl with two hands holding it, and being told by the nun that we had an obligation, always, to think about people who were less fortunate than we were. And then her mantra was that to whom much is given, much is expected. And I think that instilled in me, in a deep and crystallized way, that we’re here for each other.

Tippett: That’s so consonant, really, with what you’ve walked into.

You know, you and I are roughly the same age, and I’m so aware right now, at this point in the young 21st century, of all these echoes from the 1960s — how things have come full circle or turned out so differently than we expected they would, starting out when we did.

Novogratz: Oh, my goodness.

Tippett: So you’ve written this book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: And you talk about — you left Rwanda in 1989 for Palo Alto to go to Stanford Business School; the Berlin Wall falls that year; the Soviet Union disintegrates; it’s the end of history; you are a banker, and you’re remaking banking, and capitalism has won. And you made a statement in a speech — I believe it was at a forum for business leaders. And you said Steve Jobs spoke to your business class. And you said, we thought we needed a technological revolution, but we needed a moral revolution. And that’s what you’re really writing about now and steeping in. And so just how would you start to talk about what that realization, what that phrase holds for you?

Novogratz: When I think back to that time — and it was really within the course of a month that the Berlin Wall fell, and then Jobs got on the stage and said technology will reshape the world. And both forces did: capitalism and technology did reshape the world and did lift a billion people out of extreme poverty. And, at the same time, it has left us — both forces have left us more unequal, more divided, more divisive, and facing long-term — not long-term, short-term climate catastrophe. And so when I say we need a moral revolution, it’s really one that is not dictated from above, but it’s a reframe of the system, because we have had a system that has put profit at the center. And what we need to do is shift that to put humanity and the Earth at the center.

And that is not going to come from above. That is going to come from each of us, changing our ways. I think, Krista, that we’re in this moment where we know our old and current institutions have run their course. But we have not reimagined what they need to become. And so, because there is no roadmap, we can only hold onto a moral compass. And that, for me, is the beginning of the moral revolution.

Tippett: But we’re in this, we’re this in-between generation that can see what’s broken but has to make up the new forms, and when you say, when you point to the need for a shared moral compass, that is also the work — how, in this world of proximity to difference, in this globalized world that, as you’ve pointed out, even though we were talking about it in the 1980s, in the 1990s, we could not envision what it has become and what it’s meant and what it’s given us to reckon with. So I think that’s really what I want to talk to you about: how do we start to develop a shared moral compass, and I think that’s what you’re working on in the spheres where you’re engaged.

Novogratz: When you and I were growing up, the world operated in separate spheres. There were rich countries, poor countries; capitalism, communism. And now there’s elements of the rich and the poor, of the developed and the developing, in every country, and we’re starting to understand — well, we need to understand — that we can’t just go to the polarities. We’re having this broken debate — if it’s not capitalism, then it’s socialism — rather than one that says, how do we take the best of each, move beyond ideology, focus on the problem that we want to solve, and then bring the best of us to bear on solving that problem, because that will bring out the best in who we are as well? And so the skills — which I also think are not the soft skills.

When I was growing up, we relegated skills like the moral imagination, like listening, like understanding identity as a tool rather than as a bludgeon, holding opposites without rejecting either side — those are the hard skills. And those are the skills we need to impart in our children, in our universities, in our workplaces, if we want to do the weaving and the integration that I do believe, as you said, is the work. And 20 years of investing, trying to reimagine capitalism, and using those tools to invest in entrepreneurs that are first and foremost trying to solve tough problems of poverty, has taught me that the greatest predictor is not even the business idea of real success. The greatest predictor is the kind of character that holds some of those skills that I was just talking about.

Tippett: So Acumen, which you began as the Acumen Fund works with the poorest people in the world. I think it’s important to articulate what you are working on, and people all around the world who you see and engage makes this assumption or this insistence that the market and the way we live economically, using capitalism’s power and its tools, can be part of lasting and generative social change. And it’s that kind of entrepreneurship that needs character to succeed. But you’re also redefining what we generally mean when we say “succeed,” especially in terms of entrepreneurship.

Novogratz: That’s right. In brief, it’s moving away from money, power, fame, which is the shorthand for what we’re seeing around us too much, today, to celebrating those people who release the most human energy into the world. And so one of the great joys of my life, particularly now, because I’m seeing it more than ever, is to work with entrepreneurs who aren’t cowed by this idea that if they’re not making a lot of money, they are not as successful as other entrepreneurs or they are not as real, in part because some of them are making enormous change. I think of Ned Tozun and Sam Goldman, who had the audacity in 2007 to say, “We want to eradicate kerosene from the Earth.” It’s been 130 years since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb; 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity; no one else is solving it; we certainly aren’t solving it in the same old, same old ways of separation, either charity on one hand or traditional investment on the other, so let’s go after solving this problem. Let’s look at the poor as our customers. Let’s try to understand from their perspective — the moral imagination; let’s build something that’s affordable, that’s beautiful, that’s useful, that lasts; let’s figure out how to finance it. A traditional capitalist would say: “Too hard.”

And for five, six, seven years, we weren’t sure whether this company was going to make it. But a couple of weeks ago, we were able to announce that they’ve just brought light and, increasingly, electricity to 100 million of the world’s poor.

That’s a big number. That’s moving the needle. But when I think about what has driven Sam and Ned, it hasn’t been getting rich — it’s been lighting the world. And they’ve done it. And we need to celebrate them as role models. We don’t only need new business models, but we need to celebrate new role models.

Tippett: There’s a place where you say, “What if the golden rule were not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ but, also, ‘Give more to the world than you take from it’?”

Novogratz: It’s such a simple rule. And again, right now when I see all this anger at “You’re a bad person because you’re wealthy,” “You’re a fuzzy-headed nonprofit entrepreneur because you clearly don’t know how to manage,” we’re just screaming at each other. If we moved from a metric that — or an ethos that recognized that we’re all part of this together, that we actually do face enormous changes that are going to impact all of us, and we just use that simple moral idea of giving more than we take, the whole world would change. We’d literally go from thinking of ourselves just as consumers, to citizens, and focus on sustainability rather than celebrating selfishness. And those are the mantras I’d like to see, which I think this next generation wants to embrace.

[music: “Falaal” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen, an incubator of human-centered capitalism.

I want to talk about language before we go much further. Moral imagination has so much to do with what we see and the words we use. You have chosen to continue to use the word “poor,” but you don’t speak in terms of “disadvantaged.” Would you talk to me a little bit about what you’re describing here and the words that actually capture what you see and what this moral revolution would take in differently?

Novogratz: I do think we need a different language, a language that gets comfortable, again, with what we too often look at as “soft.” And I would include love in there, because I think real love is a hard skill. And at the same time, I get exhausted when we jump on words and, again, ascribe an evil characteristic to someone using that word, before we even interrogate it. And so when we were writing our manifesto, the phrase that “it starts by standing with the poor” was incredibly important to us. And there were people on our team who were really offended by that. Why can’t we say it starts by standing with low-income people?

Tippett: Right; it sounds demeaning.

Novogratz: It sounds demeaning, and also, as I have come to understand poverty, I reject the notion that poverty is just about income. We’ve got to think about the opposite of poverty being dignity or having opportunity and choice. And so we couldn’t come up with a better word than “poor.” The other piece of it was that, as investors, this pushed us toward our own bottom line, if you will, that when we look at making an investment, we have to ask ourselves, as enticing as it is, in a world that still looks at you in terms of your financial returns, to say, “Well, these people are vulnerable, even though they’re middle-class,” we wanted to be the organization that pushed ourself, took on something more difficult, by investing on behalf and with the truly disadvantaged — the poor.

And increasingly, and I think this is something that’s deepened in my own learning and our own learning, we’ve integrated this idea that if you care about the poor, you have no choice but to care about the climate, because in the context of climate change, there is no doubt about who gets hurt most.

Tippett: I think that’s such an important statement, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but dignity. And you’ve also really, in very granular ways, gotten into the fact that dependence can also be an enemy of dignity and that the language of “helping” people is problematic and, I think, also counterintuitively in this, as you say, this very stark, polarized debate about capitalism being good or evil, you’ve learned that the market can be a powerful listening device to poor people, in fact; that capitalism can be a humanizing way to accompany the poor.

Novogratz: What I think a lot of people don’t understand, and I didn’t understand, is that in a way, we make a mistake by looking at poor economies. When you’re looking at a community of low-income people, you’re looking not at a market economy, you’re looking at a political economy. And so where there is no real market, everyone has their hand in the lives of the poor: the government officials that usually, often — not usually, but often make low-income people pay for whatever grant or income support they’re getting; the religious leaders, who make a lot of decisions on their behalf; the family structures, mothers-in-law — all of these — certainly, aid organizations, charities; there’s mafias who control the markets in very extortive ways. And so the power of a fair marketplace, where people actually can have choice and dignity over their own lives, that is revolutionary. And if you’ve not spent time in slums or in rural areas controlled by bureaucracies and the politics of poverty, that can be hard to understand.

Tippett: I feel like there’s a sentence in your book that, to me, feels like an operating question for moral imagination: “The question is not merely how to make people better off, but what does it mean to be a whole human being?”

Novogratz: And also, Krista, I’m so delighted that you said operational, the operating model. When I think of moral imagination, we always say “the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to imagine what it could be.” But I break it down into four steps, almost, that are truly operational. One, it starts with empathy, but it can’t end with empathy and putting yourself in another person’s shoes, because that too often leads to distancing and the reinforcement of the status quo — “Oh, those poor people, their life must be terrible.” The second step is immersion — Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights advocate, would call it proximity, but you have to get close to the people that you serve; you have to understand their problem. And the third piece is analysis. Then you have to understand the system in which they’re operating. And then you have to act. And my team will say, “Well, Jacqueline, moral imagination isn’t a verb.” I’m like, well, sometimes we just have to propel ourselves into action from that sense of knowing, because in the knowing, we have a responsibility to do. And so I like to think of it both as a beautiful phrase, but also one that demands that we extend that beauty to actually make a difference, rather than just imagine.

Tippett: So it’s aspirational, but it’s also fiercely pragmatic.

Novogratz: It is fiercely pragmatic. And it’s funny, because people often — in fact, when we talk about polarities and holding opposites in tensions and — I’ve had more than a couple of investors say, “You know, Jacqueline, you talk about love all the time. But then it comes, we’re sitting at the negotiating table, and you’re hardcore.” And it’s like, we’re patient capital, we’re not stupid capital. [laughs] That love actually is about caring so much that you want other people to succeed. That is hard to do.

Tippett: And that requires expectations and helping them develop capacities and growing, stretching.

Novogratz: That requires expectations, because if we think they’re gonna be — that’s right. And we have to set standards high so that people live up to it, because if we put low expectations on people, we all know very well that all of us will stoop down to them. And so that’s what love is.

Tippett: I also feel like what’s so odd to me, when the word “love” gets used in public spaces — and you’re doing that, and I’m doing that, and I feel I hear that rising up — and one reaction people have, like you’re talking about these investors, is that it’s soft. But we know, each and every one of us in our actual lives, that it is the hardest thing and is not laissez-faire; the people we love the most — there’s a lot of engagement.

Novogratz: It is the hardest thing, and inside of it is another secret — we don’t talk about it enough — which is, for anyone who is caretaking someone who’s been sick or who has lost someone, for anyone who’s accompanying someone in a real way, there are times when that love takes every ounce of courage and perseverance that you have in your body, and those are also the times when you like yourself the best.

And I think that is the opportunity we have now in the world — that we feel like there’s such darkness around us, but we all know that it’s in those times that we can elevate ourselves if we get outside of the small parts of ourselves, which right now are being sparked too often by, frankly, the easy stuff.

Tippett: You know … this is pulling back a little bit from this conversation we’re having about this realm of entrepreneurship and leadership and economic life, which is just another way to talk about human life — but it’s very resonant with how you’ve also looked at what’s been happening in our country and in the world in these last few years. You wrote after the 2016 election — and this is really echoing with what you said a minute ago about the opposite of poverty is dignity — you said this was an election “about dignity, about being seen, about feeling counted. It was about people who wanted their voices heard so powerfully that they were willing to overlook language and actions they would never accept in themselves or their children.” And I really appreciated the place you went later in the piece, where you said, “And whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won the election, the U.S. would be staggering, wounded and bleeding, left to wonder how we got to a place where we feel we hardly know each other.”

Novogratz: This is why I think we have an opportunity to build the skills of identity. What worries me is, I see identity too often used as a bludgeon rather than a tool and a mechanism to enhance our understanding of each other. And in that same vein, we are so focused on our own identity that we’re missing the opportunity of recognizing that, yes, we need to learn about our identity and the many different component parts of our identity so that we can connect with those similar identities that exist in other people who, on the surface, may seem completely different than ourselves. And that’s also a skill, and it’s one that takes a lifetime to master, but we can all start on the path.

I had a great experience with the — I think you may have interviewed Jonathan Haidt, actually. So I had the great privilege of taking Jon to India. And Jonathan has studied shame and marginalized peoples and, of course, how we use language.

Tippett: What’s his book?

Novogratz: The Righteous Mind, which is so spectacular. And so we do something that we took from the oral history project StoryCorps. But instead of putting people face to face, we do something that we call “story walks”, because we found that when you let the air blow around people, magic can sometimes happen. And the idea is that you go walking with each other, 20 minutes: one person talks, tells their story, and the other person — then the other person asks questions for ten minutes, and then you repeat on the way back. And it’s good to do it in a group. We brought the group back, and I had paired Jonathan with a guy named Vimal Kumar, who is from the scavenger caste, which is the lowest caste in India. These are people consigned to essentially picking up human waste, usually with some cardboard or plastic. And so then, when you get back, you’re supposed to introduce each other, and some do it in the first person.

So Jon started and said, “I’m introducing Vimal, so I’m going to speak as Vimal.” And he said, “I’m Vimal Kumar, and I was born in the scavenger caste. We are the people consigned to picking up waste, and no one ever touches us.” And he said, “My mother, however, got a job at a private school, and they allowed me to go to school as a result of it. But we couldn’t afford a uniform. I had to go to school in rags, and I sat in the back of the class, and I never spoke. But my mother was so proud that, when I was eight years old, she invited the whole school over to have a birthday party, and she spent two days cleaning the house, preparing for it. And then, on the day of the party, no one showed up.” And Jon started crying. And he said, “So I’m sorry, but I have an eight-year-old son. And the truth is, Vimal and I don’t have anything in common.” He said, “I am from a privileged background. I went to the best schools. I live in New York City. I’m a professor. My children have no want. And I can’t even believe that Vimal has been able to survive in the way that he’s so extraordinary.” And then Vimal took a deep breath, and he said, “No, Jon. You’re wrong.” He said, “You love India, I love India. We both have two children. We’ve both studied shame.” He said, “And besides, Jon, you’re a Jew. You understand what it feels like to have people think about you in a certain way for no reason other than what you were born. And finally, Jon, we both have Ph.D.s.”

Tippett: [laughs] That’s good.

Novogratz: [laughs] And you look at that, if these two could bridge that gap, we in the United States, who have so much in common, can find our ways to heal ourselves and to see ourselves in each other again — that we have a common endeavor in this country, to build a country where we can make good on the promise that all men were — and women — were created equal. And then we can help extend it to everyone on the planet, because we represent the planet now in ways that have so much to teach if we would just take that privilege seriously.

[music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Tippett: After a short break, more with Jacqueline Novogratz. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.

[music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring the wisdom of Jacqueline Novogratz’s work and writing. She was an early innovator in the field of microfinance in Rwanda and in impact investing in the U.S. and globally. Acumen, the organization she founded and leads, has brought basic services to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. Jacqueline has described her recent book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, as a love letter to the next generation — including young Acumen Fellows around the world.

Tippett: You know, I feel like all of these practices that you have described and written about that we’ve been talking about, about figuring out how to be both audacious and humble, how to understand that you don’t plan your purpose but live your way into it, and ask that question of what you’re doing; of carrying around beautiful questions, powerful questions like “What are you doing when you feel more beautiful?”; of listening, not to convince or to convert but to change yourself — these are everyday practices that can be transformative, and immediately transformative. And just like that story you just told, this is all happening, all kinds of people all around us are making these moves. I sometimes think of this as the generative narrative of our time that just doesn’t get a light shone on it the way the dysfunctional, destructive narrative of our time is so privileged and so heavily investigated. And your work is full of these stories of this generative map that is emerging.

Novogratz: Absolutely. And the exciting thing now, Krista, which I couldn’t have said ten years ago, is that it’s not pretty language, and it’s not just a few people; it is a movement that is happening around the world and that the role models who are emerging are not reaching thousands of people, they’re reaching millions of people — in the case of d. light, 100 million people … that there’s a hard edge to these scaled companies that can only exist if you bring on a different skill set that understands how to put capital in its place, how to partner with government rather than malign it, how to understand identity and build inclusive organizations — and I’m not just talking, as you said, about entrepreneurs. We need to use these same skills in our universities.

Tippett: All of our disciplines.

Novogratz: In the military.

Tippett: Lawyers.

Novogratz: Every discipline. Our lawyers and our health care system, to make it patient-centric.

And that’s why a few young people are like, “Well, Jacqueline, you’re known as the pioneer of patient capital and impact investing, and yet, your book is all about moral leadership.” And I was like, “Because at the end of the day, that’s the work. I can — with all respect — hire really smart young people to do spreadsheets and valuation. But building a company that disrupts a system and creates a market that reaches 100 million really poor people — that is a leadership play.” And, as you also imply, I’m not just talking about entrepreneurs or organization builders. I’m talking about social workers and nurses and all of us.

Tippett: And that scale is the upside of that technological revolution that we did get. That is the generative possibility: that good can be amplified at such a different scale now than was true when you and I were growing up.

Novogratz: If we keep this technology and this capital in its place, and we realize that it’s up to us to bring the moral aspect to it.

Tippett: I do love the story you tell about — was it Felicula? Is that how you say her name? This enterprising nun who also became one of Rwanda’s first three women parliamentarians. And she was such a friend and mentor and partner to you, when you were so young there, starting out. Would you tell the story of — and she died, right?

Novogratz: Well, she was murdered.

Tippett: She was murdered. And would you tell the story of how, suddenly, or just a few years ago, her name was invoked in a new century, in a new world?

Novogratz: For me, in so many ways, sometimes many roads lead back to Rwanda. And it was literally 30 years, almost to the month, when I first arrived in Rwanda to set up that microfinance bank. And Felicula was one of three women parliamentarians who were among my co-founders. And she was the one I loved most. And she really wrapped her arms around me and — talk about crossing every line of difference — and taught me so much about her country. She didn’t have such a head for business, but she had a heart for the world, man. And I loved her. And one of the first things she and her fellow parliamentarians did — women parliamentarians did — was to eradicate bride price, a few years into their tenure. And it was too quick, probably, for their constituency.

Tippett: Explain what that meant.

Novogratz: So bride price — which still exists in traditional form — was that you would — an enterprising and prospective son-in-law would gift his prospective father-in-law three cows to marry the man’s daughter. And Felicula was really insulted with this idea of reducing women to chattel and wanted to change it. And so a few days after this law was passed, it was rescinded in another vote — a big backlash happened — and Felicula was killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. And that was really the first time in my life, at age 26, that I had to confront the price some people pay for rejecting the status quo.

And then we went on to build this bank, and then the genocide happened, and the surviving women with whom I had started this bank ended up playing every conceivable role, including bystander, victim, and perpetrator. And so the bank continued to stumble along, somehow, in those early years after genocide.

And now here I am, 30 years later, and I’m standing at a hotel reception with the president of the country and most of his ministers —

Tippett: In Kigali.

Novogratz: In Kigali, the same place, except I’m a much older woman, with wrinkles on my face to show it, and I know the downsides of what this work can be. I’m laying out this vision for this 70 million dollar, for-profit, off-grid energy fund that’s going to help electrify the country, and before I get onstage, a young woman walks up to me and says, “Miss Novogratz, I think you knew my auntie.” And I said, “Really? What was her name?” And she said, “Well, her name was Felicula.” And I burst into tears. And I said, “I’m sorry — who are you?” And she said, “My name is Monique. I’m the deputy general of the central bank.” And I literally, still crying, I turn to the president and his ministers, and I said, “If you had told me 30 years ago, when we were starting that microfinance bank, that in one generation a woman would be running the economic sector, the financial sector, I’m not sure we would’ve believed you. Maybe our dreams weren’t big enough.” And I understood, in that moment, that I was back in Kigali on that night to complete work that Felicula had started but couldn’t complete in her lifetime and that at this point in my life, I needed to continue that work but, also, dream so big I won’t complete them in my lifetime, but to enable another generation to take that work forward, too.

Though this little institution that we had started endured the murder of Felicula and genocide and so many challenges; the work had continued anyway, her work had continued, and it continues today; and that all of us stand on the work of those who went before us. And it’s really our individual and collective obligation, in a world that focuses too much on our rights and not enough on our responsibilities, it’s our collective obligation to take that work forward and imagine and then integrate human dignity, sustainability, and elevate the best of ourselves and bring ourselves to each other. And I think, in this moment of such peril and possibility, if we tapped into that stirring, that awakening, we really could build a world like the world has never seen before. And if there was ever a decade to do it, it’s this decade.

Tippett: And this century may require that of us if we’re to flourish in it.

Novogratz: I think this century does require it of us. And I’m not a shame person, but man, I want future generations to look back on us and say, “Look how hard they tried,” not “Look at how blind they were.”

[music: “Hotels” by Tape]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen, an incubator of human-centered capitalism.

[music: “Hotels” by Tape]

Tippett: This is really granular but, I think, really helpful — you describe in the book how you have modified the Jesuit Examen, which is supposed to be five steps. And I’ve tried this, so I found this really useful, because I never was able to stick with the five steps.

Novogratz: Five is too many. I’m sorry. [laughs] I know that’s sacrilege.

Tippett: But you’ve turned it into three, so just talk about this, because this is a daily practice that you weave into …

Novogratz: I try to do it every day. I don’t do it every single day. But when I do do it, my day is different; and that is, to start with intention. What do you want to accomplish in the day? Who do you want to be? And then check in with yourself later and ask yourself how you did. Do an account. And what did you learn from it? And then, importantly, forgive yourself for what you didn’t do or what you did poorly. And then the most important part of all is to express gratitude.

And when I do those acts, whether you call it three or four, I feel like I’m moving, and I’m also, at the same time, grounded.

Tippett: One thing we haven’t — one word we haven’t discussed that I — well, no, you’ve mentioned “accompaniment.” It’s an important word to you, it’s an important word to me, but also, I feel it emerging all over the place. I didn’t realize — you taught me this — that this was also a Jesuit phrase. I did not know that.

Novogratz: It is.

Tippett: I want to read this beautiful — it’s a couple paragraphs from your book, everything you’ve been talking about, this moral leadership that we are all called to, whatever our sphere, because all of our spheres have to be transformed in this way — we’re not called to do it alone, which was also a 20th-century lie.

Novogratz: It was a lie.

Tippett: So we surround ourselves with others who can hold us and hold it, the work, on the days that we can’t. So anyway, you wrote, “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, those 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.”

Novogratz: In my way of seeing the world, I think accompaniment is so critical, and again, I think it’s so hard. And when you do it best is when you’re not asking for thanks in return.

I also — going back to this country, America — I also think, Krista, that it could be an organizing frame for how we think about a big part of our economy that we’re overlooking.

Tippett: Accompaniment could be an organizing frame?

Novogratz: I do; I do. I’ve seen it in companies in Africa and in South Asia — not just companies, in solutions, where — you look at the HIV crisis and the AIDS crisis of southern Africa, and community members were trained in showing up for people with HIV-positive who had to take their antiretrovirals and combine that with eating high-caloric food. And so the community members were trained in the rudiments of health care, and they would show up, they would check on whether they had taken their meds, etc., etc., and they would also help stave off the isolation and loneliness that comes, often, with any chronic disease. And so I’m seeing a generation of young people in the United States bring home some of these models, accompaniment models, which I think, given our opioid crisis, given our incarceration crisis, given our health care crisis, could play an extraordinarily powerful role.

City Health Works, which trains women from the community in Harlem, New York — in again, basic health skills. They show up and teach women who have chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension, simple things: how to go to the grocery store; how to buy food; how to go on walks — not how to go on walks. They go on walks with them. They bring them into community. And they have so reduced the number of hospital visits that they’ve created a revenue stream from government to the organization, enough so that they can cover all their costs, become profitable. So, suddenly, you have an economic and social model that has at the heart of it a healthier community, a more efficient government, and a stronger civil society.

That’s the reframe. And so we think about accompaniment as a beautiful, soft skill — you and I know how hard it is, but beyond that, if we had the real moral imagination, we could begin to create economic models that made sense for all of us and not just for a chosen few of us.

Tippett: Again, aspirational and fiercely pragmatic. [laughs]

Novogratz: I love that. Thank you. [laughs]

Tippett: So if I ask you today, this week, what is making you despair, and where are you finding hope, what comes to mind right now? Of course, we’re talking about a hard-edged hope, not a squishy hope.

Novogratz: One of the biggest lessons of my life, Krista, has been that we can’t separate the world into monsters and angels and that there’s nothing like loving people and knowing friends who played different roles in the genocide, including being perpetrators, that makes you have to confront that most raw element of what it means to be human. And the only conclusion I could make was that there are monsters and angels in each of us and that those monsters really are our broken parts — they’re our insecurities; they’re our fears; they’re our shames — and that in times of insecurity, it becomes really easy for demagogues to prey on those broken parts and sometimes make us do terrible things to each other.

We’re seeing that all over the world right now. And we have to fight against that. And that’s where the moral revolution becomes a matter of whether we choose to dive into the dark, the perilous path, or whether we choose to create a narrative and make that narrative real, which is our shared destiny, the possibility of collective human flourishment, our repairing the Earth in ways that make it more beautiful — and the choice is ours. And so my hard-edged hope comes from having lived and worked in communities that have had to contend with both. And like flowers breaking through granite, I’m gonna choose hope every time. And I frankly — despite all the dark, I remain a stubborn, persistent, hard-edged, hopeful optimist. I do!

Tippett: [laughs]

Novogratz: And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Tippett: [laughs] Thank you, Jacqueline.

[music: “Thinking About Thursdays” by Lullatone]

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen.  She’s the author of a memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World and, most recently, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World.

[music: “Thinking About Thursdays” by Lullatone]

The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, and Jhaleh Akhavan.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

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