Jaqueline Novogratz, MBA ’91: What Matters to Me Now and Why

“I have had to learn to fight bureaucracy, corruption, and complacency — skills I hadn’t considered at business school.”

March 22, 2021

| by Jacqueline Novogratz
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An illustration of a car traveling over the Golden Gate bridge into a hilly landscape with a bright sun ahead. Credits: Illustration by Kim Salt

Three decades ago, Jacqueline Novogratz drove toward Stanford GSB with a “head full of dreams about the people I would meet, the knowledge I would gain.” | Illustration by Kim Salt

I wrote my application to Stanford GSB in 1988 on a Wang word processor in Kigali, Rwanda, where I had cofounded the nation’s first micro-finance bank with a group of women leaders. I believed an MBA would provide me with skills and tools to use the power of business to solve the biggest problems of poverty. It was the only business school to which I applied.

Editor’s Note

In this ongoing Stanford Business magazine series, we ask Stanford GSB alumni to reflect on how their world-views have changed in the years since they earned their degrees. Jacqueline Novogratz, MBA ’91, is founder and CEO of Acumen.

Acumen and its funds have brought critical services to hundreds of millions of low-income people. Acumen Academy was recently launched to instruct others in global social change. Her second book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, was released in 2020.

I remember driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, belting out Tracy Chapman’s song “Revolution,” my head full of dreams about the people I would meet, the knowledge I would gain. The GSB delivered on its promise to connect me to amazing role models and some of my closest friends. I’m also grateful to have gained robust tools that capitalism offers.

On the other hand, I struggled with principles taught as “truths.” I wondered what it would take to apply those tools in service of those who were almost definitionally excluded. And so I graduated with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, the world around me grew more certain that markets were the answer to, well, everything.

In the 30 years since, the world has changed fundamentally. The for-profit and nonprofit sectors are converging. What happens in one place can have major implications everywhere: witness COVID-19. And though we’ve become more aware of one another across the globe, so too have we grown more unequal, divided, and divisive.

My worldview has changed. If I crossed that beautiful golden bridge with a headful of dreams, I stand today more deeply grounded in the realities of how crushingly difficult it can be to change systems. I have had to learn to fight bureaucracy, corruption, and complacency — skills I hadn’t considered at business school. But the status quo is protected by players at multiple levels. Taking on change is not for the faint of heart. If I left the GSB thinking I’d conquer the world in a decade, I understand now that it can take that much time simply to begin building new markets for those who’ve been excluded.

And though today I have hard-earned wrinkles to remind me of the years of perseverance, so too do I still have a head full of dreams. I founded Acumen in 2001 to change the way the world tackles poverty, starting with “patient capital” — long-term investment backed by philanthropy to enable intrepid entrepreneurs to build solutions where others have failed. Because of those investments, combined with accompanying those entrepreneurs, hundreds of millions of low-income people are now more able to solve their own problems. Today, there is more opportunity than ever before in my lifetime to reimagine capitalism. And more urgent need to do so.

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If I left the GSB thinking I’d conquer the world in a decade, I understand now that it can take that much time simply to begin building new markets for those who’ve been excluded.

One of Acumen’s superstars is a company called d.light, started when Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun, both MBA ’07, were at the GSB. After 14 years, d.light has brought light and, increasingly, electricity to more than 100 million low-income people. By daring to start with patient capital two decades ago, Goldman and Tozun have launched an energy revolution, and it has been deeply rewarding to watch an impact investing sector grow. I am more idealistic today because I know that change is possible.

Finally, I have come to see that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but dignity. And what is human dignity if not our ability to make our own decisions, to have the opportunity, the capabilities, and the sense that we are in this together? Building a world that puts human dignity at the center of our systems requires more than reimagining institutions that have run their course.

Reimagining and rebuilding systems requires a new set of skills that I would urge great business schools, starting with the GSB, to include in their curricula. Those skills include how to listen with moral imagination, how to understand identity, how to hold opposing truths in tension, how to partner across lines of difference. And how to sustain the long, hard road to change. More than ever before, our world needs all parties to rethink what this moment asks of each of us — each nation, company, educational institution, and person. The GSB provided me extraordinary tools with enormous power to imagine systems and then go out and build them. Those skills are desperately needed today, not just in the impact sector but in all of our businesses. We can solve urgent and critical problems for the many, not merely generate more profits for the few. And just as the GSB has the chance and moral obligation to renew its mission, so do each of us.

Thirty years after my experience at Stanford, I keep asking myself: What will a generation 100 years from now say about us? My hope is that they do not say we were blind. But that at least, we tried.

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