Leadership & Management

Jacqueline Novogratz, MBA ’91, on the Role of Storytelling in Investing

The founder and CEO of Acumen shares how more honest, inspiring storytelling leads to better business.

June 29, 2023

| by Jenny Luna

“I’ve seen unbelievable change happen in places that the world sees as not investible. Part of storytelling is doing the work of investing so that people can tell their own stories because of the changes they’ve made.”

In 1986, Jacqueline Novogratz quit her job on Wall Street and moved to Rwanda to help open the country’s first microfinance institution. She then came to Stanford GSB in 1989 and, in 2001, founded Acumen, a nonprofit impact investing fund. “We look at poverty always in terms of income, but poverty is so much more than income. Poverty is a lack of choice; it’s a lack of opportunity; it’s a lack of agency; it’s a lack of feeling that you can contribute. Dignity is the opposite.”

In this View From The Top interview, Novogratz sits down with Kathleen Schwind, MBA ’23, to talk about her journey into impact investing and how the industry has grown in the last decade. “We are in this moment of just extraordinary technological acceleration. Our challenge is to ensure that our moral reasoning, our moral imagination, our moral courage keeps pace with that acceleration.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.

During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Jacqueline Novogratz: If there’s a single thing that the world needs more than anything in every system that we are witnessing — it’s going to make me cry almost — it’s consciousness, it’s compassion for one another.

We are in this moment of just extraordinary technological acceleration. Our challenge is to ensure that our moral reasoning, our moral imagination, our moral courage keeps pace with that acceleration.

Kathleen Schwind: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, and GSB Class of ’91. Jacqueline visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From the Top, a speaker series where students, like me, sit down to interview business leaders from around the world.

I’m Kathleen Schwind, an MBA student of the class of 2023. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Jacqueline about the importance of disrupting the status quo, transforming lives, and driving systems towards dignity not just profit.

You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.

Kathleen Schwind: Jacqueline, welcome back to the GSB.

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thank you. It’s so good to be here, Dean Joss, to see you after all these years. And I have to say, Kathleen, that I was looking at the bios of the people with whom I’m going to have lunch and was so impressed. I almost felt like we were talking about games, and you all are playing these wildly technical video games, and I’m going to talk to you about my games as a kid where we threw sticks down and then had to pick them up. Truly, it’s just so exciting to be here and also to see beloved friends and classmates.

Kathleen Schwind: Well, we are so excited to have you here. I might be the most excited, though, because when I was in college, my professor handed me a copy of your book, The Blue Sweater, and told me that this is the one book that I have to read before I start trying to change the world. And I actually brought my copy here today. As you can see, it is very well-loved. It actually traveled around the world with me for multiple years and has been an inspiration for both my career and for my personal life, so thank you.

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thank you. It means a lot.

Kathleen Schwind: Where did you go to school?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I went to MIT.

Kathleen Schwind: Yeah, that’s awesome. So, we have so much to talk about. You’ve done some amazing things both here at Stanford and afterwards. But I want to start with your family. You are the oldest of seven, and your father was in the Army. What role did your upbringing play in both the work you’re doing today and the leader that you’ve become?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Well, we were laughing backstage because I did grow up in a military immigrant Catholic family, but I’m not famous for keeping time. In a funny way, I think because there were so many of us and not a lot of income, and my dad was in Vietnam three times, we sort of grew up like cowboys and took care of each other as kids. And as the eldest, I probably became very responsible for taking care of all the other ones, too.

And so, I was just thinking about it recently that all seven of us are entrepreneurs. And it may just be that we became unemployable very quickly because we were such a tribe. We held each other, but we also had to be resourceful. We had to make money.

The famous story in our family is that — I was probably 10, so I don’t what year it was, but the cool kids had Levi’s jeans and Converse sneakers, and my mom bought us what we called dungarees at the Post Exchange. And when we would complain to her that we were a little humiliated that we had such bad clothes, she would say, “You don’t need brands. You’re Novogratzs.” And my brother would be like, “What’s a Novogratz?”

And so, she made a deal with us. She would get us the lousy jeans, but we could work — and I was 10 — we could work to buy the fancy ones. And I think that ethos is probably what made us all entrepreneurs.

Kathleen Schwind: Well, fast forward. After college, you’re working in a dream job on Wall Street. You’re traveling first class around the world. But after three years you decide to leave, and you move to Africa. What prompted such a dramatic shift?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I think I was actually more an accidental banker. It hadn’t really been my dream, but in the interview I learned that I’d be in 40 countries. And again, we didn’t have a lot of money, so I’d never left the United States. And so, I took the job. And the dream was this opportunity to see how the world actually operated, and that really taught me to love the world.

I also gained all these tools that I today and saw the power of markets. And then so did I see, especially in Brazil, Latin America at the time, how low-income people were fully kept out of the banks. And it seemed so shortsighted to me that I wanted to try to use those same tools, but to extend them to people who were overlooked and underestimated by the systems.

Kathleen Schwind: And then after that, you went to co-found Rwanda’s first microfinance institution. Why microfinance, and what were some of the major challenges that you had to overcome in that endeavor?

Jacqueline Novogratz: So, this is 1986, 10 years after Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank. And I was looking for models, and there were four institutions essentially that were doing microfinance. I tried to get to Bangladesh. I mean, I sent Professor Yunus a letter, but he didn’t write me back. It was pre-Internet, no email. And so, I ended up in Rwanda also sort of accidentally. Women had just gotten the permission to open a bank account without their husband’s signature. So, this was really the first step on the ladder.

And the idea was we would extend these loans and they would build businesses. What happened was that we extended these loans, and they built their own business a little bit, but they would only hire their children for the most part. And so, that really started making me think about the power of credit for low-income people to have more agency and more choice in their lives. But also, we had to have something else.

Kathleen Schwind: So, you do some incredible work down there, and then you decide to come here, the GSB. Why leave that promising work in Rwanda to come to business school, and what were some of the biggest lessons you ended up taking away from here?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Wow, that’s a great question. When I was in Rwanda, I knew that I wasn’t to spend the rest of my life there. And so, it was really important to me to make it a Rwandan institution, not my institution.

In fact, I had a very important moment when I got malaria. And my co-founders came to me and said, “Well, now that you’re finally sitting still, we want to tell you that you’re moving to fast, that we can’t keep up with you. We love your energy, we love what you’re building, but this is going to be your institution, not ours.” And that was super painful, but it gave me the opportunity to work in Rwanda there for two months, then I would go to Kenya, and I would come back. Sometimes we would take two steps back before we would move forward.

And meanwhile, I started gaining these aspirations to build bigger companies, that most people aren’t entrepreneurs. It’s a question that Dr. Yunus and I don’t fully agree on. I think the gig economy shows how innovative, what survivors we are. Entrepreneurs are a little bit crazy; I can personally attest to it. We build what hasn’t been built before. It takes a lot of risk. And so, where were those individuals that were building real companies and then could we help them find jobs? Can we help them employ people?

And then the final thing was people were calling me “[Foreign language],” which means little girl, truly realizing who I was as a young female in Central Africa.

And so, came to Stanford, and it was quite a shock moving from Kigali to Palo Alto. Fully dressed in my African garb, which was not the uniform of the day. And yet, I started to see the tools that I wanted, that I knew. And in fact, many of the studies I did, whether it was regression analysis, I would go back to what I had started in Rwanda and try to look at the applicability of it. I always knew even while I was here.

And then I met this man named John Gardner, who was actually teaching at the ed school, but taught a class on leadership in the business school. And it turned out that he was the Secretary for Health, Education, and Welfare under President Johnson. And it fundamentally changed my life. John really believed in the power of service, like you do, and community, and truly became my mentor for the next 15 years until he died.

And my office, or the room that I have meetings in, is named for John with quotes by John. And I think I’ve really learned with legacy is, real legacy, not names on buildings When I hear John’s words in the voices of young people that I have worked with in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Kenya. I think, well, there he is. And this is actually what rebirth is, and this is true legacy. It come from investing in that next generation — me at the time — so that I could go forward and carry his work forward, even in very different ways that could only be applicable to my generation.

Kathleen Schwind: I love that. What are some of the words that you’ve heard people around the world saying that really stand out to you?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Probably the thing I hear most is, “Well, you have to focus on being interested, not interesting.” What John meant by that was do those things that really move your curiosity about other people. Don’t try to posture and show how amazing you are. And you will actually do a much better job at solving problems and having a life of real meaning.

Kathleen Schwind: After the GSB, you put those lessons into use by founding Acumen in 2001. Now at the time, impact investing wasn’t a term that many people were using or had heard of before. How did you come up with a model for Acumen where, as you put it, both dignity and capitalism can coexist?

Jacqueline Novogratz: So, banking really taught me the power of markets, as I said, and also where markets are limited. In Rwanda, which is a country which, as everyone knows, went through a horrendous genocide, I really started to think about what does it mean to be human and what’s really important to us.

And we look at poverty always in terms of income, but poverty is so much more than income. Poverty is a lack of choice, it’s a lack of opportunity, it’s a lack of agency, it’s a lack of feeling that you can contribute. That’s what dignity is, the opposite. It’s not about wealth. It’s about having that choice, having that agency, having that ability to contribute.

And so, how do you take the best of capitalism, and also recognize where capitalism is limited? And if you could drive your systems towards dignity, not just profit or not just feel good, touch a lot of people without helping them transform their own lives, maybe we could do a better job. I felt by then, Kathleen, that philanthropy was broken, but so were markets if we were really focused on solving our biggest problems of poverty. And so many of those solutions are within our hands, so let’s try a new way.

Kathleen Schwind: So, what you were doing was new and it was also complex. When you were sharing this idea with people early on, were you met with any skepticism? And if so, how did you overcome that?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Okay, I was only met with skepticism. Let’s be honest. I would literally sit on Sand Hill Road and I would pitch what I thought was this amazing pitch to venture capitalists because we were doing very similar work. But we were doing it in entrepreneurs that were trying to build companies where their customers made $1 or $2 a day, where there was no infrastructure, where there was a lot of bureaucracy, where there’s no trust, where there was a lot of corruption.

This was not going to be 3 years and a 40 percent return. This was going to be 10 to 15 years and possibly other kinds of capital. But maybe, just maybe, by accompanying these entrepreneurs and giving them the right kind of capital, we could help solve their problems. And they would be like, “Well, you clearly don’t understand business.” And what’s painful about that, and as you all go off to disrupt the status quo — which I hope you all do — is that there’s a part of you that think they might be right.

And so, how do you hold on to what you know inside yourself has to be better than what you’re seeing, because what you’re seeing isn’t working for the people that you are standing for, and just take it? And now, of course, what I say to people all the time is when they start telling you you’re crazy, it means you’re on to something. And that is so true, and that felt so true to me. That’s not to say it’s not without real pain.

Kathleen Schwind: I’ve loved watching your interviews, reading your books, because you are a fantastic storyteller. You have a way of capturing the audience, sharing your emotions in a way that makes it seem like the reader is there. Something we learn in our classes here is the power of storytelling and how that can make a major difference in both our personal and our professional lives. So, what role has storytelling played in Acumen’s growth and its success?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thank you, Kathleen, for that question. A lot. And in that same way, I think the stories we need to tell are stories that are full of more nuance than the stories we too often hear. The stories we too often hear might be sexier, they might prey on our desire for candy, not just the spinach that is also part of it, and how do you hold both.

I think one of the famous times in Acumen’s history was when we were trying to bring Acumen to West Africa, and I sat at the table with about 18 Nigerians and Ghanaian men.

And I was talking about Acumen and what we were doing, and that there were all these incredible young African entrepreneurs that were trying to solve their continent’s problems, and how I’d been working there for 20 years already, or 35 years by that point. And this one man said, “That’s really exciting, Jacqueline, but aren’t you a little old to be so idealistic about Africa? 18 men and you, and you’re the only non-African sitting at the table.”

And I just took a breath and I was like, “Well, I could tell you a different story. I could tell you my stories instead of entrepreneurship and possibility and what people have done and the incredible innovation here on this continent, I could talk about the corruption and the sabotage and the extortion. I could talk about genocide and what I had gone through. I could talk about being held at gunpoint and knife point. Just doesn’t feel that inspiring.”

I said, “It so happens that a few months ago my little sister had brain surgery, and it left her paralyzed. And the neurosurgeons have told us that she’s never going to walk again. So, when I’m in the room with my sister, do you think that’s the conversation we have? ‘This really is unfortunate and you’re never going to walk again, so let’s deal with it.’” I was like, “No. When I’m inside the room with my sister, we talk about how I’m going to dance with her at her wedding.

“When I’m outside the room, you can be that we are talking to every neurosurgeon, we are looking at every possible way that we might be of some assistance in her recovery. And she is the one that’s doing the work. Sometimes a step forward, sometimes two steps back. But she needs our belief in her hard work.”

And I said, “That’s the story that we need to hold on to in wounded communities in places where people don’t have hope. We have to be clear eyed about the challenges that we face, not afraid of them. But if that’s all we look at, it’s too easy to fall prey to despair. How do you hold that in balance with the possibility set, what we can actually build together? That’s where change happens. We need more honest storytelling. We need more inspiring storytelling.” And by the way, two years later, I did dance with my sister at her wedding.

And I’ve seen unbelievable change happen in places that the world sees as not investible. And part of storytelling is also doing the work of investing so that people can tell their own stories because of the changes they’ve made.

Kathleen Schwind: I love that. Now the work you were doing also required a lot of trust both on behalf of your partners, but the people that you were working with. How did you go about building that trust? What are some great practices that you learned and maybe some mistakes that you made that we shouldn’t make?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I think early on where I sometimes assumed that people understood my good intent. And as you can probably already figure out, I tend to be very enthusiastic even though I’m too old to be so enthusiastic, some people tell me. And so, I’ll come in with all this enthusiasm, and people want to pull back.

And when was younger, not only did I feel the enthusiasm, but then I would be like, “I will fix the system, and then you’ll understand your problems, and then we can all fix them together.” And then they would literally burn — true story — burn all the work that I’d done because we didn’t have the online capability. Nothing was in the cloud.

Where we’ve done a good job is probably the stuff our mothers taught us when we were little: Show up, tell the truth, accompany people, which means don’t solve their problems for them; own their problems with them and help them build the capabilities so they ultimately can solve their own problems. Our best companies are the companies that trust us enough to tell us when there are problems before the problems happen.

You have to remember sometimes, too, when you’re working in change and you’re building businesses for people who’ve been overlooked is that many of them are used to telling people across lines of power the stories they think they want to hear. And so, your job becomes creating enough openness and demonstrating how much that you’re listening, not just with your ears, but with your whole self. That gives them the permission to tell you the stories that they need to tell so that you can actually help solve their problems.

Kathleen Schwind: Now part of Acumen’s manifesto is maintaining a hard-edged hope and balancing humility with audacity. I love those two phrases. How do you think about those in your minds, and how do we go about finding that hope and maintaining that balance?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thanks. I really do think holding values intention is one of the most underrated skill sets for the 21st century, and it’s one that every single one of you needs to have because our world is so complex. A single set of values no longer is going to allow us to solve our problems.

I think of capitalism itself as something I love and I hate. The only way that you build companies that have both purpose and profit is to make some extremely difficult decisions all along the way. But it’s not just profit and purpose; it’s when are you generous, when are you accountable, when do you listen, when do you make decisions, when do you prioritize the individual, when do you prioritize the community? And so, humility audacity, in a way, undergirds all of that.

You all probably know this story, but two Stanford Business School students, particularly Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun who were taking Dean Patel’s Radical Affordability class, came up with this solar lantern and a dream to eradicate kerosene back in 2006. When they walked into our office when solar was about $4 a watt with this audacious dream to eradicate kerosene, which was used by 1.5 billion people on the planet, and a $30 solar lantern that really had not been tested at all — we were still at the prototype stage — I think that was the definition of audacity and humility or insanity at that point.

But they had such grit. They were so ready to listen to people. Sam had spent five years living in Benin, West Africa. And early on, it was clear they would hold this tension. They never lost sight of that North Star of eradicating kerosene and bringing people clean, affordable electricity.

But for 7 years, they had to wander in the desert like so many of the entrepreneurs in whom we invest patient capital because they didn’t [know how to] price. There were no financing systems. People truly didn’t trust setting aside their kerosene, which they could pay for every single day. And if the kerosene — they ran out of money, they just live in the dark one night. Now you had a real product that if you didn’t pay it, somebody might take it away. Hard to sell all that.

I really think that their, what I would call their moral imagination, that humility and that audacity, that stayed intention the whole time, has helped them build a company that’s now brought light and electricity to 150 million people. 150 million people. That is moving the needle on one of the world’s toughest problems. And I just was talking to Ned yesterday, actually, and they’re just getting started. Watch that space.

And that’s humility, too, because these aren’t companies that solve problems. These are companies that help solve problems in 30 years. And the early adopters have to by definition, the pioneers build vertically integrated companies. So, they’re trying to solve all the broken parts of a nonexistent ecosystem. How do you finance it? How do you manufacture it? How do you distribute it? How do you market it? And I think that humility audacity piece is probably the most critical value set that’s got to be held.

Kathleen Schwind: And then expand on the hard-edged hope. I love that, but I hadn’t heard that before I read your book.

Jacqueline Novogratz: So, there are many communities that we work with who actually don’t like the word hope. They think it’s too easy, and in a way it’s connected to the techno-optimism that we all went through in this area. Look, technology is going to change everything. It’s like, well, no, technology will change a lot of things, but let’s be honest. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb 150 years ago. Even after the last 15 years of tremendous technological progress, 800 million people still have no access to electricity.

And so, when I speak at conferences on AI, and we keep talking about now AI is going to change everything and it’s the new electricity, it’s that new birth, I keep reminding them that we still haven’t gotten everyone electricity. And so, if we don’t — Yes, recognize we have these tools and we can be hopeful about what happens, but we have to push the inevitable. We have to do the work of understanding that this stuff is hard. There are a lot of setbacks, so you have to hold to both. You have to keep that sense of understanding that dawn will come — it will come — and do the work to ensure that it’s a bright dawn.

Kathleen Schwind: Something I know you’re very excited about is the Hardest-to-Reach initiative. You’ve talked a little bit about that, but can you tell us more and what makes you so excited?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Yeah, so we made this investment in d.light in 2007 after speaking to the guys in 2006. And it got so exciting to us as we started to see people take on affordable solar light and electricity that we ended up investing in 40 companies across this emerging ecosystem.

And one of the things I didn’t understand when I started is that you invest in enough companies like this for long enough, particularly in a certain geography, an ecosystem really does emerge. And it’s embarrassing to say this, but when we first started talking about this emerging ecosystem, I didn’t really understand what I was saying. And then I could sort of see it, but it wasn’t physically available.

I was just in Kenya 3 days ago, and what it looks like today is not only light and electricity and televisions, but solar pumps. And I walked out into one d.light store and they were selling one of our company’s cook stoves. They’ve brought about 20 million people cook stoves now because solar has created the distribution network now for transformative life products.

And then on the television was another one of our companies, Akili Networks, which has now created the only educational television station in Kenya that serves about 9 million young people. And when I was talking to that CEO, he said, “Well, there’s no way we would’ve been able to reach this many young people who are outside, [who] aren’t getting the kid of education they need in the traditional system without solar televisions.”

So, I’m sitting in this tiny little place and I’m seeing the adjacent possible. You start with the solar, and other ideas now become possible, and now you have a distribution network. But there’s a confluence that makes me really just so thrilled about the world. That’s Kenya. Kenya’s gone from about 15 percent electrification in 2006 to almost 90 percent, and most of that is green. So, it’s possible. But with 800 million people left without electricity, what’s the next stage? Where do we go now?

And so, we started to look at the world and do the math, and our belief is about 550 million people with no electricity today will have them from the markets that have been built by entrepreneurs, some of whom came out of this place, and about 250 million people will still be overlooked. They will not get access to electricity unless we are more radical in the way that we think about the kind of capital and the kind of systems that allow people to get access.

Most of the people without electricity live in 22 Sub-Saharan or African countries like South Sudan with a 2 percent electrification rate. Liberia about 11 percent. Malawi, I think they’re at 14 percent. You can’t build and develop with a 2 percent or 10 percent or 15 percent electrification rate. And so, the Hardest-to-Reach work that we’re doing now is to go into them — we’re starting with 16 nations — and bring the right kind of capital in. A bit philanthropic pot that will allow us to experiment, concessionary debt for inventory financing and other ways of enabling these companies to operate and hopefully succeed.

But it’s all driven by the problem that we’re trying to solve and the knowledge that we’re gained over 22 years in terms of where does private for-profit capital work, where is concessionary capital needed, and where is philanthropy needed unapologetically so that we can then bring blueprints in partnership with government to actually solve the problem. And so, we’re all putting our seat belts on as we move forward.

But it’s the most ambitious thing that we’ve ever undertaken. And I hope it also helps this conversation that I find way too toxic, especially in the United States where we’re so ideological about markets versus government, private sector. It’s all needed right now. And we’re seeing that through Acumen America as well and some of the companies that are coming up there.

Kathleen Schwind: A lot has happened in 22 years since you founded Acumen in 2001. Impact investing has become a bigger thing. What are some of the trends that you’ve been seeing in the space?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Some of the trends that excite me is how much money is going into the sector. Depends on who you talk to, but trillions and trillions. I really credit your generation as well, that your generation that is demanding purpose, is demanding impact, that recognizes that climate change is existential, and that we need to find ways to measure not just the positive hat our companies create in the world, but the costs to people and to the planet. And so, that really excites me.

What doesn’t excite me is that we’re in that phase of a whole new sector growing where we have one easy rubric that doesn’t actually provide any transparency or clarity around where you might sit within the spectrum of people who call themselves impact investors. And so, some funds feel that any investment in Africa is impact. It’s kind of questionable if you look at it very closely. And so, it’s very risk then because people can easily become cynical and feel that there’s not enough truth to it.

And so, I think that there’s an opportunity now within the sector to be clear about what kind of impact that you are actually saying that you will create, and then accountability that you’re measuring that impact and offering that to both shareholders and philanthropists because it’s becoming a spectrum of both.

Kathleen Schwind: We talked about inequality. We talked about poverty. We talked about dignity. A majority of us are going into the private sector after we graduate. What role do private sector leaders play in some of these huge issues that Acumen is dealing with?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Look, we’re a nonprofit that only invest in for-profit private sector enterprises, and we have about a quarter billion now under management in for-profit impact funds. So, I am a clear believer in the power of private sector leaders to help us solve our toughest problems, whether it’s in poverty or in any of the areas in which you are all thinking about: our food systems, our climate in general, I could go on, education.

Where I would say I have changed, too, is that at the beginning, I thought private sector leaders could solve the problems alone, because the governments in so many of the places that we had worked were so dysfunctional. Now I have a different view, and I think it becomes incumbent on private sector leaders to really think about the kinds of partnerships that are needed to solve problems with an open mind.

When philanthropists were first coming to us to talk about education, I was not excited to start looking for social entrepreneurs that were trying to solve problems of education because I was such a believer and a product of public education. I felt that this was government’s role. But when you’re working in countries where 40 percent of low-income people are sending their kids to private school even though they don’t have any money themselves, you got to pay attention. The humility has to be connected to the audacity.

And now we’re investing in companies like Zeraki, which is a platform company, private sector, that is only working with public sector schools. It’s essentially providing a way for teachers to access through their smartphones an app that, number one, allows them to input at home all of the exam results for all of their students. On average, there’s 50 kids in a class. A teacher might have 10. A school might have 3 computers.

So, prior to Zeraki, every teacher in the school would have to wait until a teacher before them had input all of their individual grades into the computer. It could take months. And so, now simultaneously on a Saturday, you could do all of the grades. The teachers get it, the students get it, you have it, and so it saves your time.

Number two, Isaac the entrepreneur realized that Khan Academy is such a powerful technology, but it didn’t really work for Kenya because people didn’t understand American accents, Kenya is really focused on the testing system, et cetera. And so, with Khan Academy’s blessing, they built for context. And now they have 127,000 teachers that use it. And so, they can find the best teachers in the country and give them access to it.

There’s more, but the point is, it’s a private sector company that only works with the public sector to make the public sector better, what it should be. That is so thrilling to me, and that is actually where I think your generation is going to be able to push boundaries. Whereas my generation had much more of a bifurcated approach pretty much to everything, but certainly to government’s role, civil society’s role, in business. I see a convergence, and the best leaders, those leaders that have clarity around where doe the private sector operate best, public sector and civil society, I think are going to be the most successful at solving our biggest problems.

Kathleen Schwind: A final question before we move into audience Q&A. I read that you ended your GSB journey with a head full of dreams. For many of us, in just 32 days our GSB journeys will be ending, too. So, what advice do you have for those of us in the audience who want to turn the dreams in our heads into reality?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Well, first of all, I just so appreciate those of you who came a month before you are graduating on an incredibly beautiful day, because you deserve to be really thinking about whatever time you have before you go to do the next thing. And congratulations to each of you. You are at the most extraordinary institution. And some of my very best friends came out of this experience, and I hope you hold them forever. And it’s part of my advice, if I have advice.

But I think if there’s been one takeaway in my life, it is just start and let the work teach you. That so many people wait until they had the right kind of skills and enough money and the house and all these other things that are a proxy for provisional living. “I’ll do this when —” And I now have people my age who have a lot of regrets that they didn’t do it ever. And we all that these conversations right where you are about what the future would be. So, if there is a dream, or even if there’s a problem that you’re interested in solving, take a step toward it.

And then the second piece is, and when you fall and fail, and you will. We don’t talk a lot about how hard this is. I didn’t understand how hard it is. There are a lot of nights where you’re lonely, a lot of tears, times where you feel like no matter how hard you try, you’re failing. That goes with the territory of trying to change a status quo, because the status quo exists for a reason.

And therefore, you need to be accompanied. You yourself need incredible friends. You need people around you who will double your joys and your celebrations and who will divide your griefs and carry through. And they’ll also hold you to account. They would let you start to believe when you really do succeed what the world is telling you you are.

Because I have now invested in 150 different entrepreneurs, and we have about 1,350 fellows. And I have seen great success destroy companies, and frankly individuals, and I have seen great failure make co-founders run away. The ones who make the change are the ones who have the grit and the determination and a North Star that they never let go of aspiring to reach.

And so, back to telling the stories that matter. It is not the easiest path. But what I can tell you is that it comes with a deep, abiding joy, sense of meaning, understanding of what it means to be human, and at the end of the day feeling fully alive and fully used up, which is certainly what I want to do before I die.

Kathleen Schwind: Thank you for that. Words to live by. We’re now going to move to audience Q&A. If you have a question, please raise your hand, wait for the microphone to be passed to you, and then stand up, state your name, and state your question.

Caleb: Hi, Jacqueline. Thanks so much for being here. I’m Caleb. I’m a second-year student here. And first, just thank you. I read Manifesto for a Moral Revolution and I feel a lot of kinship with your work. I was a social entrepreneur in Zambia before school building a micro-REIT company. And what you say about the multiplying effects of people having electricity and then what else they can have, those were the things I was most excited about in my world.

My question is ESG investing has gained a lot of support and its share of controversy recently. What are your thoughts on the state of ESG investing and how it can best be used to hold companies accountable?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thanks. And Caleb, thanks for the work you do. I was actually just in Zambia 48 hours ago, which is why I’m a little fuzzy headed today. And it is awesome to see what’s happening there with electricity. And also, the Zambian government really bringing the private sector in in new ways probably than from when you were there. It’s very new.

So ESG. You can imagine I’m asked a lot whether what we are doing is actually a version of woke capitalism. ESG is a good start, and it’s not enough. With all of our for-profit funds we are required by law to — well, we’re required in the jurisdictions in which we’re operating — to report on ESG. And I’ve actually seen firsthand how it’s given us more insight into how our different companies are operating and how seriously they are taking carbon emissions, who is on their boards, the kinds of employees that they are working with. I find it really exciting.

And I have to tell you, at the beginning, I was not that thrilled that we had yet another administrative cost and duty that we would have to integrate into the investing that we were doing. Where it’s not enough is like any system like this, it’s so general that it’s easy not to take it seriously whatsoever. I actually think that we need to do much more as a world — particularly around climate if we’re serious — to measure both carbon emissions as well as what’s happening to the people that we are working with.

Our food companies, for the most part, are working with people who can’t afford to — they’re growing our food and they can’t afford to feed their families. Our oil companies continue to operate without the kind of accountability that we need to see in the world. And there’s also real benefits I think that we’re going to see. I hope that your generation is going to help us here, too.

When you look at a country like Kenya with almost 90 percent green energy, that should be an amazing advantage in the 21st century for a nation to be able to invite heavy industry in with low-cost labor and with clean energy. But it will only truly be that if we start to account for it and we hold our companies to greater account. I see it starting to happen at the edges, which to me means there’s real opportunity if we build that momentum to bring it into the center. So, I think ESG is a start, and it’s not good enough. Yeah?

Audience Member: I was wondering how you think about your storyteller journey. You talk a lot about story, and I remember in other Acumen documents about how important storytelling is. I would love to ask you about how do you develop your own story, and what was the journey for you as a storyteller if you compare yourself to 20-some years ago when you started the first pitch? Has it changed a lot, or has it remained the same, or what’s your experience?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I grew up with a mother who is not just a storyteller, but she’s a great myth maker. So, it took me a while to actually get rid of the myths, tell the truth. So, I always saw the power of storytelling.

I would say, especially when I started Acumen, what killed me is that I would meet incredible social entrepreneurs — some of the best — who couldn’t really tell their stories themselves. And there was this one man who — he’s fundamentally changed the world. I don’t want to say his name only because he’s so special to me, but he inspires me every day like John Gardner does.

And I brought him to my tiny apartment, and I brought some potential investors. And he was so humble, and he spoke so softly, and it took him like 27 minutes to actually tell the group what he did, by which point everybody was on their — I think they were Blackberrys at the time. And I was just mortified — mortified — that these guys who could have really made change were bored, and that this man who had spent his whole life fundamentally changing a healthcare system wasn’t being effective in telling his story.

That was a real moment for me, that it’s not enough just to have a great enterprise, particularly in the social sphere where you’re already fighting so many elements that aren’t really interested in you succeeding, or they think that what you’re doing is really worthy, inspiring, but not like hammer it home change. Get out of my way. We have to hold those that soften the heart, too.

A great moment was we brought 15 of the Acumen fellows, or 17 of the Acumen fellows, to the TED conference this year. And we had a lunch. And I was thinking either we have 4 tell their stories, or everyone tell their story, but that means we have essentially 18 minutes for 18 talks. And thought, okay, this will actually push the limit. Can they tell their stories, which are super complex, from all around the world in ways that will land with people? It took a lot of work from each of these individual fellows, but they pulled it off.

And to sit there and hear, “I take flowers from the Ganges and turn them into incense sticks,” and, “I’m doing [vegan] leather,” and, “I just signed a contract with Tommy Hilfiger.” Boom, next. “And I started off in Pakistan doing education using a tech platform, but it didn’t really work. So, now I’m working with teachers in their schools, and I have 700 schools, and 12 million people are watching my thing.” Boom. And you just listen to this rainbow of possibility and competency.

And I just sat there like, this is what storytelling looks like. And it was impossible to sit in that room, including for me, without being transformed by these stories. And none of them were more than a minute long, except for one guy who took ten extra seconds and we yelled at him after. But that is what great storytelling is: can you pull it to the essence?

Kathleen Schwind: Brilliant. Thank you for your questions. It is View From The Top tradition, you may be aware, to end with a lightning round. So, I’ll ask a few short questions, and you’ll answer with the first thing that pops into your head.

Jacqueline Novogratz: That’s very dangerous.

Kathleen Schwind: Ready?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Go.

Kathleen Schwind: Favorite class at the GSB?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Well, John Gardner and leadership.

Kathleen Schwind: Favorite hobby outside of work?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Running.

Kathleen Schwind: Your personal mantra?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I think just start and let the work teach you.

Kathleen Schwind: And something the world needs more of?

Jacqueline Novogratz: If there’s a single thing that the world needs more than anything in every system that we are witnessing — it’s going to make me cry almost — it’s consciousness, it’s compassion for one another.

We are in this moment of just extraordinary technological acceleration. Our challenge is to ensure that our moral reasoning, our moral imagination, our moral courage keeps pace with that acceleration. I really believe, after all the hard and sometimes ugly things that I’ve experienced in worlds, that maybe more than ever before that our love for each other, our love for the planet, must prevail over our thirst for power and our thirst for profit.

And I also believe that it’s within our reach. That for 40 years, I’ve been going around the world and meeting, and living in, and loving communities that have been overlooked, underestimated, sometimes used as inputs rather than seen as fully human wanting to contribute. And I truly believe that that’s changing, that now I’m seeing — I keep saying a generation — but I’m seeing it across generations of people saying the only way we get out of this is with each other and through each other.

And it gives me that hard-edged hope, Kathleen, that you asked about. That if we saw ourselves as real agents, and we focused on giving more to the world than we take from the world. And if you’re in this room, you’ve got more than almost anybody in history: more access, more skills, more brilliance, and an amazing network that’s only going to grow. And so, how do you take that? Because the more that you give, the more that the world gives you and loves you back in ways that you might never have been able to imagine.

And I just wish all of you this incredible journey that I know is ahead of you, and I hope that you hold each other close for the whole long journey that you have. And I just feel so lucky that I got to be last, even though I feel guilty about it, too. And God speed.

Kathleen Schwind: I love that. Jacqueline, you are the last speaker of this year’s View From The Top series.

Jacqueline Novogratz: We have made that clear many times, Kathleen.

Kathleen Schwind: As we said, we saved the best for last. But we’ve now had eight incredible leaders who have taught us and shared their insights for how to make the world a better place and how we, too, can change lives, change organizations, and change the world. And now, as you said, we just have to start. So, thank you. It’s been an honor.

Jacqueline Novogratz: Thank you.

Kathleen Schwind: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Kathleen Schwind, of the MBA Class of 2023. Lily Sloane composed our theme music and Michael Riley and Jenny Luna produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website gsb.stanford.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on social media @stanfordgsb.

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