The Blue Sweater – Jacqueline Novogratz

Book Description (Amazon):

The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who lblue_sweater_left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing that very sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That the sweater had made its trek all the way to Rwanda was ample evidence, she thought, of how we are all connected, how our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet.

From her first stumbling efforts as a young idealist venturing forth in Africa to the creation of the trailblazing organization she runs today, Novogratz tells gripping stories with unforgettable characters—women dancing in a Nairobi slum, unwed mothers starting a bakery, courageous survivors of the Rwandan genocide, entrepreneurs building services for the poor against impossible odds.
She shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called “patient capital” can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.
My Review:
Executive Summary: absolutely life changing
This book blew me away. Max was doing interviews recently and one of the questions for the interviewees was their favorite or most recently read books (great question!). One of the interviewees mentioned this one. He brought the name home to me, and after a quick look at the summary, I promptly requested it from the library. I am also planning on ordering my own copy so that I can share this story with others.
It’s also a tough book to summarize. Essentially it goes through Novogratz’s struggles and successes doing charitable work in Africa (and later India and Pakistan) over a period of about 30 years. It is auto-biographical, but I never thought it came off boastful or preachy or political in any way (which I appreciated). She begins her post-college life somewhat stumbling into a job in banking–a job which allows her to travel around the world. Unlike many privileged Americans, she spends time in the slum areas of her travels, not just the glitzy tourist destinations. This coupled with some disagreements with her boss leads her to abandon banking and take a job working for a nonprofit microfinance organization for women based in Nairobi. Initially the author hates the idea of catering specifically to women but that view changes throughout the book (realizing that helping a woman helps a whole family).
Her project in Nairobi doesn’t turn out very well as she is not very in tune to the culture of Africa. It’s a bit devastating, but in the end, she has learned some valuable lessons and takes on a new project in Rwanda. The Rwanda project was similar (microfinance loans to women) but it was actually successful. She also demonstrated running a charity like a business for the first time with a bakery for unwed mothers. This became the main theme of the book (how to run a charity like a business).
Novogratz returns to the USA to get an MBA at Stanford and then works for the Rockefeller Foundation where she initiates a program to teach wealthy people about charity (which I thought was really interesting). And then eventually she creates the “patient capital” investment company, Acumen Fund.
The issue that she is trying to address is that misguided charity often hurts the people receiving the charity. It’s something along the idea of give a man a fish or teach him to fish. However, it’s much more intricate than that. It’s not only teaching the skills but also investing in the infrastructure and economy to allow those skills to be honed. It’s a merging of empathy for people with the focus and conviction (and skillset) to help them. It’s listening and understanding the way that the local people do business and interact with each other to make the charity as effective as possible. Acumen Fund chooses to provide money for charitable organizations that are fully vested in their communities. They don’t just provide a product to the poor. They hire the poor, they expand technology and infrastructure all while providing something that will help the impoverished.
Verdict: 4.5-5 stars. This really, really made me think. The only downfall was that sometimes the writing was a bit matter-of-fact (Novogratz is not an author) and it was often hard to follow all the characters. Minor grievance for such a profound work.

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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

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