A Sweater Altered It All

How to Bridge Rich-Poor Gap

Posted March 9, 2009 at 4:42pm

Jacqueline Novogratz, 47, didn’t set out to write a memoir. When she began working on “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World— in 1996, she only wanted to tell the stories of women she had met in Rwanda before genocide tore the tiny African nation apart.

“I really didn’t want it to be about me, except as almost a metaphor that I think so often we as Americans go with all of the best intentions to save the world and so often end up maybe saving ourselves but not saving anyone else,— the author recalled.

Yet her editor told Novogratz, now chief executive officer of the Acumen Fund in New York City, that readers needed to be able to connect to the book. So the final product is the story of Novogratz’s maturing as a globetrotting aid worker and philanthropist.

The book’s title comes from a beloved blue sweater Novogratz had as a teenager. Teased one day at school for the way the sweater no longer fit, Novogratz swiftly donated it to Goodwill. Years later she came across a boy wearing the sweater in Rwanda and, sure enough, her name was written on its tag.

That was a lesson in interconnectedness Novogratz hasn’t forgotten. She spent her first few years out of college working for Chase Manhattan Bank in Brazil but felt her desire to change the world grow stronger. She left the prestigious job for a position as a consultant at the African Development Bank.

Through many trials and tribulations, Novogratz ended up in Kigali, the humble capital of Rwanda. There she partnered with local female leaders to found Duterimbere, a bank that provided small loans to female entrepreneurs in a country where banks would not work with women.

Novogratz wrote about some of the women she worked with while she was at Duterimbere: Prudence and Agnes, two of three female legislators in the country and each a force behind getting Duterimbere off and running; Liliane, a recent college graduate who was Prudence’s protégé; and Honorata, a quiet woman empowered by the expansion of a bakery she began with other women in the poor section of Kigali.

All four were still in Rwanda during the genocide that occurred after Novogratz left. She returned after the civil war, surprised to find that each had been involved in the conflict in different ways. Agnes had been promoted to minister of justice in the new regime, and Novogratz visited her in jail, where she was accused of having ordered killings. Agnes was also in jail but without formal charges, accused of knowing about the genocide but not telling anyone. Liliane fled with her family and eventually returned to Kigali, living first in a slum and then rebuilding a relatively normal life. Honorata witnessed the shooting deaths of her twin sister and her husband.

Novogratz’s perspective on good and evil shifted following the genocide.

“As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, we need to find better solutions that will include everyone in today’s opportunities,— she wrote. “Monsters will always exist. There’s one inside each of us. But an angel lives there, too. There is no more important agenda than figuring out how to slay one and nurture the other.—

Now Novogratz runs the Acumen Fund, which she describes as “a nonprofit venture capital fund for the poor.— The fund gives loans of $1 million or more to entrepreneurs in developing countries who are bringing “critical goods and services,— such as water, health care, housing and alternative energy to underserved populations.

She cites as examples kiosks offering Internet access in rural villages in India and irrigation systems in the Pakistani desert.

Novogratz considers her success both professional and personal. As she uses business models to create sustainable change for the poor, she says she is constantly reminded that, “We belong to something bigger than ourselves.—

“I honestly can’t imagine a more meaningful or more joyful life,— she said.