If you have been thinking about venturing into the world of social entrepreneurship, take a few hours to read The Blue Sweater. Written by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund, the book offers an insightful, honest narrative of her journey into the economic development world in Africa, and provides an excellent introduction to the ideas behind social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for poverty eradication.
The book begins with Novogratz, a bright young university graduate who dreamed of changing the world, but instead landed a lucrative job in banking. The next three years exposed her to a world she had never seen before; she joined a team tasked with reviewing loans in the world’s troubled economies, including Chile and Argentina. But it was her stint in Brazil that reignited her desire to help the world through social entrepreneurship and social loans
Taking a risky leap of faith, Novogratz left her well-paying Wall Street job to apply her skills and compassion to the African Development Bank (ADB), an organization that facilitated lending to poor women for small businesses. She would serve as an ambassador to African women, a role she did not quite understand in a continent that she knew nothing about. Little did she know, this would open the door to a world she would eventually fall in love with.
Novogratz does not romanticize her initial experience in Africa in the least. Her project of assisting the creation of ADB branch offices in Cote D’Ivoire was met with rejection and ridicule (and a case of deliberate food poisoning), while her experiences working with organizations in Nairobi and pre-genocide Rwanda were a test of patience, determination, and the ability to take Africa on its own terms. She learned to take each day one at a time, especially in Rwanda, where she teamed up with a group of self-determined Rwandan women to establish a microfinance organization aimed at helping and empowering thousands of Rwandan women and their families to rise out of poverty.
I recommend this book for two reasons. First, it offers valuable insights into the world of NGOs (specifically in Africa) and the ideas of social entrepreneurship. Although this is not meant to be a textbook on social entrepreneurship, it serves as a no-nonsense, easy to understand introduction to the idea as a whole. Novogratz’s narrative style exposes her passion for the idea in a manner that allows readers of all disciplines and backgrounds to understand why she stands firmly behind this model. She does not shy away from using her experiences to illustrate its shortcomings either; the reader is exposed to the bumps and obstacles that Novogratz encountered along the way.
Secondly, her experiences and stories shed light on the personal journey that she endured during her years in Africa. Novogratz is very straightforward about her initial misconceptions, mistakes, frustrations and fears. She is equally as honest about her triumphs, successes, and accomplishments. This book is full of lessons learned and “lightbulb” moments that Novogratz encountered while she was abroad that readers, especially those who are interested in venturing into the world of social entrepreneurship, will surely benefit from. The values derived from these particular moments of self-realization are more than just fleeting thoughts; they are so monumental that they are embedded into very fabric of the organization she founded, Acumen Fund.
Although the book begins with the incredible story of the blue sweater, this is not a storybook nor is it an autobiography; it is simply an honest recollection of the experiences and lessons that the author is imparting to the reader. The last 75 pages outline how Novogratz began the footwork of founding Acumen Fund. Although I found this section to be a bit glossed over, Novogratz imparts some sound pieces of advice for those wanting to enter into the field and valuable insight into the process that took place when trying to create this novel organization.
An easy read, The Blue Sweater will appeal to social enterprise enthusiasts, novices, those just curious about the idea, and those, like Novogratz, who want to change the world.
Shivani Anand is an Executive of Toronto for Acumen, a volunteer-run chapter of Acumen Fund that exists to champion patient capital as an effective complement to traditional aid by building a community of like-minded individuals in Toronto.