Impressing a roomful of financiers with a fund size of $50 million (around Rs221 crore) is not easy. But Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, does exactly that.
Dressed in a flowing blue-green chiffon kurta, which complements her blue-grey eyes, and leggings, this 50-year-old graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business tells stories about capital saving the world.
We are in the banquet room on the 29th floor of the Bombay Stock Exchange, as Novogratz talks with Akhil Gupta, senior managing director and chairman of Blackstone India. Blackstone Worldwide may have assets of $19 billion but it is Novogratz and her Acumen Fund that has captured everybody’s attention.
Started in 2001 with seed capital from the Rockefeller Foundation, Acumen uses capital to fund efficient businesses that “serve the poor”. Having so far invested $50 million in 50 different companies in East Africa, India and Pakistan, Acumen funded-companies include one that makes solar lights (Delite, India), anti-malarial bed nets (A to Z, Tanzania) and clean toilets (Ecotact, Kenya).
Milestones: The Foreign Policy magazine named Novogratz among the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’. Jayachandran/Mint
As a globetrotting CEO, Novogratz is a spectacularly effective ambassador for the Acumen brand. Whether it’s making her way through the tribal Chitral district of Pakistan, or talking strategy at Acumen’s Bandra office in Mumbai with investors such as G.V. Prasad, CEO and vice-chairman of Dr Reddy’s, or Rohini Nilekani, chairperson and founder of Arghyam. Novogratz is equally enthusiastic, a “cheerleader”, as she puts it, for the fund.
“I think of myself as someone who invests in people,” she says, when I meet her a day later. We are sitting in the coffee shop of Mumbai’s suburban Grand Hyatt hotel. Novogratz opts for watermelon juice and I choose my standard fix, a cappuccino. She is dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, accessorized with a beautiful silver necklace bought in Mumbai, wooden bangles from Ghana and a colourful Nigerian cummerbund.
The cumulative effect is both chic and charming, and certainly an evolution from Novogratz’s earlier days where she describes herself as a “perfect librarian of sorts, with wire-rimmed glasses, pressed linen suit and swept-up hair”.
We are sitting at a round table. There’s a paperback on it, with a young Tanzanian girl staring quizzically into the camera. This is The Blue Sweater—Bridging the gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, Novogratz’s best-selling autobiography, published in 2009. It tells many incredible stories—beginning with young Novogratz giving up a job with Chase Manhattan Bank and then with the World Bank to develop her own brand of social change. Of the difficulties of doing business in Africa and the many challenges Novogratz, then 25, had to face. These include incredibly bizarre ones—like threats of voodoo, poisoning and even an attempted seduction by a powerful African woman Novogratz refers to as “Aisha”.
Novogratz talks about her life today—travelling 70% of the year to Acumen offices around the world, to investors and to investee companies, constantly networking in her effort to “tell stories, to influence policy, to see capital invested in ways that can really change the world”.
“A rich life is one where you are stretching yourself to work on the world’s toughest problems and focusing on others,” she says. Working on such a diverse set of problems is certainly something this CEO should know about, having spent the last 25 years doing everything from setting up a microfinance institution, Duterimbere, in Rwanda to funding healthcare, alternative energy and agricultural projects in East Africa, India and Pakistan. Little wonder that there are such a high degree of encomiums to her credit, ranging from being named among “Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy, a news magazine published by The Washington Post Co., in 2009 to one of the “25 Smartest People of the Decade” by The Daily Beast, a news reporting and opinion website which merged in 2010 with Newsweek.
So does Novogratz do the usual banker/venture capitalist lifestyle things? Does she, for instance, travel business class? If you take donor money, you need to think about accountability, explains Novogratz. “So Acumen has a policy of paying for only economy-class travel, but I do use miles to upgrade myself to business class. I am not an ideologue.” But what one spends one’s money on is a different conversation, a distraction from a systemic conversation of what it takes to make a change, concludes Novogratz, perhaps a trifle irritatedly.
Three years ago, she married Chris Anderson, a media millionaire who made his money by creating and then selling a publishing business, and now runs the non-profit organization TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences that focus on the power of ideas. “There’s an extraordinary sense of mutual respect; we both feel we want to change the world,” she says. The couple is based in New York.
Novogratz’s eyes light up as she describes the days in Manhattan. “I live downtown in the village. I have six brothers, their spouses, and 15 nephews and nieces, all within walking distance.” Also within walking distance is the Acumen office. On a regular New York day, Novogratz, an early riser, goes running in her Saucony shoes down the river, before she goes to work. At work, besides meetings with Acumen investor partners and board members, there are team meetings, discussions on “values, actions and insights. I also look at the team meeting notes from India, Kenya, Ghana, etc., to see what the ‘aha’ moments were and if there were any insights from these,” says Novogratz, who likes to focus her time on looking at the team goals for the year, on knowing the entrepreneurs and companies in which Acumen invests.
“We used to always speak in numbers, but now the goal has shifted from being, (for example), a $250 million-fund and what have you, to changing the way we solve the problems of poverty,” says Novogratz, who would like to demonstrate to the world that patient capital can be deployed for good causes in an economically viable way, and through building partnerships with entrepreneurs, with established industry and ultimately with the government. “The solutions to the world’s problems have to come in through these partnerships,” Novogratz declares.
By now it’s 11.30am, and time to pack up; in a few hours, Novogratz has a flight to Bhubaneswar in Orissa, where she will speak to villagers about the quality of their drinking water.
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