The Blue Sweater

By: Jacqueline Novogratz



Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently, they are not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change the rules, they push the human race forward and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Think Different

Why do we start off this summary with an old Apple ad because when I look at what Jacqueline Novogratz has done and what she’ll do you can’t help it think she’s just a little bit crazy.

But you also have to see the genius in what she does. That’s where she belongs among the many people who have come before her who have dared to change the world in the face of great odds and the world that is allergic to change.

In the Blue Sweater we follow Jacqueline on her journey from an idealistic 20 something out to change the world who has learned some very hard lessons along the way to a true world changer who is making her dent in the universe.

Speaking of crazy geniuses this weeks book sends me to review by two people I admire greatly Seth Godin a bestselling author who also blogs at and Sasha Dichter who works with Jacqueline at the Acumen Fund and who also blogs at, thank you both for sending me the book and for continuing to be an inspiration to me.

First, this book is a pure delight. Both from the lessons learned stand point but also for the ride we are taken on. We will get to the lessons learned in couple of minutes, but first I need to give you a quick recap of a story so we can put all that in context.

The book starts out in a concrete jungle of New York City where Jacqueline starts her career as an international banker at Chase Manhattan. In her first year, she spent some time in Brazil auditing businesses there. That was the first time she got a real glimpse of the real divide between the rich and the poor. After being throated by her attempts to start up a micro finance, at Chase Manhattan had to deal with that, she joins a nonprofit women’s group involved in micro enterprise.

And was swiftly sent away to Africa to start her life’s work. She arrives to find that making change in the world is a lot easier in your mind.

She gets a start in Nairobi, where things are a miserable failure in the making change department. Next she has a stint in Rwanda where things actually start to pick up steam. There she found an organisation called Duterimbere, which focused on micro credit for women. She later takes a stint at the world bank where she learns many of the reasons that aid missions rarely work.

And finally after getting her MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and then working at the Rockerfoller Foundation, she finally branches out on her own with a vision to eradicate poverty.

The reason this book is called The Blue Sweater is because Novogratz in her childhood owned a blue sweater that she eventually gave to the Goodwill and through her journeys in Africa she shockingly finds an African child wearing that exact same sweater.

Not one like hers, but the exact same one with her name tag attached. That is amazing. This book isn’t written as self help book or business book but I think it has a lot to do with anybody who is trying to make a change and here are 4 lessons that I took away.

And quickly as a side note before we get into that there is absolutely no way for me to do any of her story justice because of the richness and the colour that summarising her life has to suck out in order to get in a condensed form. So please, please, please go read the book.

Lesson #1 - Just start

We often find ourselves waiting for the exact right time to do something especially when it is something big. I know I am guilty of that. Here is some advice Jacqueline got right before she started her work at the Acumen Fund - keeping in mind that she spent a number of years over in Africa before this.

Don’t wait for perfection, just start and let the work teach you. No one expects you to get it right in the very beginning and you will learn more from your mistakes than you will from your early successes anyway. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go.

That’s such great advice and here’s the thing - when we are young we usually don’t have a problem with this. Jacqueline didn’t. When she was in her 20’s she just decided that she was going to give a plush position at a large bank to go help change the world. She didn’t know exactly how she wanted to do it, she just started.

It seems as we get older in life, life starts to beat us up a little bit. You start questioning things and you realise that it isn’t as easy as you might have thought. So you wait, and you think, and you wait some more, until finally you realise that you will never get there if you don’t take the first step.

As Seth Godin points out, starting something great doesn’t require a lot of time, it simply requires action. Here’s how he puts it during his TED talk about Tribes:

“So I’d like you to do something for me, and I hope you will think about it before you reject it out of hand. What I want you to do, only takes 24 hours, is create a movement, something that matters, start, do it, we need it. Thank you very much”.

Lesson #2 - Wicked problems aren’t easy

You come to realise pretty quickly that if you are doing something worthwhile, or trying to solve what some people would call a “wicked problem” you’re going to have a tough time. Here are just couple of the things that Jacqueline had to deal with when she first arrived in Africa.

First, after being warned that some of the people she was there to help wanted to poison her, she mysteriously came down with food poisoning. Weeks of accounting work she had prepared for a Foundation was destroyed because she highlighted some areas that needed to be improved upon.

This highlights an important point about doing something worthwhile. Most times your biggest challenges are the ones you never could have imagined before the journey started. It’s the side issues that nobody told you about, it’s the red tape you need to navigate through, it’s all the little things that when you add them up start to look an awful lot like giant road blocks.

But when you look at the solutions to almost all of these challenges you might be facing it all comes down to the next lesson I took away from this book, that it is all about the people.

Lesson #3 - Understanding people and culture.

Why were the people in Africa giving Jacqueline such a hard time, when all she was there to do was to help? She and the other people who sent her didn’t understand the people or the culture there, that’s why. And here are just a few examples to illustrate that point.

Unicef once hired an expensive Italian designer to create a poster campaign convincing women to vaccinate their children. They had simple written messages accompanied by gorgeous photographs. They were perfect except for the small fact that there was an extremely low female literacy rate in Rwanda. File that one under “not understanding people and culture.”

On the flip side, here’s a great example of how understanding people and culture can make a difference. Malaria is a big deal in Africa. It kills millions every year. An easy and inexpensive way to fight this issue is through the use of mosquito nets. In one area they are bought and sold in something that looks an awful lot like a tupperware party.

The neighbourhood gets together for a demonstration and then has a little chit chat and decides whether or not they are going to buy the nets. And here’s how one of the most successful people in the groups sold the nets. And I quote

“You put the bed on the floor and all the bugs go away. You can sleep the whole night long, the colour is beautiful and you can hang the nets in your windows so that your neighbours know about how much you care about your family.”

Malaria is kind of mentioned as an afterthought. And so there you have it - it’s beauty, vanity, status and comfort that make the difference. I would have easily jumped to the health issue, and I’m betting you would have as well. But you and I don’t understand the culture and the people of Africa very well, do we?

Whether or not you are running a business or a non-profit think about this for a second. What assumptions are you making about your stakeholders, your donors, your customers, and your clients that you really shouldn’t be taking for granted?

This leads us to the last lesson.

Lesson #4 - Simplicity

The solution lies in the simplicity on the far side of complexity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.

When you make your start, wrestle with the issues that you never expected to wrestle with, and truly understand the people and the culture surrounding the problem you are trying to solve, you eventually get to simplicity on the far side of complexity.

This is where your journey will lead you. The simplicity often comes in the form of third alternative to two seemingly conflicting ideas.

For Jacqueline the issue became more and more clear as the time went on. Charity alone was not the answer, the market alone wasn’t the answer, and here is Jacqueline herself to describe where she finally ended up:

“I want to end just by saying that there is enormous opportunity to make poverty history. To do it right, we have to build business models that matter, that are scalable and work with Africans, Indians, people all over the developing world to fit in this category.

To do it themselves because at the end of the day it's about engagement, it's about understanding the people really don’t want hand outs and they want to make their own decisions. They want to solve their own problems and by engaging with them not only do we create much more dignity for them but for us as well. So I urge all of you to think next time as how to engage with this notion and this opportunity that we all have to make poverty history, by really becoming part of the process and moving away from an “us and them” world and realising that it’s about all of us and the kind of the world that we together want to live in and share. Thank you.”

On that note I want to finish this summary with personal thank you to Jacqueline. The work that you are doing, and the work that your team is doing is impacting millions across the globe, and I hope that you will continue to lead us in to the future.