Sobia Nusrat writes about Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund and how her talk at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) inspired her to become part of Acumen Fund’s volunteer network and start thinking differently about social change in Pakistan. Sobia works within the field of education research with a specific interest in youth engagement and new learning paradigms. She is currently based in Lahore. 

Choosing to live a life that is more interested than interesting, Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, is an instant source of inspiration for all those working and aspiring to work in the development sector. I attended Jacqueline’s talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (June 3rd, 2011) at a time when I was becoming increasingly jaded by the somewhat unrealistic and rhetorical approach of Pakistan’s nonprofit sector towards human development. The fact that Jacqueline left a successful career in Wall Street for a chance to save the world made me remember why I decided to leave the corporate sector a few years ago to pursue a degree in public administration and subsequently foray into the world of education. It wasn’t because I wanted to be seen as a development expert, it was because I was genuinely interested in contributing towards Pakistan’s development process. Jacqueline’s passion coupled with a practical stance renewed my belief that change is possible through a systematic and inclusive approach.

Like many others, Jacqueline faced a number of ups and downs in pursuit of her goals, also described in vibrant detail in her book, New York Times Bestseller ‘The Blue Sweater’. During her professional journey, she made many mistakes which she admits to quite frankly. Her biggest asset was her belief in hard work; the power of innovation and an inherent faith in human dignity which helped her turn many disastrous beginnings into productive outcomes. While speaking about the problems she faced in her international development work, Jacqueline gave examples on how she was able to stay motivated and optimistic by cultivating a habit of listening carefully learning and not to make too many assumptions.

Jacqueline’s professional and personal journey took her from the United States to different parts of Africa, India and eventually Pakistan. She used the session to introduce the audience to the social entrepreneurship ventures supported by Acumen Fund in Pakistan in the areas of low income housing, provision of safe drinking water and livestock enhancement. The organization firmly believes that Pakistan’s development is an inevitable phenomenon but will not come about through traditional charity or international aid. Instead, investment of ‘patient capital’ in strong and local social business models can help change the course of the country in coming years. It was really interesting to note that Jacqueline and her team of international fellows had more positivity regarding Pakistan’s future than the entire audience, comprising primarily of Pakistanis.

Culturally, Pakistanis have the tendency to shy away from risk taking behavior. The support of an organization like Acumen Fund which appreciates creativity, and assesses projects on their long term sustainability rather than short term goals, can really help encourage a new breed of social entrepreneurs in Pakistan. Acumen Fund is also very interested in extending its outreach to different parts of the country by establishing a network of volunteers possessing business skills and experience in the social sector.

The event was well attended by students and young professionals and there were a number of insightful questions on Acumen’s business strategy and evaluation criteria for investment. Concerning the macro impact of these disparate social experiments and there scalability, one of my colleagues inquired about the success of Acumen in engaging with the government and whether any of these projects had influenced social policy. In line with Acumen’s philosophy, Jacqueline replied that change is a long term process, and she hopes that the Pakistani government will support its social entrepreneurs. In response to another related question, she also touched upon the issue of government corruption which had initially delayed the housing project Acumen is supporting. Instead of complying with social norms, Acumen encouraged the project team to wait it out and follow a transparent procedure. Finally, the project was approved and is successfully running, a major achievement for the Acumen Fund.

Jacqueline’s story and philosophy on life has filled me and many others who met her with a sense of courage and desire to seek the many different experiences the world has to offer. I will be working with Acumen’s volunteer network to spread her spirited message through a book reading of ‘The Blue Sweater’, and hopefully brainstorming ideas for social change in Pakistan.