Each individual is a unique story; each molded through the lenses of history, culture, formal and parental education, religion and personal experiences. Each tale reflects and sculpts one’ self-perception, his perception of the world and others. Intercultural understanding is the process through which individuals seek to gain knowledge and understanding of the ideological and socio-cultural divergences of a foreign culture to build consensus and achieve a common goal.  “The Blue Sweater” portrays Jacqueline Novogratz as an intercultural leader, as she commits to immerse herself in several unknown African communities with the goal of shaping her vision of stable and sustainable economic development. As she embraces her vulnerability and cultural baggage, they both contributed to her growth as an intercultural leader as they allowed her to escape her realm of comfort. Thus, “Acumen” sets a precedent for design thinking in social innovation, as it is the fruit of her constant cultural interactions, exchanges and mis-communications to understand the sensibilities and uniqueness of impoverished communities, and capitalize on their inherent resilience and resourcefulness to implement stable economic development.

Her willingness and honesty to embrace her preconceived notions and accept of her lack of knowledge of African cultures constitute the genesis of her success as an intercultural leader and inherent in the conception of “patient capital.”Upon her acceptance of the job at the African Development Bank, Novogratz confronted her minimal understanding of African cultures, which she mostly obtained from books and movies such as the “African Queen”, “Born Free” and “Out of Africa” (10). It became extremely apparent at the conference in Nairobi in her first encounter with a tall African woman, as she mistakenly referred to Rwanda as Uganda and Luanda, capital of Angola (13). Her conversations and the unwelcoming character of those elite African women allowed her to gain insights about the significance of her presence as an American in the continent of Africa, as she is perceived as neocolonialist of the Western world to dictate policies of economic development in Africa. The uneasiness of this scene founds its influence in her conception of “patient capital” as the latter seeks to empower local entrepreneurs to address socio-economic and infrastructural challenges in the home communities. Her success resides in her support of grassroots social entrepreneurship as the mean of value creation to achieve stable economic development and the bridge to close the prevalent cultural gaps, which previously dominant her daily interactions with consumers.  

Her process of intercultural understanding leading to the creation of the “Acumen Fund” was conceived as the assemblage of kit of parts of failed and successful experiences, and  setting a precedent for design thinking and social innovation. It is the product of 20 + years of experimentation, testing and prototyping even with the ideology of sustainable development; and each time measuring progress and assessing the lessons learned to further its development. For example, her first experience with Marcelina as she walks in the bank for the first time, reinforce her commitment to extend basic financial services to women (Novogratz,17). Her failures with the bakery sharpen her ability to listen and ask the right questions. Ultimately, she came to understand the need for incentives, accountability and quality control in the implementation of income-generating projects, aiming to create a sense of dignity once poor communities are given the tools to self-sufficiency (Novogratz 86-88). Her return after Rwanda genocide reinforced her conviction that her individual actions and silence mattered and that she ought to be an active participant in eliminating global poverty (Novogratz 192-196). She was convicted by the power of the human spirit to build hope, resilience and community. Her success with Duterimbere taught her the importance of microenterprise as part of the solution, the power of financial markets and the need for complexity in addressing poverty (Novogratz 209-212). All of the above contributed to her process of achieving intercultural understanding, which in turn led to the conception of Acumen Fund.                    

To establish her relevance in contemporary discourse of development, she frames Acumen Fund as a criticism and an amalgam of both market-based approach advocated by Jeffrey Sachs and sole grassroots- based approach advocated  by William Easterly, and Hans Kun. Novogratz rejects the sole market-based approach as it frames the poor as recipients of foreign aid, while she objects to the weakness of the sole grassroots approach of achieving solutions from entirely within (prod. TED. Novogratz). In response, her philosophy consists of five basic principles: first, seeing the Poor as Consumer, who given the right financial tools can achieve self sufficiency; second, Social entrepreneurship by providing the capital to finance local innovator to solve local challenges; Third, Patient Capital, a counterpart of venture capital seeking long term investments from private entities and local governments to support local innovation targeting poor communities with potential for greater return and social change; Fourth; Dignity over wealth, as she seeks to build economic self sufficiency and eliminate extreme poverty; and Moral imagination, as she seeks to create value of global equity by treating individuals of poor communities as part of larger global community. The latter principle corresponds to Kung’s argument on globalization, as he proposed the formulation of a global ethic as the foundation of a global society, in which every human being is treated humanely, and respects each other’s differences (qtd. Lechner and Boli). Her approach to achieve stable, sustainable development accounts for complexity of the human conditions, and seeks to establish self-sufficiency rather than dependency of the poor.  She establishes her relevancy by synthesizing her approach from previous methodologies, then positioning herself as part of a global debate on achieving sustainable development.

Therefore, the process of achieving intercultural understanding is quite complex and multi- faceted as it requires one’s keen sense of observation, humility, patience, courage, self-awareness, enthusiasm and empathy, to say the least. Recognizing of the potential impact of scaling such process, Acumen Fund launched Acumen courses which are a series of free online course workshops with exercises and projects aiming to train groups of aspiring social innovators in leadership by exposing them to Novogratz’s process of achieving intercultural understanding through tackling a challenge in their own community. This summer, I became one of 50,000 global participants to complete the 6 week-workshop of Acumen+ on Human Centered Design and Social Innovation with a group of professionals in Philadelphia. We addressed the need to involve younger generations in the field of social entrepreneurship. We engaged the surrounding community about the needs for social entrepreneurs and consulted experts in the field about the current trends of development to build a sustainable, revenue generating model for our innovation project. The courses allowed for the potential multiplication of the model of sustainable development of Acumen Fund, as it engages professionals on a global scale to seek sustainable solutions and foster social entrepreneurship in their own community.

The story of Jacqueline Novogratz reflects the power of the individual to enable change in a community. People, actions and context matter. As any other strategies to achieve stable, sustainable economic development, there will be failures and successes; however the power of the process of achieving intercultural understanding is now available to all at no cost, to all who seeks to enable long lasting, sustainable change.


Work Cited

"Acumen Leadership." Acumen. Acumen+, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>.

Lechner J Frank, Boli John. The Globalization Reader, 2nd Ed. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004): 9-50

Novogratz, Jacqueline. The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. New York: Rodale, 2009. Print.

Sachs D. Jeffrey. “Can Poverty be Eliminated” Scientific American (September 2005): 56-65

TED, prod. Jacqueline Novogratz: A Third Way to Think about Aid.TED. TED City 2.0, 13 Sept 2013 Web.13 Sept. 2013