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A few years ago, I spoke at a small women’s university in the American South. After my talk, I had the privilege of sitting with a number of the school’s top students. For several hours, we talked about what was wrong in the world and what each of us might do about it. “What do you dream of doing?” I finally asked a bespectacled blond woman who had been listening intently without uttering a word.
“I want to change the world.”
“How might you do that?” I asked.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “I have no idea.”
Tears welled in her eyes. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of my younger self.
I remembered looking out at a world I wanted to change and having no clue as to how to do it. I was at once wildly bold and quietly frightened, feeling that a bull and a dove coexisted inside me, worried that I lacked the skills or the know-how to pull off my ambitions. And some of those feelings continued even when I became more certain of possible paths forward.
In fact, many of the words and questions from the students that night sounded familiar. How can I be of use? How can I find my purpose? Where will I make the most impact?
When we look back on our lives, we construct sense-making narratives of who we are and how we’ve chosen to spend our time. But when we look forward, the path ahead can feel overwhelmingly elusive. While the fearful student and her friends pushed for answers, I could offer only questions and a single piece of advice. For while there are skills to gain and character traits to develop, there is only one way to begin.
Just start—and let the work teach you.
Too many who yearn to make a difference become paralyzed by the fear of leaping without having worked out every detail. Yet the decision we face is not to chart the perfect way forward; it is simply to embark on a journey. Once we’ve taken a step forward, the work will teach us where to take a second step, and then a third, and so on. Purpose does not reveal itself to those sitting safely at the starting block. In other words, you don’t plan your way into finding your purpose. You live into it.
Childhood memories and reveries, however distant, can provide clues to our innermost yearnings. As a little girl, I read stories of the saints. They were printed on cards that my beloved first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Theophane, gave me for doing well on tests. Many decades later, my friend the poet Marie Howe suggested that the stories of the saints marked the first time we little Catholic girls read of women who wrote the narratives of their own lives. The saints were also the first people I encountered who lived for, and were often willing to die for, an idea bigger than themselves. Their resolution and valor infected me with a desire to be of use; I wanted to be like them somehow.
When I was ten, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Howerton, introduced me to a row of biographies of heroic figures, little yellow books hidden in a corner of the school library. There I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and disappear into the worlds of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the pioneering doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, the human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt, and so on. These women refused to be limited by small dreams, and though I was not yet able to point to a living example of a woman like them, they stood as beacons of the possible, of lives lived to make a difference.
But if I dreamed of becoming a warrior for love and justice, my first job out of university hardly fit the bill. For more than three years, I spent my days on Wall Street as an analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank. Though I hadn’t planned on becoming a banker, I discovered a delight in building financial skills and in understanding the workings of economic systems, not to mention the side benefit of traveling the world. Until then, I had never left the United States. That banking job took me to forty countries, and exposed me to political and economic realities that I’d previously only studied in books.
What I didn’t like about banking, though, was the way our financial system excluded low-income people from borrowing funds that could change their lives and contribute to their local economies. Banks required borrowers to put up twice the value of their loans as collateral, a requirement out of reach for even the lower-middle class. The private sector was set up to earn profits, not to ensure that multiple stakeholders, especially the poor, were well served. Understanding they had little chance of being part of the mainstream financial system, most low-income people dared not even walk through the doors of the major banks.
As the months at Chase passed, a yearning to do something for lower-income people took root inside me. That yearning was a clue to the thread I should follow, a stirring driven by a growing sense of injustice and a desire to contribute. A weekend in mid-1985 spent walking in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, conversing with hardworking people about their aspirations and realities, convinced me of what I already knew to be true: nations would develop equitably only if their low-income citizens could save and borrow.
Around that time, a friend showed me an article about a little-known economist named Muhammad Yunus who had started a tiny operation in Bangladesh called the Grameen Bank. Grameen was part of a fledgling sector called microfinance, which included the Self-Employed Women’s Association, in India; the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC); and Women’s World Banking, in the United States. These institutions made small loans (from thirty to one hundred dollars, on average) to millions of low-income people, mostly women, so that they could build tiny businesses to support their lives.
Though only about ten years old at the time, the microfinance sector already was yielding noteworthy results. Grameen Bank had accumulated data showing that poor women repaid their loans at much higher rates than their wealthy counterparts. That got my attention. I started to dream of leaving Wall Street to work in microfinance.
However, I first had to overcome my fear of diminished personal income and an even stronger fear of my parents’ disappointment. I was raised the eldest of seven in a military family and had had to pay my way through university and take on debt to graduate. Chase had set me squarely on the path to wealth and a vision of a future with the bank was tempting. Also, a senior officer at Chase had recently offered me a fast-track position that would give me the chance to break barriers for women in the financial world.
My father did not want me to pass up what he saw as a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity. My mother worried that something bad might happen to me if I worked in a developing country—or worse, I might never get married. And, of course, neither of them wanted me to move to another continent; parents want to keep their children safe. It did not help that my friends worried that our relationships would change, and some simply thought I’d lost my mind.
The small voice inside me was shouted down by the cacophony. I was a born pleaser and cared about what others thought. But this tendency naturally butted heads with another side of me, which was daring, justice-seeking, sometimes even reckless, determined to make a difference in the world.
Somehow I knew that if I didn’t dare then, I might never take the risk. Though only twenty-five years old, I could already name peers who lived provisionally, promising they’d follow their dreams after they paid off their debts … or married … or got an MBA. Over time, their lives had become more expensive to manage, making it even harder for them to take the leap. I feared living a life of quiet desperation, to quote Thoreau, and was hungry for a life rich in adventure.
Some people felt wholly alive in the world of finance; that wasn’t me. I needed to venture toward a different life. Yes, I had significant student debt to repay, but I would figure out the dollars and cents of it all later.
After a few months of research, I discovered what sounded like an amazing opportunity: to work with numerous fledgling microfinance organizations across a whole continent, providing management support and serving as an ambassador to women interested in using small business as a tool for change. However, there was a hitch: the job was based in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, not in Brazil, where I’d hoped to work. If I was going to make a sacrifice of career and income, I reasoned, I should sacrifice for a place whose intoxicating rhythms and colors held special appeal to me. I knew almost nothing about the Côte d’Ivoire.
Alas, no opportunity in Brazil was on the table, and I had to make a choice. I could focus on the substance of my desire, to become a bridge between low-income people and the world of finance, or I could obsess over my fantasy of living in Brazil. I couldn’t do both.
The Jesuits have a powerful saying: “Go where your deepest yearning meets the world’s greatest need.” I yearned to contribute to the economic development of low-income people, to learn about the world, to live in a new culture. For whatever reason, the world seemed to need, or at least want, me more in West Africa than in Brazil.
So, I took the job in West Africa. I just started.
I don’t mean to sound cavalier when I say “just start.” I was lucky to grow up with parents who ultimately supported my decisions. That is not the case for many who face heavy implications for rejecting the wishes of their families, clans, and religious leaders. Indeed, for some people, just starting a conversation can take gumption. Moreover, there was truth in my parents’ fears: bad things did happen to me, and it did take much longer for me to tie the knot than they (or I) would have imagined.
But no one escapes life without being wounded and scarred; and I had multiple chances to wed, including when I lived in Africa. Over the years, I came to see that there are many ways to live a life. I was “enough” on my own terms. It would take until I was forty to meet my husband, Chris, and only then did I realize that I’d been waiting for the love of my life.
Young people sometimes ask, “But what if I dare and then fail?” I failed more times than I can count. I moved to Côte d’Ivoire and was met with outright rejection from those I had hoped to serve. Yet I learned from my failures, and came to understand that to rule out failure is to rule out success.
With each experience, the good, the bad, and even the ugly, I added tools to my toolbox. More important, I honed my understanding of myself and how others perceived me, preparing to listen, learn, and work in partnership. I began to comprehend that the world does not need another hero—sustained change results from multiple heroic acts across a community—and that it was my job to help others shine.
Of course, there are times when nothing seems to be working, when you don’t understand what is going on around you, and no one trusts you enough to tell you. But what separates those who dabble in feel-good endeavors and those who actually nudge the world forward has nothing to do with intellect, connections, or specific skills. The ones whose actions and ideas produce positive consequences are the ones who stay in the game.
Try. Fail. Then try again. Follow the thread as it unspools. Just start.
* * *
After my bumpy start in Côte d’Ivoire, I moved to Kenya for a few months, where I continued to stumble in my efforts to “do good.” Finally, in early 1987, when I was still twenty-five, I accepted a three-week consultancy in Kigali, Rwanda, to research the state of credit for low-income women. It became clear that the only way to change the financial standing of the women there was to build an institution tailored to their needs. I didn’t slow down to ask myself who was I to try to create a financial institution based on a measly three years’ credit experience as a baby banker at Chase. I saw a problem to be solved—the banking system excluded people who were just asking for a fair chance to borrow and contribute to the economy. And I was already meeting extraordinary local women who would partner with me.
Who was I not to dare?
Duterimbere, Rwanda’s first microfinance bank, which I cofounded with Felicula and others, carved a lending path for the country’s low-income women and touched the lives of many thousands. It also changed my life, for good. Experiencing firsthand the power of markets from the perspectives of low-income women reinforced my belief in using the tools of capitalism to enable individual freedom.
The work gave me new insights and skills. In 1987, I witnessed how global market fluctuations caused local coffee prices to plunge, devastating the livelihoods of 80 percent of Rwandan farmers—an episode that woke me to the perils of unbridled capitalism. Had I not taken that first leap from Wall Street, I would not have learned this. And had I not persevered after failing in Côte d’Ivoire, I might have gone home without confronting my own limitations or discovering my truest gifts. We grow when we stretch, when we are willing to embrace the uncomfortable.
* * *
“Just start” is a mind-set that belongs not only to the young, but to anyone who hopes to remain productive, vibrant, and relevant throughout their lives. No one taught me about the elixir of self-renewal like my mentor, the venerable public servant John Gardner. I met John during my first year of business school, just after my initial stretch of work in Africa, and he represented precisely the kind of leader I aspired to become. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I’ve discovered that when you don’t know where to start, following a leader who inspires you can be a powerful strategy.
John started and restarted throughout his life, participating in his generation’s most momentous decisions, yet remaining free from society’s pressures to be what others thought he should be. The sole Republican in President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, John served as secretary of health, education, and welfare during America’s civil rights movement, during which he started the White House Fellows program and launched Medicare, among other initiatives. In 1968, he resigned his prestigious position in protest of the Vietnam War and had to start again.
Two years later, at age fifty-four, John founded Common Cause, a grassroots citizens’ movement to hold government accountable. And in 1980, he cofounded Independent Sector to support the nonprofit sector. Though in his seventies when I met him, John would go on to cofound a nonprofit organization, now called Encore, that inspires older people to just start again themselves by getting involved in service organizations across the country.
John’s was a lived and practical wisdom. “The self-renewing man,” he wrote, “looks forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between his potentialities and the claims of life—not only the claims he encounters but the claims he invents.” He was a half century older than me, but John’s enduring curiosity, his sense of possibility and willingness to try made him seem the youngest person I knew.
So, just start. Find mentors you can learn from, whether in person, online, or in print. And let your experiences teach you what you have to do next. All in all, it took me nearly twenty years of apprenticing, putting new tools in my toolbox, and expanding my understanding of the world through jobs in banking, development, and foundations, before my skills, aspirations, and networks came together to create Acumen in 2001.
I was ready to just start again. I had a theory of how we might revolutionize philanthropy by investing it as long-term, patient capital in intrepid entrepreneurs daring to build financially sustainable solutions to poverty where markets and governments had both failed the poor. But I didn’t have many proof points. I remember privately thinking that I would spend three years doing all I could to build a “blueprint for change,” and then decide whether Acumen was an idea worth trying beyond that.
Luckily, I was part of a group of pioneering individuals who were willing to risk their philanthropy and give their time for an idea most considered crazy.
That early group cheered on every move forward. At each step, the work, and sometimes the world, taught us what we had to do. When the 9/11 terror attacks changed the global landscape, my team and I decided to work in the Muslim world. That same thread of human dignity that had pulled me into microfinance drew my team to invest in Pakistan, a place previously unknown to me. After ten years of work in South Asia and Africa, we wanted to do more to attack the poverty of inequality, and so we expanded to Latin America and the United States. Each new geography was a risk, each an adventure.
Each new investment deepened our understanding of how the world works—and gave us confidence to push the edges of our work even further. When our companies identified the need for talent, not just money, we launched a Fellows program to support entrepreneurial leaders. When more people applied to become fellows than we could directly support, we developed an online school for social change. When we found ourselves unsatisfied with conventional impact measurements, we created our own approach to measuring what matters. One thing led to another, each new step made possible because we had started in the first place.
Nearly twenty years have passed with Acumen. When we started, I couldn’t have dreamed the kinds of companies we would help build: rule-breaking, yet highly successful enterprises unleashing the potential of millions of low-income people. I wouldn’t have understood the kinds of partnerships needed to bring critical services not to just some people but to all. And though we made a few false starts, to be sure, because of our efforts and those of so many others around the world, a new sector exists, called impact investing. And a new generation has a newer, better set of tools with which to reimagine and build models of inclusive and environmentally sustainable capitalism.
All these years later, I am still just starting. I am honing my purpose, clarifying who I am and want to become.
And I have found in the idea of human dignity a purpose for which I am willing to live—and, if necessary, to die. And that has made all the difference.
You may not yet have a crystal-clear sense of your purpose. That’s okay. It will grow with you. But if you have an inkling that you’d like your life to be about something bigger than yourself, listen to that urge. Follow the thread. The world needs you.
Copyright © 2020 by Acumen Fund