MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
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.
Copyright © 2020 by Jacqueline Novogratz