What Inspires Me: Leadership Against All Odds

Jacqueline Novogratz

CEO at Acumen Fund

What Inspires Me: Leadership Against All Odds

I may have to write several posts to answer this question. What inspires me? I think of beauty, generosity, a star-filled night to remind me of how connected we are in a vast universe – all of it inspires me. But let me start with the leadership qualities of people I am lucky to have met.
I am inspired by individuals who constantly renew, retaining a childlike curiosity that enables them to seek knowledge and understanding, who commit to something bigger than themselves and who give more to the world than they take. I think of John Gardner, my mentor, who would remind me constantly to “Focus on Being Interested, not Interesting”, and who created organizations, wrote books and mentored young people into his nineties, until the day he died. His legacy lives in countless young leaders across the world and this way, his spirit will be forever alive.
I am inspired by leaders who dare to dream and have the grit, resilience and determination to see those dreams through, regardless of the many times they fall down along the way. Dr. Venkataswamy, another teacher, founded the amazing Aravind Eye Hospital when he was 58 years old, a successful eye surgeon despite being crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, a former physician in the Indian Army. His mission was audacious: to eradicate unnecessary blindness. His start was humble: a tiny “hospital” with just eleven beds. Nearly 40 years later, Aravind has treated more than 32 million people performing more than 4 million surgeries. Called Dr. V by most, he would say, “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.” You cannot help but feel the spirituality expressed by the best of the human heart and mind in the halls of this most extraordinary dream, made real simple by starting and then doing.
I am inspired by individuals who see a problem and focus on solving it, not yielding to facile excuses and roadblocks. My friend Alex Sunguti (top photo) works with Acumen and lives in one of Nairobi’s slums. He recently saw his neighbor lose her baby during childbirth because the family could not afford the $24 needed for a taxi to take her to the hospital. Though his own means are limited, Alex brought together local taxi drivers to negotiate a lower “emergency rate” and is working on raising a sort of insurance fund from community residents and friends. As our world becomes more interconnected, I dream of more Kickstarter-like mechanisms to enable larger circles from which to crowdfund and then track these small but critical local efforts that remind me that trust is the most precious currency we have.
I am inspired by the toughness, courage and hard-edged hope of people who persevere against the odds for they remind me of all that is possible. While traveling last week, I met a Rwandan-Congolese woman in Pretoria who lost both parents and three of her siblings to the genocide in Rwanda and war in Congo and somehow made her way to South Africa. She is now building a life as a professional and dreams of creating an orphanage back in Congo. As I was passing through immigration at JFK, I walked behind a Haitian-American walking steadily and proudly on two prosthetic legs, a large backpack strapped across his muscular back. Simply by walking through the world, he inspired me to try to fly.
The kind of leadership we need in a world becoming more interconnected by the day is a leadership with the qualities I see in the people I meet through my work across the world, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, gender or creed. So many times I am reminded that there are times in every life when just getting out of bed can require an act of courage. And yet, I see people who have so little give everything they can to make the world just a little better. And sometimes, a lot better.
Photos: top, Alex Sunguti; bottom: Jacqueline Novogratz and Dr V. Acumen Fund.


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