As a teenager, Jacqueline Novogratz donated a favorite sweater to charity. Eleven years later, a stunning coincidence in Rwanda illustrated how intertwined our lives on this planet have become.
By Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Illustration: Penelope Dullaghan
In 1973, Jacqueline Novogratz is 12 and living in Alexandria, Virginia. As a gift, her uncle Ed gives her a blue wool sweater with an African motif: two zebras at the foot of a mountain. She writes her name on the tag; it becomes her favorite sweater.
In 1976, a boy at Novogratz's high school cracks a joke about her breasts, highlighted by the tight sweater. Humiliated, she vows never to wear it again, and gives the sweater to Goodwill.
Like many articles of donated clothing from the United States, the sweater most likely travels to Mombasa, Kenya, after it is fumigated, bound in a 100-pound bale, and sold to a secondhand clothing distributor who in turn sells to local citizens across Africa.
Novogratz graduates from the University of Virginia in 1983 and lands a job with Chase Manhattan Bank, reviewing loans at banks in troubled economies. On a business trip to Brazil in 1985, she befriends Eduardo, a homeless boy in Rio de Janiero. But when she brings him to the hotel restaurant, the manager turns him away. Novogratz wonders, "What will it take to build a society where everyone has doors of opportunity?"
Novogratz proposes that Chase implement a loan program for low-income families as well as struggling banks. Her bosses reject the plan, so she leaves to join a nonprofit in Africa that finances small businesses. In early 1987, she travels to Kigali, Rwanda, to help establish a microfinance enterprise for poor women.
While jogging one afternoon, she spots a young boy on the road. He is wearing a familiar-looking sweater; it is made of blue wool, with zebras at the foot of a snowy mountain. She stops him, turns down his collar—and sees her name written on the tag. It's the sweater she donated 11 years earlier. The encounter convinces her that all of us are interconnected: "Our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know and never meet."
In 2001, her sense of purpose renewed, Novogratz founds the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurship as a means to combat global poverty. To date, the Acumen Fund has helped a company in India provide clean water to more than a quarter million rural residents; an agricultural products designer bring drip irrigation systems to 275,000 small farmers worldwide; and an African malaria bed-net manufacturer that employs more than 75,000 people produce 10 million lifesaving bed nets each year.
Novogratz writes about her visits to the companies she's helped finance, posting entries on the fund's website (AcumenFund.org). The entries evolve into a book about her experiences, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, which will be published in March. She plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to the Acumen Fund. "Rather than seeing the world divided among different civilizations or classes," she writes in the prologue, "our collective future rests on embracing a vision of a single world in which we are all connected. We all play a role in the change we need to create."