A Different Definition of Success
Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the impact investment firm Acumen, wants to put purpose, not profits, at the center of business.
After Jacqueline Novogratz earned an economics degree from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Stanford University, it was hardly surprising that she would take up a career on Wall Street. Less expected was that she would leave that career path three years later, in 1986, to help launch Duterimbere, a microfinance institution in Rwanda.
Since that day, she has continued to look for ways to serve some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities. In 2001, she founded the impact investment firm Acumen, which has invested 135 million USD to build social enterprises across Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the United States. She also employs the tools of education to achieve the same goal, serving on boards at New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative, and the Oxford Saïd Global Leadership Council.
Novogratz believes that tomorrow’s business graduates will be facing challenges that are broad and societal in nature, rather than simply focused on profits and operations. She says, “Companies must confront rising inequality, the need for racial and ethnic inclusivity, the realities of climate change, and growing pressure from all stakeholders, especially employees and customers, to become more purpose-driven and sustainable.” She recently spoke with AACSB Insights to describe how she charted her own career path—and to explore how today’s business students can prepare to make an impact in the world.
What was the incident that made you turn from a typical investment career to a life dedicated to lifting people out of poverty?
From the time I was a child, I wanted to change the world. Wall Street gave me financial tools and a love of understanding how numbers can tell a story and of how investment can release innovation and create jobs for people. What I didn’t love was how low-income people were excluded from the financial system.
In 1986, while working in Rio de Janeiro, I was moved by spending a weekend amongst hardworking people in slum areas. It made no sense to me that these individuals who had so much to offer were not welcome as customers of the mainstream banking system. It seemed shortsighted, unproductive, and just plain wrong. So, I left to try and change things by bringing the tools of banking and finance to low-income communities.
Since that time, how has society changed the way it views the value of impact investing?
When I first started Acumen, most people thought the idea of raising philanthropic funding and investing it in long-term equity and debt was crazy. But the past 20 years have changed everything. The world has acknowledged that unbridled capitalism has left us more unequal, divided, and divisive than ever in my lifetime. There is a growing acceptance that the needs of stakeholders, not just shareholders, must be considered as part of doing business. And this has created more acceptance of and desire for impact investing, which is now a 700 billion USD industry.
But the rubric “impact investing” covers a wide spectrum of approaches. My dream is to reach a day when the modifier “impact” is no longer needed—when it is assumed that all investments are made with the intention of positively impacting the world somehow.
In your recent book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, you follow the stories of changemakers who want to do good, and you call for society to change the way it views “success.” How would you define the concept?
For too long, we’ve defined success as money, power, and fame. Consequently, society has put profit and the individual at the center of its systems. This approach doesn’t work in an interdependent world. To ensure a more just, inclusive society requires shifting our definition of success to one that puts our shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth at the center of our systems. One easy means of moving toward that goal is for each of us to give more to the world than we take from it. If enough of us pursued that path, the world of inequality would slowly be replaced by a world of dignity.
To ensure a more just, inclusive society requires shifting our definition of success to one that puts our shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth at the center of our systems.
Have you seen much progress toward that goal?
The next generation of consumers is different than the ones that came before it. Not only are they unwilling to buy from companies that don’t commit to sustainability or responsible supply chains, they also won’t work for those companies. This is forcing a significant shift in the way businesses work, as well as a societal change.
In our increasingly interdependent world, the purpose of business can no longer be simply to make a profit. The purpose of business must be to solve our world’s most pressing problems. We’ve seen this shift already with the rollout of the COVID vaccine, when businesses were catalyzed into action and their efforts had life-changing impacts. I’ve seen it with the hundreds of entrepreneurs I’ve had the opportunity to work with who have had the audacity to build companies whose goal is not simply to make money, but to make an impact.
What role could management education play in redefining the purpose of business?
In far too many schools, the tools of capitalism are taught in service of shareholders only. And while those tools are superpowers, the real opportunity of today is to use them to solve our biggest problems.
I was on several advisory boards of prestigious business schools in 2008. Most felt their schools bore no responsibility for the financial crisis. Yet, some of their star students were at the helms of major financial institutions. During that period, many financial superstars repeated that they had done nothing illegal. Few asked publicly whether what they did was right.
This behavior is not inconsistent with a philosophy in many business schools that teaches using the tools of capitalism for wealth accumulation rather than as a force for good. Until society’s definition of success is shifted away from money, power, and fame, schools will continue to have every incentive to reinforce business as usual.
What can business schools do differently?
Society needs new role models. Business schools have an opportunity to produce more people whose success is defined not by how rich they become but by how much dignity they enable others to gain. Imagine showcasing leaders like d.light founders Ned Tozun and Sam Goldman, who met at Stanford GSB. Rather than take an easy path or positions at a corporation, they started a company to solve the problem of access to electricity. They have provided more than 100 million individuals with light.
What are some competencies that you think business schools should be teaching their students—but currently are not?
Managing in an interdependent world requires developing a new set of skills that historically were considered “soft” but may be among the hardest skills to develop.
Students would benefit from learning deep listening, especially across lines of difference. Too often, business schools prepare graduates to know the answers rather than sit with the questions. In the work of change, it’s a skill in and of itself to know how to ask questions of low-income people in ways that they will respond to.
Students also should study the principles and practices of building organizations for inclusion; understanding identity as a tool for connecting; partnering with government, rather than minimizing its role; and telling stories that matter.
Students would benefit from learning deep listening, especially across lines of difference. Too often, business schools prepare graduates to know the answers rather than sit with the questions.
If you were teaching a business class, what would you want students to know before they left your course?
How to cultivate moral imagination. It starts with empathy but doesn’t stop there. The next step is immersion, bringing yourself closer to the people you hope to serve; and the third step is analyzing the systems that hold those people back. Moral imagination is not only about dreaming what could be, but also about moving with determination to make it so.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned during your own university and graduate school studies?
I was beyond lucky to take a course on organizational renewal with John W. Gardner, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Lyndon Johnson. John became the most important mentor of my life, and I hear his wisdom almost daily. He taught me to “focus on being interested, not interesting.” He also taught me that all organizations and societies that don’t renew their values regularly risk becoming irrelevant. He understood how to transcend lines of difference, and we need his spirit in today’s fractured world.
When you have worked with business school graduates, what was your impression of how well they have been prepared to take on large social challenges?
It’s impossible to generalize the entire business school population, but I can say with certainty that each year business school students get smarter about the world and their place in it.
What excites me is seeing their knowledge about innovation and their desire to integrate purpose into their work. What sometimes worries me is a feeling that they have almost too many choices and struggle with where to commit.
What message would you like to leave with both business educators and students who want to make a positive difference in the world?
I would want them to know that the skills of business are essential to building long-term financially sustainable solutions in every sector. And our business school students have never been needed more.
This is a moment, however, to shift the purpose of business away from making profits alone to serving society. It doesn’t matter if they join a conventional business or run a nonprofit to make change. Because solving our most critical problems will require all of us.
Finally, I would say to them, wherever you work, keep one simple mantra in mind: Give more to the world than you take from it. Every day, ask yourself how your actions impact those around you. Are you enabling others to have more dignity and giving them a chance to contribute more in ways only they can? The more you look outward and commit to things bigger than yourselves, the more you will find a freedom and sense of purpose that will deepen—and that ultimately that will bring you home to yourself.
Sharon Shinn is an editor with AACSB Insights.