The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World

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by Jacqueline Novogratz

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The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to

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The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession—until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing that very sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That the sweater had made its trek all the way to Rwanda was ample evidence, she thought, of how we are all connected, how our actions—and inaction—touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet.
From her first stumbling efforts as a young idealist venturing forth in Africa to the creation of the trailblazing organization she runs today, Novogratz tells gripping stories with unforgettable characters—women dancing in a Nairobi slum, unwed mothers starting a bakery, courageous survivors of the Rwandan genocide, entrepreneurs building services for the poor against impossible odds.

She shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called "patient capital" can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.

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Editorial Reviews

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Young, idealistic, and well educated, Novogratz had an admirable goal: to change the world. She traveled to Rwanda, where she found a small boy wearing a sweater she recognized as her own -- one she'd given to Goodwill many years earlier. For Novogratz, that sweater served as a symbol of the interconnectedness of the rich and the poor -- a connection that wasn't working. What the poor wanted was an opportunity, not a handout. The voiceless needed donors to listen to their ideas, not tell them what to do.

Years later, Novogratz would channel her expertise as an international banker into an antipoverty campaign. She rallied a group of African women and founded a micro-finance bank dedicated to lending to female-owned and operated businesses. Expanding her work to India and Pakistan, her progress is slow but sure, bolstered by donors and development advisers from many sectors of society: a Pakistani doctor, a Rockefeller Foundation philanthropist, a kind professor, three African women whose dedication is interrupted by the Rwandan genocide, and a visionary Indian entrepreneur.

The Blue Sweater is a thoughtful and timely book. With the recent collapse of so many large financial institutions, small socially responsible lending is the wave of the future -- in a world, as Novogratz writes, "whose bottom line is more about change than strictly about profits." (Summer 2009 Selection)

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Rodale Press, Inc.
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"There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

It all started with the blue sweater, the one my uncle Ed gave me. He was like Santa to me, even in the middle of July.

Of soft blue wool, with stripes on the sleeves and an African motif across the front -- two zebras walking in front of a snowcapped mountain -- the sweater made me dream of places far away. I hadn't heard of Mount Kilimanjaro, nor did I have any idea that Africa would one day find a prominent place in my heart. Still, I loved that sweater and wore it often and everywhere. I wrote my name on the tag to ensure that it would be mine forever.

In our neighborhood in Virginia in the 1970s, new clothing was a once- or twice-a-year event. We would shop in September for school and at Christmastime and then make do for the year. As the eldest of seven children, at least I didn't have to wear many hand-me-downs, and I liked choosing my own clothes; still, I loved that blue sweater. I wore it for years -- right through middle school and into my freshman year in high school -- though it started to fit me differently then, hugging adolescent curves I fought mightily to ignore.

But then my high school nemesis (who would burn down the school in our senior year by throwing a Molotov cocktail into the principal's office) ruined everything. At our school, the cool kids and athletes hung out in "Jock Hall," the area right outside the gym. During football season, the cheerleaders would decorate the hall with crepe paper streamers while the guys strutted around like peacocks in green and gold jerseys. Only a freshman, I was breathless just to be admitted to the scene. One Friday afternoon, the captain of the team had asked me on a date right there in the middle of the hall. The very air seemed to crackle with expectation.

And there was that mean kid, standing right beside me, talking to boys from the junior varsity football team about the first ski trip of the winter. He stared at my sweater, and I gave him the coldest look I could muster. "We don't have to go anywhere to ski," he yelled, pointing at my chest. "We can do it on Mount Novogratz."

The other boys joined him in laughter. I died a thousand deaths.

That afternoon, I marched home and announced to my mother that the vile sweater had to go. How could she have let me walk out of the house looking so mortifyingly bad? Despite my high drama, she drove me to the Goodwill in our Ford station wagon with the wood panels on the sides. Ceremoniously, we disposed of the sweater; I was glad never to have to see it again and tried hard to forget it.

FAST-FORWARD TO EARLY 1987: Twenty-five years old, I was jogging up and down the hilly streets of Kigali, Rwanda. I'd come to the country to help establish a microfinance institution for poor women. With my Walkman playing Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends," I felt as if I were in a music video. On the road, women walked with bunches of yellow bananas on their heads, their hips swaying in time with the song's rhythm. Even the tall cypress trees at the roadsides seemed to shimmy. I was in a dream on a sunny, big-sky Kigali afternoon, far away from home.

From out of nowhere, a young boy walked toward me, wearing the sweater-my sweater, the beloved but abandoned blue one. He was perhaps 10 years old, skinny, with a shaved head and huge eyes, not more than 4 feet tall. The sweater hung so low it hid his shorts, covering toothpick legs and knobby knees. Only his fingertips poked out of baggy sleeves. Still, there was no doubt: This was my sweater.

Excitedly, I ran over to the child, who looked up at me, obviously terrified. I didn't speak a word of Kinyarwanda, nor did he speak French, the language on which I relied in Rwanda. As the boy stood frozen, I kept pointing to the sweater, trying not to become too agitated. I grabbed him by the shoulders and turned down the collar: Sure enough, my name was written on the tag of my sweater that had traveled thousands of miles for more than a decade.

The blue sweater had made a complex journey, from Alexandria, Virginia, to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It may have gone first to a little girl in the United States, then back to the Goodwill once more before traveling across the ocean, most likely to Mombasa, on the coast of Kenya, one of Africa's most active ports. It would have arrived after being fumigated and packed into 100-pound bales along with other pieces of cast-off clothing, everything from T-shirts sold at bars at the Jersey shore to overcoats to evening gowns. The bales would have been sold to secondhand clothing distributors, who would allow retailers to discard the useless pieces and buy what they thought they could sell. Over time, many of those secondhand clothing traders would move into the middle class.

The story of the blue sweater has always reminded me of how we are all connected. Our actions -- and inaction -- touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know and never meet. The story of the blue sweater is also my personal story: Seeing my sweater on that child renewed my sense of purpose in Africa. At that point in my own journey, my worldview was shifting. I'd begun my career as an international banker, discovering the power of capital, of markets, and of politics, as well as how the poor are so often excluded from all three. I wanted to understand better what stands between poverty and wealth.

It had been a long and winding road getting to Rwanda in the first place -- an unimagined outcome of choices made, sometimes with a sense of purpose, at times with reason, and sometimes simply by choosing the less traveled paths.

WHEN I WAS 5, our family lived in Detroit. It was the mid-1960s and the city was plagued by race riots and protests against the Vietnam War. My dashing father, a lieutenant in the army, had the unenviable job of helping the mothers of dead soldiers bury their sons. I remember hearing my father's strained voice as he told my mother about the injustice of so many young soldiers being economically disadvantaged. My mother, young and beautiful, would hug me close when I'd ask so many questions about why people weren't all treated the same way.

The next year, my father was serving his second of three tours in Vietnam and Korea, and we'd moved to a town outside of West Point, New York. I would walk to school early to meet my first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Theophane, and help her clean the sacristy. She was a jolly woman with round, wire-rimmed glasses that matched her apple face, and I adored being near her. I'd run past little mom-and-pop shops on the quiet streets, dressed in the dark green pleated skirt and pressed white cotton blouse I would have laid out the night before to ensure I wouldn't be late.

Sacred Heart was an old school, right next door to the church, with little wooden desks for the students and a concrete playground outside. Sister was known as one of the kindest of the nuns, though she had high expectations for content -- and handwriting. If we earned a perfect test score, she'd hand us a card with a summary of the life of a saint printed on it, and I studied diligently to collect as many cards as I could. I found their lives an inspiration, even if some of them did end up in a vat of boiling oil.

A poster of two hands holding a rice bowl hung on the classroom's wall, making me think about faraway places, trying to imagine the lives of children in China, wanting to see it for myself. When I told Sister Theophane I wanted to be a nun, she enfolded me in her thick black robes and told me I was just a child, but it was a lovely idea. "Regardless of what you become," she said, "remember always that to whom much is given, much is expected. God gave you many gifts and it is important that you use them for others as best you can."

Though we moved again and again throughout the United States until I was 10 years old, my mother and father masterfully created a sense of home, making us feel safe and rooted no matter where we lived. By the time I entered high school, our brood was living in a four-bedroom house in suburban Virginia: It was the place all the neighborhood kids wanted to be. Dreams of the convent had long passed, and I thought much more about boys and parties, though I still expected to change the world.

In summertime, my uncle Ed who gave me the sweater would throw a big party for our extended family, which meant my grandmother and her five sisters, their children, and their children's children. We were a tribe of hundreds made larger by close friends who came to feel like they shared the same blood in their veins. We called my grandmother and her sisters, all from good peasant stock in Austria, the Six Tons of Fun. They worked hard, but they knew how to enjoy themselves, dancing with full glasses of beer balanced on their heads and laughing as they whispered stories to one another. Meanwhile, their offspring would play competitive games and drink and dance till the wee hours of the morning. If there was a family ethic, it was to work hard, go to church, be good to your family, and live out loud. We learned from our elders to be tough, to not complain, and to always, always show up for one another. I didn't understand then how much about tribe and community I learned from this American family.

The strained finances at home meant that my siblings and I had no choice but to be scrappy and enterprising. At 10, I babysat and sold Christmas ornaments door-to-door. By 12, I was shoveling snow in the winter and mowing grass in the summer. At 14, I spent the summer working the midnight shift behind the ice cream counter at Howard Johnson's until a toppled bucket of boiling water sent me to the hospital with third-degree burns. Not long after, I was bartending, earning $300 in tips on a good night.

These jobs -- plus a series of student loans -- allowed me to finance my education at the University of Virginia. As I was about to graduate, I remember feeling a deep sense of pride in knowing that I would forever have the tools to support myself, no matter what happened in life. But I wanted a break and hoped to take some time off to tend bar and ski and then figure out how I would change the world. My parents agreed to the plan, provided that I promise to go through the interview process-"just for practice." At the University Career Center, I dutifully dropped my résumé in all of the boxes labeled for job seekers in international relations or economics, and I was surprised when the center called to tell me I had an interview with Chase Manhattan Bank. I walked into the first interview of my life, dressed in a drab gray, masculine wool suit that made me feel like an imposter, and met a young man with sandy blond hair and piercing blue eyes who didn't look much older than me.

"Tell me why you want to be a banker," he suggested after introducing himself.

I looked at him for a moment, not knowing what to say. Being a terrible liar, I told him the truth.

"I don't want to be a banker," I said. "I want to change the world. I'm hoping to take next year off, but my parents asked me to go through the interview process. I'm so sorry."

"Well," he said with a grin, shaking his head, "that's too bad. Because if you got this job, you would be traveling to 40 countries in the next 3 years and learning a lot not only about banking, but the entire world."

I gulped. "Is that really true?" I asked, my face completely red. "You know, part of my dream is to travel and learn about the world."

"It is really true," he sighed.

"Then do you think we might start this interview all over again?" I asked.

"Why not?" he shrugged, raising his eyebrows and smiling.

I walked out the door and closed it, counted to 10, walked back in, and introduced myself with a big handshake.

"So, Miss Novogratz," he smiled. "Tell me, why do you want to be a banker?"

"Well, ever since I was 6 years old, it has been my dream . . . ," I started.

And it went from there.

Miraculously, I got the job, and thus began 3 of the best years of my life. I moved to New York City and, after completing the credit training program, joined a group called Credit Audit, a division of 60 young bankers, most just out of university, who would fly first-class around the world and review the quality of the bank's loans, especially in troubled economies. The first time I ever left the United States, I landed in Singapore; the second, Argentina. Life had become a dream.

In Chile, we would spend the day reviewing loans made to copper mines and industrial concerns. In Peru, I came to understand the danger capital flight presented to already unstable economies. In Hong Kong, we studied the great trading houses such as Jardine Matheson and saw firsthand how Asia was rapidly changing. It was a stunning, privileged education. I began to see myself as a wanderer and a wonderer, a true citizen of the world. But no place changed my life like Brazil.

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Blue Sweater 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Oret More than 1 year ago
The Blue sweater has a very clear message -- JN argues for a new strategy in combating global poverty. This new strategy is to invest in developing communities with a view to creating sustainable businesses that will benefit the whole community. And when that has taken off, the money can be reinvested in other businesses in similar circumstances. Is this simply capitalism expanding its reach to the developing world? No, that would be an incomplete picture of the book's thrust. It is a capitalist model with stringent "societal benefit" requirements. That means a quick return is not a requirement; rather, the social benefit is the primary fulfilment. If returns are to be made, their appreciation is based on it being a symptom of a sustainable business model. The book starts off with the genesis of the author's interest in dealing with poverty in a global scale. She meets a Rwandan child wearing a blue sweater she used to wear in her childhood. This experience becomes a clear proof of how connected all humans are. When she gave away her sweater, she touched the life of a child in Rwanda -- miles and years away from her. However, this moment came after many other steps which she very often analyzed and used to deduce what her next steps would be. JN (the author) started off with a job at Chase Manhattan. Her first job, straight out of college was an exhilarating experience. It was not, however, the writing off of bad debts that she enjoyed; rather, it seems the opportunity to travel was the source of this spark. However, it was during one of these trips that she saw the weaknesses in the systems that were: while the banks could lend to the rich who defaulted on loans, they could not be bothered to lend to the poor or the working class living right beside these rich customers. Her suggestions to widen the bank's lending policy were taken as a rookie mistake -- that started her off on a journey to bank for the world's unbanked population. It is clear whilst reading this book that JN's path was not cut out for her. She had to learn on her own most of the time -- knowing where she wanted to get in the short-to-medium term but not quite knowing the steps to get there. She finds herself in an unfamiliar environment in Nairobi, in Kigali and in Abidjan. But what was even more unsettling for her was the fact that she was not wanted by the people she had set out to help. The women saw her secondment to them as an imposition and presumption of their needs -- she quickly learns to listen. She uses this lesson in setting up a credit organization for women in Rwanda. The challenges she meets down the line are of a different kind but the Rwandan team's resolve to make the organization a reality takes the idea to fruition. The story of the blue bakery gives another lesson on listening. It adds on the element of cultural attunement. By the end of the story, it is clear that though JN asked the right questions, she did not listen to the Rwandans' as she should have -- in her own words -- with her heart and not just her head. JN's story is one of continual learning, re-evaluation and resets. Her graduate school experience is very much a continuation of this. The theme of power and love being necessary components for the kind of human action that could make global poverty history -- a compassionate sort of capitalism -- is developed through her personal narrative. She notes, for instance, that her business school colleagues were not as co
steve_cunningham More than 1 year ago
If you want to know how truly difficult it is to change the world, and understand what it actually takes to make your dent in the universe, this is the book for you. It's not only the incredible story of Jacqueline's life, it will change the way you look at philanthropy forever. If you want a sneak peek at what's inside, I did a video review of the book at www(dot)readitfor(dot)me. Then immediately come back here and buy the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am familiar with Jacqueline's work with Acumen Fund, and enjoyed the opportunity reading this book gave me to learn more about how she got to where she is today. I was inspired by her story and the stories of all the women she has met along the way. It gave me hope that, even in these strange times, there is a way for all of us to be relevant and to find a path that fits us.
TomRielly More than 1 year ago
If you've ever doubted that one person could change the world, then you haven't met Jacqueline Novogratz. Her impassioned memoir recounts her life's journey from wide-eyed naïf to wise activist working to better the lives of the world's poorest people through the dignity of investment-- instead of aid-as-we-know-it. From her early failures trying to help in Africa, to her mentor at Stanford, to creating the Rockefeller Foundation's Philanthropy Workshop, to her eventual triumph in founding the Acumen Fund, Novogratz shares her vivid stories of the African women who change her forever as she tries to learn how to best guide them to help themselves. Along the way, she recounts the sights, sounds, and smells of some of the world's most beautiful yet haunting places in a prose that crackles. You can't help but be moved both by her journey and the remarkable people she meets along the way. I had hoped to go to bed hours ago but couldn't put The Blue Sweater down. If you're looking for a great story, inspiration, humor and wisdom, buy this book!
GMR111 More than 1 year ago
Jacqueline Novogratz tells a compelling story of her travels, travails and tragedies after leaving a promising career at Chase Manhattan Bank to tackle chronic poverty in Africa. Starting with her first trip to Kenya and continuing through the creation of Acumen Fund and its funding of talented entrepreneurs in India, Pakistan and Africa, she meets many fascinating people that shape her growth and development and she openly shares these encounters, good and bad, with the reader. It's a truly inspiring book that I highly recommend. On a more prosaic level, The Blue Sweater offers valuable guidance for students embarking on a career and experienced workers pondering a move the philanthropic sector. Her own journey provides a lesson on how to take control of your career path and move forward without compromising one's beliefs or principles. Her philanthropic work also coincides with the growth of an alternative approach to fighting poverty, as exemplified by nonprofit groups such as the Robin Hood Foundation and Acumen Fund. A person entering the nonprofit world today will better understand how traditional philanthropy has been challenged after a careful reading of The Blue Sweater. Even potential entrepreneurs will learn much about how their colleagues succeed from Ms. Novogratz' book.
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This is a story about a woman's incredible journey through making something of herself in the trying situations she faces while trying to eradicate poverty and hunger in Africa. It begins with Jacqueline Novogratz meeting a child in Rwanda wearing a sweter she owned as a child and had given to a charity. This made her realize that one simple thing she had done affected a child thousands of miles away. Thus Jacqueline saw her calling in Africa to help eliminate poverty (mostly with women). She gave up a very prestigious financial job in New York to pursue her dream of her dream in Africa. Jacqueline was not readily accepted by the African women representing the various regions. This is due to the fact that the women feel she could not possibly understand how to deal the impoverished situations in Africa becaus she is just a white women from America and not as knowledgable as they are. This is very inspiring because she continued to work thrugh the difficulties she faced with the womens inability to accept her position by doing what she could to do her job without complaint. At one point some of the women poisoned her food and she became severly sick and after recovering returned home. At this point in the story Jacqueline reevaluates what she is doing and whether she should continue in Africa. Even in her moment of doubt Jacqueline is still very strong because she knows on her heary that her true place lies in Africa helping women to move out of their impoverished situations. The Blue Sweater makes you want to be as persisting and optimistic as Jacqueline is because she is a very admirable role model. She is very gifted in the male dominated field in which she works in America. She really sets an example for women everywhere in that she is an extremely relateable character and any other women could be like her. This story shows Jacquelines struggle to change the world in her own way. She continues to persevere with her great financial knowledge taking long hours to complete tasks that mean nothing to the women with which she works. I really liked this book because it showed me that if you keep pursuing your dreams even if you are continually put down you can make a difference no matter how small. She changed the world by herself; an example to others so that they might be able to succeed in their ambitions as well. In this book her walk through life exemplifies the culture in Africa and their feelings. It is literarily very interesting because she poses an insider view on Africa. The imagery and descriptions of life in Africa are really well done in this book. The African women in the book are portrayed as so regal, independent and incredibly powerful in presence and action. It gives the reader an enlightened view of African people that for myself made me want to travel there to learn more about the people and culture. The human portrayal in this book is very real to the reader shown in both the African people as well as Jacqueline and her colleagues. I would definitely recomend this book to everyone beacuse it is well written and is a fresh new idea that would probably be enjoyed by very many. The book is very inspiring and gives hope to anyone that ever doubted they could make a difference in this world. I liked this book very much and would like to read more from Jacqueline Novogratz.
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