"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.