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A Year-End Update from Jacqueline Novogratz

It is the holiday season in New York City and tourists are wearing short sleeves and sunglasses. This has been a year of intense, vivid and surprising images too numerous to list. As I reflect on the whirlwind of 2015, I am struck both by a sense of our human vulnerability and by our collective strength.

Perhaps this will be the year we learned that we can conquer the realities of climate change, terrorism, inequality, and even fear of one another if only we recognize that business as usual no long works, insist on models that value all stakeholders, think of ourselves as a single world, and work not only from the perspective of self but also of partnership.

In this spirit, Acumen is changing the way we work, too. Our work will always be grounded in our investment in companies and leaders. However, the problems of today demand systems change, and this will only come if we develop stronger partnerships with government, NGOs and corporations.

Partnership has enabled some of our most successful investees to scale. Ziqitza partners with state governments across India to bring emergency services to millions. LabourNet partners with leading Indian corporations to provide workforce development skills to more than 100,000 people. d.light, partnering with corporations, NGOs and governments, has brought affordable light to more than 54 million.

After more than a decade of experience investing, we are seeing how we can support our companies across broader ecosystems. Take agriculture. We’ve seen the power of companies to enhance farmers’ productivity and access to markets, yet smallholder farmers are still vulnerable to volatile pricing, often a race to the bottom in which the poor are always the losers. Changing this will require our biggest companies, governments and consumers to change, too.

To this end, we’re thrilled to be working with Unilever, a multinational corporation that sells two billion products a day. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman is a leader who insists on building more sustainable and inclusive supply chains. Our joint effort with Unilever—the Enhanced Livelihoods Investment Initiative (ELII)—is focused on supporting companies and boosting the incomes of smallholder farmers within the Unilever supply chain by 50 percent over the next five years.

Our first ELII commitment is an $800k investment in BURN Manufacturing to bring their low-cost, energy-efficient, wood-burning cookstove to smallholder tea farmers in Kenya and Tanzania. Distributing the stove at greater scale will measurably increase farmers’ savings and impact environmental sustainability by reducing deforestation. We hope this type of collaboration will be a model for other corporate partnerships to bring income and livelihood opportunities to the farmers who produce the goods on which we all depend.

We’re also seeing powerful partnership opportunities emerging in the fight against energy poverty. Until recently, the idea of providing power to the poor ran counter to fighting climate change. However, falling costs of solar energy and the rise of mobile banking are clearing the path for a clean energy revolution that can address both energy poverty and climate change at once.

Over the past decade, Acumen has invested more than $22 million in 15 companies in the clean energy sector, including product companies, household systems and mini-grids. We’ve come to understand the challenges that face all energy enterprises, and we are building an initiative to make the entire ecosystem dramatically more effective. Through patient capital investing and partnerships with nonprofits and governments, we aim to prove that off-grid solar is cheaper, faster and more effective than delivering electricity to the poor by extending the traditional grid. So watch this space!

In 2015, in partnership with USAID, we also launched the “Investing for Peace Fund” in Colombia. The fund will enable us to extend our pioneer investing work into post-conflict Colombia, where the combustible combination of violence and poverty exclude too many individuals from opportunity. We’ve already invested in Wasi Organics and Cacao de Colombia, and I’m excited about the rich pipeline of investment opportunities in the region.

Ultimately, these partnerships are reminders not only that complex problems require more complex solutions, but also that solving them will take all of us. We’ve thus renewed our commitment to reinforcing the moral leadership skills and characteristics required to navigate a world of gray.

The Acumen Fellowship is now more than 250 strong. These individuals form a global cohort that transcends religion, class, caste, race, tribe and ideology, bound to one another through shared values and a commitment to building a more inclusive world. These individuals are also beginning to partner across the globe. For example, James Kassaga Arinaitwe is starting Teach for Uganda in his home country. Natalie Grillon from the U.S. and Shahd AlShehail from Saudi Arabia have co-founded JUST. Our leadership development work is not just about the fellows we touch, but the ideas and relationships that they go on to create for exponential impact.

We also continue to spread ideas. Our +Acumen online courses have reached over 270,000 signups from 176 countries. Our +Acumen Chapters are now 23 cities strong. This community is creating initiatives and facilitating learning in diverse groups—and enabling powerful results.

As the world around us changes, Acumen grows more ambitious in our desire for impact. I am thrilled to share that, starting in 2016, Acumen’s Chief Operating Officer Carlyle Singer will become President of Acumen, while I continue in my role as CEO. Since joining Acumen in 2013, Carlyle has led from a belief in creating institutions with light structures and strong values. She will partner with me in a shared leadership approach that we hope will enable all of Acumen’s leaders, and the whole Acumen community, to bring their best selves to the formidable tasks that lie ahead.

It starts with each of us. I have a hundred Acumen moments from this year, but let me end instead with a simple holiday story from New York City.

While having lunch with Acumen Advisor Seth Godin at a neighborhood restaurant, we struck up a conversation with our waiter as he’d been so charming throughout the meal.

“Where are you from?” I asked, struck by his slight accent and mix of sparkle, confidence and sense of humor.

His sparkle dimmed. “I’m from Syria, a country nobody likes,” he answered.

I shared that my husband and I had taken a vacation to Syria four years ago. We had marveled at the country’s beauty, the kindness of its people, the historic importance of cities like Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo.

Our waiter shared how he left when the fighting became intense and is now studying and working so that, once peace comes, he can return to Syria to build something beautiful.

Before we left, he returned with a postcard. “I have served people here for two years. Usually, they never ask where I’m from. But if they do and I tell them Syria, they either become afraid of me or they look at me with pity. Thank you for knowing and caring about my country.”

It was as simple as that. We yearn to be seen, to be known as more than a single story.

“One more thing,” he said. “Could I also ask for a hug?”

And so we did.

I wish all of you goodwill and peace on this precious earth we share. I wish that all children in 2016 may know they have a place for opportunity. And possibility. And joy.

With thanks for all you do to make our work possible, for it is a privilege.

Jacqueline Novogratz
Founder and CEO, Acumen

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