Our Team

Friday morning. Kaubl, Afghanistan. A boy carrying balloons thro

Balloons in the Streets of Kabul

Nuru Project sells photographs to benefit highly effective non-profits. Acumen Fund has collaborated with Nuru Project previously to present the DIGNITY series,  one-night photo auctions and sales organized by +acumen chapters  featuring prints portraying the idea of dignity from the regions where Acumen Fund invests. You can purchase Nuru Project photographs to support Acumen Fund here. This post originally appeared on Nuru Project’s blog on April 11.


“I’m roaming in Kabul’s old city amongst the cool shadows of the early morning. In a  tiny backstreet I pass a woman carrying a sack of rice, some cooking oil, and a balloon. She is not wearing a burqa. She sees my camera and whispers to me in Dari “take my picture”. An Afghan woman has never asked me to take her photograph before. I imagine it is forbidden, Haram, but she looks happy and our surroundings are quiet, so I take a picture. I wander some more and spot the child who sold the woman her balloon. He is walking on a parallel street carrying a big bunch of them. I move quickly and catch the balloons in the sunlight before he disappears onto a busy street.”

– photographer Ross McDonnell

Throughout time, balloons have served as a symbol of hope, wonder, and possibility. In the children’s classic, The Red Balloon, a French film from the 50s by Albert Lamorisse, a little boy named Pascal is on his way to school when he encounters a red balloon with a life of its own that decides to befriend him. The balloon follows Pascal around the streets of Paris — on the bus, to school, and to church. Soon, interest and jealousy arise, and a gang of boys sets out to destroy Pascal’s balloon. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a brilliant tale that reminds us that while our ideas may be fragile and vulnerable, our imagination and dreams are the most powerful things we possess.

I’m struck by Ross’ story of the woman, armed with balloon, asking to have her picture taken. I wonder if, somehow, the balloon gave her courage to do something out of the ordinary, if it gave her a sense of innocence to absolve her of any wrongdoing. I’m struck that while returning from the market with cooking oil and rice in hand, she stopped and spent money on a balloon.

But, why am I surprised? Because my mind harbors notions of what women who live on backstreets in places like Kabul must be like — how they must think, how they must act, how they must make decisions. But no matter where we’re born or how we’re brought up, we all grow up learning to associate balloons with occasions for celebration and the promise of a good day. And what logical explanation does one need to give for desiring joy, happiness, or hope? If there is one thing that unites us, perhaps it is this.

When I see Ross’ print, I think of Pascal from The Red Balloon. I think of Carl Frederickson’s flying balloon-powered home in Pixar’s Up. I think of Professor Sherman’s adventure on Krakatoa in William Pene du Bois’ The Twenty-One Balloons. I think of Banksy’s iconic Balloon Girl. I think of all the balloons at every birthday party I ever had or attended under the age of 11. All the startling pops — intended or unintended, all the static clings, all the frightening clowns and their amazing animal balloons, all the times I went blue in the face inflating balloons with my measly breath, and all the helium intakes that would produce hours of hysterical high-pitched laughter. They were all good times (minus the clowns). Every memory, magical. And for me, that’s what this photo represents. Magic. The magic of joy, the magic of hope, the magic of imagination, the magic of dreams. But above all, the simple belief in magic.


James Wu manages branding and online communications at Acumen Fund. You can find him on Twitter at @bunkywu or on Tumblr at dumplingboy.


Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]

How two Acumen Fellows are disrupting the education model in India

Whether its running youth soccer programs, providing vocational training services, or transforming the education system in India, Acumen India Fellows are driving real change in their communities.  Abbas Dadla and Abhilasha Sinha are India Fellows who are addressing the teacher shortage in India through the use of technology and peer collaboration. Find out what they are building below.  If you have grit, resilience and a commitment to creating change in your community in India, East Africa or Pakistan, we encourage you to apply for the Regional Fellowship Program! [Read More]

Meet Manjushree Patil, Founder of Aatman Academy

This month saw violent tragedies in Pakistan and Kenya, regions where Acumen works and which five classes of Acumen regional fellows call home. Among them there are dedicated teachers like Acumen India Fellow Manjushree Patil, crusaders against sex trafficking, builders of government, creators of liberating mobile medical technologies, and curators of slum sports programs. The need for strengthening the connections between those who are working for positive change against seemingly impossible odds has never been greater. We at Acumen have never been prouder to be the thread tying together these courageous individuals. Read more about Manjushree and how she is changing her community in India below! [Read More]

No, not silence again!

The Acumen Fellowship’s Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA) training is notorious for digging deep, breaking Fellows down to reveal their deepest fears, identifying the sources of resilience that will fuel them with the tenacity to continue along the path to social change. Kahabi G. Isangula is an East Africa Regional Fellow living in Tanzania and recently participated in our CLA training. Get an idea of what it is like, below!  [Read More]

Announcing the Class of 2015 Acumen Global Fellows

Acumen Global Fellows are architects for the impact sector. They are innovators, game changers, visionaries, with various professional experiences looking to make substantial change in the world. They have thrived in companies such as Google; they have started their own companies in Sri Lanka, Canada and Malaysia.  They are choosing the challenge of working alongside our portfolio companies and immersing themselves in a rigorous leadership training. [Read More]