For those of you who attended our DIGNITY event – partnering with Nuru Project – a few months ago, you might remember Monica Logani as the woman in white who placed the winning bid for the amazing Steve McCurry print. In addition to now being the proud owner of a stunning image that holds so much personal relevance for her, Monica is also one of a growing number of individuals in our NY Chapter (formerly the Young Professionals for Acumen Fund) looking to leverage their investment expertise with their passion for building enterprises that serve the poor. We’re delighted at Monica’s commitment to our work and excited at the growth of the NY chapter which increasingly offers opportunities for individuals to support our vision of dignity and choice for all. We wanted to share Monica’s reflections on the connection she feels to the work of Acumen Fund.
By the age of five, I was fortunate to have lived in two vastly different continents, while being raised with a set of values and language from a third. These varied experiences have shaped my compassion for humanity.
I was born in Accra, Ghana, a nation on the coast of West Africa. In the early 1960s, my maternal grandfather, a mechanical and agricultural engineer, was sent to Ghana on deputation from India as Chief Engineer of Agriculture, a sector that was considered the backbone of the Ghanian economy. His mandate was to automate the crop cultivation process for the cassava plant, the most important staple food crop in Ghana. Previously, the cassava crop cultivation process was very labor-intensive and many of the farmers that subsisted on this crop for their livelihood could not earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty. The machines my grandfather invented to automate the cultivation process substantially helped increase the farmers crop yield and led to higher incomes for farmers.
With this backdrop, I grew up with an acute understanding of the plight of the Ghanaian farmer. In Ghana, the highest incidence of poverty occurs in the agricultural sector and is dominated by small holder farmers. These farmers worked long hours in intense heat and faced chronic food insecurity. Their families lived in decrepit, overcrowded shacks with boarded up windows and inadequate ventilation. They slept on dirty mats on earthen floors and had limited access to safe water, electricity or plumbing. Meanwhile, their sparsely clothed children ran through the flooded streets and lacked any opportunity to get an education.
Despite these hardships, the spirit of the Ghanaian people was remarkable; they were happy, sociable people with an optimistic outlook. This picture of poverty has always stuck in my mind, and although my grandfather played a small role in helping alleviate some of the poverty, I realized at an early age that there was still a lot of work to be done in helping the impoverished.
When I was five, my parents immigrated to the U.S. to pursue their post-graduate studies. My paternal grandmother, a native of Peshawar, Pakistan, came to live with us. While my parents were very busy post-graduate students, my grandmother primarily cared for me and my siblings. She not only instilled in us a deep appreciation for the rich Indian culture but also taught us how to speak Punjabi, her native tongue. I recall the vivid stories my grandmother recounted about her childhood in Peshawar and how difficult life became after the 1947 Partition, which divided the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-dominated but nominally secular India and the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan. Because my widowed grandmother was Hindu, she was forced to leave Pakistan with my father. They migrated to India as refugees, homeless and without any monetary support. The hardships they faced in reconstructing their lives were innumerable. My father, who was a very hardworking and ambitious student, did whatever it took to excel in school. Thanks to the scholarships he received and a few professors along the way who truly believed in him, my father attained his engineering degree and was finally able to rise out of poverty and stand on his own feet. Although my grandmother passed away over twenty years ago, her stories have stayed with me and my compassion for the underprivileged has only grown with each visit to India.
After business school, I worked on Wall Street as an equity research analyst. I have always been intrigued by what makes certain companies successful while others, with a seemingly good product or service, don’t make it off the ground. I focused my attention on undiscovered small capitalization stocks that I believed would flourish and whose stock price appreciation would bring it into the mid/large-cap world in the next two to five years. I took a multi-faceted approach to analyzing these companies — focusing not only on their valuation, earnings and business model but also on their market opportunity (something that wasn’t clearly defined for these small companies), distribution model, competitive positioning, relationships with vendors and customers and management style. I employed a “kick the tires” style of research where I regularly called company customers, vendors, competitors, employees, creditors and industry experts to get a “true” picture of a company’s health and its future prospects. It was very hard work and it required a long-term perspective but it translated into high quality stock picking. Although my work was respected by my hedge-fund clients, after more than fifteen years on Wall Street I decided to take a back seat and spend more time with my family while pursuing other interests. I wanted the next chapter of my life to be more about helping others and “giving back.”
During this time, I read a lot about the power of microfinance in alleviating poverty. I liked the concept because it empowered the poor by leveraging their entrepreneurial spirit and placing the potential for success in their own hands rather than simply giving them handouts. Last spring, I heard Acumen Fund CEO Jacqueline Novogratz interviewed on National Public Radio while promoting her book, The Blue Sweater. As she described her philosophy — specifically her entrepreneurial approach to solving global poverty with “patient” capital — and explained how Acumen Fund stands on the shoulders of microfinance, I was intrigued. I immediately bought her book and read it from cover to cover. I was not only spellbound by her vivid storytelling but also particularly impressed by the social entrepreneurs in whom Acumen Fund invests and works alongside. Finding the right social entrepreneurs in whom to invest reminded me of my work finding undiscovered small-capitalization companies, but the reward is considerably more fulfilling.
I was so inspired by The Blue Sweater that I went to a book reading in Manhattan to personally meet Jacqueline and ask how I can get involved. I am excited to find ways to channel my compassion for the poor in India and Africa, to leverage my investment skill set and to be part of the Acumen Fund community working to effect real change.