Recently, on an early morning run along the Hudson River, I found myself standing in front of “Immigrants,” a massive cast-iron sculpture by Luis Sanguino of a group of weary souls, their eyes focused upward with a sense of hope, of possibility. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty rose in the harbor, her torch still a beacon of freedom despite the fact that the journey is not yet complete.
I thought of that moment many times this past week, marking Independence Day in the US while Egyptians fought again for change and people everywhere held their breath in quiet prayer for Nelson Mandela, a man willing to sacrifice everything for a world in which every one of us could be free. It is the idea of freedom, of dignity, that moves entire generations to rise, and it is the ongoing work of societies to recommit and make ever more real and ever more inclusive those same ideals.
At Acumen, we are doing what we can to promote freedom and dignity. We do this through demonstrating the power of patient capital, investing in leaders and spreading ideas to change the way the world tackles poverty. We do it by trying to live up to our manifesto which emphasizes the ethos of why, not just the practice of how.
The work is not easy, nor is it perfect, and still I could not be more inspired by the successes we are seeing in Acumen’s portfolio. To name a few, Water Health International now delivers a million liters of safe drinking water to the poor every day. Ziqitza, the emergency services company runs 1,200 ambulances, employs more than 5,000 and has responded to more than 2 million calls. GADC, the cotton gin in northern Uganda, purchased more than 20 metric tons of cotton from 40,000 farmers. d.light is selling 200,000 solar lanterns per month and has brought affordable, safe light now to more than 16 million people. Each of these companies is increasing freedom by providing people the ability to change their own lives.
Of course, we have experienced failures. At the extraordinary 10th anniversary of the Skoll World Forum, I shared the three types we’ve seen. First, is the kind that makes you want to bang your head against the wall – focusing too quickly on growth before ensuring unit profitability, for example. Second is investing too early in the innovation curve (this is a good failure). We invested in a company bringing micro-health insurance to Pakistan as a first-mover, and though that particular effort failed, there is now a growing industry based on many of the lessons from that early experiment. The third kind of failure is the most painful: corruption. When we encounter it, we look to exit. That hurts a lot. But if failing is not an option, you’ve ruled out success as well.
As we continue to innovate and build our portfolio, so do we understand at a deeper level the importance of strengthening our work in leadership. It has been thrilling to see our Global Fellows emerge as architects of the social sector, having created more than six new organizations already, ranging from providing education to young women in South East Asia to building housing for the poor in Pakistan to running IDEO.org. Our Regional Fellows in East Africa and Pakistan are also starting new organizations and emerging as a support network to help one another do what is right, not what is easy.
Acumen Chapters, now numbering 22, are on the move. As just one example, the +Acumen Riyadh and Jeddah chapters recently hosted our Director of Business Development to meet with leading thinkers and philanthropists in Saudi Arabia. When I asked a couple of the young Saudi women leaders why they are involved, they told me they “want to be part of the larger conversation.”
Our chapters pushed us to extend our leadership curriculum beyond our Fellows. We weren’t sure if it was possible to teach leadership online, so decided to just start and let the work teach us (our thanks go to the Knight Foundation and American Express for supporting this program). Recently, we offered a six-week course designed by IDEO.org on Human-Centered Design. More than 12,000 individuals from a 136 countries have registered, including individuals from major corporations, universities and financial institutions. Everywhere I see a yearning to commit to something bigger than oneself.
Investing remains the crucible of our work and our leadership programs are Acumen’s long term legacy; but the spread of ideas is where we ultimately should see the greatest leverage.
Take the example of Husk Power Systems. Acumen, along with others, has invested for years in this rice husk gasification company that has brought affordable, clean, electricity to more than 250,000 individuals in rural Bihar through 80 micro-grid plants. Husk then worked with Rajnish Jain, who was experimenting with gasifying pine needles in the remote Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand, to electrify those communities. Through investing in the early stages of Avani, we hope to help build a company that ultimately serves 50,000 people.
Husk as a model, has also influenced policy. On June 30th President Obama announced Power Africa, an initiative intended to double access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Power Africa will support Husk Power Systems to install 200 biomass plants in Tanzania. It will also strengthen the work of another renewable energy investee company based in East Africa.
This progression from early stage investing, to replication of basic principles, to policy initiatives, is at the heart of our vision. We do the work however, for the people we have the privilege to serve.
A few weeks ago, I visited a village somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore in the state of Karnataka in southern India. The candy lane colors of the little houses brought a sense of cheer despite the crushing heat: the temperature threatened to rise to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. We came to meet families who send their children to a private kindergarten run by one of our investees. Hippocampus Learning Centres has taught 4,000 children across 100 villages, using locally trained teachers to impart critical thinking and the art of imagination rather than learning by rote.
We stopped at the home of a small family to talk to the parents about their decision to enroll their child in kindergarten. The house itself was striking: turquoise walls framed with a deep maroon-red connected to brightly colored houses on either side. Between mother and father was a beautiful little boy in shorts and a collared shirt. He held his hands around his father’s legs as if he were hugging the trunk of a tree. To further protect him, his father cupped his big hand around the boy’s face so that he was more appendage than separate person.
I asked the father if he wanted his son to grow to be a farmer like him. He responded with a resolute “No.”
I pushed him: “Not a farmer? But you have such a beautiful family and home. Are you happy?”
“Happy?” he repeated the word. “How can I be happy when we have no water and so little electricity? It makes it impossible to farm. No matter how hard I work, I have no control over how much I produce.”
Choice and control. The power to make one’s own decisions and know that hard work can translate into success. I hear this everywhere I go. The answer to poverty is not simply more income. The answer is choice and opportunity. The answer is freedom and dignity.
And so we continue to strive with the help of so many of you. Thank you for being part of this journey.
In the spirit of peace and freedom,