A few years ago, I found myself in Kigali, Rwanda presenting a plan to bring off-grid solar electricity to 10 million low-income East Africans. As I waited to speak to the president and his ministers, I thought about how I'd arrived in that same place 30 years before. A 25-year-old who left her career in banking to cofound the nation's first microfinance bank with a small group of Rwandan women. And that happened just a few months after women had gained the right to open a bank account without their husband's signature.
Just before I got on stage, a young woman approached me. "Ms. Novogratz," she said, "I think you knew my auntie." "Really? What was her name?" She said, "Felicula." I could feel tears well.
One of the first women parliamentarians in the country, Felicula was a cofounder, but soon after we'd established the bank, Felicula was killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Some associated her death to a policy she had sponsored to abolish bride price, or the practice of paying a man for the hand of his daughter in marriage. I was devastated by her death.
And then a few years after that, after I'd left the country, Rwanda exploded in genocide. And I have to admit there were times when I thought about all the work so many had done, and I wondered what it had amounted to.
I turned back to the woman. "I'm sorry, would you tell me who you are again?" She said, "Yes, my name is Monique, and I'm the deputy governor of Rwanda's National Bank." If you had told me when we were just getting started that within a single generation, a young woman will go on to help lead her nation's financial sector, I'm not sure I would have believed you. And I understood that I was back in that same place to continue work Felicula had started but could not complete in her lifetime. And that it was to me to recommit to dreams so big I might not complete them in mine.
That night I decided to write a letter to the next generation because so many have passed on their wisdom and knowledge to me, because I feel a growing sense of urgency that I might not finish the work I came to do, and because I want to pass that forward to everyone who wants to create change in this world in ways that only they can do. That generation is in the streets. They are crying urgently for wholesale change against racial injustice, religious and ethnic persecution, catastrophic climate change and the cruel inequality that has left us more divided and divisive than ever in my lifetime.
But what would I say to them? I'm a builder, so I started by focusing on technical fixes, but our problems are too interdependent, too entangled. We need more than a system shift. We need a mind shift.
Plato wrote that a country cultivates what it honors. For too long, we have defined success based on money, power and fame. Now we have to start the hard, long work of moral revolution. By that I mean putting our shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth at the center of our systems, and prioritizing the collective we, not the individual I.
What if each of us gave more to the world than we took from it? Everything would change. Now cynics might say that sounds too idealistic, but cynics don't create the future. And though I've learned the folly of unbridled optimism, I stand with those who hold to hard-edged hope. I know that change is possible. The entrepreneurs and change agents with whom my team and I have worked have impacted more than 300 million low-income people, and sometimes reshaped entire sectors to include the poor.
But you can't really talk about moral revolution without grounding it in practicality and meaning, and that requires an entirely new set of operating principles. Let me share just three.
The first is moral imagination. Too often we use the lens only of our own imagination, even when designing solutions for people whose lives are completely different from our own. Moral imagination starts by seeing others as equal to ourselves, neither above nor below us, neither idealizing nor victimizing. It requires immersing in the lives of others, understanding the structures that get in their way and being honest about where they might be holding themselves back. That requires deep listening from a place of inquiry, not certainty.
Several years ago I sat with a group of women weavers outside in a rural village in Pakistan. The day was hot ... over 120 degrees in the shade. I wanted to tell the women about a company my organization had invested in that was bringing solar light to millions of people across India and East Africa, and I had seen the transformative power of that light to allow people to do things so many of us just take for granted.
"We have this light" I said, "costs about seven dollars. People say it's amazing. If we could convince the company to bring those products to Pakistan, would you all be interested?" The women stared, and then a big woman whose hands knew hard work looked at me, wiped the sweat off her face and said, "We don't want a light. We're hot. Bring us a fan." "Fan," I said. "We don't have a fan. We have a light. But if you had this light, your kids can study at night, you can work more — " She cut me off. "We work enough. We're hot. Bring us a fan."
That straight-talking conversation deepened my moral imagination. And I remember lying — sweltering in my bed in my tiny guest house that night, so grateful for the clickety-clack of the fan overhead. And I thought, "Of course. Electricity. A fan. Dignity." And when I now visit our companies who've reached over 100 million people with light and electricity and it's a really hot place, and if there's a rooftop system, there is also a fan.
But moral imagination is also needed to rebuild and heal our countries. My nation is roiling as it finally confronts what it's not wanted to see. It would be impossible to deny the legacy of American slavery if all of us truly immersed in the lives of Black people. Every nation begins the process of healing when its people begin to see each other and to understand that it is in that work that are planted the seeds of our individual and collective transformation.
Now that requires acknowledging the light and shadow, the good and evil that exist in every human being. In our world we have to learn to partner with those even whom we consider our adversaries.
This leads to the second principle: holding opposing values in tension. Too many of our leaders today stand on one corner or the other, shouting. Moral leaders reject the wall of either-or. They're willing to acknowledge a truth or even a partial truth in what the other side believes. And they gain trust by making principled decisions in service of other people, not themselves.
To succeed in my work has required holding the tension between the power of markets to enable innovation and prosperity and their peril to allow for exclusion and sometimes exploitation. Those who see the sole purpose of business as profit are not comfortable with that tension, nor are those who have no trust in business at all. But standing on either side negates the creative, generative potential of learning to use markets without being seduced by them.
Take chocolate. It's a hundred-billion-dollar industry dependent on the labor of about five million smallholder farming families who receive only a tiny fraction of that 100 billion. In fact, 90 percent of them make under two dollars a day. But there's a generation of new entrepreneurs that is trying to change that. They start by understanding the production costs of the farmers. They agree to a price that allows the farmers to actually earn income in a way that will sustain their lives. Sometimes including revenue-share and ownership models, building a community of trust. Now are these companies as profitable as those that focus solely on shareholder value? Possibly not in the short term. But these entrepreneurs are focused on solving problems. They're tired of easy slogans like "doing well by doing good." They know they have to be financially sustainable, and they are insisting on including the poor and the vulnerable in their definition of success.
And that brings me to the third principle: accompaniment. It's actually a Jesuit term that means to walk alongside: I'll hold a mirror to you, help you see your potential, maybe more than you see it yourself. I'll take on your problem but I can't solve it for you — that you have to learn to do.
For example, in Harlem there's an organization called City Health Works that hires local residents with no previous health care experience, trains them to work with other residents so that they can better control chronic diseases like gout, hypertension, diabetes. I had the great pleasure of meeting Destini Belton, one of the health workers, who explained her job to me. She said that she checks in on clients, checks their vital signs, takes them grocery shopping, goes on long walks, has conversations. She told me, "I let them know somebody has their back." And the results have been astounding. Patients are healthier, hospitals less burdened. As for Destini, she tells me her family and she are healthier. "And," she adds, "I love that I get to contribute to my community."
All of us yearn to be seen, to count. The work of change, of moral revolution, is hard. But we don't change in the easy times. We change in the difficult times. In fact, I've come to see discomfort as a proxy for progress.
But there's one more thing. There's something I wish I'd known when I was just starting out so many years ago. No matter how hard it gets, there's always beauty to be found.
I remember now what seems a long time ago, spending an entire day talking to woman after woman in the Mathare Valley slum in Nairobi, Kenya. I listened to their stories of struggle and survival as they talked about losing children, of fighting violence and hunger, sometimes feeling like they wouldn't even survive. And right before I left, a huge rainstorm poured down. And I was sitting in my little car as the wheels stuck in the mud thinking, "I'm never getting out of here," when suddenly there was a tap on my window — a woman who was beckoning me to follow her, and I did. Jumped out through the rainstorm, we went down this little muddy path, through a rickety metal door, inside a shack where a group of women were dancing with abandon.
I jumped in and found myself lost in the rhythm and the color and the smiles and suddenly I realized: this is what we do as human beings. When we're broken, when we feel that we are failing or are in despair, we dance. We sing. We pray. Beauty resides too in showing up, in paying attention, in being kind when we feel like being anything but kind. Look at the explosion of art and music and poetry in this moment of our collective crisis. It is in the darkest times that we have the chance to find our deepest beauty.
So let this be our moment to move forward with the fierce urgency of a new generation fortified with our most profound and collective wisdom. And ask yourself: what can you do with the rest of today and the rest of your life to give back more to the world than you take?