Valedictory Exercises, May 19, 2023
University of Virginia
I am honored to be standing among you all today, faculty, friends, family, and especially the class of 2023. Congratulations!
I can barely believe I was sitting where you are 40 years ago. I was excited and idealistic and wanted to change the world. But I didn’t have a clue how to do it.
I wasn’t a stand-out at UVA - I worked two jobs to put myself through school, mostly bartending (back then, the drinking age was 18 for beer, and my peers were very very happy about that). I wasn’t in a sorority or involved in political life and didn’t play on a sports team. I worked.
OK, I also danced a lot. I still do.
And though I had an amazing circle of beloved friends, I felt like an outsider, seemingly confident but fighting a tender heart - as if I had a bull and a dove swirling inside of me, one side courageous, one side questioning.
But perhaps that sense of being an Outsider gave me superpowers too - different lenses through which to see the world, a sense of empathy, an understanding for what it feels like when the system doesn’t work for you.
And now that I reflect on my younger self, I’m grateful for my struggles in paying my way through school. I gained a sense deep within me that no matter what happened in life, I could find a way through.
You may have conquered different challenges by now: I wonder how many of you have felt the same.
What inspires me about your generation is that so many of you are not satisfied with the status quo. And you want to do something about it.
I am guessing it’s not your only goal simply to leave this place, make a ton of money and lead a comfortable life. You want to do something that matters.
What’s more, every new generation stands on the accumulated knowledge of past generations - you therefore have more skills, tools, and connections to people across the planet than I and my peers could have dreamt of.
And now, this is your time to tackle the challenges that are uniquely of this moment.
As for me, I’m still pursuing dreams so big I might not realize them in my lifetime. And I am still a pragmatic idealist. I’ve got lines on my face and lots of hard-edges worn smoother from tumbling along the long hard road of making change. But on most days, I’m filled with a deep sense of joy and satisfaction.
I’ve gained some wisdom along the way too. I know change is possible because I’ve lived it - change that starts with one or two people and a big idea; change that can lead to something affecting millions of lives.
So let me share three lessons that have been drivers in my own life - in hopes that you will give yourselves permission to believe in the power of your dreams and have the courage to do something about them.
First, just start.
Trying to make a difference in the world isn’t easy. Many people have that intention, yet they end up living provisionally. They tell themselves they’ll follow their real dream once they earn a certain level of income, or get married, or buy a house.
And then, life happens. And 20 years later, too many wonder what could have been different had they dared a little earlier.
But at every moment in your life, you’ve the chance, the CHOICE to go for what really matters to you. Don’t wait for the perfect. Don’t fear trying when you see a possibility that could make all the difference.
My first move coming out of UVA was to become….. a banker.
I didn’t really want to be a banker. But this was a job that took me to 40 countries – and I did want to travel. I wanted to know the world. The job also gave me crucial income. And surprising to me at the time, I also gained invaluable tools and skills that are still essential to my work today.
The bank had me working in places like Brazil where I saw the vitality of low-income people laboring in the most vibrant communities. Yet they couldn’t get a loan. It made no sense. I wanted to use my banking skills to reach those who’d been overlooked and underestimated, and had so much to give.
So I started looking for a different kind of job, hopefully back in Brazil.
But the only job I could find was in West Africa - a region that was not in my game plan. The hardest part about leaving was telling my parents. My mother feared I’d never marry; my father, that I was giving up the job of a lifetime. I didn’t want to let them down.
But I knew that if I didn’t make the move then, I might never make it.
There is only one person who can live your life. And that is you.
Lao Tsu wrote the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I took mine and fell flat on my face. I arrived in Cote d’Ivoire with great enthusiasm, keen to share my skills, yet having little understanding of the context or people I was there to serve.
I quickly learned that most people don’t want to be helped, and they don’t want to be saved. They want to solve their own problems. Real change is mutual change. Don’t go to serve unless you understand that your dignity is bound in mine; and mine in yours.
I also learned that if you rule out failure, you will rule out success.
One thing about leaving everyone you love and giving away most everything you own to move across the world is that you raise the stakes of trying. I wasn’t going to quit after my first failure.
I took a another step: I moved to Kenya. I failed again. I had thought that by analyzing an organization’s problems, they’d be able to fix them. But I presented my findings before building trust. Turned out that it didn’t matter if my insights were right. They literally went up in flames.
I learned that trust is the most valuable currency we have.
Failure is a powerful teacher; therefore, Just Start has a crucial second part to it.
Just Start — and let the work teach you.
When I finally landed in Rwanda, less than a year after leaving New York City, I’d learned a new humility. I learned that people will tell you the truth if you show up fully and listen without trying to convince or convert but to be changed yourself.
I understood that if we were going to build a Rwandan bank, it would have to be owned and managed by Rwandan women. I could be a co-founder, but We would have to be a lot more important than I.
In a few years, our small but mighty group of five co-founders had built a women’s microfinance bank called Duterimbere, meaning to Go Forward with Enthusiasm. And so we did.
I saw that a small group of people could change a corner of history.
My time in Rwanda taught me that aid and top-down government programs too often create dependency - which is the opposite of dignity.
And that dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.
Had I not taken a step to go to Africa, I would not have known how to take the step to start Acumen, a non-profit organization that invests in for-profit companies to solve problems of poverty. I am still just starting, each time building on what has come before, sometimes failing, always getting up to try again.
So dare to start. And let the work teach you.
Second: Hold Values in Tension
Our desire for easy solutions does not match the complexity of the world. My work investing in social enterprises has taught me that we’ll solve our toughest problems only if we are willing to embrace nuance, a clarion call that is hard to hear over the din of today’s fractured conversations.
Let me give you an example: Capitalism. For it or against it?
I’ve been working with the tools of capitalism for forty years. I love it and I hate it. On one hand, for-profit companies build in a rapid feedback mechanism with their customers; on the other, unbridled shareholder capitalism fails to account for companies’ impact on the poor and on the earth.
Fifteen years ago, 1.5 billion people lacked access to electricity. A handful of companies, seeing the poor as customers, built solutions that enabled hundreds of millions of low-income people to gain access to light and electricity.
BUT 750 million people still lack electricity. Markets alone will not reach the last mile. Government partnership and philanthropy are also needed. It will take all of us.
This is the moment to reimagine capitalism. I’ve learned so much from investing in entrepreneurs tackling our broken food systems through companies that ensure smallholder farmers who grow our food earn enough to feed their families; or entrepreneurs working to convert waste into useful products like fertilizer, animal feed and vegan leather.
The moral imagination of these entrepreneurs assures me of our collective capacity to reimagine a future that puts our shared humanity and the sustainability of the earth, not just profit, at the center of our systems.
We can change the system. Because we are the system.
Holding values in tension is a pathway to wisdom.
You live in a time of great uncertainty where vicious debates are held on social media in hyperspeed. We can be quick to judgment, quick to find safety in people who think like us.
Learning to hold the tensions has taught me how people who may see each other as adversaries can rally around solutions that tap into our best selves. This requires the courage to actively seek the humanity that lies in each of us.
And this is very personal to me.
A few years after I left Rwanda, the nation began to pull apart. I began hearing stories of people who had lived side by side for generations begin to mistrust and fear each other. In 1994, Rwanda erupted into a genocidal bloodbath– murdering more than half a million human beings in 100 days.
I lost many friends and wondered about the group who’d spent years building Duterimbere together. I returned to Rwanda to find the women with whom I’d co-founded the bank. And I discovered that they’d played every role within the Genocide - victim, bystander, and - yes - perpetrator.
I remember visiting an overcrowded prison to see Agnes, a co-founder and parliamentarian who had been arrested for the highest crimes of genocide. Agnes and I sat knee to knee in a tiny jail cell. I marveled at her youthful, freckled face, her shaved head, her pink dress. How could this woman who had worked to build a social justice institution have gone on to lead a genocide?
Then it hit me. Monsters and angels exist in all of us. Monsters are our broken parts, our secret shames, our petty grievances and insecurities.
In unstable times, it becomes easy for demagogic leaders to prey on those parts, cast blame on others for our problems, sometimes to see them as less than human. And in the extreme, convince us to do terrible things.
Our challenge in this time of inequality, of toxic social media and us versus them politics is to learn to suppress the monsters and free our better angels. We must learn to balance our audacity with a new humility.
We humans are too easily manipulated by fear and by cynicism, missing the fact that these are the best allies of the status quo. The fearful hide away. And cynics don’t build the future. The role of leadership today is to counter fear and cynicism with calls to moral reason, to the vision of a shared future, to love.
To do that you’re going to have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Think of discomfort as a proxy for progress.
So, hard work. Commitment. Resilience. Discomfort. Showing up - not for years but possibly for decades. This is what it takes to make change...
But before you run for the hills, there’s something else. If you embark on this lifelong journey, you will discover two glorious fellow travelers. Their names are Beauty and Hope.
My final entreaty is this: Look for them. Welcome them. Embrace beauty and hope.
Ten days ago, I was visiting, a company that works with small scale fish farmers on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. There I met a grandmother named Rebecca.
Petite and fierce, Rebecca raised her family as a farmer and lost her husband too early. A few years ago, she noticed that men weren’t fishing the old way, going into the sea each morning to test their luck, but were instead cultivating tiny fingerlings into healthy abundant fish that could be sold as a valuable protein source.
And though she herself had never fished, Rebecca sensed an opportunity to improve her life.
So she just started. But Rebecca tried before the technology was proven. And she failed, losing her initial money. And then Aquarech came in with the promise of supporting her with loans, good feed and advice.
So she tried again. This time, an algae bloom caused by climate change wiped out her fortune – 40,000 fish. Now, in major debt, Rebecca took a deep breath and went to her friends. “This is what we do in Kenya,” she said. “We help each other in difficult times.”
But, Rebecca, I said, “You’d already failed twice. How did you find the courage to start again?
“Hard things happen,” she said. “But what do you do? If you sit and do nothing, life only gets worse. So you get back up. You try again. You make life work.”
We have a saying in Luo, our local language, she said. “Chaka Chaka.” Just start.
I hugged her.
Rebecca is rebuilding. She’s grown her business to 30,000 fish and dreams of expanding further so that she can create more change within her community.
It’s a complex story - two steps forward, one step back. Yet, Rebecca was full of sparkle. “How can you be so alive?” I asked her. Rebecca said she loved her children, her grandchildren, her community. “I love being a leader,” she said.
Rebecca has what so many of us yearn to have - she feels seen, a sense of belonging; she feels needed.
As I listened to that wise woman, I was overwhelmed. I could see the light, or maybe the divinity within her; and thus, could feel the divinity within myself. In this connection was beauty. And hope.
And the seeds of our mutual transformation.
I have found that same sense of beauty and hope in the most distant hamlets, the meanest neighborhoods. I have felt it in the ways people come together to double joys and to hold each other in grief. I’ve witnessed people find their most profound beauty in the darkest times. South Africans have a term: Ubuntu. “I am because you are.”
When we dare to immerse ourselves in the world, serving, creating, giving, trying, we might get a few bruises, but so do we increase our chances to encounter what it means to be fully alive, astonishingly, imperfectly, wholly human.
So, I am inviting you today to hold onto a dream that matters. It should be your dream, not mine. I started out fighting poverty and discovered what I really cared about is building dignity. Now I understand I want to be fully used up before I die.
You might dream of being an inventor, a designer, an artist, a farmer, an educator, a banker, an engineer, an architect, a doctor, a social entrepreneur. You are all needed.
But don’t think you need answers today. You likely won’t yet know how you will be best used in this complex world.
But you can follow the thread of your curiosity. Hold on through ups and downs. Do that long enough, and I promise you, you’ll end up coming home to yourself.
So start. Let the work teach you. Hold values in tension. Embrace hope. And know there is always beauty to be found.
Just don’t forget to dance along the way!
Congratulations Class of 2023.
Presented by Jacqueline Novogratz
Founder and CEO of Acumen, author, and UVA alumna