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  • 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.