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An Escape From Poverty

Why Give a Damn:

Income is only one condition of poverty, it is also a condition of choice and lack of freedom. Acumen founder, Jacqueline Novogratz, discusses the nonprofit that takes a businesslike approach to improving the lives of the poor.

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People don’t want handouts. They want to make their own decisions, to solve their own problems.  Tweet This Quote

Jacqueline Novogratz founded Acumen in 2001 with one ambitious plan: to change the way the world tackles poverty. Indeed, Acumen has more in common with a venture capital fund than a typical nonprofit. Rather than handing out grants, Acumen invests in early stage companies and organizations that bring critical — often life-altering — products and services to the world’s poor. Like VCs, Acumen offers not just money, but also infrastructure and management expertise. From drip-irrigation systems in India to high quality solar lighting solutions in East Africa to a low-cost mortgage program in Pakistan, Acumen’s portfolio offers important case studies for entrepreneurial efforts aimed at the vastly underserved market of those making less than $4/day.

It’s a fascinating model that’s shaken up philanthropy and investment communities, alike. Acumen manages more than $80 million in investments aimed at serving the poor. In addition to seeking out sound business models, great importance is placed on identifying solutions from within communities rather than imposing them from the outside.


Jacqueline Novogratz founded and leads Acumen, a nonprofit that takes a businesslike approach to improving the lives of the poor. In her book “The Blue Sweater” she tells stories from the philanthropy, which emphasizes sustainable bottom-up solutions over traditional top-down aid. Novogratz is redefining the way problems of poverty can be solved around the world. Drawing on her past experience in banking, microfinance and traditional philanthropy, Novogratz has become a leading proponent for financing entrepreneurs and enterprises that can bring affordable clean water, housing and healthcare, energy, agriculture and education to poor people so that they no longer have to depend on the disappointing results and lack of accountability seen in traditional charity and old-fashioned aid.

Income is only one condition of poverty, it is also a condition of choice and lack of freedom.  Tweet This Quote


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  • Stuart McMurran

    This was a good message and a conversation topic I like to think about with friends and on my own. Poverty really is more than just money, it’s a complete lack of control in one’s life. There is an inability for people in poverty to make decisions to get them out of their situation because not only do they not have money, but there is a lack of resources that can be used for them to better their situation. Namely, education and helath are two huge concerns. It was nice to hear about the woman who left those slums, but although she got out many other people are still stuck there. Children are born there and have no real help to get out. It makes me appreciate the life I have and how I can make a difference for people in my life.

  • Trang Ho

    What a meaningful story! I agree that poverty is not only about lack of money, but also lack of opportunities, choices, and freedom. In my home country, the poor people usually live in remote villages in upland areas, with limited access to transportation, social interaction, productive resources, and basic financial services. I believe the best way to help them escape the poverty is to provide them with the best tools helping them overcome poverty by themselves, especially education development. You can give them $50/month to support their basic living expenses, but if you do that, they will receive it, spend it all, and rely on your support because no one teach them how to save money, make more money from it or spend money intelligently. Instead of doing that, it would be better to donate money in order to send children to schools, improve transportation from the villages to the cities, or giving them tools and seeds to do small business by themselves. By this way, we can make the poor stand on their own feet and speak up for themselves, thereby shortening the gaps in income levels and social classes in the long run.

  • paleskij

    “Being poor doesn’t mean being ordinary…systems are broken.” Poverty is a hard topic to address, and one that can often make a speaker come across as uppity, or “High and mighty.” It is also a topic where you often see conflict between the non-profit sector and the business sector. Acumen, and Jacqueline Novogratz’s talk both see the blending of these two worlds as a possibility and also as a necessity. They see poverty as an issue not directly related to income, which is an important note to make. It also doesn’t mean that these people are helpless, dumb, or ordinary–it is so deeply intertwined with the systems of the world and how broken they are. While this was too brief of a talk for me to really see what Acumen does, this is a good perspective to take into account, and one that I think a lot of business people often forget.

  • Krystel Listyo

    What a great article to start with! After reading the overview about what Acumen does and watching the short video of Jacqueline herself talking about how we actually define poverty. At first, I didn’t quite grasp the meaning when I read the first sentence of the article. In the video, she also said that the definition of poverty is not only determined by income. But it is also determined by the condition of choice and lack of freedom. Jacqueline continued on talking about her visit to Mathare Valley slums in Nairobi, Kenya. She then told a story on how she met one of Kenyan women named Jane, and that was when I began to slowly understand what she meant by “condition of choice and lack of freedom”. Jane had the skill and ability to sew pretty dresses and was able to make more than $4 a day, but the living condition didn’t allow Jane to feel safe and secure and that actually struck me. I was amazed (more like a shock-therapy) when I heard her story. What Jacqueline does by founding Acumen as a venture capital for early stage companies and organizations that want to make the world a better place is a really job well done. We really need more people like Jacqueline. To be honest, Jacqueline’s work really opens up my eyes to see that there are still lots of things to be done in order to make the world a better place. Again, thank you. This article deserves more comment!

  • YeQi Zhou

    I can’t agree more with this article! Poverty doesn’t only mean that you are lacking of money, it means that you don’t get an equal chance to create something valuables to you and your family. You can’t control your life because you don’t have money for school, you can’t change your living situation since you don’t give the knowledge of how to save money and develop your community. It is actually sad because these people in poor don’t mean that they are not smart, they are not given a fair opportunity, and children they born will get the same situation.

  • rulintseng

    What a meaningful talk. Poverty is not just based on dollar value; income is only a variable. Poverty is a condition of choice and lack of freedom. Jacqueline talked about her experience in Kenya, and provided examples. The most impressive one is the girl who has two dreams: be a doctor and marry a god man. She grew up with a single mom and did not have money for her to go to school so her first dream cannot be achieved. She got married when she was 18, had a baby right away. When she found out she was pregnant again, her man left her. How heartbreaking. In order to make those people achieve their dreams, everyone of us can do a little of something to help them, such as, donations of money. When they have money, they could have more choices and freedom to do what they want to do.

  • Antony Phuoc Tran

    I really appreciate the positivity that Jane carries with her through all the events that had happened in her life. It’s incredible to see how she could have so much passion to live on strive for what she love to do after so many things were taken away from her (her mother, her husband, her dignity, …). However, not just her positivity that impresses me, her willingness to scarify herself for her children really makes me rethink about myself as a person. How much will I scarify for my loved ones? Thank you for posting this talk! It really does help me to reflect on myself.

  • ander106

    This talk was very inspirational and allowed me to contemplate over what poverty means here in Seattle. It is obvious that it’s not like how Jacqueline describes it in Jane’s town. Hearing stories about how people overcame poverty, like Jane, is so uplifting because it’s one of the worst situations to be in. It made me think about how conditions must have been for my grandparents who grew up in poverty in the Philippines more than 50 years ago.

  • Mitch Sween

    Thanks Ted Talks. The idea of empowering those who need the change to make the change is the right one. Overcoming poverty when that is the only choice is not attainable.

  • Tracy_Werner

    I agree with you that hearing people’s stories is so uplifting and empowering. Sometimes it makes me feel like if they could get through that, being the hardest time in their lives, I can get through anything, and I should do it without complaining! I am so happy that there are people like those who work at Acumen who spend their life truly “tackling poverty.”