Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference. To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure. Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).
1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?
Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.
2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?
We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created IDEO.org to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.
3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?
When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.
4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?
It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.
5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?
Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.
I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often. You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.
This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.