If the beginning of the 21st century has seemed tumultuous so far, 2020 has shown that things can always get worse. In Australia, the year began with catastrophic bushfires that burned through 18.6 million hectares of land and wiped out over 1.25 billion of native animals.

The fires were still burning when a global pandemic put a complete hold on life. So far, COVID-19 took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and counting. Millions lost their jobs and we’re now — in the best-case scenario —  facing a recession.

While we’re still working to contain the virus and find a vaccine, the violent killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer caused millions of people to take to streets in protest and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The event drew attention to widespread systemic injustice and racism that is by no means limited to the US.

As we try to wrap our heads around event after event, 2020 is looking like a turning point in human history. If it is for better or worse will depend on how we choose to respond.

What is Manifesto for a Moral Revolution?

Among the chaos arrives a handbook for those who are determined to become leaders for positive change. In her Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Jacqueline Novogratz outlines practices to build a better world.

“I wrote this book because I believe that our fragile, unequal, divided, yet still beautiful, world deserves radical moral rejuvenation. This revolution will ask all of us to shift our way of thinking to connection rather than consumerism, to purpose rather than profits, to sustainability rather than selfishness.”

Jacqueline Novogratz

The Founder and CEO of Acumen, a non-profit global venture capital fund addressing global poverty through entrepreneurship, describes the qualities and character traits we need to develop to drive change in even the most adverse conditions. And yet, her stories hold a more universal truth.

Adopting an entrepreneurial attitude

We don’t have any experience. We might have to sacrifice some of the comforts and conveniences we have grown fond of. It’s not even exactly clear what we’re hoping to achieve. Once we start looking for reasons why now is not the right time to act, we are sure to find many.

Novogratz describes her own battles with her inner critic and overcoming internal resistance. As a young analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank she was firmly on the path to a lucrative career and conventional success. Yet, she had also heard about the life-changing effect the emerging microfinance sector was having on the world’s poorest.

After a few months of arguing with herself and despite her family’s concerns, Novogratz quit her corporate career to take on a job in microfinance in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa.

It’s fair to say that things didn’t all go smooth sailing from there. She made mistakes that she openly and honestly discusses in the book. Ventures failed. But each time something went wrong, she learned something that helped her do better in the next attempt.

Over the years, her entrepreneurial ‘just start’ attitude meant that she could drive change while others were still contemplating all the things that could go wrong.

Taking the first step

“And though we made a few false starts, to be sure, because of our efforts and those of so many around the world, a new sector exists, called impact investing.”

Jacqueline Novogratz

The thing is that taking a leap of faith and making the decision to act is often the hardest part. Once we have set something in motion, humans have an amazing capacity to adapt to new circumstances.

And starting something doesn’t necessarily mean having to completely switch careers. Acting and advocating for change is more about discovering an internal entrepreneurial spirit and drive. It’s an energy that we need in our leaders across government, activism, business, science, and the non-profit sector.

It will take vision, ingenuity, and bravery to fight for social justice and to protect all life on this planet. Some of the ideas we try will inevitably fail. But the point is that we need more ideas, not less, to have any hope of turning things around for the better. The important thing is that as many people as possible muster courage to take the first step.

Success built on principles

In Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Novogratz tells many stories of entrepreneurs who are defying conventional definitions of success. Ankit Agarwal, founder of Indian flower incense company Phool, is one of them.

Agarwal started his business on the principles of circularity. The aim of the startup is to stop temple flowers from being dumped into the Ganges where they cause major pollution issues.

To achieve this goal, he developed a method to turn the flowers into charcoal-free incense sticks that are used daily in households across India. He also insisted on employing only “scavenger” women to sort, clean and roll the incense sticks to provide them with an opportunity to learn skills and earn a dignified income.

If Agarwal had applied traditional measures of success to his business, his employment strategy would have been short-lived, since it led to major setbacks and increased cost. In the most extreme case, Agarwal’s first commercial landlord destroyed all factory equipment when he learned about the employee’s caste.

But he didn’t let this deter him. While the ultimate objective for his startup is to be a profitable business, he refused to make concessions on his core values to fast track the company’s growth.

“We are the system. We decide how to define success, and we can reject purely individualistic terms.”

Jacqueline Novogratz

Working with a long-term view

Agarwal can afford to grow Phool without compromise because of Acumen’s investment philosophy of patient capital. Unlike traditional startup investment with a focus on fast growth and quick, exponential returns for investors, patient capital takes a long-term view. It also has a high tolerance for risk and flexibility for the needs of the entrepreneur.

Patient capital is a framework based on impact and principles. And while it was originally designed to meet the needs of entrepreneurs in the world’s most challenging environments, the model seems increasingly relevant in the developed world. For how can we address the biggest issues of our time if we’re not willing to change the system that created them?

A final word

Manifesto for a Moral Revolution is full of ideas that challenge the status quo. It is filled with real life stories showing that we all have the capacity to lead change. It shows that — with time — it’s possible to start and scale businesses that are profitable and benefit society at large. 

The book is a must-read for anyone looking for inspiration and guidance at this crucial moment in history. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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