The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (Hardcover, 2009)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This personal memoir of an exceptional person on a series of
exceptional quests is intriguing. It's not particularly polished, but
the stories are unusual enough to keep the reader interested. Like any
other memoir, the events are colored by the perceptions of the author.
Since I have no other account of those events, I can't tell to what
degree this took place in this book.
Ms. Novogratz accomplished some amazing things.
Obviously aware of this, she made several efforts in the text to show that she wasn't all full of herself
(some of these were clumsy, some were not).
But I think this point is already made in her actions and the general
philosophy evident in those actions. I guess there are always people who
"read between the lines" things that aren't there, so maybe she did this
on good advice as a precaution.
It's also evident that Ms. Novogratz wants to
leverage her solid accomplishments in some way for posterity and
continuation of what she started. She and I are very close in age,
and I understand this need to motivate the generations that follow.
She's done this in person, and with the book she's reaching a wider
She offers some observations and advice, multitasking
advocacy with personal accounts and thus isn't proposing a specific
program. Perhaps she's trying to avoid being
preachy (she succeeds) and wants people to look at her example (while
making it clear she's not full of herself) and let them find their own
This book has some writing flaws that I would
normally harangue over in a review. But any good reviewer steps back and tries to determine who the audience for the book is and
what the author is trying to tell them. That process may instruct the
author to downplay some of the points that are important for proper
reviews of general nonfiction.
For example, if the book were about how to start a
company (such as Acumen Fund, which she founded), then the book
would need to express its objectives and devote a chapter to each one. But
this book isn't about that. It's not instructional guide for a specific
process or to reach a specific goal, though the author
does convey some thoughts that are instructional.
is a doer, not a talker. Keeping that in mind when reading this book
will help you more enjoy the richness it offers.
It seems to me that the primary audience would be
people who have the means, opportunity, and desire to travel to distant
lands and help the very poor help themselves. I can't personally connect
with that. There are also several other audiences, and you may find
yourself a member of one or more of those.
For example, we all know someone who could use
some mentoring. Something Ms. Novogratz learned, and repeatedly gave
examples of in the book, is that telling people what they are doing
wrong and then giving them a "better way" tends not to work. What she
found was that you first need to understand where those people are and
then help them to get to where they want to be, using what they are
willing to use. This reflects, to me, what Stephen R. Covey says about
"Seek first to understand."
One reason for the colossal failure of poverty
relief efforts (in poverty-stricken places ranging from third world
countries to urban America) is those efforts often proceed on assumptions that
just aren't true. If the reader learns anything from this book, my guess
would be Ms. Novogratz would desire the reader to learn how to really
listen to people and see them as they are rather than how you wish them
While I understand intellectually exactly the point
she's making, I have to say I personally find this extremely hard and
unnatural to do. So, I'm not pointing fingers at people who are serving
in any capacity in poverty relief efforts. I am merely saying that Ms. Novogratz has
this important message to communicate through her memoir. I think her need to convey this
in depth is why the book,
though a memoir in style and substance, is packaged as more of a
self-help book for those wanting to help others.
She actually began this
book not as a book but as a letter to herself. She was trying to
understand the genocide of Rwanda, and getting her thoughts down was
part of her effort to understand. But the letter kept getting longer.
After 10 years, she just about had a book. Well, the next logical
It's also important to note that Seth Godin
reviewed this book, wrote a snippet for the jacket, and has personally
been very involved with Ms. Novogratz efforts over recent years. If you
don't know who Mr. Godin is, start thumbing through back issues of
Fast Company or ask just about anyone who has an MBA and is
participating in today's business world. If you do know who Mr. Godin
is, then just get the book (because he really, really wants you to).
This book consists of 16 chapters, a prologue,
extensive acknowledgements, and a nicely done index. Each chapter begins
with a relevant quote, and probably not one you've read before. In
these chapters, Ms. Novogratz proceeds pretty much in chronological order from her
early adventures up to almost the present--roughly three decades.
Here's a sampling of chapter titles:
Chapter One. Innocent Abroad. This was aptly
named, and Ms. Novogratz does some mea culpa here. I think one
of her messages was that she had to learn by making mistakes. I found
this refreshing in an era in which prominent people frequently pretend they are
somehow genetically better than everyone else. Another message is
that you can expect to stumble. Don't let that discourage you, as it's
part of the process of learning. The key, however, is to actually learn
from that. I think here we can understand that Ms. Novogratz is a humble
person. If she weren't, then she would still be a "Chapter One" person
Chapter Five. The Blue Bakery. This is a mix of
mea culpa and providing a success story. The bakery project is where Ms.
Novogratz had several "aha!" moments. And it's where she really started
to hit her stride. This chapter forms the foundation for the rest of the
book, as it's the foundation from which Ms. Novogratz views the rest of
her work in Africa (work that took about 20 years).
Chapter Nine. Blue Paint on the Road. This is the
aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. One of the central items in this
chapter is the bakery was also a victim during that period of mass
Chapter Fourteen. Building Brick by Brick. How do
you bring low-cost housing to areas where the residents have no access
to a mortgage? Ms. Novogratz quotes one of the "making it happen" people
she learned from. "We go to the people and live with them, build on what
they know, listen to them, and help them do things for themselves." This
is Ms. Novogratz' guiding philosophy, but not the one she began with.
This chapter includes discussion of incremental housing and other solutions that don't
typically cross the Western mind.
While I doubt Ms. Novogratz intended it, a major
"takeaway" for me was the enormous expansion of the federal government
over the past 20 years and especially the new legislation rammed through
Congress in February of 2009 are counterproductive to the
American economy and the American people. We are, like the African poor,
capable of doing things for ourselves. We don't need bureaucrats and
reality-averse programs undermining us at every turn. We need respect,
not handouts and pats on the head.
In Africa, Ms. Novogratz found
ways to remove barriers to people's progress and to find inexpensive solutions to
help people be more productive. We should translate the lessons of this
book into how we view the role of government in our own country. Rather
than inflict us with "basket-making" projects (pork barrel spending), the
government should instead serve the citizens by understanding where we
are and what we have to work with ($2 trillion we don't have isn't it).
Of course, there are other lessons to learn from
this book. Because it's not preachy or driven by a narrow agenda, there
is room for people to learn much from Ms. Novogratz' experiences. If
nothing else, this book is worth reading just to see how far one person
will go to make the world a better place. And how she did that through
the very people she helped.