Monday, March 20, 2017

Notes from Naivasha - part 1

At a time when the world is obsessing over all the Yogi Adityanaths around and is convinced that nothing will change until Marion Kelly takes over as planet leader, I find myself feeling serene and optimistic to a surprisingly high degree. This probably comes from spending the past week at the Acumen global gathering in Naivasha, Kenya.  Every year (since 2014), Acumen selects local leaders and entrepreneurs working on social change projects - about 20 each in India, Pakistan and East Africa - and takes them through a five intense seminars aimed at honing, well, their leadership acumen. The seminars drive the fellows into questioning long held belief systems, challenging their status quos, and sharpening their thinking abilities. I am both proud and humbled to be among the India fellows for the year 2017. 

As I write this, I am very aware that the above description of the seminars is terribly inadequate. I am already a different person from what I was before I went to the first seminar in February 2017. I am more aware of my strengths and inadequacies than I have ever been, and more accepting of the inadequacies than I ever thought was possible. I've had a tendency to talk about my life's story as a series of brightly-lit milestones (medical school, MBA in finance, Indian Navy, Clinton foundation, a passport with 25 countries' stamps, an amazing, adoring husband), and glazing quickly over all the spectacular disasters (a divorce, unending confusion about my life's purpose, a job where I made every textbook leadership mistake). The new me surprises me by recognizing my failures with humility, but also with a sense of strength from what these failures have taught me and how they add to my life's narrative. 

The Acumen fellowship will, I am convinced, turn out to me the biggest milestone of my life. I've just returned from my second seminar as a fellow, which was also the organization's first "Global Gathering", a sanctuary where the Acumen team, fellows and partners got together to share stories of impact and to learn from each other. It was four days of intense thinking, activity and discussions, and I want to record some of the many moments that will always stay with me: 

"Idealism is the new strategic"
- Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Founder and CEO, and the Opening Plenary

"Transparency in the face of corruption is that much harder, and that much more powerful"
- Bob Collymore (CEO of Safaricom), talking about the flak he and Joshua Oigara (CEO of KCB Bank) received when they decided to publish their salaries in the public domain.

"One of the smartest things you can do to be successful at work is find yourself a life-partner who can be your champion"
- Bob Collymore again, in a talk with Chris Anderson, who expressed fervent agreement

"Don’t worry about being broken. It’s only in our brokenness that we find our purpose"
"A person is not the worst thing they ever did. Even a murderer is more than a murderer"
"I have a list of four absolutely critical ingredients for creating impact: one, stay proximate to the problem and the communities whose problems you’re trying to solve; two, change the narratives that support poverty and inequality; three, stay hopeful even when there is no hope because that is your greatest power; and four, do uncomfortable things"
- Bryan Stevenson, Founder of Equal Justice Initiative, and one of the most powerful speakers I have listened to

"I went on a 3-day hunger strike to convince my parents to let me go to college"
"At 17, I got on the bus to go to college to a city which was six hours away from home. It was the farthest I had ever been from home. It was the closest I had ever been to freedom."
"My first government job posting was in a village very far from home. My entire neighbourhood came home to tell my father how dangerous it would be if he let me go, and I knew he was under a lot of pressure. That evening, I packed my bag, went to my his room, put the bag next to him and said - 'The bus leaves at 6 AM. If you believe in me, please wake me up at 5 AM and drop me at the bus station.' The next morning, he was standing proudly with me at the bus station. I had learned the power of words"
- Shamim Akhtar, teacher in Pakistan government education department, and Acumen 2015 fellow

"We got so many rejections we started to see them as the norm"
"My biggest lesson is that impact work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It needs a lot of patience. And as you run the marathon, treat yourself with respect. Recharge your batteries often. Invest in family, relationships."
- Ned Tozun, Co-founder D-Light, discussing the idea of scale with Chris Anderson

"People who love charts can change the world."
- Sasha Dichter, Acumen's Chief Innovations Officer, summarising the D-light journey

"Courage only comes with purpose. The crises in my mother's life gave me purpose; my purpose gave me courage, and courage gave birth to the entrepreneur in me"
- Otim Gerald, Co-Founder, Ensibuuko, a Fintech Company based in Uganda and rapidly growing to other east African nations.

"Data makes underserved people visible and gives them a voice"
- Tonia Kariuki, CMO, Africa, GE Healthcare

"I may have discovered my purpose late in life, but people in my family live long. I'm only in my 50s so I have 50 more years to work hard"
- Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO Labournet

If all the sessions I participated in expanded my mind, the friendships that expanded my heart were even more powerful. I learned that Sonali and I are basically the exact same person; we just look different. Fahad and Zubin discovered what might be the one thing that can tell Indians and Pakistanis apart - turns out that the head nod that says 'I agree with you' is an absolutely Indian thing, and Pakistanis find it as inexplicable and funny as the rest of the world does. I made friends with Bola who is an epidemiologist working in public health in Kenya and who went to work in hardcore advertising for a year because she wanted to learn to package healthcare advice better. We played holi and learned to dance the Attan and the Eskesta (maybe 'learned' is a stretch, but we tried). I will never forget my story-walk with Zahoor, who is an Acumen 2010 fellow, and who generously shared with me stories about his struggle-filled years in the development space, and about his large, loving family which is an interesting mix of tradition and openness. Neither will I forget my 3 AM conversation in the garden with Shabir, fighting cold and sleepiness, because I could not stop listening to the stories of his childhood - with humor and pride, he described to me how he loved reading so much that he would fish out old newspapers from the trash he was employed to clean.

In the midst of all this intense learning and bonding, two other things happened. One, my own cohort - the India 2017 fellows - became even closer and became the family I constantly found myself drifting to, every few hours, to feel recharged and loved and accepted. And two, I found that I am no longer uncomfortable about being in this space of career transition. Like Gayathri Vasudevan, I intend to live long and work for a long time in building a world of equal opportunities and access.

Click here for Notes from Naivasha - part 2 (Business Insights)

Acumen is a global VC fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches and a core philosophy of "patient capital" to build strong, sustainable organizations which deliver goods and services to address poverty-related issues globally. As of 2015, it has invested over $100 M USD in over 100 enterprises across 6 portfolios: water, health, housing, energy, agriculture, and education.

A subset of my Acumen India 2017 family: superstars who work in education, sanitation, financial inclusion, child rights.....


  1. Loved it - thanks Manu !! Your writing makes this world a better place

  2. Wow! I read the post slowly to savour it. Definitely coming back to read it again.

  3. Hi Manjot, extremely well written pieces on the Acumen Global Gathering. I loved the flow of your thoughts.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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