Category Archives: Leadership

Lessons Learned from Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen found, world traveler, social entrepreneur and all-around badass wrote the book The Blue Sweater.  Ms. Novogratz is one of a growing group of business people who believe that we can combine the goals of philanthropy with the methods of for-profit business and come up with a sustainable way to help people.  The emphasis is on providing opportunities for people in developing countries to make their own money, rather than simply giving it away.

I’ll be writing about the book and these ideas quite a bit on here, since I greatly admire her path in life and would like to emulate her.  Before a formal review, though, here are some take-aways from her book:

  • Don’t create more dependence
  • Invest in good people
  • Listen.  Really, really listen.
  • Involve people in the formal sector of the economy
  • If you want to be taken seriously, take everyone else seriously.  That means real logos and an office, but it also means that if someone defaults on a loan, there needs to be some sort of punitive measure.  Just because the work is motivated from a place of humanitarianism doesn’t mean your customers and clients can do whatever they want.
  • Focus on building upon systems that are already in place.  Starting scratch often means failing.
  • Sell to them on their terms, not yours (know your audience)
  • Everyone can contribute
  • You need feedback, something the market can provide that is often missing from traditional philanthropy
  • Don’t leave people behind
  • The world’s poor are active customers, not passive receptacles of charity
  • We are all smarter for knowing one another

It is worth noting, I think, that her book was not ghost-written, as far as I can tell.  I highly recommend that you read it, even if this isn’t usually your thing.

You Are Not Smart Enough to Look Like Hell

I know it’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but come conference I’m always reminded of the importance of appearances.  How is it that we can spend months on research, carefully choosing every point, motion and agenda item, focusing on even the strategic implications of introductions, and yet still find so many in our number who look like slobs?

I go to a co-op school.  We work in real, professional environments, and even have a class where they have us come in with sample outfits.  How are we not better than this?  Even basic stuff, like running a brush through the hair and slapping on a smile can make a huge difference.  Everyone, whether  they’re chairing or a delegate, is being watched constantly.  Perhaps we should occasionally look like it.

I get that being smart is what matters.  But if you’re a good enough delegate to be around the table at Nationals, you know that how you couch somehting, the window dressing, the rhetoric, matters.  And in the Arab League, it matters in a very big way.  So why doesn’t the same principal apply to our bodies as to our national policies?

It just reflects poorly on you.  It distracts from your message; it detracts from your credibility.  You wouldn’t swear in committee, so why are you so disheveled that it’s vulgar?  Bust out the good vocabulary as well as an iron, and you’ll make a better impression.  Wear comfortable shoes on the long days and more fanciful things on the shorter ones.  Cover all the bits your grandmother or boss should never see, and treat your body like it’s more than just a vessel to carry your massive brain and/or ego.

Buy clothing that fits.  Don’t wear a backpack over your suit–it’s really just killing the image.  Take even a small fraction of the time you used to prepare your research or your team, and use it to make yourself look as good as you will sound.  And for crying out loud, don’t be the millionth person in identical navy or black clothing.

What Democrats Can Learn From Don Draper

Let’s face it, politics is all about advertising: yourself, your candidate, your party and your ideas.  people buy the product with a vote, campaign contributions and participation.  so what can Deval, Barack, Barney and John learn from Don, Peggy, Pete, Joan and the Rodge?  Turns out, quite a bit. 

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”

Re-frame the issue.  This reminds me of getting people in kansas to use alternative energy.  The reason the republicans are so succesful is how they fram the issue, and which values the make it synonymous with.  If you change it to an issue about (in this case) thrift and patriotism, instead of small government and god, you’ve at least got a fighting chance.  Way too often, the democrats are willing to argue their side in the republican conversation, rather than starting a new one within a favorable frame work. 

Tap into emotions and you’ll win

facts are hard to escape, but they’re also easy to forget.  people will stick with an emotional narrative more closely than a logical one.  nostaliga, especially, is popular for don draper.  Clinton is great for this, and Barack is learning how as well.  I remember at the 2008 DNC, that great feeling when bill came out.  “Oh! I forgot what a great speaker he is,” my grandmother nearly cooed, while we all reminiesced about his good fiscal policy and attempts at peace in the Middle East.  Barack, on the other hand, is doing his best to conjure up that great feeling of hope, change and inclusion from 2008, while shooing away the feelings of betrayal and dissapointment.  As Don teaches us: “nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.”

If it’s not working, change the name. 

No one will feed their dog horsemeat.  People don’t eat rat, it’s grass-cutter.  And to bring it back to season 1 episode three again, “It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel.”  Global Warming became climate change.  The war on terror?  We don’t even use those words anymore.  And people are (finally) starting to call Park 51 a cultural center (akin to a YMCA) instead of a mosque, which it is not.  We need to pick good names, get them out early and often, and remain unified in terminology.  That is, until the terms don’t work.  Then we pick better ones.

The Meritocracy Myth

I love the idea of meritocracy, don’t get me wrong; everyone gets what they earn, no more and no less.  I just wish we lived in one.  And I wish we didn’t have such a flawed, fanatical sense of what it means to live in a meritocracy.  I would even posit that we hold the meritocracy–the sense of getting what you deserve and deserving what you get–closer to our collective American heart than the democracy.

Meritocracy leads to False Entitlement

The problem with the idea of a meritocracy is that we act as though EVERYTHING is given based on merit.  If someone wins the lottery, falls in love, gets a good job or is thin and attractive, they say, “What did I do to deserve this?”  Most people eventually determine that they “must have done something right.” This ignores luck, familial ties, social/institutional advantages, gender, race, geography and genetics.  This then leads to thinking that if you have something, and it’s because you deserve it, then those who don’t have something must be lacking because they don’t deserve it.  Inevitably, this leads to major judgments (often of the moral variety) of those who are overweight, single, homeless, unemployed, less educated, poor, you name it.  Of course, for most Americans, this whole thought process takes place in less than a minute. 

We’re Not Really a Meritocracy

A meritocracy is great, but unfortunately we don’t really live in one.  Age, height, attractiveness, gender and race all have significantly more to do with your successes or failures than your actual hard work (or the other guy’s).  I think the people who don’t believe in this, in institutionalized and sub-conscious racism, sexism, elitism etc are the ones who have a hard time believing that quotas and Affirmative Action can be a good thing.  Instead of looking at facts and our flawed system (and minds), they cling to the emotional narrative of the hard-working white man who is constantly bypassed for promotions in favor of women and minorities.  Never mind that this man (your son, father, husband or friend) may not actually deserve the promotion, the person must have been less experienced, less educated, less deserving and with less seniority, and they must have “gotten away with it” because of their minority status.

If we let go of that emotional narrative, and see that white men by and large have the most advantages of anyone in our society (especially if they’re tall, have their hair, and are attractive), then we can see that perhaps other people deserve a chance.

I leave you with this, from the talented and blissfully succinct Jessica Hagy:

Play around with her site (link above) for more gems.

Estados ¿Unidos?

Welcome to the United Snakes: Land of the Thief, Home of the Slave”

-Brother Ali

What unites Americans? Certainly not politics, religion or even language.  Music?  Forget it.  It’s really only certain events.  Even the Olympics can’t unite us as much as they do other countries.  We are united by tabloid stories, like balloon boy and Save Coco.  Events like 9/11–but even now that has faded and changed.   There is far more loyalty to city, state or region than to pais or country.  You’re not American, you’re a New Yorker, or a California Girl.

There is a distinct attitude to being American, one that’s hard to see form the inside.  The individualist, capitalist attitude.  Who we blame for misfortune, and our attitudes about work, success, entitlement and what we deserve are particularly American.  In Cuba, we saw it with food, with what I came to call Capitalist Breakfast.  We had one egg per person on hard-boiled egg days, and that was it.  17 people, 17 eggs.  But that’s not how it shook out.  Some people didn’t want theirs (supply) and others were still hungry every morning (demand).  Some were bough with kindness, but most with cunning.  Well, cunning is the nice, American way of putting it.

Maria, who made our breakfast, saw everything that happened.  She couldn’t believe the way some people would take or hide eggs beyond what was given to them.  It was so American and so repulsive to her.

“Don’t they know that everyone is hungry?  Why do they think they should have more eggs than everyone else?”

Well, in the American ethos, if I want it and I can manage to get it, then I deserve it and it is mine.  And rightfully so.  If someone complained about not getting their egg, the response was, “Well, you didn’t wake up early enough and I did.  That’s what you get.”  This would simply not happen in a Cuban household.  This is what unites us: selfishness disguised as meritocracy. Because, “It’s a free country, I’ll do what I want.”

“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!”

At least? Shouldn’t we shoot for more?  And aren’t there lots of other places that are free?  We cling to this claim to fame as though we are unique to it.  We have a singular passion for absurd expressions of freedom.

And free to do what?  Overpay for health care?  Have our elected officials ignore our wishes?  Have someone else determine our president?  T overpay for education and graduate to underemployment?  Free to harass immigrants as though that’s not how we got here?  Free to discriminate, to make intolerant jokes as some proud banner of resistance to the Church of Political Correctness?

No wonder we don’t have much in common–we can hardly stand each other.

What’s Wrong With Us?

People all over, from your parents to the New York Times, are lamenting what exactly is wrong with current 20somethings.  We are mucking it all up.  We are not “progressing to adulthood,” which is defined by leaving school, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child.

Um, ew.

and to quote Mr. Carroll, “Sez Who?”

Who says that being an adult means having a child?  What about all those completely fulfilled, fully-functioning people who don’t have a child?  Some are single, some are married, some are committed long term.  Some can’t have children, some choose not to because of other priorities, and others are simply uninterested in the business of procreation.  Does that make them perpetual children themselves?

I say pshaw, sociologists, parents and NYTimes.

I’ll grow up how and when I want.  What’s the point of rushing towards a steady job where I pay into a social security system that will never support me?  What’s the point of having a kid in an overpopulated world if I don’t feel like it?  And who’s defining this financially independent bit anyway?  How is that supposed to happen when our current system for pumping out adults automatically saddles anyone who isn’t hyper-elite (in privilege or in brains) with an unbearable amount of debt?  Can you blame people for staying in school longer, considering that for many, leaving after your undergrad is hardly cutting your losses?

Again: pshaw.

I will have many different careers, travel, and maybe go back to school again.  I will remain unmarried for an amount of time that will drive my mother and grandmother insane, and leave me thoroughly harassed at weddings.  I will not give up a career to have kids, but I also won’t give up kids to have a career (are you listening, corporations who treat pregnant women and parents like crap?)  Yeah, I may move back into my parents house, if it’s a sound financial decision.  Don’t judge me–you should be too busy living off of my social security and political support for universal health care, anyway.

Nothing is wrong with us.  It isn’t that we’re not adults–we’re just not your kind of adults.  The world is changing and we’re changing with it.  So hold onto your rockers, because this generation is redefining the term “adult”, and things might get a little messy.

What is Service?

Is it okay to be giving service to an organization that is really just a group of women making money?  Yes, they’re not as well off as those in the US, or as our translator.  But they have clothes and food and look pretty healthy and happy.

I’m not going into a poor orphanage and helping them deal with an overwhelming amount of children.  I’m going to a small corporation and trying to tell them how to make more money.  In the US, I would call that consulting.  Does not getting paid for something automatically make it service?  Yes, it’s voluntary, but is it community service?  I came here to learn more about the non-profit world, and specifically to see the hands-on nitty-gritty of micro-finance in the field.  My first lesson?  Micro-credit hasn’t failed, it’s just been hijacked. This is a micro-enterprise, a small, locally-owned (what isn’t in Benin?) business.  This is not a lending organization; it’s not even one of their beneficiaries, since they don’t receive loans.

Is it still volunteer work if you’re getting something in return?  If you’re getting a grant, soft power, induction to an honor society, brownie points for your sorority or college credits, it seems you are being paid–just not in cash.  Of course, reductum ad absurdum, and I’m reminded of that Friends episode when Joey tells Phoebe there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act—you always get recognition, gratitude, or at the very least a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside.

But who says service has to be special, sacred and selfless?  What’s so wrong with being selfish?  How come everyone else can be selfish in their career path, but not lawyers and aid workers?  Just because your life is about improving the world and helping others doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr to do it.  And if you do a good deed, does it really matter what your motives were?  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, can’t the road to heaven be paved with bad ones?  It doesn’t matter why you helped a little boy learn to read, in the end he’s still farther along in his education for your help.

Things That I Love About Benin

Here is a list of things I love about Benin–both the program I’m on and the country.  I hate to give you all such a skewed idea of my life over here, and I also don’t want to focus too much on the NU specifics, but I’m a creature crafted for analysis, so that’s usually where my brain wanders.  In the interest of fairness, levity and a more well-rounded picture, here are some things I love.

  • Everyone is so friendly. Even moreso than in the American south, everyone we meet says “bon soir!” and is excited to see us.  Children wave and flash the peace sign, and women in the market are patient with our burgeoning Parisian French.
  • The Beninois students. We did a three day exchange with students form Universite d’Abomey,
  • Vodoun and the Cuba connection. I haven’t learned a ton more about vodoun here that i didn’t already learn in Cuba, but I love seeing how it is woven in to their clture, and talking to the university students about it.  Also, I miss Cuba and my Cuba aseres terribly, so its nice o have a little reminder of home
  • French! I love languages, and speaking French makes me happy.  I like helping other people with it, and getting a better understanding of the people I meet because of my language skills.  It’s also great to see what the francophone world outside of Paris looks like.
  • The weather.  I know it’s hot and sticky and furstrating, but it’s great to be back in a warm, comfy climate.  This coming New England winter may be harder for me than the ever were before…
  • The way of life. I love dirt and messiness and wearing the same gross clothes everyday, with worn-in french braids
  • The group. We spend a lot of time telling each other how smart, kind and adorable we all are, which is just refreshing and enjoyable
  • Our leaders. It’s nice to spend a little time being warm, fuzzy and non-competetive.  For those unaware, this trip is a Human Services excursion, whcih is not my major, but is a related field.  I am one of the few political science people here, but there are many international affairs majors as well as psych, journalism, art, sociology and a few others.  I miss the fiery polisci discussions, and I tease the Human Services kids about drum circles, peace signs and the high number of piercings and tattoos on this trip, but it is acutally kinda nice.  We haven’t met Prof. Luongho yet, but Rebecca is a lawyer in human rights law (!) and Lori has a great cross between sarcasm and being a mom.
  • Julie! Our TA, Julie Miller, is great.  We’ve been doing sunset rooftop yoga led by her, and I really think yoga should never be done anywhere BUT a rooftop in Africa at sunset.  She’s a great help both socially and academically, and I think we’ll all miss her when she goes to UC Berkeley for grad school in the fall.
  • The geography.  Palm trees, red earth, lizards running around everywhere, and adorable goats that act like puppies.  This place is great.  Did I mention we went to the beach?  And Obama Beach at that.  More to come!
  • The Songhai Center. More about this later, but it’s up there with the Grameen Bank and bacon on the list of things that rock my socks.

The Hillary List

Lately, there has been many a rumble in lady-land.  I have been reminded again and again that there are certain rules that should never be broken by people who are any combination of a) female, b) in authority, or c) driven, straightforward and intelligent.  I have come to think of this, aptly, as the Hillary List.  Love her or hate her, we’re all going to be treated like her, so we may as well learn a lesson or two.

  1. Everything you do will be subject to far more scrutiny.  Rather than complaining, accept it and adjust accordingly.
  2. Never let them see you cry.  This is imperative. See: Sex and the City
  3. If you lose it, everything you say will be discredited.  You’ve just given them an excuse to do what they already wanted to.
  4. Know when to hold em, when to fold em, and when to walk away.
  5. Own shoes that are comfy and shoes that are sexy.  Know when to use which ones.  Bonus points if they are in fact the same pair
  6. You will be called a bitch.  You can’t stop it, so don’t try.  Just deal with it, and see #2.
  7. Blow sunshine up their ass.  This is great advice from my mother
  8. Also from my mother: if you ever need to get out of something, bodily functions are an excellent excuse.  No one will want to chat about your period, and you simply can’t argue with the runs.
  9. Follow the rules.  You can get away with a lot if you stay within the lines, especially if it’s not that big of a deal for you to do so.
  10. Be cautious about who you trust, or: don’t air dirty laundry in public.  You don’t want to be considered a gossip, and many females will actually go out of their way to make you look bad.  Think very carefully about what you are saying (and to whom) before you speak.  Even if you disagree with something, be careful who you air that disagreement with.  Nobody likes someone who complains about their own team/boss/friends/whatever to people who aren’t involved

Break these rules at your own peril.  And remember, sometimes you just have to settle for Secretary of State.

Originally posted Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 10:01 PM

Play Nice

Lately I have received a lot of similar criticism, all stemming from a behavior about which I am offended to be criticized.  This is mostly because a successful male equivalent commits the same behavior and is revered. 

Also, it is because I am not wrong.  It is simply a choice of style, and in my mind, the style of those criticizing me is more offensive, but in a different way.  I do not meet their definition of nice, but they don’t meet mine, either.  I brought these points up to someone when they made a snarky remark about my behavior, but they claimed my male equivalent loses respect too.  And yet, no one makes snarky remarks to his face.  Even if people lose respect for him, they do it in private, and they still maintain a healthy amount of respect for him in other ways, like intellect and presence.




Why can some people get away with it and others can’t?


In Model UN and Model Arab League, we have chairs who lead committee.  Mine have run the gamut from almost-impeached (more than one) to award-winning (quite a few).  This year I had a great chair that was abrupt and rules-oriented.  I must admit that at first I bristled, but it turns out my chair was great.  She didn’t chair the way I would, but there was nothing inherently wrong with her chairing, and she had vast experience.


Unfortunately, some others didn’t agree.  They were a  vocal minority, and there were enough in the undecided column to cause a stir.  


Essentially, she wasn’t nice enough.  She didn’t break any rules, but she passed down a ruling quickly, without explanation, and without a smile.  All weekend she was fairly no-nonsense, and whipped an incredibly green bunch of delegates into shape.  Apparently, they didn’t appreciate it.  So they motioned to impeach her, not based on a violation of the rules, but on a personality conflict.  Because she wasn’t bubbly; she didn’t smile and mollycoddle them.  


I brought up, in my defense of her, that delegates could have approached her personally before taking such a drastic step.  But I guess that’s the issue.  No one felt they could.  When people feel that you are unapproachable, they won’t bother until it all gets to be too much, and then there’s a bit of an explosion.  Allegedly, it’s a sign of respect when someone criticizes you–it means they think you can change, and care enough to help you.  Perhaps my…colleague?  Acquaintance? is too unapproachable for anyone to confront him for the behavior that I am chastised for.  I’m hoping that my reception, compared to his, will save me from an upset down the line.  


For those of you who think this is too cutesy, I agree.  While I am aware it is the appropriate inner-growth zen-type thing to say, I feel otherwise.  I feel like maybe this applies if people criticize you constructively, but not if they simply judge you and are unreceptive to criticism of themselves.  And a part of me says why the hell should my chair have to play nice?  She already followed the rules, why do you have to throw in the smile?  


Well I guess you don’t.  But it means you have to be willing to be impeached.  


Originally posted Friday, April 24, 2009 at 1:02 AM