Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO are old friends with a world-changing business partnership. IDEO is an innovation and design firm and Acumen Fund is a non-profit global venture fund. This week, Global Initiatives hosted the two on-stage for the first time to discuss human centered poverty alleviation at University of California, Berkeley. Another close friend and partner, Stuart Davidson of Labrador Ventures, moderated the discussion. The intimate and engaging conversation addressed the intersection between design and development, which has made a partnership between two seemingly different organizations, so profoundly impactful.
Jacqueline and Tim’s friendship began at a TED conference. Jacqueline was discussing water issues in the developing world and IDEO had just recently been involved in a design project with KickStart aimed at increasing access to water. They immediately realized that they were both working towards a very similar goal: helping people innovate in order to grow. Jacqueline explains that in Acumen Fund, “we were putting ourselves in other people’s shoes to better understand what they want, and that’s design thinking; that was a whole new lexicon for Acumen Fund.”
She admitted that Acumen Fund looked at everything through a design lens and that the concept really changed her life. “I owe a lot to you” she told Tim, adding to the candor and sincerity of the evening. There was clearly enormous mutual respect between the two friends. Stuart chimed in, that Jacqueline took Tim to India for the first time (his first time in the developing world). The two speakers then dove into a conversation about their trip to see VisionSpring, one of Acumen’s investees that sell low cost eyeglasses to base of the pyramid populations. On their visit, Jacqueline brought a wealth of cultural knowledge and on the ground experience and Tim brought a new perspective and inquisitive eye; the combination leading to an entirely new flood of insights.
According to Tim, IDEO’s questioning process is about “drilling down and spending enough time to get beneath the surface. Making people notice things they might not have noticed themselves.” The challenge with bringing this method into development is being aware of cultural context. For that reason, he emphasized the importance of getting design thinking out into the world.
To support this effort, IDEO has developed the Human Centered Design Toolkit which aims to help organizations and entrepreneurs use design thinking in their work with impoverished communities. The aim, as Tim explained, is for people in need to be co-collaborators, for design thinking to be a co-owned process. This approach, in these extreme markets, will lead to innovations never dreamed of in the developed world.
Stuart brought up a question that generally gets asked when discussing social entrepreneurship and innovation: how does this scale? “It’s not about the insight scaling, it’s about the ideas scaling,” Tim explained. The process is about getting ideas; then you develop the ideas which are truly scalable. Jacqueline noted that many top down approaches are “scalable” in theory, but they don’t work effectively and lose traction quickly if locals are not involved from the start.
The discussion shifted to the language of the industry and how it’s changed over time. In Jacqueline’s opinion, “language precedes change.” She explained that 8 years ago, when Acumen Fund started, she had to fight with individuals who refused to be called “investors” because they weren’t getting any financial return. Now the concept of social return on investment is becoming widely accepted. The lexicon of the industry is shifting and acknowledging the power of an investment-oriented approach.
At the core of the investment approach is a full respect for all human beings; a sentiment that continually surfaced throughout the conversation. Market based approaches aim to treat people as consumers, who despite their income level, desire all the things we desire. Jacqueline explained that instead of telling people what they “should” do, it’s about asking what people want, as consumers, and truly listening. In forcing accountability and investing in growth, we are able to actionably demonstrate a belief that all people are capable of achieving success.
When the panel was opened up to questions, the room, of over 300, exploded with hands. The closing sentiment related to each firms contribution to change in the developing world. Tim explained IDEO is about enabling choice; creating new choices that didn’t exist, so that people can make them if they desire. At the core of what both firms seek to produce, Jacqueline concluded, “real dignity ultimately comes from choice and opportunity.”