I’ll never forget it. It was October 5, 2005 and I had the opportunity to accompany Jacqueline Novogratz and a group of Acumen advisors to an eye camp for Visionspring in rural Andhra Pradesh, India. At the time, I was an MBA intern working in Hyderabad and Acumen was considering an investment in Visionspring. My job was to make the arrangements for Jacqueline and crew to spend a day in the field so they could better understand Visionspring and its business selling affordable reading glasses to the poor.
I had taken other donors and visitors to the field and was accustomed to them getting out of the SUV, nervously standing on the sidelines of the eye screening camp, taking some photos, and asking me questions about the vision entrepreneurs and customers before getting back into the vehicle and returning to their hotel.
When Jacqueline stepped out of the car, it was different. She immediately walked into the middle of the community center and started talking with the entrepreneurs conducting the eye screenings and the elderly men and women who were trying to get their sight back. She held their hands as she asked them questions and ended up buying her first pair of reading glasses.
While this type of engagement was natural to me as well, I had seen it too few times my previous five years working in international development. I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time, but when applications opened for the Acumen fellowship later that year and I had the opportunity to learn how to be “a moral leader” from Jacqueline and the Acumen team, I was all in.
I had the great fortune to be selected for the first class of Acumen fellows in 2006 and through the fellowship program was able to deepen my leadership skills. I was someone who found herself in leadership roles, yet I never thought of myself as a leader. After completing the year-long program, I was left with not only the confidence to lead but with the moral responsibility to do so.
I learned through the course of the year what “moral imagination” meant, and I began to imagine a world in which international development wasn’t so top down. I wanted to influence more people to get out there and ask people what they needed and wanted rather than assume we knew the answers. I wanted to see how we could prototype and iterate on programs rather than simply executing on the requests of our donors. And I wanted us to tell the stories of the poor in new, more dignified ways.
I didn’t realize this was called “human-centered design” at the time, but fortunately, through Acumen, I found IDEO, a place which I have made my home for the past eight years. At IDEO, and now as the Executive Director of IDEO.org, I have had the opportunity to deepen my skills as a moral leader, practicing every day what I learned from Jacqueline and Acumen. Leading IDEO.org fills me with joy and with a deep sense of purpose and meaning.
The work of running a rapidly growing nonprofit organization focused on bringing design to the challenges of poverty is challenging and requires grit and persistence. On a daily basis, I’m faced with tough decisions related to our team, our partners, our impact, funding, you name it. And at those times, I’m grateful that I have a strong moral compass and deep values that make it easier to navigate the complexity. I feel so fortunate to have a community of people who I know are standing at the sidelines cheering me on and giving me hugs when things are hard.
The last ten years have gone by in a flash and I have to say that the trajectory of my life was forever changed by that day in India when I had the chance to meet Jacqueline and become part of the Acumen family.
This perspective originally appeared on Medium.