I was an accidental banker. To please my parents, I went for an interview with Chase Manhattan Bank in 1983. They promised to send me into their offices in more than 40 countries and essentially audit the practices. It was an extraordinary job.
I had an epiphany in Brazil. We had made a $100 million loan to an airline owner who immediately moved the money to the Cayman Islands. Yet I saw all these people in the favelas who were incredibly productive but had no access to capital. I decided to leave Chase to work with a group that wanted me to help create credit systems in Africa.
As I was preparing to leave, though, the COO offered me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work directly with him. He made it clear that, in a few years, I would be able to write my ticket on Wall Street. I was torn. No one wanted me to go to Africa: not my family, my friends, or my employers. But I thought, "If I don't go now, I might never go." So I quit.
I ended up going to Rwanda in the late 1980s to set up a microfinance institution and a bakery. I came back to the U.S. to get an MBA and work at the Rockefeller Foundation before returning in 1996. When I got back to Rwanda, all the women from the bakery had been killed. Of the other women I'd worked with, one was killed in the genocide, another saw her family killed, and another was a perpetrator who was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The aid system was broken. The financial markets alone weren't going to solve the problem. I wanted to invest in entrepreneurs who could see the potential of the very poor. The poor want to produce and consume and solve their own problems. In 2001, I started Acumen as a nonprofit venture capital fund. Instead of giving their money away, philanthropists could invest it in businesses. Now it's a $50 million fund that has leveraged another $200 million of capital and created 35,000 jobs. My dream is to build this into a more powerful asset class. Everything comes at a price. I have to say no to a lot of things I love to do. But we have the potential to help build businesses that change lives.