Impact Investing Conference

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Risk, Return, Redemption: A Different Kind Of Impact Investing Forbes

Impact Investing Forum 2024

London. April 24-25, 2023.

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She is possibly one of the most prolific venture capitalists in the world.

It’s an exclusive group of individuals indeed who can claim to have invested their personal time, attention, and resources to approximately 2,000 emerging enterprises. How many investors can say they have in fact lived with, clothed, and fed each and every investment of theirs?

And what high-powered tools does our “venture capitalist” have at her disposal to manage such a staggering portfolio? Maybe a Python-powered algorithmic trading platform with a cadre of analysts at her fingertips?

Try a Singer sewing machine.

Our VC in question has been feted by the world’s press, having been named as a 2007 CNN Hero and included on Time Magazine’s list of The World’s Most Influential People of 2014. A documentary of her life and work has been narrated by Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker.

She is Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Catholic sister of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who operates the Saint Monica’s Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda. Over the past two decades, Sr. Rosemary and Saint Monica’s Vocational School have been the gateway to a better life filled with self-empowerment, dignity and vocational training for thousands of girls and their children fleeing from the horrors wrought by war criminal Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army during the Ugandan Civil War and its aftermath.

Called “the Mother Teresa of Africa,” Sr. Rosemary has given hope to the young women who have escaped the brutalities of rape and war (and the less violent but still painful reality of community ostracism), thanks to the vehicle of the sewing machine. By teaching her students at Saint Monica’s how to sew clothing, make purses out of discarded soda pop tabs, and manage other business pursuits such as catering, Sr. Rosemary has trained them to have the business and technical skills needed to stand on their own feet and provide for themselves and their children.

What is the return Sr. Rosemary seeks for her investments? That her girls have hope, that they know their lives and those of their children are worth living and that whatever may have been in their past does not preclude them from a future of love and happiness.

In the discussion that follows, the remarkable Sr. Rosemary explains her approach to innovation, entrepreneurship and bringing people together to transform themselves and their societies.

One of the things that really struck me from your book Sewing Hope was how you told yourself you would do the best you could to get the word “frustration” out of your vocabulary. Innovation is full of frustrations – from working with constrained (or inaccessible) resources to experiments that don’t work. What encouragement do you have for innovators to get the word “frustration” out of their vocabularies and just deal with it?

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe of the Saint Monica’s Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda
Courtesy of Sewing Hope Foundation

SR. NYIRUMBE: I knew the word “frustration” would block me from moving ahead, and so I had to work on myself to get it out of my vocabulary completely. By getting it out, it helped me to bring a positive aspect, something I knew I could use for the service of other people. Once a person is frustrated, they begin to look more into themselves. When you are frustrated you cannot look outward; you are blocked from seeing the world beyond you, and I didn’t like that.

As I began my work, I knew there would be so many things to keep me from moving ahead. I couldn’t focus on those things. I didn’t think of my qualifications or my education level; I had to use what I learned from childhood and from my parents. That is how I managed to succeed, and I got that word “frustration” out of my vocabulary and positively moved on.

Still, even today I can tell you there are moments when I’m tempted to be frustrated. Just recently, I had to present a budget to run the children’s home for one year. Because of the pandemic, we lost all sources of funding. We didn’t have anything at all, and everybody was looking at me. I just told the sisters, “Don’t worry, I know my mission is not to have a bank account or to have money. My mission is to depend totally on God, and I’m sure God will give me the money we need.” That is exactly what I can do – depend on God. I’m not going to get frustrated.

Among the vocational activities you’ve had the girls participate in, you had a section in your tailoring class to produce school uniforms. You also had the girls help with the day care and produce soda pop tab purses. To what do you attribute your entrepreneurial spirit, and how did you come up with these very practical and effective business models?

SR. NYIRUMBE: I think there’s something inborn in me that is competitive but in a humble way. I discovered that it is part of my vision to be an entrepreneur. I look around and see exactly what is in the market. I always tell my students, “If you see someone is selling a cloth he has just made for $10, you sell it at $5 or at $8, and make sure that you have many people who will come to you.” I used to tell my own sister, “I don’t like to deal with small business which can bring me very little money. I need to bring something which can attract more people,” because my vision is more about raising people than raising money.

If you focus more on raising friends than raising money, those friends are the ones who tell others. For instance, our school offers catering services, and we do not charge as much as other catering people charge in the market. We have so many people who come for catering services in our center. I still recall one businessman running a very powerful hotel in Gulu. He told me, “Sister Rosemary, it is very difficult to compete with you.” I asked him why, and he said, “Your business accepts the poor and the rich alike, so it is difficult to compete with you. Me, I only want to deal with the rich people who can pay me more.” That was nice to hear.

“We need to see the people who can work together with us for a transformation, not only for them, but also for the society they live in.” – Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe

I’m glad that a very powerful man is not able to compete with me because I’m people oriented. The business we are running, our restaurants, our accommodations, accepts all sorts of people, including people who have little money. Instead, his hotel is a very important hotel, and he only takes people who have a lot of money. In this case, he found it difficult to compete with me because I have more people who come. I thought that was very good for me because my focus is on people and service.

Speaking of the daycare, it has the benefit of bringing in revenue and allowed the mothers of the children to work on their skills and provide other revenue. It also had the societal impact of being able to integrate the local children. I would say it led to greater acceptance. What lessons would you like others to learn about the power of bringing together people with different backgrounds?

SR. NYIRUMBE: I think we need to learn that, from the different backgrounds of people, there are so many lessons that can come up. In our case, it was more specific about addressing the need for building peace, the need of integrating everybody. It was a way of letting the people who felt rejected come in and know that other people accept them. If they bring their children to play with other children, they know they are already accepted, because their children are integrating with others.

For me, I saw that was really a process of preparing us for peace building and for helping people integrate into society again. It made us get out of the idea of pointing out, “This is the child of a rebel. This is the child of Joseph Kony.”

The undercurrent of the whole story in your book is about always keeping the faith, not giving up on hope, and increasing hope in others around you. You’ve literally changed generations with what you’ve done for these girls and their children. What encouragement or advice do you have for leaders to increase hope and never give up?

SR. NYIRUMBE: Hope is really something which you live, and you see that you need to let people who have lost faith get into it and accept it. I really believe, in order to encourage leaders to accept that it can work, we need to be proactive. We need to make sure we move. We need to make sure we lead by example. That takes me back to the first question where we talked about frustration. If a leader gets frustrated, they’re about to lose hope, and you cannot tell somebody that you are going to show them what hope means when you cannot even live it by example.

I totally believe in order to let people really know you are helping them, that you want them to move from one step to another, you have to lead. You have to be ahead of them. You have to be with them, regardless of the situation. It could be a risky situation, but you have to say, “Your hope can lead you on.” You must show them that life is a bridge that can lead forward and backwards. It doesn’t just lead you backwards and leave you there. It keeps moving with you, either backward or forward.

I think it is very important for us to remain focused and see the people who need us. We need to see the people who can work together with us for a transformation, not only for them, but also for the society they live in. It’s very important for leaders to keep on looking out there and see how they can participate in the transformation of humanity.

To learn more about Sister Rosemary and her work to educate and support the women and children who were victimized by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and to provide support, visit Sewing Hope Foundation.


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