“Start with the individuals,” says founder Jacqueline Novogratz. “Build systems from their perspective. Really pay attention, and then see if they can scale.”
Under Novogratz’s leadership, the New York-based fund manages $20 million in investments in companies that fall within three portfolios: health, water, and housing. It’s not a lot of money compared with any of the traditional venture funds in Silicon Valley. But Acumen’s goal is not to launch initial public offerings. Rather, Novogratz and her team are building prototypes for new business models that measure returns in social benefits as well as monetary rewards.
Observing customers to uncover their unmet needs, creating prototypes of new products and services for them, iterating and improving those until they work, looking for new business models—these are all the critical fundamentals of design that Acumen uses in its work. At a recent workshop given by Tim Brown, chief executive of the innovation consultancy IDEO, these same principles of design thinking were inculcated in eight Acumen Fellows, the young professionals the venture fund sponsors to work with its companies in Africa and Asia.