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Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz

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A Random Act Of Kindness That Brightened A Long Day In The City

Posted: 02/25/10 09:12 PM ET

Sitting on panels to interview candidates for Acumen Fund's fellows program is always a highlight for me. Yesterday was no different as we met with five of 56 finalists from 600 candidates who applied from 65 countries for our one-year program. Each person at our New York City panel was engaged, alive and curious about the world. For some reason, the majority were from immigrant families -- from Peru, China, India, Germany. Each told stories of struggle and all had grown up in families where hard work, discipline and a focus on giving back were core values. While all could be doing anything they wanted, coming from careers at Goldman Sachs, IBM and consulting, among others, they were hungry to serve. Throughout the day I thought about this next generation so willing to take risks, so eager to change the world; and I thought about the power of the immigrant experience in the U.S. Mostly, I felt blessed.

The day, however, was a long one, and by the time I left the group dinner in Brooklyn, I was feeling under the weather and thinking about my 4 a.m. wake-up for my early flight the next morning. I waited a long time for a taxi, and when a dilapidated yellow cab pulled up, I poured myself exhaustedly into the seat. The tall, wiry, dark-skinned African with enormous hands drove for a few hundred feet and then asked me if I minded if we drove a little out of our way so that he could pick up food he'd just ordered. I sighed and asked how far out of the way it was, and he said it would be just five minutes each way. That prospect didn't thrill me and I asked if he was sure the food would be ready, and he told me not to worry because he'd drive back over the bridge to get his food after he'd dropped me off.

It was well past 10 and I liked the easy familiarity of the guy and so said, no, let's go and get your food. He thanked me profusely and we sped across Brooklyn. Five or six minutes later, he pulled the car to the side of the street, and sprinted to a Halal Chinese food joint. Within a flash, he was back in the car and we were heading toward Manhattan.

The driver chatted happily as we drove through Brooklyn, telling me that he loved living in New York City, that in Congo he could never have worked his way up to buying a taxi, and that he was making money and sending it home and was now seen as a hero by his family. Everyone accepts him in New York, he said, even more than in his country where there is too much violence and mistrust. "I love the American dream", he said, "and I am living it!" He added that he thought New York was different than other cities because everyone was accepted here, and he didn't want to live anywhere else.

We arrived at my apartment, only 10 or so minutes later than we would have otherwise, and my fare was about $12. I handed him $20 and was about to tell him to keep it all because his spirit was so effusive, but he wouldn't accept the bill. "Please," he said, " the fare is on me because I took you out of your way," and I said, no, no, no. And he said, "OK, you can give me $5 but only $5 -- that's all I want." And I laughed because something had made each of us want to be generous. So often, though, it is those with so much less who make the first move to offer something of themselves. This time I insisted and gave him the $20. The driver finally accepted and then insisted on getting out of the car to shake my hand.

At dinner, one of our partners had spoken about looking for light these days, and finding random acts of kindness every day in unexpected places. I thought of the hard life my taxi driver had left and his open, optimistic attitude toward the world and others. I was thankful that this man had managed to remind me that my time is not all that precious. So often when I am in Africa, people go way out of their way to help me, even if they've never met me before. We could use bringing some of that spirit to our fair city. It starts with taking just a moment to see one another, and it goes from there.