Last week, I received an honorary degree from Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina in honor of Sandor Teszler, an extraordinary Hungarian who fled the Nazis after losing most of his family and settling in Spartanburg, where he built one of the first fully integrated textile factories in the region. I had first come to know of him from seeing Wofford's inimitable president, Ben Dunlap, tell the story of Mr. Teszler in an incredible TED talk, and fell in love with the idea of this man who lived out loud and brimmed with curiosity, generosity, excitement and passion. To receive anything associated with his life challenged me to do better, be better.
At Wofford, I was struck by three things. First, I felt bathed in Southern hospitality from the moment I stepped off the plane. President Dunlap and his wife Anne drove 90 minutes to greet me at the airport and their spirits filled the car throughout the ride back to the college. People carried my things and made sure I had an umbrella when it rained. I love my own city of New York and think we're pretty nice people, but being around Wofford made me want to bring more generosity into the minutes of my days. Second, South Carolina is a lot like the places I work with Acumen -- some areas of the state suffer from functional literacy rates of 40 percent and average income levels of $14,000. Everywhere, people lament a lack of moral courage and vision in their leaders. Indeed, if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to friends in Kenya or Pakistan speaking about their leaders. Finally, I found a desire among the young people there to be connected to the broader world, to be making a contribution somehow.
Inspired by the sense of service and generosity I found at Wofford, and remembering being in the slums of Kibera, Kenya, where I recently did a book club for The Blue Sweater, I decided to use the school's honorarium to create "The Blue Sweater Challenge." Essentially, young organizers from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, who now have hosted both "The Blue Sweater book club" and a TEDx in the Kibera slum, will identify and award three local groups who are doing the most to effect positive social change in their communities. We hope to make the first awards in May and I will keep you posted...
People across the world are yearning to be connected to stories of hope. They are yearning to be involved. They are yearning for goodness. If only we would identify innovations wherever they may be, and connect leaders across the globe to make those innovations work for the poor and for everyone.