10 People Who Inspired Me in 2019 and Make Me Optimistic for 2020

By Zahid Torres-Rahman, CEO, Business Fights Poverty

We are approaching the darkest day in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice on 22 December. It might be tempting to read that as a metaphor for this moment. But do not despair. All around us people have been standing up and taking action, and in the process inspiring us to do the same.

We are fast approaching the darkest day in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice on 22 December. For some, it is tempting to read that as a metaphor for this moment, with the forward march of national populism and continued foot-dragging on climate change.

But do not despair. All around us in 2019 have been people standing up and taking action, and in the process inspiring each of us to do the same. Activists, like Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, shining a light on the urgent actions we must take to save our planet. Leaders, like Jacinda Ardern and Michelle Obama, carrying the flame for an inclusive and open society. Innovators, like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Beyond Burger’s Ethan Brown, re-imagining their respective industries for a more sustainable future. Athletes like, Simone Biles and Eliud Kipchoge, demonstrating what can be achieved through human endeavour.

As the year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on the many inspiring people I have had the good fortune to meet through the Business Fights Poverty network, our own events and those hosted by our partners. Here are the 10, in alphabetical order, that I have found the most inspiring and that give me hope for 2020.

Ajay Banga, CEO, Mastercard

Speaking at the inaugural Inclusive Growth Summit, hosted by Mastercard and the Aspen Institute in October, Ajay Banga shared the story of his journey from an immigrant to the US in 2000, unable to get a mobile phone due to a lack of credit history, to the CEO of a leading global payments and technology company. Ajay also spoke passionately about the importance of doing well by doing good: since taking over as Mastercard CEO in 2010, he has increased the company’s stock price 13-fold, alongside a commitment to financial inclusion; to date 500m previously unbanked people have been brought into the financial system. Most striking for me was his concept of “DQ” – the Decency Quotient – “a way of telling employees to treat their coworkers and community the way they’d want to be treated”, which sits at the heart of the company’s culture and which he argues is as important as IQ and EQ.

The day after the Summit, we facilitated an event for Mastercard that brought together its many grantees and partners who play a central role in driving financial security at scale. We’ll be sharing the insights and highlights in the New Year.

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Ravinol Chambers, Founder, Producer, and Director, Be Inspired Films

One of the many benefits of being a certified B Corp is that we get to meet a lot of very interesting and inspiring companies and the people behind them. One of these is Be Inspired Films and its founder Ravinol Chambers, now the official video partner for all of our flagship events. In our recent Spotlight podcast interview, Ravinol shares a wonderful account of his own journey (via a spell as a monk) to running a multi-award-winning video production company. Ravinol’s passion is to help individuals and organisations working as a force for good across business and society to bring their stories to life. His podcast interview is packed full of useful tips on running a business with a purpose beyond profit and how to create great films for social impact.

Ravinol’s newest and perhaps most exciting project to date is his first feature-length documentary – . The film explores the challenges girls in India face fulfilling their potential and the importance of engaging men as allies to help make a difference. If you feel inspired to support the documentary, check out the crowdfunding campaign and help bring the film to the world – . To enquire about hosting a private screening, partnership opportunities or anything else, you can contact Ravinol by email: ra*****@be*************.com

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Andrew Hunt, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Aduna

In what was a powerful closing keynote speech at Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019, Andrew Hunt gave a moving account of his journey from suicidal depression to social entrepreneur. A volunteering role in The Gambia was a transformational experience and set him on the path to becoming the Co-Founder and CEO of Aduna. An African-inspired superfood brand, Aduna’s mission is to create an international market for under-utilised African natural products like baobab and drive sustainable incomes for rural households. The company has generated additional incomes for over 1,100 women in 35 communities in Ghana and Burkina Faso and has set its sights on creating a new billion-dollar industry for rural Africa.

Watch Andrew’s speech below and also check out his article in Issue 3 of the Business Fights Poverty Magazine. I know Andrew is keen on connecting with potential partners, so please do get in touch via the Aduna website.

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Naureen Hyat, Co-Founder and Business Head, Tez Financial Services and Visa Everywhere Initiative: Fintech Challenge Winner

In her keynote at Business Fights Poverty NYC 2019, Naureen Hyat, winner of the Visa Everywhere Initiative Fintech Challenge, shared her passion and energy for tackling financial exclusion in Pakistan. The company she co-founded, Tez Financial Services, is the first fully digital financial institution in Pakistan, providing financial service access through a smartphone app powered by AI. In just 15 months, Tez has approved over 100,000 loans across 142 cities, and their ambition is to serve five million within the next three years.

In addition to watching her speech at our New York event below, you can read her article in Issue 3 of the Business Fights Poverty Magazine. Also, you can listen here to her Spotlight podcast interview hosted by Katie Hyson, our Director of Thought Leadership. Subscribe here to listen to the series on iTunes.

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Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever

Alan Jope took over the helm at Unilever on the first day of 2019. Together with his CFO and business unit leaders, Alan recently hosted a first-of-its-kind sustainability event for investors (watch the video recording here). Making the business case for sustainability and embedding purpose, Alan argued that, “Being purpose-led and future-fit is the only way to financial success”. His sentiment was backed by impressive data: in 2018, 28 “sustainable living brands” outperformed the rest by 69%.

Working with Unilever, GSK and Visa, we have been curating a Challenge focusing on how companies and investors can collaborate to embed purpose into business. Embedding purpose has been a big theme for us this year, including at Business Fights Poverty Oxford, and is, I believe, one of the most important and exciting frontiers in business and social impact.

Dr Shannon May, Chief Strategy and Development Officer and Co-Founder, Bridge International Academies

As Yvette, my wife and Business Fights Poverty co-Founder, and I were in a taxi on our way from JFK airport into New York, in preparation for Business Fights Poverty NYC 2019, we learnt that our opening keynote speaker was no longer going to be able to make the event. Whether it was jet lag or sheer genius, we decided to turn the problem over to our community. We asked members of the event LinkedIn group to submit short video clips to put themselves forward to take the slot, and asked others to vote for their favourite. Within 24 hours we had 9 brave contenders and an excellent final winner, Dr Shannon May, Chief Strategy and Development Officer and Co-Founder, Bridge International Academies.

In her keynote, which you can watch below, Shannon tells the story of her journey from being a teacher 15 years ago in the US and China to founding Bridge, the largest network of technology-enabled nursery and primary schools in Africa and Asia. With a mission to help create a world where every child can access the life-changing education they deserve, Shannon recognised that often the key barrier is not a lack of infrastructure, but continuous and rigorous support for teachers. Since 2007, Bridge has reached 750,000 children through hundreds of schools across Africa and India, with a focus on re-engineering every part of the education system, from teacher training and support, to lesson delivery, construction, and financial administration; making government schools and community schools as effective as possible.

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George Mpanga aka George The Poet

One of my absolute career highlights was listening to George The Poet open and close Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019. George’s story is the story of someone discovering the power of purpose. From the age of 15, George discovered his love of words – and from that beginning, his journey has led him to a point where he has been described as “England’s most influential poet”. In 2018, he opened the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, seen by a worldwide audience of 1.6 billion people. In 2019, his critically-acclaimed podcast won five gold awards, including podcast of the year.

But what really inspires me about George is his deep sense of purpose. Drawing on his own, sometimes difficult, experiences of growing up on an estate in inner-city London, he has chosen to bring together his gift for combining words with music and education to push for real social change: whether for underprivileged children in London, on climate change, prison reform, tackling hate crime, rights for migrants, or supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people affected by HIV in Lesotho and Botswana. At its core, purpose is about translating your gifts, your experiences, your story into making a difference in this world, and therein lies the lesson for all of us.

Watch George’s closing performance, together with videos of all our great speakers from across our events here.

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Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO, Acumen

Jacqueline Novogratz is one of the true pioneers of social impact, and it was wonderful to have her join the opening panel of a Skoll World Forum Ecosystem Event that we co-hosted with Acumen, the non-profit impact investor that she founded in 2001. Jacqueline’s inspiring journey from Wall Street to social impact is documented in her best-selling book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor. Today, Acumen has impacted 263 million lives through its investment of $126m in breakthrough innovations across 126 companies serving low-income customers in 14 countries.

Watch the video of Jaqueline’s panel below, and keep an eye out for our future collaborations with Acumen, at the Skoll World Forum 2020 and beyond.

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Monique Ntumngia, Founder, Green Girls Organisation and Visa Everywhere Initiative: Social Impact Challenge Winner

Fighting back tears of happiness, Moniques’ humility and humanity shone through as she was announced as the Visa Everywhere Initiative Social Impact Challenge, for which I was fortunate to be a judge. Through the organisation she founded, Green Girls, she has been bringing access to clean energy to thousands of women and girls in 33 rural communities across Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, and the DRC. By training women and girls to build solar lamps, install solar panels and construct biodigesters, Monique has created 3,000 jobs, while raising awareness of climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Monique gave a powerful opening keynote at Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019. You can watch the full video below. You can also read her article in Issue 2 of the Business Fights Poverty Magazine.

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Paul Polak, Founder and CEO of Windhorse International

We were greatly saddened to hear the news of the death of Paul Polak, a pioneer of market-based development, on 10 October. Paul’s mission was to inspire a revolution in how we tackle poverty – showing how market-based approaches to development can benefit the 2.7 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day. In the last 35 years, the non-profits and businesses that Paul founded have helped more than 50 million families out of poverty through the intentional design of scalable, radically affordable business models.

We feel very lucky that in March, we were able to interview Paul for our Spotlight podcast series. Click here to listen to Paul share with us his lessons and insights, and his advice to those within companies on unlocking business opportunities by finding solutions to big social and environmental challenges. Click here to read my full article celebrating Paul’s life.


These are just some of the many inspiring people I have come across in 2019. Of course, my wonderful family and my own amazing team are the people who inspire me every single day. With the challenges that lie ahead in 2020, it is important that we draw strength, courage, and inspiration from each other.

I would love to hear about who has inspired you in 2019. Please share in the comments below!

I also look forward to connecting with you at one of our events in 2020. Applications for places will open in the New Year for the following:

  • Business Fights Poverty DC 2020, Wednesday, 15 April, Washington
  • Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2020, Thursday, 16 July, Oxford
  • Business Fights Poverty NYC 2020, Monday, 21 September, New York
  • Business Fights Poverty London 2020, Thursday, 12 November, London

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