Jake Harriman, CEO of Nuru International talks with children in Nyametaburo, Isibania, Kenya. Harriman was in the U.S. special forces, an experience that led him to establish an NGO startup with a unique perspective on poverty eradication. Photo by: Nuru International

Jake Harriman didn’t take the usual path to an NGO career. Perhaps that’s why he has some unconventional ideas about upending the way development work is done.

“I have grown to believe that the real solutions to fighting extreme poverty lie within those living in poverty themselves,” Harriman told me recently, using the kind of revolutionary language typical of his colleagues at Nuru International, the NGO he founded and leads. “In the long term, they’re going to have much better ideas than we have.”

Harriman’s combat experience in Iraq with the U.S. special forces — specifically Force Recon, an elite Marine Corps unit — combined with an MBA from Stanford led him to create an NGO startup with a unique perspective on eradicating poverty.

Following my recent visit to Nuru’s village project in Kenya, I met up with Harriman outside of San Francisco (Nuru receives much of its funding from Silicon Valley), to get his views on tackling global poverty, one village at a time.

The focus on local leadership development seems to be core to your approach at Nuru. Would you have started Nuru International without having a local leader?

No. This business is about personal relationships, believing in people with vision and passion who have a passion for their people. You know, I would never go into a country and just go on a jobs board and hire some random guy from the NGO industry — and say I’m going to build a company around you. This has got to be someone with vision, with a reason to be in the fight. Just like I do with my expats, it’s the same thing. There’s an opportunity cost for high-quality people. You have to find those people.

I talk to a lot of investors who talk about, “Well, what happens when you guys leave and the Kenyan team falls apart, and they start bickering about resources and it becomes a grab for resources and corruption seeps in?” And I say, “Whoa whoa whoa. If I have my expat team in there, you guys never ask me those questions about the expat team. Why do you ask them about the Kenyan staff?”

For some reason, in our mind, we believe that in the social sector the only good guys are Westerners or people coming from developed countries; we don’t believe that nationals can build an entity that they believe in and that they’re there for altruistic reasons because they believe in empowering their country and empowering their own people out of poverty.

Just like there are social entrepreneurs that want to bring social change here in the United States, there are social entrepreneurs in Kenya who want to bring about real change and lasting change in their country.

Are there enough?

There’s more! There are more than there are here! Because these guys were born in extreme poverty, they have survived it. They are far more resourceful, capable, intelligent than we will ever be. And because of that situation, they have so many ideas about what can change.

There are a lot of social entrepreneurs here but we have a system in place to identify and equip those people to go out and do good things; that’s not present in the developing world. So that’s one of the things that we do. We go into a country, our leadership program is trying to identify those stars and build a company around them that can scale.

There’s a critique of the traditional NGO model implicit in Nuru, right?

I tried to get a job at several other organizations. I wasn’t an economist, I didn’t do Peace Corps. I was trained for combat, and I had an engineering degree.

I wanted to build a company that could scale to have global impact. The more I researched, the more I saw this glass ceiling on extreme poverty. In the aid industry, I see a lot of good people who are fighting to get as close to that glass ceiling as possible, but there are very few people who actually believe we can break through it. I think that’s one of the unique things we bring.

We have to start by identifying extreme poverty using the right variables, extreme poverty as Amartya Sen talks about it, which means equipping people to make meaningful choices. It has a lot less to do with building material solutions that are going to break over time.

Is that what you think the traditional aid programs have done?

I saw a lot of focus on infrastructure. There are really good people and they want to make change. But the problem is that we also want to feel good doing it. And you can feel good doing something if you have a tangible concrete thing that you’re building or doing that you can attach your identity to. Investors love to fund a clinic or hospital, they love to fund the building of a school, drilling wells. But the problem is that those things are not lasting. That is not how to build lasting solutions to fighting poverty. They want to build a home for somebody, while there are six local guys who can build that home better, using environmentally friendly materials and their own construction techniques.

Sometimes we let our own good intentions and desires get in the way — and I’m putting myself in that category, too. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in this fight over the past few years. I’m always learning, but because of my different background — I was a poor kid from West Virginia who became a marine, I saw the power of business; I saw the power of leveraging good business practices to attack the greatest crisis of our time.

Where does the best talent go when they come out of business school? They go into the private sector. The best talent is drawn to the private sector. Why don’t we take the best talent in the world and apply it to the greatest crisis of our time? Extreme poverty is going to affect everybody. We can open up a whole new global economy. One-sixth of the world is being untapped as a customer base. Extreme poverty touches us all, so why don’t we take the best minds and the best resources in the world and apply it to that problem?

Is your advice to big traditional NGOs that have much larger budgets that they should be ponying up market salaries and hiring lots more people, say, out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business?

I think large NGOs should do a couple things. They should create a feedback-driven culture where they are always admitting when they’re wrong. Start publishing, “I failed doing this.” Start being open about your failures and start building that into the culture of your company because only by admitting that you’re wrong can you innovate.

Nobody is willing to admit when they’re wrong in this sector. We do it all the time! We mess up all the time, and we need to say that so we can change more quickly to deliver a higher-quality product. That’s what they do in the private sector — if you mess up, it’s right there on your financial statements and the market talks to you about that, the market signals you; you get decreased funding. That doesn’t happen in the nonprofit space.

Isn’t that a key difference between Nuru and larger NGOs? Your funding comes from wealthy individuals, small foundations — they’re willing to take risks, they want to innovate. But are you going to be able to grow with that kind of money or aren’t you going to need money from the USAIDs of the world, government agencies, huge foundations that want to put big restrictions on your work and that don’t want to hear you say you’ve failed or their money got wasted.

The big guys in the sector, they have a position where they can influence that. For the first time in the fight, we have some large donors — institutional investors if you will — in that space who are thinking that way. The Gates Foundation is a good example of that [because it] has a lot of potential to influence the conversation about who gets funded, how do they get funded, how much do we pay people, changing the conversation about how we do things.

The large NGOs — there’s a lot of good work that’s been done there, for sure. But we have to create this culture of feedback, willingness to admit when you’re wrong, and R&D. Every big NGO needs an R&D department. They need to be constantly testing something new. There needs to be information sharing. We need to be more open about learning from one another and it needs to be more of a learning culture. The big guys — if they could come together — they could change the conversation.

Very few people really believe we’re going to break through the glass ceiling and end global poverty. Part of that comes from — it’s a self-perpetuating industry. If Nuru International exists in 30 years, then I have failed. My passion is to work ourselves out of a job. And I wish I saw that more. We’ve build this industry where we’re perpetuating careers. We all need to be thinking of working ourselves out of a job.

Do you think it’s a cultural issue? If people just thought about it they would change the way they work?

We need leaders in the sector who are willing to start thinking that way and doing that. I think there are a couple of notably examples — Mercy Corps, for example. There are people out there who are trying. But I feel this urgency to defeat the culture of the NGO industry.

I fight that all the time. And it’s not because I don’t like the people — they’re amazing people with passion for this fight and passion for injustice — we all got into this for the same thing, right? But we all have to start thinking of this problem differently. I feel like it’s this inbred culture now where we all think the same way, we all do the same thing, we all throw the same solutions out there — again and again and again.

One of the big problems in this sector is that institutional funders drive programing. That’s completely backwards — Gates puts out an RFP, USAID puts out an RFP, and grantees change their programs to fit those RFPs so they can actually get money. That’s completely backwards! Those guys are sitting in an office in Washington, D.C. or Seattle, they’re not on the ground, in the jungle, in the mountains working with the people.

And even further away from the fact, they’re not the people! They’re not the folks trapped in poverty — that’s where the ideas need to come from.

We have to build a culture where it’s not “the poor” — these guys are not beneficiaries, that’s not their identity. And that’s one of the big problems — the aid industry treats those trapped in poverty as “the poor” — they believe that and it’s become their identity. Which means they don’t think they have anything to contribute to the fight when in fact, all those things in life are teaching them things that they need to leverage in making solutions.

Is it fair to call you a disruptor? Is a sign of your success that you disrupt the industry?

Absolutely — I’d love to disrupt this industry.  A lot of our success is because we have learned from really good people in this sector who have done amazing work that we are building on. I was surprised that others in this sector — way smarter than I am — have not gone down this path.

Why do you think that is?

I go back to the culture of the industry. Like I said, I’m coming from a totally different background: farm boy, Force Recon, who goes to business school. That’s not the typical NGO resume.

I noticed that both your foundation leads — in Kenya and in Ethiopia — are veterans. I assume that’s intentional.

Yeah, it is intentional. And it’s not like I’m trying to discriminate there. What I found is that a lot of the lessons we learned in special operations — a lot of crisis management, rapid problem solving, inspirational and motivational leadership, being able to give your people decentralized decision-making and control of operations — all these lessons I’ve learned in my old job, I’m applying now in my new job. And it’s really working. People are people  And leadership is leadership. Whether it’s on the battlefield, in the boardroom, or in the bush in Kenya. People are drawn to effective, powerful, servant leaders.

You got out of grad school and couldn’t find a role in traditional development organizations. How do you think the development community approaches veterans who apply for jobs.

My humble opinion is that I think it’s tough for the development community to take veterans because it’s almost like they’re on polar opposite sides of the problem. On the military side, many times they’re seen as causing death and destruction, destroying economies, destroying a lot of the good infrastructure that the NGOs then have to go in and rebuild. So I think there’s a natural division there, a little bit of mistrust. Most of the folks that go to the Peace Corps don’t go into the military and vice versa. So I think there’s a natural mistrust that’s bred – mostly out of a lack of knowledge about the other side. Me and my teams provide a pretty unique combination of that [knowledge], and therefore a new perspective.

Veterans are definitely underutilized but also veterans don’t understand their potential that they could contribute into this space. However, I think that’s changing. We’re getting a lot of applications now, veterans interested in coming to work for Nuru, especially as I start talking about failed states and doing work in he DRC and Somalia and some other places. I’ve got some good friends and colleagues from Seal Team 6, Delta Force, Force Recon and other agencies that want to come and do this kind of work because they saw the same stuff that I saw, they want their life to count at scale. They want to have a bigger impact.

You talked about disruption — I’m all about disruption! Steve Jobs talks about “think different” — you have to think differently about the problems. If you’re willing to challenge assumptions, not just to be the cowboy but to challenge assumptions because you’re willing to actually fail, and you’re willing to take that risk — reputation risk — there’s no room for egos in this business  I make a lot of mistakes and I don’t mind if people know that. I think to be an effective leader, starts with being humble. If you’re not a humble leader, if you can’t admit when you’re wrong, then you can’t change.

And for me, I live with this terrible sense of urgency. I’ve seen far too much unnecessary death in my time.

Stay tuned for more of our special coverage on localization, including a feature on Nuru International and Millennium Villages Project’s work in Kenya and an exclusive interview with Jeffrey Sachs by Devex President and Editor-in-chief Raj Kumar, a profile of Nuru International and a #DevTrivia section on the Millennium Villages Project.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.