Up close with Ashoka founder Bill Drayton

Bill Drayton in Seoul

Up close with Bill Drayton

On June 3-4, I had a rare opportunity to be up close with Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka. He was invited as the keynote speaker at “International Conference on Social Entrepreneurship 2010″, an event hosted by Korea Development Institute (KDI) and Korea University in Seoul. I was asked by Ashoka to be a volunteer interpreter for him during his informal schedule, meeting with members of the Korean press and other meeting with interested parties.

Here I’ve compiled some recurring themes that Drayton repeatedly emphasized throughout the various meetings:

Everyone a changemaker

On many occasions he reiterated that he mean this quite literally. Everyone needs to be a changemaker. He observes that the rate of change and people causing change is increasing exponentially (he often motions with his hand an arc rising upwards). We live in a world where change is omni-present. All institutions need to adapt very quickly. How do we survive in a world that is ever-changing? By being changemakers. Those who cannot adapt will be left behind. He rhetorically asks, do you want to become Detroit or Silicon Valley?

The most powerful force in the world is an pattern changing idea in the hands of a changemaker.

Selecting Ashoka fellows

Surprisingly, Drayton says that good social entrepreneurs are not always the great workers, leaders, or managers. However, the following are common to all good social entrepreneurs:

1. New, system-changing idea
2. Creativity
3. Entrepreneurial qualities
4. Social impact of the idea
5. Ethical fiber

Of all these qualities, Drayton puts highest emphasis on the last, ethical fiber. Social entrepreneurs never work alone, but recruit hundreds or thousands of people to make change. Unless they can establish trust in the people they work with, they won’t get far. They need to be able to cascade the changes, and often in the process recruit people who in turn become changemakers themselves.

When interviewing candidates, Drayton talked about using the “cliff test”. He would imagine being at the edge of a cliff on a dark, windy night with the candidate beside him. He would feel the uneasiness rising up and at the moment of fear, if he feels can still trust the candidate, it’s a good indication.

Team of teams

The role of Ashoka is to provide support to social entrepreneurs, through its network, consulting and legal help provided by its partners, (which include McKinsey and many law firms) and in some cases with funding. Ashoka’s strength lies in the network of fellows, now numbering close to 3000, working across all continents, and its collective knowledge. One entrepreneur can make a difference locally, however with a network of entrepreneurs you can begin to see what is happening and where things are heading on a global level.

Drayon explains that the highest level of social entrepreneurship is “Collaborative Entrepreneurship”. How do you see and move the world to the new paradigm? What is the fundamental change that is coming? How do you discover that? When you have a network of fellows collaborating across borders to tackling tough issues such as human trafficking, education and the environment, you can begin to see a much greater impact.

Empathy and the young

How do we educate our young to adapt and work with change? Ken Robinson in his TED talk, mentions the need for creativity in our education. Drayton enlists the concept of empathy. Young children need to master empathy. Unless children master empathy, we will not be able to see a world where we collaborate to solve big issues facing humanity. Schools traditionally teach knowledge and rules. This is not enough and tend to inflexible in keeping up with the rate of change that is happening in the world.

Here Drayton mentions the work of Mary Gordon who is also at the conference and her movement Roots of Empathy. Ashoka aims to have within 5 years 80% of all primary school principals to be aware the importance of empathy in school.

Young children need to master empathy, older children and youth need to practicing being changemakers. This is where Youth Ventures, an initiative started by Ashoka fits in.

Drayton mentions the greatest gift we can give a child is the permission to make change, to tell them, “why don’t you do something about it?” And then get out of the way and let them do their own thing.

It’s about empathy, teamwork, leadership and changemaking.

Hybrid systems

Traditionally there is a gap between business sector and citizen sector. One seeks to maximize profits, and seek out new markets, while the other is concerned about serving local communities. When you bring them together, in hybrid value chains new levels of productivity can happen.

2 examples he mentions are:

Drip irrigation is an agricultural technique that delivers just the right amount of water to crops, allowing arid land to be cultivated. However this technique is cost-prohibitive for impoverished farmers. Businesses have the resources to mass produce the equipment. However it was the social entrepreneurs, who is keenly aware of the farmer’s needs and can work with the local community and the farmers, who find a way for businesses to serve the farmer and to access this new market.

These markets have been too risky for the businesses to enter, with returns on serving the poor uncertain. Farmers don’t have the financial means to purchase the equipment individually. However when the social entrepreneurs lays the bridge between the two, it’s a win-win situation, with the businesses gaining access to an untapped market and the farmers benefiting from higher production and two or three-fold increase in yield.

Also in Colombia, an Ashoka fellow approached a high-end tile manufacturer and proposed a line of high-quality but low-cost tiles that could serve the low-income market. This new line of tiles ended up being highly successful.

In the past 9 years running, over half of all Ashoka fellows have changed government policies and over three quarters have changed patterns in their field, proving their value is in bridging gaps between the government and businesses and the needs of local communities.

Drayton’s message for Korea

Social entrepreneurship has been a little slow in coming to East Asia. Korea is not alone in being unprepared to deal with a future where change is ever-accelerating. It is not alone in not working with and adequately equipping its young to be changemakers. Most of the youth culture around the world is not empowering.

In a meeting with Vice-Chairman of one of the most successful conglomerates in Korea, SK Energy, Drayton suggested that SK could,

  • Work with children and young people to find changemakers and network them,
  • Make sure that children learn empathy, in the schools they support, and help them practice making change,
  • Tell stories of people making change in your corporate advertising.

Essentially he was saying, “take on a big pattern changing idea for society.” He pointed to Walmart and its work and commitment to sustainability.

He also challenged the media to find young leading social entrepreneurs. To tell the success stories, and support role models.

Social entrepreneurs don’t build big organizations. They build big movements.

It seemed to me that all his points had a symbiotic relationship with each other. You need changemakers to create a better world, however changemakers don’t work alone. And you cannot imagine a world of changemakers without addressing how the young are taught to empathize. It felt like I was listening to Drayton’s personal journey. He started Ashoka 25 years ago by seeking out and supporting changemakers around the world. After conducting thousands of interviews in the pursuit of changemakers, his hard-won conclusion, institutionally embodied in Ashoka, is: our future, and the hope for a better world, lies with how we raise our children.

I could not agree more.

Bill Drayton in Seoul

Bill Drayton

  Bill Drayton in Seoul

With Bill Drayton and Vishnu Swaminathan

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