Interview with Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton: Glimpses at what social entrepreneurship is and how we become social entrepreneurs

This is from 2001, but Drayton’s advice is always relevant.

Interview with Bill Drayton

July 1, 2001, Wisconsin Public Radio

Excerpts from the interview with Tom Clark
on the Ideas Network of WPR

Tom: What is Ashoka, and why Ashoka? What does the word mean?WD: Ashoka is named after a person who was extraordinarily creative, both in social welfare and economic development. Very tolerant, very global minded. And we thought that he, those values and that track record, was a good symbol of what social entrepreneurs do.

Tom: Is it definable? Social entrepreneurship? But can you give us a description of what you mean by social entrepreneurship?

WD: Well Tom, I think the easiest way of getting one’s hands around it is to ask a simple question. What is the most powerful force in the world? And I think you would agree that is a big idea if it is in the hands of an entrepreneur who is actually going to make the idea not only happen, but spread all across society. And we understand that in business but we have need for entrepreneurship just as much in education, human rights, health, and the environment as we do in hotels and steel.

To give you an example that everyone I am sure everyone knows, Florence Nightengale changed the world every bit as much as Andrew Carnegie. She was a social entrepreneur. He was a business entrepreneur. It is the same type of person. Just another way of thinking about it is we all know the biblical suggestion that is not enough to give people fish; you must train them how to fish. Well, social entrepreneurs take one step beyond that. And our job is to change the structure of the fishing industry. So social entrepreneurs change the systems, the patterns in society.

Tom: Now, what does Ashoka do? Does it welcome these sorts of social entrepreneurs? Welcome ideas from people for curing social ills and fund these people somehow?

WD: That is part of what we do. We are a global association working on every continent that seeks out the best social entrepreneurs we can find in the world. We help them work together. One of the things we do is help launch new ideas. And the new entrepreneurs behind the ideas. We give them the personal freedom to quit their jobs. Work full time on launching their ideas to demonstrate and refine them and then begin the spreading process. So it is like a venture capital service except that it is social entrepreneurs so it is designed somewhat differently.

Tom: Where do you get your money?

WD: We take no government funds. So about 8 percent comes from leading business entrepreneurs because no one understands how important an entrepreneur is better than an entrepreneur. The business and social entrepreneurs work together very well once they get over the initial sterotypes of the two sectors. And the rest is from individuals and to a modest degree, from foundations. About half from the U.S. and about half from the rest of the world.

Tom: Well now, I understand your example of Florence Nightengale but that goes back a little bit. Can you give us some success stories of current social entrepreneurs who have used Ashoka to make the world better somehow or another?

WD: Let me give you a Bangladeshi example first. Ibrhaim Sobhan he came from a very poor family village. Got a modest education. Passionate about sharing that with others. Only 15% of Bangladeshi children make it into 5th grade when you get started. Now his approach by U.N. measure has increased enrolment rates 44% and cut the drop rate in half.

How did he do this?

When he started, he looked at the typical class. It was 30 minutes. The teacher would come, call the roll, and since you are talking about 60 plus students, that takes some time. Grade the papers from the night before and only have 7 to 8 minutes left to teach and give the next nights assignments. Kids would go home and there was no one to pay for tutors; no one to help; and they were expected to work. They probably did not even money for kerosene. So they come the next day, are humiliated and drop out pretty quickly.

New system: 60 minute classes, half as many students. Teacher comes and calls the roll and then teaches 20 to 25 minutes, after which the students go and sit in little circle on the ground. 8 or 9 students to a circle. Whoever has done the best the month before leads the taking of the exercises, grading them and the students help one another. Those who got it right help those who did not. The teacher goes from group to group as a resource. No homework, so no one falls behind. Another change is work ranging from tree nurseries, poultry raising, ultimately things like diesel pump repair to make a profit. Families understand this. Of the dividends of that profit, half goes into a secondary school fund and half for students who are still there at the end of the year. This is very powerful incentive for students to stay in school, if you drop out your share of the savings go to the others. As the students become more valuable for work, there is more to lose and for very poor families this is one of the only times that they have enough money at once to do something like buy a radio. It is a very simple but profound change that no one else had thought of.

What we saw was someone that could really change the pattern. Who clearly, as a person, was an entrepreneur and who was not going to stop with a few schools, but was out to change the whole system, and he has. Not only in Bangladesh, but his ideas have spread to Brazil and other countries through the Ashoka network.

Tom: How about something or someone here in the United States who is one of these social entrepreneurs?

WD: Sure. Why don’t I give you an example of J.B. Schramm? He comes to mind because I was just in Dallas and the Social Venture Partners Group there has just decided to bring his work to Dallas, and to support it there.

When J.B. went to high school he saw that most of his classmates were not going to college and he did not think they were less intelligent then he. And that bothered him and continued bothering him. He has now come up with a simple approach, very low cost, that is sharply focused on the 100,000 plus young people who could clearly succeed in college but are not going because they are not getting the oomph they need from their high school or their non-college-graduate families. And focused on that group, he starts off with an intensive four or five day session for a group of peers from the middle range of those high schools on a nearby college campus. Starting on the first day they work on developing the application, writing the essays, and the “what do you want to do life” sort of things college drive you crazy with. When they come back to school, college has been demystified; they have talked with mentors about life implications and they have a completed application. The school has the incentive to support this and J.B. works with the homeroom teachers understanding that the career counselors are overwhelmed and can really only practically focus on the most talented, and the most troubled, and the middle tends to get lost. So you work with a homeroom teacher and, with a modest amount of nudging, with a peer group, that makes all the difference.

The other piece is that the colleges want students, and he can provide, through this program 20 to 30 excellently prepared three months in advance applications. So the high school gets a dramatic increase in college going. Obviously, this changes the lives of hopefully a 100,000 individuals and families a year. If you think about it, over a ten year period, if we can get 800,000 to a million people/families to make that transition that is a significant impact in terms of lessening structural poverty, increased national productivity, and setting a new pattern so that year after year all the students coming into those schools will have the peers before them with a very different model, with the teachers knowing how to make this difference with a modest effort. So again it is a very simple idea focused on the problem that our society has been stuck, and hasn’t seen how to solve it.

Tom: Now, Ashoka allows him to, you know, sustain himself? Well you know he is doing this program, does Ashoka also provide materials and other support help in convincing high schools or colleges that this is a good thing? Or is this just one person with some help from you doing all of this?

WD: Well, he is one person but he is an entrepreneur. And so it is much more than a person, he is building a national movement. Now Ashoka does help in additional ways. The finances are important, but I think more important, we are an association of leading social entrepreneurs who help one another and no one can help leading entrepreneurs more than their peers. They can open doors, they can help understand what is going on, they are the right people to collaborate with one another. In J.B.’s case, I was just mentioning, when I was down in Dallas he joined us there in a meeting 6 months ago, and the people there were very impressed. That is his doing. We helped in that case open the door, but that is a step in a program that his intent is to have this work get into very high school that needs it in the country.

Tom: Now, how many entrepreneurs do you have?

WD: There are about 1200 worldwide. We only started in the U.S. in the last year, so there are only 16 here, but we are expecting to elect 20 to 25 a year in the U.S. and Canada every year now.

Tom: I was just going to ask how many you have room for. So you increase each year?

WD: Well the people we are looking for are quite rare. So we do have to struggle to raise the funds for the program. But I don’t think we are going to see a dramatic increase over 25 a year. Simply because we are looking for people who have an idea that will change the pattern all across North America. And who have the personal entrepreneurial qualities to make that happen. And the numbers should increase as more people come to understand that this is a practical career. Many of the people with us on the show today if they only gave themselves permission, could cause a change in a pattern. That doesn’t have to be all across the country, but if many people thought that they could start their own social change and that was a practical career option, which it is, as starting up their own business.

Tom: This is different from the kind of personality type that wants to make things better and joins the Peace Corps. Am I right?

WD: It is a rare personality type. The core to understanding it is that these people cannot personally be happy until they have changed the whole society.

Tom: It is more than just the wanting to help make things better, it is having an idea and being convinced that this idea is unique and will make things better. It is different than joining something that is already going on and helps people.

WD: Absolutely. And it is not only the idea, people have to be married to an idea, but they have to be equally passionate about all the practical how-to questions. How to am I going to make this idea work, how am I going to solve this problem? How am I going to get it from working in one city to spreading it all across the country? That is the rare combination of vision plus an intense and very long-term commitment to problem solving.

Tom: And it is altruism that may not necessarily exist among business entrepreneurs.

WD: Well it is interesting, we found that in about 70 percent of the Fellows we have elected, we can identify a family member with very, very exceptional values. So it is clear that values are a key element here.

Tom: My guess is there are a whole lot of people are applying for each selection though.

WD: That is true, but could I, Tom, try to correct one thing? It is true we select relatively few people who we think are going to be Florence Nightengale’s of the future. But there could be millions, and there are millions of social entrepreneurs working at the local level and beyond and we try to help there as well. Not with Fellowships, through some of the services for what we view as the new competitive social sector. It used to be a very bureaucratic arena that lagged way behind business in terms of its productive, growth rate and it has just changed dramatically in the last two decades. So the growth and the number of leading social entrepreneurs is very much matched by the growth in social entrepreneurs and large number of competetive citizen organizations at all levels. In the U.S. we have seen a doubling roughly in the number of registered 501 c3 charitable organizations with the IRS in the 1990’s. We had a large base to begin with, though less than Brazil where you had a 1000 fold increase over two decades, but this is just a really profound change in the structure of society and it is a huge opportunity for many, many people to care about their society, to imagine how it could be better, to see where it is stuck and to solve the problem.

Tom: It would seem to me that society itself and the status quo, and the government would be the big stumbling blocks in trying to accomplish these social entrepreneurship goals.

WD: Well we are in the middle of a historic transformation. And it is very messy in some ways. It thinks government will end up being stronger because of the sudden burst, and I think permanent change to a competitive social half of society instead of having a world that is half competitive and entrepreneurial, business half, producing productivity growth at 2 to 3 percent a year and the other half funded by the wealth generated by that productivity growth through taxes, but not changing from the very old structures of not having to change. Suddenly we have this enormous burst of competitiveness. Anyone can start their own social change.

Tom: But am I wrong, does not the status quo get in the way? If we are talking about health, education or almost anything else, we have a system in place, maybe not working as well as we would like. Isn’t that one of the major obstacles to these social entrepreneurs? Convincing the status quo that things need to change and this is how change can make things better?

WD: That is the obstacle we all face and the contributions of the entrepreneur. They know the jujitsu of how to get it to change. That is exactly the skill if you are going to change how children are brought up. You have to deal with the public school system or the public health system if it is a health issue. And how do you change those institutions? That is why the how-to’s are just as important as the vision. And the entrepreneur is that rare combination of the two.

Tom: Are you one of those? Are you a social entrepreneur, or are you just a good organizer?

WD: I have been inflicted; I have had the bug since I was in school. It is a wonderful bug to have, no complaints.

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