Around a year ago, I experienced a significant shift in my aspirations. As I read literature and articles about the struggles of marginalized women of rural India, and the human-trafficking epidemic in South-Eastern Asia, I was struck profoundly by how fortunate I am to live as comfortably and freely as I do. At the same time, doubts began to manifest in me as I felt that it was horribly unfair how luck had favored me, while the subjects I read about and millions of others continued to live in poverty, and amongst violence and unspeakable misfortune. I decided, perhaps somewhat naively and maybe a bit pompously that I was to change purpose in my life. I decided I wanted to help these people in whatever way I could, but I was at the same time unwilling to give up the comfort of my life. My head began to buzz with questions about how a single person could create legitimate change in the world. What is legitimate change? What defines a changemaker? What constitutes an authentic action of change in a world where the lines between authentic and inauthentic are so blurry? And what is required of the ideal changemaker? Should one spend two weeks building shelters and wells in rural Latin America? Or perhaps two months teaching English to orphans in the slums of India? Or is it handing out food packages in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa that facilitates change? Or, are the real changemakers the policy makers who make decisions on the grand scale? I was very confused and as I investigated further, I learned about many problems that existed in the international development spectrum – there was the sick cycle of foreign aid, the misguided industry of voluntourism, and the ineffective bureaucracies of governments and many international development organizations. I felt defeated and cynical to read about these but I resolved to find out some way in which there could exist authentic systematic change.
A few months into my first year of university, I was introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship in a business class, and I was immediately drawn to it. As a business and economics student, I believed for long that I was destined for a life of financial figures, and market demand projections that meant little to me on a personal level. The work of social entrepreneur pioneers like Bill Drayton (Ashoka) and Muhammed Yunus (Grameen bank), demonstrate that inspired individuals can be some of the most ripe, idealistic and effective changemakers with the right ideas and experiences.
The name Ashoka came up a few times throughout my first year but it was not until I read a book on women’s empowerment, “Half the Sky” in which Ashoka is mentioned often on its work empowering social entrepreneurs, that I became more familiar with Ashoka and the rapidly growing movement of social entrepreneurship.
Ashoka’s theory of change and social entrepreneurship present a radical outlook on solving world problems. Social entrepreneurship reflects how business models and principles but most importantly, innovation can be applied directly to solving serious world problems. Ashoka’s founder Bill Drayton stated that, “social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.” The best entrepreneurs disrupt the norms with innovative solutions. The difference with social entrepreneurs is that their disruptive solutions apply not to a market gap but to pressing social problems.
Ashoka refocuses the lens of changemaker onto the individuals in our societies that are disrupting the norms with the most innovative solutions. They are entrepreneurs, adventurous risk-takers who are revolutionizing their respective industries – health, environment, women – with paradigm-shifting ideas.
From my perspective, Ashoka’s theory of change, “Everyone a changemaker,” reflects two ideas. Firstly, that in the ideal world, each and every person must aim for change. And second, that every person, regardless of gender, social class, age, skin-color, religion can create change if they are motivated and empowered.
The motivation to change something, I believe comes from experiences. Perhaps it is the experience of young Craig Kielburger, who read an article in a newspaper about a 12 year old Pakistani boy who had been murdered for his fight against child labour; in his frustration, young Craig wanted to continue the legacy of this boy and he founded “Free the Children,” now an internationally recognized movement against child labour. Or perhaps it is the experience of young Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai who survived being shot by the Taliban because she spoke out about wanting an education; she has now become the voice of every young girl around the world who wants an education and she gave a speech recently at a UN Assembly about the need for action. Or it might be the experience of a woman like Sunitha Krishnan, an Indian Ashoka fellow, who witnessed the shocking sex-trafficking epidemic in her hometown of Bihar, India and founded Apne Aap, a relief centre for sex-trafficking survivors in the region of Hyderabad. Each of these changemakers has experienced a social problem in some capacity and has gained the motivation to pursue a solution to it.
An old conception was that one had to have power and wealth to have influence and to trigger any sort of systematic change. With the emergence of social entrepreneurship, this has been replaced by a new reality. It seems that the ability to make change comes from empowerment. And this is where Ashoka comes in. Ashoka empowers motivated changemakers to make the changes they seek through the recognition of fellows, seed financing, training and education, and collaborative platforms through a global network of changemakers.
Ashoka’s vision of change reflects that ideas for change are born to individuals, but can only survive and thrive under collaboration of a community of changemakers. A revolutionary idea for change may begin with a single person but it is only an idea until it is taken into action by the power of the collective movement. Ashoka’s collaborative platforms connect likeminded changemakers to work on shifting the paradigms in various sectors of development (for example maternal health or women’s empowerment). Successful models are then replicated by social entrepreneurs in other regions that are experiencing similar issues. Armies of social entrepreneurs are thus created, working towards common goals. The women’s suffrage movement in the United States of the 20th century was successful because of the support it had from a veritable army of women with revolutionary ideas about their rights. Ideas are powerful, but so are numbers.
A single stone hitting a pool of still water will create only a few ripples. But throw several stones into the water, and the ripples will multiply, weave together and after a few moments, the entire pool is in a disquiet motion. To me, Ashoka is the hand that throws these stones into the still water, enabling these ripples to be created, multiplied and connected.
Entering into my first week as an AWSIF intern at Ashoka Arab World, I remain curious and very open-minded to the concept of changemaking. I chose to work for Ashoka because it represented an organization that is not only reputable, but presents a very unique model of what change can be. As well, I wanted very much to learn about the strange and mysterious world of social entrepreneurship. Particularly in the Arab World, Ashoka focuses a great deal on the empowerment and equality of women, an area I am very interested in investigating.
It is my belief that if we were to eliminate the rigid bureaucracies of many aid and development organizations such as the UN and if we would instead employ the revolutionary ideas of social entrepreneurs and if governments shifted the focus from the intervention of military armies fighting people to the intervention of armies of social entrepreneurs fighting problems, we would trigger a new and far more effective wave of development.
I’m hoping that the next six weeks I spend at Ashoka Arab World will provide me deeper insight in what it means to create change. And I hope that by talking with existing changemakers connected with Ashoka, and by working within the domain of social entrepreneurship, I will learn and understand more concretely what I will have to do to become a changemaker myself.