Excerpts from a longish article I wrote for the National Human Resource Development Network’s newsmagazine. This was about what it’s like to be a social entrepreneur, and about the organization that’s pioneered the concept of social entrepreneurship.
The Social Entrepreneur
Imagine this: You have an idea for creating change in your society, for the better of course. You may have hit upon the idea late one night or it might have come from years of work and experience. No matter how it came, the idea suddenly begins to occupy your thoughts. You can’t stop thinking about how to make it happen. It begins to possess you. And you know you won’t be happy just making the change in your colony or in your village, or even in your city. You want this change to happen more broadly. And you can see how to do it. You can imagine the method and the strategy, and can identify a host of obstacles and how to overcome them. So, you begin work on this idea, often eventually ceasing everything else to devote yourself full-time to this new idea to change the world a little.
You are a social entrepreneur, an incredibly rare individual but a phenomenally important one, because you and others like you are the drivers of sustainable social change all over the world.
But you’re human and so you have doubts about whether you should do this. It will be a long and hard road, probably with more setbacks than successes. You may not even live to see the fruits of your life’s work since real change happens so incrementally. More prosaically, you wonder how you will be able to support yourself and your family. You wonder how you can learn from people who have walked this path before and along with you. You wonder how to do enough work to persuade donors to believe in you and support you.
You might, then, look to Ashoka.
Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is a global non-profit organization that invests in social entrepreneurs because it believes that these visionary, innovative and relentless individuals are transforming not just their communities but also the world. Ashoka was founded in 1980 by William Drayton, an American who first put the word ‘social’ before the word ‘entrepreneur’. Drayton saw that the profound changes that transformed business in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries – innovation, competition, efficiency –were now starting to also transform the social sector. And that just as entrepreneurs had driven this change in business (from Andrew Carnegie down to Bill Gates, or from J.R.D. Tata down to Narayana Murthy), a particular breed of individual – the social entrepreneur – was driving this change in the social sector all around the world. These individuals have all the vision, creativity and determination of business entrepreneurs but are harnessing those abilities to solve social problems and sow the seeds for changing unjust or inefficient social systems, be it in education or health or environment or any other sector.
So Drayton founded Ashoka, an organization to identify and support social entrepreneurs worldwide. From a relatively young age he had been inspired by the story of Emperor Ashoka, who not only renounced violence and conquest after the Kalinga war, but also then dedicated his life to the public good. Emperor Ashoka was one of the earliest public entrepreneurs and thus, when Drayton set up his organization, it seemed natural to name it after the emperor.
Over the last 25 years, countless potential social entrepreneurs have gone through a rigorous four-step selection process, and the ones too get through can call themselves Ashoka Fellows.
One of the first Ashoka Fellows Drayton found was Gloria de Souza, a Mumbai-based school teacher who had developed a system to make learning based less on by-hearting and reproducing information and more on independent thought and problem solving, especially for children in primary school. de Souza’s system focused on making the content of learning tangible and relevant to children’s daily lives, and thus had a focus on learning from the environment around the children. She called her system Environmental Studies (EVS) and, starting with the Mumbai government, managed to spread it far and wide until it became incorporated into the national curriculum.
Gloria de Souza’s story sounds exceptional. And it is. She is a one-in-a-million person, perhaps even rarer. But she is not alone. Today, Ashoka has identified and supported over 1500 such social entrepreneurs in 53 countries, with over 250 in India. And most of their stories are at least as exceptional and inspiring as de Souza’s.
Ashoka works on the theory that a little bit of assistance at just the right time in a social entrepreneur’s life can make all the difference in the world. It seeks to intervene at that very moment when the social entrepreneur is beset with doubt about the road ahead.
Ashoka has spent most of its first 25 years promoting social entrepreneurship as a profession. Today, social entrepreneurship is gradually being understood and employed in people’s speech. Other organizations have entered the field of supporting social entrepreneurs. Universities and colleges all over the world are teaching social entrepreneurship as a subject, and sometimes as a concentration or a degree itself. With the rise of the social or ‘citizen’ sector around the world, more and more people are seeing social sector work as both financially viable and emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.
Yet social entrepreneurship is as much as character trait as it is a profession. Social entrepreneurs are often serial innovators. Gloria de Souza’s EVS has evolved into the Environmental Studies Approach to Learning (ESAL), which focuses on developing the learning tools that enable extremely young children – in pre-primary school and early primary school – to begin relating to the environment in sensitive and informed ways. But a story that truly exemplifies this trait is that of Sonam Wangchuk, an Ashoka Fellow in Ladakh.
An engineer by training, Wangchuk was deeply disturbed by the education system in Ladakh, especially since the content of education was so far removed from Ladakhis’ experience that they couldn’t relate to it. Hence, the pass rates in board exams were abysmally low and even those who passed were not as equipped to succeed as children elsewhere in India. So Wangchuk set about transforming the system to make it more culturally relevant to Ladakh. He set up committees in every village that had a stake in improving the system and began to involve the students themselves in decisions regarding their education. His team worked with the government to re-write the textbooks to make them appropriate to Ladakhis. In just a few years time, the system was transformed. But, Wangchuk wondered, what about opportunities for young people after they finish school? He is therefore now putting in place the systems to foster a culture of business entrepreneurship in Ladakh, so that young people stop looking only to the government as a viable employer and become job creators rather than job seekers.
Like a lot of social entrepreneurs, Wangchuk leverages but is not limited by his training. He is flexible across disciplines and not ideologically driven by one particular way of thought. He responds to problems by innovating to solve them. What allows Wangchuk and his fellow social entrepreneurs to do this is, fundamentally, the belief that they in fact can make a difference.
Social entrepreneurs from a very early age believe they were made to do what they are doing. As Drayton says, “social entrepreneurs are the cutting edge of democracy – they are demonstrating the power of citizens to change society through organizing other people to help the put their ideas in place.”