An essay I wrote to describe the experience of the Ashoka Globalizer.
Imagine you’re a social entrepreneur starting to realize the full potential for your idea. You’ve made the momentous decision to devote yourself full-time to solving a social problem, you’ve won some Fellowships, raised some funding, achieved some initial success in one city or state or even country. But, because of who you are, the goalposts keep shifting. You’re restless. Your achievements so far have shown you that there is a much bigger market for your work than you’ve been tapping. Deep down you know there’s got to be a way for people in other countries, other continents, to benefit from the model you’ve pioneered. But, unlike in the business sector, there aren’t the mechanisms to take a good idea global in the social sector. You wonder how you’re going to bridge this gap. Perhaps you even feel a little lonely because nobody else around you is as transfixed by this challenge.
Enter the Ashoka Globalizer, a program that is trying to answer the question of how social ideas can go global. Like you, Globalizer is also struck by Bill Clinton’s dictum: “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find what works and scale it up.” You apply to join this crowd of leading social entrepreneurs, who are coming together to figure this out with a group of business entrepreneurs who have already significantly scaled their companies or organizations.
Over a couple of days in Vienna, Austria, you hunker down to work with this peer group, all of whom are grappling with this question. In group exploration, you test your own assumptions for how to scale your work; you compare your model with the latest thinking and cutting-edge research about social scale; and you meet face-to-face with a handful of highly successful business entrepreneurs and other thought leaders to brainstorm, problem solve and engage in a strategic refresh of your thinking.
Though deep in thought and actively networking, you’re also aware of some profound conversations going on around you. They range from the sobering insight – “If a society cannot integrate its autistic members, that’s more a reflection of society’s failure than of autistic people” – to the audacious idea – “can we de-mine the baptismal site of Jesus as a rallying point for a world without landmines?”, and from the critical conceptual hypothesis – “we have to ensure the model’s DNA is transferred to partners” to the tongue-in-cheek strategy – “to really achieve spread, you have to let your idea go. And then chase it down!”
You’re also enjoying watching some matches-made-in-heaven amongst the participants. You see a pioneer in using football for social change find himself face-to-face with a visionary entrepreneur who owns a Scottish football team and is willing to share a slice of the profits. You notice that someone fighting counterfeit medicine is receiving help from a pharmaceutical executive to integrate into their entire Africa operations. Three of your colleagues have realized they are all using mobile phones as avenues for spreading social impact and are huddling together excitedly, coming up with bigger dreams than if they worked alone.
And, as icing on the cake, this is all happening in an imperial Hapsburg palace. You look at the crystal chandeliers on the high ceilings, at the massive floor-to-ceiling abstract paintings, at the bright summer sunshine streaming through the windows, and you slowly nod to yourself. You feel in your bones what those activist songwriters must have felt in the Sixties: There’s somethin’ happenin’ here. And then you look back at the room and see that venture capitalist genius who had piqued your interest with an out-of-the-box notion about financing strategy. Like you, she’s taking a breather, sipping coffee and looking around. You catch her eye. Back to work.