People often ask me why I started working with Ashoka and why I have I stayed with Ashoka for the last eight years. I tell the story of how during my late teens and twenties I worked in Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and other parts of the world where I saw extreme poverty. I remember playing with orphans who lived in a concrete structure with no natural light in Myanmar, watching vulnerable street kids not even ten years old trying to make their living on the streets of Hanoi, and watching chaos ensue as the Indonesian economy collapsed while I was conducting economic research there. In all these cases, I developed deep friendships and connections with my local counterparts and saw a truth: my local counterparts were just as (or more) intelligent and hard working and capable as I was, yet they were caught in economic, political and social systems that were limiting their potential, harming them and sometimes killing them.
I came to Ashoka because it was one of the only places in the world at the time that was directly tackling large-scale system change. It was doing this by supporting social entrepreneurs who would address the root cause of a problem and change the system. Over the years I became filled with hope and deep resolve as I saw thousands of social entrepreneurs tackle and solve intractable problems. Tanya Tull has solved homelessness for a significant sector of the US homeless population. Hilmi Qurashi is helping millions of people from India to Afghanistan access health and mental health services. Paul Rice has brought dignity and fair wages to millions by certifying fair trade and helping it become a norm across many industries.
Over the years I came to understand why Ashoka called these people social entrepreneurs. It is has nothing to do with whether they are for profit or non-profit, and everything to do with whether they are creating large-scale system change, launching new industries and changing ecosystems. This is important, because if you can do that, you are creating real impact for hundreds of millions or billions of people.
Up until a few years ago launching a new industry would take decades. In fact, most people did not even know that such a thing existed because it took so long, was so rare, and was too big to easily study. Most of us would go through life not even aware of the systems we inhabited—they were reality and our job was to survive within them.
But things have changed. Today, we are reaching a point where it is possible to create new industries and build new ecosystems in a few years. The Internet has allowed us to mobilize information, intelligence, people and resources in such a way so that large-scale change can happen fast.
In fact, during the week of February 15, the Global Innovation Summit will be hosting a large gathering in the Silicon Valley showcasing recent examples of ecosystem building and exploring new tools, methods, models, networks and strategies for how one can drive such large scale change. For example the conference will explore the revitalization and modernization of manufacturing in Detroit and the design, creation and launch of new entrepreneurial ecosystems such as that in the United Arab Emirates. It will also dig deep into what teamwork, leadership and financial capital and investment looks like in this coming age. Hands on workshops will allow participants to practice mapping and designing ecosystems. Everyone can learn to launch an ecosystem.
It is exciting be alive today and working in the field of social entrepreneurship where there are such great opportunities for anyone to make a large impact and difference.
Note: Our friends at the Global Innovation Summit are providing an Ashoka-exclusive discount you can take advantage of. Enter 'VIP20' for 20% discount to Global Innovation Summit February 17-19, 2015.