Celebrating 30 Years of Social Entrepreneurship

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Source: Ashoka

Social entrepreneurship today enjoys the high regard it has long deserved -- fully 30 years after the organization that launched the movement was born.

When Bill Drayton started Ashoka, he knew that the old ways of dealing with social problems -- through the public sector, charity, or too often by simply ignoring them -- were by and large failures. But he also knew that creative, driven, innovative problem-solvers in communities all over the world were quietly rolling up their sleeves and getting the work done.

Ashoka started off by finding these unheralded local heroes and, through an especially rigorous selection process, offering them fellowships. "Ashoka is a great global organization, built on a brilliant idea," said Nobel Prize-winning microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus. The fellowship stipend and support (often provided through partnerships with private-sector firms, such as the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company) helped catapult these heroes' proven solutions to become self-sustaining and system-changing.

Most of us associate entrepreneurship with the business world; the invention of new ways of doing things has, in our lifetime, mostly happened in the service of profit-making ventures. Today that's changing. More and more people with entrepreneurial spirit and creativity are putting their talents and ambition to work solving social problems and creating systems to support their solutions' growth. Ashoka has been a leader in this movement for three decades now, providing fellowships to those innovators who truly stand out for their promise to transform entire sectors.

Social entrepreneurs are not simply activists. They are entrepreneurs in the most fundamental sense: They are pioneers. They change the way the world works.

"Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish," Drayton said. "They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry."

Nicole Rycroft is one of them. Once a tree-hugger of the literal kind, showing up in forests to thwart loggers and refusing to budge until the cops came, Rycroft knew there had to be a better way to save her beloved old-growth forests. Through sheer force of will, she cajoled and convinced key players in the publishing industry (who are among the biggest buyers of tree pulp, and who are also highly averse to changing their production practices) to use ancient-forest-friendly paper.

Within a few short years her impact was unquestionably revolutionary: All 12 million American copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, weighing in as one of the largest single paper orders in history, were printed on ancient-forest-friendly paper. The coup proved to the industry that not only could eco-friendly publishing be done, there was real market value in doing it. Rycroft hasn't stopped there (social entrepreneurs rarely do). Today over 650 publishers and printers of books, magazines, newspapers, and catalogs have worked with her organization,Canopy, to minimize their impact on forests. Canopy estimates over 18 million trees have been saved by companies switching to eco-friendly paper.

There are over 2,000 Ashoka Fellows like Rycroft in more than 60 countries. Some are well-known -- like Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikipedia -- and others have been toiling away in obscurity for decades, spearheading the kinds of innovations we now take for granted: eco-tourism, microfinance for poor rural women, incentives to convert to local renewable energy, programs that involve kids in sports to combat youth violence. And this is just a tiny fraction of the successful initiatives brought into the mainstream because Ashoka believed in them -- when hardly anyone had even heard of them.

Many Fellows had no idea there was a name for what they were doing until Ashoka came along. "Ashoka showed me who I was and had always been: I am a social entrepreneur. I start things, I need to change things," said Fellow Donna Morton, who develops economic incentives for low-income housing, community economic development, and climate change through her Centre for Integral Economics (CIE). "For many years the people around me said I would grow out of it, that I would loose my idealist tendencies. It just didn't happen and thankfully Ashoka showed me a global movement of people who made a career and a full life out of making change, no matter in what sector they worked."

Name a social problem in the world; an Ashoka Fellow has likely already found a solution. Sandra Aguebor in Nigeria has put former prostitutes and other marginalized women to work as auto mechanics in a country with very traditional gender roles. Bart Weetjens locates hidden post-conflict landmines (and helps shed Africa's reliance on western technologies) by training native rats to find them by smell. Hany El Miniawy has convinced Egyptian architects and builders to eschew imported steel and concrete for locally-produced bricks that ingeniously include industrial waste in the mix. Rodrigo Baggio Barreto took an idea to bring technology to the impoverished young people of Brazil's favelas and transformed it into a chain of hundreds of community-run and supported computer training schools all over Latin America and Asia.

"These folks aren't famous," said Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, "but they are showing that what it really takes to change the world isn't so much wealth or power as creativity, determination, and passion."

Drayton is credited with coining the term "social entrepreneur," but the concept has been around forever. After all, problem solving is what human beings do. It's how we carry on, survive and progress. Social entrepreneurship as a recognized field is still relatively new, but Ashoka has been instrumental in putting it where it is today: in top business school course offerings, global conferences on social change, and competitions with big prize money. The best ideas are spreading and replicating; social change is now happening more quickly and more profoundly than ever before.

At this moment when social entrepreneurship has become a movement familiar to almost everyone, it is precisely everyone that Ashoka wants to be part of the movement. Nothing less than an "Everyone a Changemaker World" is the organization's next goal.

That's not to say everyone is or can be a social entrepreneur. Few of us have the magic mix of tenacity plus open-mindedness, creativity plus practicality, and stubbornness plus flexibility. But most of us have at least a few of those. And all of us see problems around us that need fixing.

"A lot of the work we do at Ashoka," said current Ashoka president Diana Wells, "is to help the broader population -- not only social entrepreneurs, but also all citizens everywhere -- to recognize that change is possible. We do that through sharing stories every day of people at every level of changemaking, and the how-tos for making change, to inspire and spark the imagination. Inspiration is a really critical piece of the puzzle."

Ashoka's Changemakers initiative -- a global online community where caring, motivated people at every level of action learn from and inspire each other, exchange ideas, and connect to reach their goals -- demonstrates the tip of the iceberg. Changemakers has over 6,000 innovative ideas and solutions from around the world. To browse through them is to catch a glimpse of the ambitious future Ashoka envisions: Everyone a Changemaker. It's Ashoka's birthday, but the gift belongs to all of us.

Happy birthday, Ashoka!

This post was originally featured in the Huffington Post.