In Spain, Social Entrepreneurship is Finding Strength

Bill Drayton - Spain
Source: Bill Drayton - Spain

On Friday, October 21, 2011 Bill Drayton joined the ranks of Nelson Mandela, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the World Health Organization in receiving the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. The award, referred to as the Spanish Nobel, is an annual recognition of one person or organization for a global contribution to humankind.

As Drayton arrived in Spain for the award ceremony, there was a surge of media coverage and events focused on social entrepreneurship.

Timing is everything.

Considering Spain’s economic and financial crisis, this Asturias Award is much more than a simple “hats off” to social entrepreneurship and Ashoka. The decision to recognize Bill Drayton’s work above any other candidate serves as a declaration that Spain values the solutions offered by social entrepreneurs during a time of crisis and challenge. 

The international community’s eyes are fixed on Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. Spain’s unemployment rate has surpassed 20 percent (40 percent for youth), a 10-year housing boom has collapsed, and the country faces an astonishing public-sector deficit. Many citizens treat newspaper articles about the crisis in Greece as predictions of what lies ahead for them; the anxiety is real and persistent. The current scenery is bleak, and consequently, the need for social innovation is at an all-time high. Enter Bill Drayton.

As the world’s leading association of social entrepreneurs, Ashoka supports projects of the highest caliber of social impact. Spain is beginning to recognize that social entrepreneurs can play a key role in solving its urgent problems. Perhaps that is why there are at least three times more Ashoka Fellows in Spain than in any other sovereign debt countries: Spain is beginning to call social entrepreneurs to action, and they are responding.

Five social entrepreneurs, Raúl Contreras, Jean Claude Rodríguez-Ferrera, Ana Bella Estevez, José Manuel Pérez (Pericles), and Faustino García Zapico, joined the Asturias Awards festivities last Friday. As I spent time with this group of phenomenal entrepreneurs, I was amazed by the solidarity I saw. 

Although each entrepreneur’s project varied in topic, whether they were devoted to women’s rights or economics, they were constantly taking advantage of their time together by sharing information, solutions, the occasional complaint, and lots of laughs. 

Better together

Finding opportunities for group entrepreneurship seems to be second nature for these innovators. “When you meet another Ashoka Fellow, it doesn’t take much time before the conversation turns to ideas for collaboration,” said Raúl Contreras. “There is always something you can do together.” 

For example, Jean Claude Rodríguez-Ferrera, whose main project is an alternative banking method called self-financed communities (CAFs), is working to initiate a CAF for abused women who are using the support and resources of Ana Bella Estevez’s foundation.

It takes more than superstars.

The Fellows also work, often instinctively, to realize Ashoka’s core objective: empowering people to be changemakers themselves. During a roundtable at Faustino García Zapico’s Therapy and Education Unit (a progressive prison model that is being replicated across Spain), hundreds of prisoners assembled and listened to the five Fellows describe their work. 

The most popular questions from the audience were about getting involved: How do I start my own CAF? My own enterprise? How do I help abused women I know?

Perhaps José Manuel Pérez said it best: “You have to start now. YOU do it. Start to train yourself, start asking questions — just start. Nobody else is going to do it for you.” Suddenly, 500 prisoners realized that they were not just looking at the picture, but they were part of it.

This is not to say that Ashoka Fellows, or even social entrepreneurship, will be the cure-all to all of Spain’s problems. As in any nation, prosperity requires the cooperation of many entities. 

But in the meantime, social entrepreneurship can make a key contribution to reaching that goal. As this young field gains more legitimacy in Spain, the country’s capacity to convert social innovation and changemaking into a cultural norm will continue to grow — and I can say with confidence that Spain’s front line of social entrepreneurs is ready for the challenge.

This post was written by Brittany Koteles. Brittany is conducting a Fulbright research project about social entrepreneurship in Spain. Formerly, she worked as a summer associate with the AshokaU team in Washington, D.C.

Read more about the five Fellows from Spain:

Ana Bella Estevez

Faustino García Zapico

José Manuel Pérez (Pericles)

Raúl Contreras

Jean Claude Rodríguez-Ferrera