Every Ashoka Fellow Experiences Failure—and That's OK

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

Many people fear the seven-letter word: failure. But social entrepreneurs, along their journey to success, mustlearn to embrace failure if they want to succeed. As Beverly Schwartz, author of Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation, puts it, “Every [Ashoka] Fellow’s story begins with failure.”  

Rippling, which tells the inspiring stories of changemakers, is filled with evidence of how social entrepreneurs have to learn to put even the best, most world-changing ideas into practice through extensive trial and error. The theme of the book’s launch event, hosted on April 11 by FHi360 and Ashoka in partnership with the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., was embracing failure.

Aleta Margolis, an Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Centre for Inspired Teaching, and Ashoka founder Bill Drayton shared their thoughts on the subject. Margolis offered a powerful example from her own life as a parent. She described how she allowed her daughter to complete a puzzle on her own, through trial and error.

While other parents found it strange that Margolis would let her child fail, the children whose parents showed them the right answer became afraid of failure, and craved validation for each piece they placed correctly, Margolis said.

“Showing a kid that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them is one of the most important things a teacher, adult, or parent can do for a child’s development,” Margolis said. Embracing failure creates the space necessary for innovation.

“We need to look at competition as our friend,” Drayton added. Hitting walls creates opportunities for innovation and change, he explained. It is up to the social entrepreneur to unlock these opportunities through persistence.

Schwartz’s book Rippling is full of lessons to inspire those wanting to change the world. “I wish I had not waited so long to write this book,” she said. “I hope it serves as a reminder that we need to act today and not be so afraid to believe in ourselves.”

Schwartz dedicated the launch event to Isaac Durojaiye, a Nigerian Ashoka Fellow who recently passed away. His efforts to found DMT Evacuation Service, the first mobile toilet initiative in the West African Sub-region, make him a star of her book. He was working to solve both widespread urban unemployment and poor sanitation conditions.

“Social entrepreneurs have the ability to listen and put problems into context; in doing so they come up with incredible innovations,” Schwartz said.

As Margolis put it, innovators like Durojaiye are not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.

“My favorite word is ‘yet. I haven’t figured it out, yet. It doesn’t work, yet’,” said Margolis.

Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation is a rich conversation about the kinds of people that are social entrepreneurs, and the qualities they possess. Anyone can pick up this book and feel inspired by each Ashoka Fellow’s journey as they work to change the workings of the world’s systems.