Social Entrepreneurship: Building the Field

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Social entrepreneurs are the driving force of Ashoka’s past, present and future. Their role in Ashoka’s journey has evolved over time. At first, Ashoka set out to identify social entrepreneurs and showcase their impact and, through this, define the field. At the time, the term social entrepreneur did not even exist in the public lexicon.  

Today, social entrepreneurs have both a name and a recognized place in society. Ashoka’s pioneering role in building the field and creating the largest association of world-class social entrepreneurs—Ashoka Fellows—has directly impacted millions of people around the world. Countless more people have been impacted by the numerous pathways Ashoka has opened up for investors, partners, and influencers to contribute to the broader field of social entrepreneurship.

A Model for Reaching a Tipping Point

In many ways, the field of social entrepreneurship has “tipped.” A growing number of influencers from the public and private sectors see investing in social entrepreneurs as a credible avenue for driving systems change through innovation. The process that Ashoka went through to get to this point serves as the roadmap we use today for all of our current strategies.

Many steps along the journey were deliberate. Others were more intuitive. All have helped Ashoka understand what it means to create a new framework of possibilities for change in our world.

Four Stages: Proving the Concept

Ashoka’s pathway for building the social entrepreneurship field had four main stages. In the first stage, during the 1980s, Ashoka focused on defining the qualities that characterize the world's leading social entrepreneurs and proving the concept that investing in them was an efficient way to generate large-scale impact.

Ashoka drew in early partners, nominators, and thought influencers to be part of naming and supporting the first classes of Ashoka Fellows. Together, this extended network formed a kind of “triggering” community for the field.

Wholesale Replication

In the second stage, Ashoka’s work inspired other organizations and investors during the 1990s. Many joined Ashoka’s efforts through numerous collaborations and touch points with Ashoka’s team, its Fellows, and its broader network.

Others learned from Ashoka and found their own niches for contributing to an ecosystem of support for social entrepreneurs in different ways. This phase of knowledge sharing spurred a kind of “wholesale” replication of the concept of social entrepreneurship where many organizations began independently replicating support to social entrepreneurs.

Tipping the Field

By the early to mid-2000s, stage three was underway.  Social entrepreneurship as a field was catapulted into a new level of awareness in the world by David Borenstein’s seminal book, "How to Change the World," which featured the work of Ashoka and many of its Fellows.

Simultaneously, the work Greg Dees had been doing in the previous decade at Harvard and Stanford led to Duke University creating the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at its business school. The institutionalization of the social entrepreneurship education movement, spearheaded by business schools, contributed to broad awareness and the preparation of next generation leaders. The field had “tipped.”

By the late 2000s, Ashoka had built the largest global network of leading social entrepreneurs and could draw insights from the patterns of their innovations. Ashoka’s vision grew because of these patterns. We could see how social entrepreneurs were leading in a way that enabled everyone to lead. 

Ashoka Fellows served not only as role models for those who wanted to make positive change in the world, but also actively recruited changemakers to spread their impact. Through the lens of our Fellows, we saw the world differently: one where each and every person has the power to drive change, creating an Everyone a Changemaker World.

Ongoing Institutionalization

In this fourth stage Ashoka continues to invest in finding and supporting a growing number of Ashoka Fellows and bringing them into our expanded network of change leaders. Together with our Fellows and key ecosystem partners, Ashoka continues to influence and shape the field of social entrepreneurship.

Today, Ashoka’s role is not to convince people that social entrepreneurs are a good investment, but to respond to governments, corporations, and inter-governmental organizations that are trying to figure out the best way to invest in them. For Ashoka today, the key change is showing not only the important ideas of social entrepreneurs, but the important role they play as makers of changemakers, helping all to realize their full potential as leaders and creating a world where solutions outpace the problems.