You Never Retire From Ashoka

How Ashoka bounced into my life

In 1994, I was hired to lead Ashoka Poland. At the time, Ashoka had not yet streamlined its global operations so I needed to learn how to identify the characteristics of a social entrepreneur on my own. Quite a challenge in a country where “entrepreneurship” had a negative connotation, especially just after the romantic Solidarity movement -- a movement driven by passion and heart.

Yet, the decade of Solidarity actually fueled entrepreneurship in Poland, as the nation organized itself in supportive networks to publish illegal materials, educate citizens, and boycott official institutions. This spontaneous movement arose from a deep national desire for independence and freedom. Many of those involved were social entrepreneurs, but would never have identified themselves as such. For most, “entrepreneur” was associated with 'unethical business people'. 

The Solidarity movement united citizens through common goals.  For example, people began boycotting the official evening news because of its propaganda.  All across Poland, families would leave their houses promptly at 7:30pm when the news began, walking outside rather than watching television.  These walks helped people socialize in the street, strengthening their bonds and ability to act collectively. Eventually the movement succeeded and civil society peacefully overthrew the regime.  

Following the Solidarity movement, I joined Ashoka to launch the search for social entrepreneurs in Poland. I knew my country was a hotbed of social entrepreneurs, even if they disliked the terminology. It takes entrepreneurial souls to launch underground education systems, develop undercover printing methods, and distribute thousands of copies of banned reading materials. It takes entrepreneurs to organize millions and change the course of a country.

But Poland still felt the sharp effects of Communist brainwashing, which twisted the minds of many into a zero-sum game: if one person succeeded, it implied that someone else failed.  Society was both prejudiced against individual success, and skeptical about solutions that supposedly benefited everyone.

Rather than give up, I became more motivated by these challenges. Poland was in genuine need of Ashoka and the belief in the power of social entrepreneurship. In our very first year, we elected 12 Fellows, well above what anyone had anticipated for a country of Poland’s population. Fifteen years later, our first Fellows are still pursuing their ideas, and many have achieved impact well beyond Poland’s borders. 

So how did I identify so many successful social entrepreneurs?  I relied on what I call my “excitement indicators.” Much of this was instinct: I learnt to quickly pick up the spark — the passion, intensity, and commitment — of social entrepreneurs. If this wasn’t immediately palpable, I moved on.

You Never Retire from Ashoka

After 15 years with Ashoka, I "retired" at the age of 65. But did I stop working? No way: I joined academia to research social change as driven by Ashoka Fellows: what makes it unique? How do social entrepreneurs in fact achieve durable and irreversible social change? How do they involve and empower groups and societies, given the words of Peter Drucker: “Social Entrepreneurs change the performance capacity of a society”?

My research revealed some insights on the personality traits of Ashoka Fellows, as compared with leading social activists and with a random sample of the society. I also managed to pin down some innovative methods used by social entrepreneurs. And this was real big-bang stuff! Scholarly articles followed, and the university got truly excited. My 'retirement' then accelerated even further, into more research and more publications, and even more excitement.

Who's retired? 

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This article was originally published on April 25, 2011

Ryszard Praszkier
Ryszard Praszkier is a veteran Ashoka staff member who began by launching Ashoka Poland, one of his many adventures in social entrepreneurship.

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