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Why Leading Social Entrepreneurs are Critical Today

In a world defined by change, success comes from everyone leading. Social entrepreneurs define the new roadmaps that allow people to thrive in this new environment, while providing solutions and demonstrating the how-tos.

Ashoka engages the world’s largest and most powerful network of social entrepreneurs by searching for and selecting the world’s leading social entrepreneurs: Ashoka Fellows. Ashoka pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship more than 35 years ago, and today it continues to build the largest global network of leading social entrepreneurs.

Ashoka Fellows champion new ideas that transform society’s systems, providing benefits for everyone and improving the lives of millions of people. Ashoka Fellows are the ultimate role models in today’s world.

Ashoka identifies patterns that are emerging from our Fellows—types of solutions, strategies, topic areas, etc.—that often point to areas ripe for major change. These learnings from across our Fellowship guide Ashoka’s work and investments in strategic initiatives that empower every person to be a changemaker.

Ashoka is unlike any other organization I’ve worked with. And this is a good thing. Forget about hierarchies and decision-trees. Forget about caveats and we’ve-never-done-that’s. I have never worked with a more committed group of people whose first response is ‘why not!,’ whose job descriptions say ‘make it happen,’ and who are deeply committed to standing next to crazy leaders who believe in the world that is yet to be. Is it messy sometimes? Yes. Is it catalytic? Always.

– Eric Dawson, Founder of Peace First. Ashoka Fellow since 2007

The Ashoka Fellowship Selection Process

Ashoka searches the world for leading social entrepreneurs through an intensive, human-centered process, selecting them into our Ashoka global, trust-based fellowship of peers.

The process of selection is a transformative and enlightening experience. Candidates articulate their innovations, and how they have the potential to change sector-wide systems. They scrutinize their strategies and methods, and reflect on how they engage as individuals and leaders in today’s world. The selection process is not simply a means to an end, but rather generates robust discussion, sharpens ideas, and gives room for a journey of self discovery and growth.

The selection process phases are:

  • Nominate: Ashoka receives nominations from staff, volunteers, partners, Ashoka Fellows, and nominators, based on the five criteria for Ashoka Fellowship (see below). While Ashoka’s primary source for nominations is through our network of volunteer nominators, we also welcome self-nominations from social entrepreneurs who believe they meet Ashoka’s criteria.
  • First Opinion: The local Ashoka Venture team reviews the nominations to identify a key social innovation. In order to ensure that the candidate is a good fit for the Ashoka criteria, they conduct site visits and meet with the candidate, and then review their work with other experts in the field.
  • Second Opinion: A senior Ashoka representative with extensive experience in the field of social entrepreneurship reviews the work of the candidate with the local Venture team. The second opinion interviewer will always come from a different continent than the candidate so they can bring objectivity to the process and assess the potential of the idea to be applied elsewhere. The second opinion interviewer will have an in-depth conversation about the innovation in the idea, its potential for sparking sector-wide system change, and the candidate’s fit for the Ashoka criteria.
  • Panel: In addition, three to four leading social and business entrepreneurs from the same country/region will interview the candidate. These entrepreneurs are able to assess the innovation and its potential impact in the local context. The panel then convenes as a group and, facilitated by the second opinion interviewer, decides by consensus whether they recommend that the Ashoka board elects this candidate as an Ashoka Fellow.
  • Board Review: Ashoka’s Board of Directors reviews the candidate’s case in light of the observations made by the local Venture team, second opinion interviewer, and panelists. After assessing the candidate’s fit with the criteria and alignment with Ashoka’s mission, they make a final decision about whether to select the candidate to be an Ashoka Fellow.

In 2008, I became an Ashoka Fellow. I was thrilled by this opportunity to meet amazing people, go to fantastic places, and learn about innovative and new ideas. But what I could never have known then and am only beginning to grasp now . . . is the amount of growth I would experience as a person, leader, and changemaker. Ashoka’s commitment to and belief in me and the power I—one person—can bring to the world, has been truly transformative and life changing. I am not at all surprised that Girls on the Run has grown significantly over the last four years . . . and that our growth has been in parallel with the confidence I have found using words like ‘change the world,’ ‘transformation,’ and ‘taking positive risks.’ This is the language of Ashoka . . . and the world in which I now joyfully find myself living everyday.

– Molly Barker, Girls on the Run, USA. Ashoka Fellow since 2008
Venture and Fellowship

Five Criteria for the Ashoka Fellowship

Ashoka's selection process is anchored by our five criteria against which all Fellow candidates are evaluated in every step of the selection process:

  1. A New Idea: Candidates must have a new idea—a new solution or approach to a social problem—that will change the pattern in a field. We evaluate the idea historically and against its contemporaries in the field, looking for innovation and real change potential. Candidates must have a truly transformational innovation, not just a tweak to how things are done currently.
  2. Creativity: Successful social entrepreneurs are creative both as goal-setting visionaries and as problem solvers that are capable of engineering their visions into reality. Among the questions we might ask are: Does the candidate have a history of creating other new visions?
  3. Entrepreneurial Quality: Successful social entrepreneurs are driven by the vision of solving the problem they are working on. They typically will not rest until their idea is the new pattern for society. At the same time, they are willing to grapple relentlessly with many practical “how to” challenges. A successful candidate, if given the means, would dedicate themselves full time to launching and growing their idea.
  4. Social Impact of the Idea: The candidate’s new idea has the potential to change the field significantly and will trigger nationwide impact. The idea itself needs to be sufficiently new, practical, and useful for people working in the field to adopt it and turn it into the new norm sector wide.
  5. Ethical Fiber: Social entrepreneurs introducing major structural changes to society will have to inspire that change at a wide scale and across different stakeholder groups. If the entrepreneur is not trusted, the likelihood of success is significantly reduced. Ashoka insists that every participant in the selection process be assessed for ethical fiber.

Ashoka’s objective, strategic, and critical analysis of our work and potential development paths have already fundamentally altered our plans for growth. Indeed, thanks to Ashoka the bar has been significantly raised: our aspirations are now global rather than local, and we’re aiming—and making good progress—towards an impact that is many hundreds of times larger than we dared imagine this time last year.

– Al Harris, Blue Ventures, UK and Madagascar. Ashoka Fellow since 2007

Recommend an Ashoka Fellow Candidate

When Ashoka elected me a Fellow in November 2006, I had been working part-time to implement my vision for five years. Ashoka gave me a stipend that allowed me to reduce the burden of my own student loans, cover my basic expenses, and fully dedicate myself to scaling Lumni.

– Felipe Vergara, Lumni, Colombia and US. Ashoka Fellow since 2006

If you know someone with a path-breaking new idea, who is approaching social problem-solving in an entrepreneurial and creative way, and meets our five Ashoka Fellow criteria, please recommend them!

The Ashoka Fellowship

For more than 35 years, Ashoka has built and nurtured the largest network of leading social entrepreneurs in the world. After a rigorous selection process, they are introduced to a life-long fellowship, where every member is committed to championing new patterns of social good. We encourage Ashoka Fellows to take ownership of the network and we partner with them to  co-create Ashoka’s vision of an Everyone a Changemaker world.

We understand the individual needs of social entrepreneurs vary depending on the stage of their work. Once selected, each Ashoka Fellow embarks on a tailored timeline of investments and support over their lifetime. We make sure that the Ashoka brand, the engagements we curate and facilitate, and the connections we open are valuable to each Fellow. We invite Fellows to make the most of the network through interactions that will increase their chances for deepening their social impact. Some of the support Fellows will enjoy include:

  • A tailored stipend for up to three years, if needed, for the Fellow to dedicate themselves full time to the advancement of their idea
  • Customized engagement opportunities that accelerate their impact
  • Increased visibility
  • A global community of peers

Fellows have said that the Ashoka Fellowship gives them an identity, a community, and the network to do more.

Having identified myself as a social entrepreneur was truly significant. It defined my role and gave me the security of belonging to a network of people with similar abilities and vocations.

– Ximena Abogabir, Casa de la Paz, Chile. Ashoka Fellow since 1995

Do you know someone with a path-breaking new idea?

Are they creative, entrepreneurial problem-solvers tackling big social problems?

Ashoka Venture and Fellowship in United States

Fellow Organisations

Since Ashoka’s founding in 1981, Venture & Fellowship has been the core of our work, developed and refined to identify leading social entrepreneurs with transformative ideas and provide them with the support and community they need to thrive. Ashoka’s role is to bet on these entrepreneurs at a key time in their trajectory when minimal resources have maximal leverage. In this way, year after year, we seed ideas that represent potentially groundbreaking paths forward for society. In the process we collect insights and spot patterns that guide the rest of our work and that enable our partners—and society at large—see with more clarity the direction the world is moving.

Many of the 230 U.S. Ashoka Fellows who have come through this process have gone on to get to get second and third-tier growth investments from major foundations and philanthropists as they scale nationally. 

Our Fellows are: 

  • Building entirely new fields­—like Participatory Defense—to give communities most affected by mass incarceration the avenues to influence the court process and case outcomes;
  • Leveling the educational playing field via organizations like Donors ChooseBeyond 12 and the New Teacher Centre
  • Drafting legislation and changing policy at the state level—like the groundbreaking Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in New York and California—and at the federal level too, as Paul Reickhoff and his Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America were instrumental in the US Senate’s unanimous passing of the Clay Hunt Bill in 2015 to provide better help for veterans with serious mental health issues;
  • Enabling millions to access critical benefits: Jennifer Pahlka’s Code for America used mobile technology to reduce the application time for California’s CalFresh nutrition program from 45 to 8 minutes;
  • Shaping a more welcoming country via David Lubell’s Welcoming America, which reduces the barriers that immigrants face to fully participating and builds bridges between newcomers and long-time residents;
  • ... and much more!

I have been constantly blown away by the generosity and vision of Ashoka. They have been unmatched as a thought partner, helping me and my organization to see connections in our work that transcend geographic boundaries and the usual discipline silos. And they have been unparalleled as a connector. My own experience as an Ashoka Fellow has been nothing short of transformational.

- Jill Vialet, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Playworks
Jill Vialet