Bill Drayton | CEO, Ashoka

Entreprenuer For Social Change by Caroline Hsu

America's Best LeadersIn the summer of 1963, Bill Drayton witnessed the power of a simple idea to effect vast social change. A Gandhian named Vinoba Bhave was walking across India and persuading individuals and whole villages to legally "gift" their land to him. Bhave then redistributed the land more equitably to support untouchables and other landless people, thus breaking an endless cycle of poverty. Drayton, just 20 years old and on summer break from Harvard, drove a red-and-white Volkswagen van from Munich to India to join him.

"Long before sunrise, we'd start walking across dividing paths of rice fields, by the moonlight, stars, and a couple of kerosene lanterns," says Drayton. At sunrise, thousands of surrounding villagers dressed in their best clothes began appearing in the horizon. By teatime, local landowners had voluntarily ceded their holdings to Bhave. Ultimately, 7 million acres were peacefully redistributed, based on the ability of one leader to turn a powerful idea into reality.

It's a model of change that Drayton calls social entrepreneurship--a term he coined to describe individuals who combine the pragmatic and results-oriented methods of a business entrepreneur with the goals of a social reformer. Through his global nonprofit, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, based in Arlington, Va., Drayton aims to find change-making leaders around the world, provide them with support and modest "social venture capital," and watch as they transform ingrained institutions and improve lives exponentially.

A slight man with wispy hair and rimless glasses, Drayton seems not quite of this world. Conversations tend to wander off on arcane tangents--such as a 20-minute lecture on the irrigation system of Bali--before heading back to broader theories like the importance of empathetic ethics in a multicultural world. Drayton always speaks in a library voice. "I was taught by my parents that people who are loud don't have anything to say," says Drayton, with his gentle smile. "I've found if you're suggesting quite big changes, a quiet style may be reassuring."

He's also prone to long gaps in conversation. "He is a guy who will literally sit in silence for a minute before he speaks," says Peter Kellner, one of several young entrepreneurs who call Drayton a mentor. Indeed, although Drayton is constantly in a bureaucrat's uniform of a plain navy blue suit and a skinny tie, one can almost imagine him in monk's robes, fascinated disciples at his feet.

Yet Drayton, like three of his heroes, Mohandas Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean Monnet (architect of European common currency), is a scholar and political operator deeply rooted in the hows and whys of society. He notes Gandhi's mania for organization, down to counting pencils. For Drayton, social change isn't romantic. "It's not a poem; it's not like Xanadu," he says. "There are many people who are creative and altruistic, but they are never going to change a pattern across a continent." In other words, a vision of Xanadu is nice, but it won't happen without a transportation plan and a sewerage system.

Which is why Drayton named his organization after another visionary pragmatist: Ashoka was a third-century-B.C. Indian emperor who waged war to unite a huge swath of south Asia. He subsequently renounced violence, adopted Buddhism, and dedicated his empire to tolerance, economic growth, and social projects. Launched in 1980 with $50,000, the organization now has a budget of $30.5 million and has funded 1,600 "fellows" in 60 countries. Fellows, who must undergo a rigorous testing and screening process and numerous interviews, have done things like finding a way to provide cheap electricity for Brazilian farmers, changing the Indian school curriculum from rote to independent learning, and distributing microcredit loans of as small as $60 for poor women in Bangladesh to start businesses. That original program has set a new standard in development work, and microfinance is now used all over the world to help add to the ranks of the world's entrepreneurs. Within five years, says Drayton, more than 50 percent of Ashoka fellows change national policy in their respective countries.

Visionary. Early on, Drayton saw that while government can be inefficient and the private sector motivated by profit, the nonprofit sector was ripe to provide change. Indeed, this "third" sector, or so-called citizen sector, as Drayton calls it, has exploded--70 percent of registered nonprofit groups in the United States are under 30 years old. "More and more people want to do this kind of work," says Drayton. "We are creating the jobs; the salaries are going up. We are desperate for managers."

Much of the change in the citizen sector can be attributed to Drayton, who made it his life's work to not only expand Ashoka but also develop the field as a whole. "Bill was the pioneer; he really laid the foundation for the rest of us," says J. Gregory Dees, professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. When Dees attempted to introduce the first social entrepreneurship course in business school, he was rebuffed. Nearly 15 years later, it is a common offering at leading business schools like Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

In many ways, Drayton's life has been a long road toward learning how to change systems. At Harvard, he founded Ashoka table, where students could ask government and industry leaders how the world really works. Drayton continued at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and graduated from Yale Law School. Later, at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., he learned about public policy and industries. While advising New York City, he created the nation's first nicotine tar tax. In the Carter administration, as assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he pioneered the concept of emissions trading, in which companies or whole countries can reduce their allotment of pollution emissions by selling those allotments to others. During the Reagan years, Drayton successfully used the media to stop the administration from dismantling the EPA.

Though he characterizes himself as a moderate introvert, Drayton has the innate charisma of great leaders. Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, who cochaired the 9/11 commission, recalls that he had misgivings when the 21-year-old Drayton volunteered to help on his House campaign in 1964. "He looks like a scholar, and I said to myself, 'How will he fit in with Hoosiers--with Indiana farmers?' " Drayton was able to charm local party operatives as well as farmers, and he helped Hamilton win.

The charisma stems from genuine interest and skillful listening. Kyle Zimmer, a board member of Ashoka, remembers meeting Drayton when they worked on Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984. "It was tremendously empowering to be around Bill. You felt as if when you talked your ideas were considered." Zimmer describes similar scenes at Ashoka meetings. "The first time I sat at a meeting, an intern raised a hand, and I thought, 'You have got to be kidding; that's someone with moxie.' But it happens repeatedly. Bill appreciates people who are thinking and engaged and he doesn't care if it's someone very influential in Washington or a tribal leader in some very remote area of the world."

Publisher. Entrepreneurship came early to Drayton. As a child, he made crafts and set up a store in his bedroom. And he had no problems recruiting helpers. A one-page newspaper he started in the third grade quickly turned into an ad-supported 64-page publication staffed with elementary school children. "I can't tell you how excited I was to get this mimeograph machine," says Drayton. "It's amazing how supportive my parents were. There were 64 piles of mimeographed paper that had to be collated and stapled, and it never occurred to me this might be inconvenient to my family."

Even now, Drayton's enthusiasm for a project has a way of sweeping up bystanders who question how they end up laboring in the eye of his storm. Julien Phillips was working in Venezuela in the early '80s when Drayton came for a weeklong visit. "He had asked me in his soft way if I could arrange some appointments with people interested in making changes," says Phillips, a friend from McKinsey who runs his own nonprofit organization. He tried to oblige but soon realized that Drayton, who spoke no Spanish, had expected him to analyze the social structure of Venezuela, find the top 25 change makers, and arrange interviews with at least 10. "He imagined I would drop everything. It's never clear to me whether he's aware that he's making some fairly unreasonable requests or whether he's entirely oblivious to all that--and he relates to a lot of people in that way."

But Phillips and others say they tolerate and even admire his demands because they are not driven by ego. "His actions and his ethics are well integrated," says David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Drayton lives modestly, in an apartment near his office. For years, he did not take a salary at Ashoka. Sushmita Ghosh, president of Ashoka, remembers first meeting Drayton 17 years ago at a hotel in Calcutta, where she estimates the rooms cost about $12 a night. "One of Ashoka's policies is never to do anything that is not compatible with the lifestyle of the fellows," says Ghosh.

Although Drayton's energies are stretched, he is continually moving forward with new projects. His latest, Youth Venture, comes from his belief that children are a great untapped resource in social change--correctly leveraged, they have the power to "flip" society very quickly. He likens their marginalized position to what was once considered a natural secondary place for women and minorities.

"We would like to have every middle and high school become a place where there will be lots of examples of youth competence and confidence," says Drayton. "You can be a cog in society if you've learned enough, but you'll never be a powerful person."

Like Vinoba Bhave, Drayton is in his own way walking through the world and trying to persuade as many people to sign over their rights as a cog and join him. "Right now, 2 or 3 percent of people control changes," he says. "Imagine a world where everyone is really a change maker."


25 America's Best Leaders

Q&A with Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka
Posted 10/22/05

Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?

Gandhi. First, because he showed the world (e.g., our civil rights movement) that change comes faster and far more permanently by helping people understand when their behavior contradicts what an empathic response would dictate. This empathic response is the necessary foundation of ethics today (when rules alone are not enough). The empires and institutions based on compulsion and inequality have one after another withered when faced with Gandhi's simple approach of truth speaking quietly to conscience.

I also admire Gandhi for giving this profoundly transformative revolution practical legs. Tirelessly, over decades, he built giant and grass-roots social and political movements that had the enormous internal and deeply democratic strength to transform fear and violence with courage and love – institutions that, in turn, influenced entire societies to follow this demanding, disciplined path.

I was deeply stirred while a student by experiencing Gandhi's approach at work at the grass roots both during civil rights work here and in rural India. And then later seeing its power for good in the Amazon and elsewhere through my work for Ashoka. This summer, I watched with admiration as eBay's first president, Jeff Skoll, arranged to have Sir Ben Kingsley's classic film, Gandhi, translated into Arabic and shown with encouragement from the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank and Gaza.

Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, says, "Everybody agrees that there is less leadership today than there used to be." Do you agree? Why or why not? In which area of life do you see the greatest need for leadership today?

I disagree very strongly.

For decades, whenever the old institutions perished, all across the world, there has been an escalating multiplication of people becoming change makers. Starting small businesses, experimenting with new ways to do things on the farms different from their parents, and founding more and more citizen groups.

The change in the social half of the world's operations is most dramatic. While business became ever more entrepreneurial and competitive from 1700 onward, the social half, fed by tax revenues, had no need to go through this transformation. Every year the sector fell further behind. Hence, the relative squalor gap of the citizen sector of a generation ago– dismal productivity, salaries, and esteem.

This all changed around 1980. The gap had become intolerable, and in a historically very short 25-year period the citizen sector went through the same structural revolution that took business 300 years. As it became entrepreneurial, it began quickly to close the productivity gap–cutting it in half roughly every 10 to 12 years.

As a result, resources have been flooding into our sector. We've been generating jobs at 2.5 to three times as fast as the rest of society. The U.S. more than doubled the number of IRS-recognized charities in a decade. Brazil grew from somewhere between 500 and 3,600 citizen groups in 1980 to an estimated more than 1 million by the year 2000. There are similar statistics from every continent.

Because this is the fastest-growing, most vibrant sector now, it is where the talent is flowing. The best, most entrepreneurial leaders go where they can have the biggest impact for the good, where they will find the most ethical and engaged colleagues, and where they will be most challenged.

Over half the Ashoka social entrepreneurs have changed national policy within five years of their launch. Roughly 90 percent have seen independent organizations copy their innovations. There is no decline in leadership – but you must look for it in new places.

Leaders are rarely, if ever, exceptional in every way. And they need not be. But the great leaders know that their deficiencies can't be ignored. What are yours? And how do you address them?

Entrepreneurs cannot be happy people until they have seen their visions become the new reality across all of society. They learn how to master whatever skills are necessary. I am, for example, modestly an introvert. However, I spent most of my days dealing with people. It helps hugely that my daily interactions are with wonderful, caring, creative entrepreneurs from whom I learn and with whom I connect. My decision to commit to the Ashoka vision turned in part on recognizing how important this balance would be. My escape for long backpack trips in the wilderness also helps. And so, of course, does finding colleagues who are complements–and with whom I and our values-based entrepreneurial community share so much that the fit works.

Great leaders take risks; therefore, they make mistakes. Tell us about one of yours (the bigger, the better!) and how, as any great leader would, you used it as an opportunity to improve.

Ashoka's two core constituencies are leading business and social entrepreneurs. We are also serving a historical transformation that is moving so fast that almost everyone in Ashoka must be creating and entrepreneuring at a very high level if we are to succeed.

As a result, we must be a community of collegial entrepreneurs. And, to attract and hold such extraordinary people, we must be an integrated, decentralized organization that in every way enables and strongly encourages each of us to fly and yet that channels all that energy to serve the organization's goals.

The worst mistake I have made was to compromise on these core principles. For example, toward the end of our first period of very rapid growth (45 percent a year for five years), we hired several wonderful, spirited managers. However, they were not entrepreneurs; and they never could, partly in consequence, intuitively "get" our vision, our core stakeholders, or our culture. They set to work managing, which ended in failure, uncomprehending frustration, and culture division. Good entrepreneurs can manage, but no one but an entrepreneur can entrepreneur, let alone help build and lead the world's community of leading social entrepreneurs and their top business entrepreneur allies.

My experience in not insisting on our core hiring criteria not only led to tears and weakened our very young culture but caused a several-year revenue plateau, which in turn made it quite impossible to meet our rolling five goals.

Led by my colleague, Sushmita Ghosh, and our Strategy Group, we have now installed rigorous staff hiring, promotion, and management systems (modeled on our proven process for selecting the leading social entrepreneurs that Ashoka helps launch, support, and network together. These systems are all focused around four criteria: (1) proven entrepreneurial quality, (2) whether or not the person "gets" and truly, personally believes Ashoka's full vision, (3) applied emotional intelligence, and (4) strong ethical fiber.

This learning is one of the most important steps toward Ashoka's becoming the irreversible institution its mission requires.

A great leader stays the course. At what moments has this been particularly difficult for you? And how did you keep your resolve?

Ashoka is just entering its 25th year. And the founding idea and principle are older, dating back to my undergraduate years.

I have never doubted that we are serving the most powerful and most hopeful historical force of our era. Or that we are positioned to play a truly important role. We are, after all, a community of most of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. As a result, we can see where history is going and where there are jujitsu leverage points. Even better, we are a community of entrepreneurs who are learning how to entrepreneur together — how to take the most powerful new universal principles that cut across our individual innovations and, by working together, use them to flip whole fields globally.

How could any entrepreneur, confronted by such amazing opportunities to help transform the world and to do so with such extraordinary colleagues, be tempted to lose focus? Especially since the work involves such breadth that the boredom of routine or specialization does not exist.

Of course, there are frustrations. A broken financial system for the citizen sector, for example. But that is only another huge opportunity to bring urgently needed structural change for the field.

Great leaders empower others to become leaders themselves. Give us an example of how you knew you had succeeded in this important and very satisfying role.

Ashoka's job and, indeed, our field's most important job is to empower people. Our ultimate objective is "everyone a change maker."

To succeed, we must do this consistently at all levels — staff, our social entrepreneur "fellows," and every person in society.

Second, Ashoka is a community of and for leading social entrepreneurs. What we are best known for is finding the most important new social change ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them. We help launch them, help them succeed over their decades-long careers, and link them together so that we can be far more than the sum of our sole practitioner parts. Ninety-seven percent continue full time in the pursuit of this vision within five years after Ashoka elects them to fellowship.

Our field's and Ashoka's ultimate objective is an "everyone a change maker" world. Every successful social entrepreneur is a role model that encourages others to care and organize to cause social change.

More important still, consider the impact a successful social entrepreneur has on one local community after another. Their new idea disrupts existing patterns and the sense that things cannot change. Moreover, their idea is designed to be as user friendly as possible precisely to encourage someone in that community to step forward to implement the entrepreneur's innovation in that community — i.e., to become a local change maker. The example of these champions in turn encourages their family and friends to follow suit with other ideas later.