Published: 19th January 2021
The Bill Drayton interview: The story behind how the Ashoka Fellowship was created after a roadtrip to India
Ashoka: Innovators for the Public was initiated to nurture people social entrepreneurs and doers because it is with their empathy that they change the world. Founder Bill Drayton talks to us about it
Bill Drayton believes that everybody has a superpower — "to dream and organise and change their world". Whether you know it or not, it's there. For all you enlightened souls, here's an avenue to really flex the power and nuture it — the Ashoka Young Changemakers programme.
It was in the year 1981 that social entrepreneur Bill Drayton founded Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and since then, over 3,500 Ashoka Fellows have been supported in every way possible and connected a global network via which, they have taken on the world's pressing problems, head-on, and strived to solve them. In this way, the 78-year-old started a global organisation that continues to turn young ripples of change-making into well-intentioned waves with the aim to wash away problems of the social systems. "When we talk about young people who know they are changemakers, the Ashoka Young Changemakers are what we are talking about. They are not someone doing a teacher’s or scoutmaster’s project. They are the real thing," says the Arlington-based CEO with the same conviction which propelled him to launch organisations like Harvard’s Ashoka Table and Yale Legislative Services in his early years. And if you do opt for one of their prorgammes, you will be able to count Nobel Laureates like Kailash Satyarthi (Bachpan Bachao Andolan) and Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank), and Magsaysay awardee Anshu Gupta (Goonj) as your fellow alumna.
The second edition of Ashoka's Global Young Changemakers programme is underway and the plan is, like last time, selecting 12 under 20 individuals on the basis of their previous initiatives and their ability to bring about change. But unlike last time, this time it's going digital. So taking inspiration from the Ashoka Fellows who never miss a chance to carpe diem, we asked Bill Drayton everything! From his current views on social entrepreneurship, a term which he is known to have coined, to the problems that plague India and beyond. Excerpts from a detailed and delightful interaction:
Drayton in a discussion | (Pic: Ashoka)
You've spoken deeply about how India inspired you as a young grad who'd just studied in the best schools across the world. Take us back. Was there a specific instance, a memory, a jarring point in time, that led to the setting up of Ashoka as we know it today?
I have been fascinated and drawn to India since elementary school. East Asia, South Asia, and West Asia/Europe are the world’s three great historical continuous civilisations. India was the sister civilisation that drew me in. Civil rights were important to me — and it was a Gandhian movement that allowed America finally, after centuries, truly to move against our country’s original sin. And it is such an open, diverse, tolerant civilisation.
When I was 18, I finally achieved my dream of getting to India — driving there with three friends. And, even beyond my expectations, India was amazingly welcoming, starting with the soldier who spontaneously gave us mangoes when we crossed over into India. One amazing high-energy small business after another in Amritsar and Ludhiana. The ever-patient, engaging villagers who put up with our days of asking questions about Panchayati Raj and how it works. Walking with Vinoba Bhave in Balasore District, Odisha. Staying with a family engaged in an MLA election in northern West Bengal. And so much more.
Day-by-day, the statistics became people and friends. How could we not step up to close the India/America income gap. But about-to-be college sophomores’ control nothing. So how could we achieve this goal? Ashoka is the embarrassingly logical answer. What is the most powerful force in the world? It’s always a big idea, but only if it’s in the hands of a truly great entrepreneur. A very small investment will allow a great social entrepreneur to quit her job and work full time to launch her idea and organisation. And a community of such entrepreneurs can help one another dramatically.
Entrepreneurship has been the buzz word in India for some time now, but on the other hand, it is also considered insatiable and a 'luck by chance' phenomena by the more conservative of the lot. In today's times of the pandemic, when uncertainty is the norm of the day, can entrepreneurship save our souls, so to speak?
What is it that makes people happy, healthy and long-lived? It is giving. What is the highest level of giving? It is giving other people the power to give. This is true both at the level of the great entrepreneur and of absolutely everyone.
What is a ‘social entrepreneur’? To ‘entrepreneur’ means to change the pattern, the system and ultimately the framework of perception and thinking. That is what entrepreneurs do. What does the word ‘social in ‘social entrepreneur’ mean? It means that the person is, from deep within, committed to the good of all. This means that the organisation and movement that the social entrepreneur creates is as well.
This core definition gives social entrepreneurs extraordinary advantages. Their own health, happiness and longevity. Being in it for the good of all, they see and consider everything. This orientation also makes it very easy for our community to come together with quick and deep mutual trust as well as similar temperaments and challenges.
This is just as true for everyone. In a world where the rate of change is escalating exponentially — as is the extent to which we are interconnected — everyone must be a changemaker to be able to give, to be a player. Indeed, it is no longer possible to be a good and therefore accepted person by diligently following the rules. The rate of change is just too fast. Therefore, we must have conscious empathy and be guided by it. That is the only way we will not hurt others and not disrupt groups. It’s the only way that we can build the other abilities necessary to be a contributor in this new reality.
The challenge for India and, indeed, for every society is to make sure that everyone has these changemaking abilities. Now we are leaving a very large part of humanity behind. This is ‘the new inequality’ and it is the chief cause of the explosive growth of ‘us versus them’ politics that has swept the world in the last half-dozen years.
Among the many accolades he has received, Drayton was counted among America’s 25 Best Leaders by US News and World Report in 2005-2006. He has an honorary degree from Yale University
Today's generation is bogged down by not only the obvious pandemic but also by an economic lull, low employment opportunities and so on. In a scenario like this, how can we expect them to think beyond themselves and be a social entrepreneur?
Actively caring about others is what brings you the greatest happiness, satisfaction and success. What could be more empowering to another person than asking them to help? Asking them to imagine a solution and to make it happen?
There are 1,300 Ashoka Fellows (roughly one-third of the total) who are focused chiefly on kids, almost always very poor kids. Between 90 and 95 per cent of them put kids in charge. Grades shoot up and bullying falls. Moreover, this is what puts young people on the path to being competent, caring changemakers — which, in turn, is the key to success in an everything-changing, everything-interconnected world.
The same exact principle applies for the other major groups that have been long disempowered: Women and older people, not to mention various minorities. Don’t ask, “What can I do for that poor old man?” Instead ask, “How can I ask this older person to step up and contribute?”
You have said earlier that it pained you when young people were systemically denied access to knowledge and systems that would allow them to grow, you famously called it 'criminal', between the time you first came to India four decades ago and now, how do you see that gap?
Everyone now lives in the new everything-changing and connected reality. One can no longer learn a skill and then repeat it for life (think assembly lines and law firms). To say that one will solve India’s youth unemployment problem by giving young people skills is delusional.
Instead, every young person must be given their changemaking power. This requires them to step up and be changemakers. To have a dream, build a team and change his or her world. That dream could be a virtual radio station or a tutoring service or getting middle and high schools to teach astronomy. Any young person who does this is changed for life. They have what the world needs more than anything else. They have become changemakers — and they know it.
The key here is to make this the norm in every youth community. We know this because the Fellows have done this repeatedly at a very large scale. And Ashoka is now helping parents and tipping school systems, education publishers, education unions and other key actors.
It is a challenge for the first one or several young people who stand up and challenge the existing youth culture, not to mention the bureaucratic structures adults have typically created to make such initiatives difficult (“The insurance won’t allow it.” “The janitors won’t allow it.” and so on). However, all it takes is one per cent, five kids out of five hundred. Once they have given themselves permission to define a dream and then pull a team together and press ahead to make it happen, they typically attract 15 or 20 peers to their team (as organisers, broadcasters and so on) and 100 as clients. Because creating, giving, and being powerful is what we all want to do, and because young people are very persuasive with their peers, this pioneering one percent usually tips their school or other group in one or two years — irreversibly.
Any parent can quietly encourage their kids to dream and organise and change their world. Although their young people will initially be surprised, they’ll love the fact that their parents think they can, have faith in them to be powerful — and for the good.
If a disadvantaged community does this, their kids are going to be extraordinarily successful in the “everyone a changemaker” world. The demand for changemakers far outstrips the supply. Anyone with these abilities will never have a jobs problem. Sadly, however, disadvantaged communities are less likely to give their kids this superpower. They can. We should, as a completely urgent matter, ensure that they can and do.
Especially because we know what to do and because it’s so simple and so proven, it is criminal to allow any young person to grow up without the new abilities they will require to be able to be a contributor, a giver, a powerful person, that is, a changemaker, in the new everything-changing reality.
Drayton interacting with participants | (Pic: Ashoka)
If social inequality is a global phenomenon, then India could possibly lay claim to being a world leader. How do you foresee this gap in the years after this pandemic, and what do you forecast as the changes to the socio-economic spectrum as jobs are lost, lives uprooted, economies in tatters and people at the lower end of the food chain tottering for sustenance?
The leaders of the Persian-American community came to us some years ago and asked: “How can we be as successful a diaspora group as the Indian-Americans and Jewish Americans?” We pointed out that the key would turn out to be what proportion of their kids are and know they are changemakers.
Of course, the old jobs are going away — faster and faster. However, for those who have the new changemaking abilities, there is no job shortage. There is, for example, so much work to be done to help everyone throughout their lives learn more and more! And we all must learn how to operate in ‘fluid, open integrated teams of teams’, the new paradigm for organisation — as the teams form and reform ever faster.
The key question is: Will India ensure that all India makes this transition? Or will it become an ever-more bitterly divided and therefore dysfunctional society? This is the same question that America, Brazil, the Philippines, Poland, England and, indeed, all of us face. Will we make sure that everyone can give? Will we build an “everyone a changemaker” world? The central objective of the Ashoka community is to help every society see this necessity and succeed in pursuing it.
You have spoken about 'new inequality' where a certain section of the society does not have access to the latest technology and are unable to contribute to the economy. How can we address this inequality?
We know that everyone can be a changemaker. The Ashoka Fellows have demonstrated this time and again in their work. We know how to help every young person, every parent or teacher, every worker or manager, every community learn how to be effective contributors in this new world.
The only question is: Will we see the new strategic reality and what it requires in time? And then we must also commit to leaving no one behind, to ensuring that everyone will be a changemaker and therefore a valued part of human society.
Their first-ever fellow from India was Gloria De Souza in 1982. She helped change the system of learning in classrooms
When it comes to India what sectors are desperately in need of the attention of social entrepreneurs?
We must help everyone in India see the new reality and learn the change-making abilities it requires. If we do, we will discover a far, far better world. When everyone is a changemaker, there are some dramatic consequences. First, there is no way that the problems can outrun the solutions when everyone is a changemaker and we know how to work together.
Second, in a team of teams world, everyone is helping everyone else, individually and in groups, be the best possible changemaking players they can be. That is the only way teams succeed. This is radically, fundamentally different from the old patterns of a few exploiting the many.
Finally, everyone in this world is able to express love and respect in action in their lives. This is what it is to have a good — and therefore healthy and happy — life.
How are we going to get India to this far better place? Here we must ask every person in society to step up and do their part, to give themselves permission, to master the necessary abilities and then indeed to help those around them give themselves permission and start on their changemaking path. Everyone can do this.
Furthermore, we need to focus on those who can help India through the framework change process. This is where you and your colleagues in journalism can and should play a very key role. This is the biggest of all news stories and it profoundly affects every aspect of everyone’s life. Moreover, it is a story that will grow quickly as society accelerates into the final turning point years. The social entrepreneurs and our partners pressing this movement also need key support from other thought leader communities such as unions, publishers and early pioneer cities or states.
Ashoka Fellows already have a stellar reputation, over half of them have changed national policy within their first five years, we believe. What are the three tangible goals you see them accomplish in the future?
As you say, individual Ashoka Fellows are extraordinarily powerful. And they stay with it: 97 per cent are still pursuing their goal (although they are always creating and testing and changing the architecture of what they’re building) ten years after their Ashoka launch. Moreover, we have learned to recognise the patterns that cut across the work of the Fellows. These patterns so far always fit what the “everyone a changemaker” world needs. We therefore are getting better at articulating what society needs in this new era in one area after another.
Now, over the last six or seven years, led by Brazil, we have learned how to get society to actually adopt this new framework. A key element here is identifying and helping the most powerful, ethical, relevant forces in society to grasp the new strategic reality in time to change their core strategies and help lead the development of the new, far better society. Their goals then align with ours and with other such “jujitsu partners” — giving our “everyone a changemaker” movement extraordinary leverage. We as a community have a special responsibility to help the world recognise this new reality and act to make sure that everyone is a giver and therefore a welcomed member of society.
Speaking at an event | (Pic: Ashoka)
Unlike venture capitalists whose only question before they invest is 'Will this grow 2-3x within 3 years', your work at Ashoka is infinitely different. Having said that, how much financial viability do you look for when it comes to backing a social entrepreneurship project that has great promise of impact, but is suspect on returns?
Every social entrepreneur must build a base of support. This consists of people, money, information in and out and captive businesses. Each social entrepreneur’s venture is different and needs a different mix of these ingredients. Moreover, the mix will vary at different stages in the growth of the social entrepreneur’s idea.
Because many of the financial institutions serving our sector have lagged, this transition has had its element of heartburn. However, our sector has grown dramatically. When you look at France and Germany, for example, business employment is basically the same as it was in 1960. For some decades after 1960, government grew, but then it has stagnated or shrunk. Only the citizen sector has been growing jobs throughout these decades. According to a Johns Hopkins University international study, our sector is now growing jobs at 4.4 per cent a year, whereas the fastest growing part of business, the service sector, has been growing jobs at 2.2 per cent a year. And our growth figures do not include the very large and rapidly growing number of volunteers we uniquely attract. There is no comparison. We are growing productivity faster and we’re attracting the best talent. The student group focusing on social issues at Harvard Business School is now bigger than groups dealing with finance or marketing.
If social entrepreneurship's ultimate goal, Everyone a Changemaker, is achieved, what kind of a world will be ours to claim in the future?
First, there is no way that the problems can outrun the solutions when everyone is a changemaker and we know how to work together. Second, in a team of team’s world, everyone is helping everyone else, individually and in groups, be the best possible changemaking players they can be. That is the only way teams succeed. This is radically, fundamentally different from the old patterns of a few exploiting the many.
Finally, everyone in this world can express love and respect in action in their lives. This is what it is to have a good — and therefore healthy and happy — life.
They received 1,200 nominations for the Global Young Changemakers programme
Now that the second edition of the Ashoka Young Changemakers Programme is here, and it is going digital, what are the new elements we can expect from this latest edition?
Ashoka Young Changemakers are for their generation the equivalent of Ashoka Fellows. They are chosen very carefully. They already have their superpower. They have had a dream, built a team and changed their world. Now they want to grow that superpower, and they also want everyone to have this life-giving magic power. They want to co-lead the “everyone a changemaker” movement, and we’re also selecting them because we believe they will be good at this. For example, we have a programme, Your Kids, that very quickly helps any group of adults understand the new game, that it’s critical for their kids to master being changemakers, and that gives them simple but hugely powerful tools they can use at home immediately. A key part of that experience is meeting and experiencing a young person who has their power. That young person is also a skilled session co-facilitator, helping the adults understand how they can be effective.
Here is another example: Who possibly could be better positioned to help other young people and communities of young people make the transition to changemaking?
Like the Ashoka Fellows, they are also role models. When we talk about young people who know they are changemakers, the Ashoka Young Changemakers are what we are talking about. They are not someone doing a teacher’s or scoutmaster’s project. They are the real thing. You should give yourself the opportunity of talking with some of them. You will feel their power.
This year, what are the takeaways that you would like the participants to have from the programme?
We expect each young changemaker to come with a plan of how they are going to lead their home community to its “everyone a changemaker” future. They will help one another sharpen their ideas, and we will connect them with the full Ashoka community as powerful new members and co-leaders of the movement.
Success stories ahoy!
Ibrahim put kids in charge from first grade onward in multiple different ways. Administering, grading, and helping students help students after tests. Running a series of small businesses, starting with soap making, and proceeding through tree nurseries to chickens and then diesel pump set repair — with the profit’s half going to a secondary school fund and half as dividends to their families. The UN measured the impact was an over 40-per cent increase in school enrollment and the dropout rate cut in half. This approach became national policy and has spread through the Ashoka network to, for example, Brazil. His work is one of the early cases that helped us see the almost-universal pattern of Ashoka Fellows putting kids in charge.
The second story is of Garvita, an Ashoka Young Changemaker. She had her dream to reduce water waste in India and has made that happen and is now spreading her approach internationally. Typical for young people who truly have obtained their power, they want others to have it. That wish has made Garvita a powerful co-leader in the “everyone a changemaker” movement. That is why the upcoming election of a new group of Ashoka Young Changemakers in India is so important. We truly need them as co-leaders!
Ashoka and their work in India
- Youth Venture programme: Support and amplify work of teenagers
- Nourishing Schools: They help students take care of their own nutrition
- Ashoka Changemaker Schools: This one is focussed on school students
For more on them, check out ashoka.org