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Ashoka – Building a Changemakers’ Brigade for a Beautiful Tomorrow

  • Published at 05:35 pm January 26th, 2020
Ashoka founder and current chair William Drayton
Ashoka founder and current chair William Drayton Courtesy

Ashoka, a network of over 4,000 social entrepreneurs from across 92 countries, launched on Sunday the first cohort of ‘Young Changemakers’ in partnership with Brac in memory of late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, who was instrumental in Ashoka’s journey in Bangladesh

By identifying and supporting inspiring teenagers of 13-20 years age group as ‘Sir Fazle Hasan Abed Ashoka Young Changemakers in Bangladesh’ Ashoka thrives to create a new batch of role models for the country’s children and youth who have potential to impact an entire generation to aspire to become changemakers, working to build solutions for social problems. Bangladesh is the fifth country to launch ‘Everyone a Changemaker’/Ashoka Young Changemakers after countries like USA, Brazil, Indonesia and India. On this occasion, Dhaka Tribune's Executive Editor Reaz Ahmad interviewed Ashoka founder and current chair William Drayton, a pioneer in championing the cause of social entrepreneurship. Named as one of the United States 25 Best Leaders by the US News & World Report in 2005, Drayton served as a visiting Professor at Harvard University and Stanford University.  

Here are the excerpts of the interview:

What are the current programs of Ashoka in Bangladesh? How are these programs impacting the society?

Ashoka in Bangladesh, as across the world, is a community of leading social entrepreneurs.  They are great entrepreneurs bringing pattern and/or mindset change; and they are people who, from deep within, are committed to the good of all -- and therefore, so is their work.  Each of them is hugely important for their work, and they also serve as beacons encouraging everyone else to be powerful, to be givers for the good.   Ashoka is far more than the sum of these remarkable individuals.  It is a community of mutual help and collaboration.   

Over time we have learned how to collaborate in ever more effective ways. For example, roughly a third of the Ashoka Fellows focus primarily on kids.  90 to 95 percent of them put kids in charge -- on very large scales.  The impacts are dramatic and very powerful.  That pattern couldn’t be clearer nor could it be a better fit for what an “everyone a changemaker” world needs.

What is the goal of launching the ‘Everyone a Changemaker/Ashoka Young Changemakers’ in Bangladesh?

We want every Bangladeshi -- without exception -- to have that happiness, health, and longevity – to be powerful, to be a giver, to be a changemaker. We also want Bangladesh to see and seize this profound turning point. So much is at stake!

What are Ashoka’s future plans in Bangladesh? How do you see the Everyone a Changemaker movement growing in the next decade?

We will work to build and strengthen our community of leading social entrepreneurs, Ashoka Young Changemakers, core partners in the “everyone a changemaker” movement like BRAC, and anyone else who is ready to stand up and build their power while also building the power of those around them and of society. We have learned how to help societies through this transition.  Powerful organizations with strong ethical fiber and leadership who can see their and the country’s new strategic reality are absolutely critical. The leadership must also have the courage to change their organizations’ core strategy to seize the opportunity.  

The Ashoka Young Changemakers are also key.  For example, the best way of helping any group of adults become changemakers is to demonstrate that their sons and daughters must have these abilities and then show them how to help their children become powerful givers.  When you help someone you really love learn something critical for their future, you have learned as well.  

Could you describe how the world would look like if the changes you describe would take place on a global scale?

An “everyone a changemaker” world is a place where everyone is a changemaker and everyone knows how to work together. In other words, there would be no way that problems would outrun solutions.  It will also be a place where people treat one another as equals.  We need everyone else to be the most powerful changemakers for the good possible in order for each team we are on to succeed.  

There’s another reason this world is so magical: Everyone will have many opportunities to express love and respect in action, and that, as all the prophets and now the scientists tell us, is what brings happiness, health and longevity.

What was the initial inspiration behind founding Ashoka and its vision?

When I was 18/19, I was in South Asia and very much wanted to find a way to close the north-south gap and to encourage democratization. Sophomores control almost nothing. Therefore, several friends and I were looking for the most highly leveraged way of having an impact. Ashoka is the almost embarrassingly logical answer to that question. What is the most powerful force in the world? It’s a big pattern-change idea -- but only if it’s in the hands of a truly great entrepreneur. That’s always what has moved history.

We realized that if we could help launch great ideas for the good in the hands of extraordinary entrepreneurs committed from deep within to the good of all, we could in fact have the impact we sought. 

What were the early challenges you faced when you started back in 1980?    

When we were getting started, there was no concept of social entrepreneurship. We had to invent the phrase “social entrepreneur” and then persist introducing the idea. Now it is a construct that empowers everyone across the world to realize that caring and organizing for the good is a wonderful life. 

How would you define the way Ashoka looks at social entrepreneurship?

As the rate of change continues to accelerate exponentially, the world needs social entrepreneurs ever more urgently. They spot areas of need, imagine a solution, and invite a carefully chosen team to work on the issue, which then recruits more and more supporting teams of teams. Social entrepreneurs are also role models. They spread their ideas by encouraging local people to stand up and run with their idea -- thereby themselves becoming role models and recruiters of many others who stand up and also be changemakers.  

Please share some stories of social entrepreneurs who have worked with Ashoka to make the world better?

When I first went to Bangladesh in 1987, Bangladesh already had several of the world’s greatest social entrepreneurs including Fazle Hasan Abed and Mohammad Yunus. Both they and so many others welcomed us. In addition to sitting on the first five or six selection panels for Ashoka Fellows, Fazle Abed nominated our first Bangladeshi Fellow, the late Ibrahim Sobhan. Ibrahim’s goal was to ensure effective education and growing up for all at a time when only 15 percent of the population made it to the fifth grade. He succeeded in doing so by putting young people in charge in a number of very creative ways. At the end of four years, he had persuaded some 4,000 schools across the country to take up these new approaches. According to a UN evaluation, the result was a 44 percent increase in enrollments and a halving of the dropout rate. This model later spread to parts of India and Brazil.

Where does the business world and social entrepreneurship intersect? What role does changemaking play in both the worlds?

The central historical fact is that, for over 300 years, the rate of change and the degree and extent of interconnections have been accelerating at an exponential rate. Earlier, business was the driving force because it was the first part of society that said to everyone: “If you have a better idea and implement it, we’re going to make you a very prosperous person, and we’ll copy you.”  About 40 years ago, when we launched Ashoka, the citizen sector structurally shifted to this same entrepreneurial and competitive architecture. Since then, the citizen sector has moved extremely rapidly to catch up with the creativity and productivity of business. Now it is the citizen sector that is growing many times faster. Internationally, the citizen sector is growing employment at 4.6 percent a year, whereas the fastest growing part of business, the service industries, is growing jobs at 2.2 percent, and the overall economy is building employment at only 1.1 percent. And that’s before one takes into account that the citizen sector has 25 to 40 percent more people when one includes volunteers in the count (no other sector attracts volunteers at serious levels).

What impact does Ashoka have on the Bangladesh society?

We hope Ashoka is able to contribute to Bangladesh in a number of important ways. Ashoka and the country’s Fellows have introduced the construct of social entrepreneurship, and we have helped build its prominence. That empowers everyone to give themselves permission to care and to organize, to express love and respect in action. Nothing brings greater happiness or health.

Second, great ideas from Bangladesh flow to the rest of the world through the global community of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs that is Ashoka -- and vice versa.

Finally, the work of Bangladesh’s great social entrepreneurs identifies and introduces powerful new ways of addressing the country’s challenges.

What is the importance of ‘Everyone A Changemaker’ movement in Bangladesh now and what are the critical skills for someone to be a changemaker?

Bangladesh’s future, like that of every country, depends centrally on whether or not it sees and seizes the profound historical turning point now upon us. In a world of exponentially accelerating change, any society that enables all its people to be changemakers will leapfrog ahead. Any society that misses this turning point will be left further and further behind. Missing a turning point like this is a truly bad idea.

How important is it for young people to be changemakers?

It has always been an extraordinary life advantage to be a changemaker in one’s teenage years -- as early as possible.  An Ashoka analysis of LinkedIn shows that people who started something in their teens were at least four times as likely as other professionals listed on LinkedIn to be a C-level leader and five times as likely to be an entrepreneur.  (These figures are probably understated by several orders of magnitude.) What’s different now is that instead of early changemaking experience being a special advantage, every young person must have this experience to succeed in life.

Why is the world so divided? Why are income distributions getting worse everywhere? Why have poisonous “us versus them” politics spread so quickly across the world in the last six years?  These are universal facts, not attributable to the peculiarities of any one country.

These facts are explained by “the new inequality.” Those who have the abilities to contribute in a world of change are doing very well.  There is no job shortage here -- indeed there is a bidding war for those who have these abilities!  And then there is the other, very large part of society that does not have these abilities.  These people are unable to contribute in the new game.  This section of society is therefore deeply depressed (which is reflected in their rates of drug use, obesity, broken families, and premature death.)For instance, in just a generation, the portions of the United States that have fallen behind have lost four years in life expectancy compared to the rest of America.  In 2000, the economic output per capita was roughly the same across the country.  By 2016, the output per capita in the modern portions of the U.S. was roughly twice that of the other portions -- which are falling ever further behind.

This is “the new inequality.”This explains the poisonous “us versus them” politics and its rapid spread worldwide.  The people who society has allowed to sink on the other side of the new inequality are deeply hurt and deeply angry.    

 Why do you think the youth can play a huge role in transforming the world for the better?

If today’s young people are changemakers, their families, communities, country, and the world would be a wonderful place.  To whatever degree they are not changemakers now, we will have a darkly divided, dysfunctional society -- as “the new inequality” digs deeper and deeper.

The young people who step up early and challenge the existing youth culture and broader expectations are powerful role models for others.  If five young people in a school of 500 have a dream of making something better, organize a team to do so, and make that change happen, they will engage other students on their team and many others as their “clients”.  All it takes is one percent to tip the culture and create an “everyone a changemaker” culture in that school or community.