Social Entrepreneurs: Builders of Just Societies

After nine year with the large consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and several years with the Environmental Protection Agency, Bill Drayton decided in 1980 to have a go at starting a global search and support institution for social entrepreneurs. Thus was born the organization known as Ashoka.

What is a social entrepreneur, you may ask? They are, Drayton says, “men and women who possess the same exceptional levels of vision, creativity and determination that lead top business entrepreneurs to create entirely or largely new industries. However, social entrepreneurs devote these qualities to introducing new solutions to social problems.”

He is not talking about charity. System change or a change in society’s patterns — such as democratizing credit for small businesses in Third World countries, ways to solve food, housing and health crises, systems of dispensing legal justice and conflict-resolution — are what Drayton is looking for.

His group, Ashoka, searches the globe for these people and gives them a fellowship providing financial support for three years plus various kinds of non-monetary technical assistance. Ashoka fellows from dozens of countries are then connected with one another in a “peer network.”

Some of Ashoka’s social or public entrepreneurs are engaged in building democratic institutions and practices in authoritarian countries. With over 1000 Ashoka fellows producing concrete results, there is a track record that should excite many more thousands of such civic talents on continents around the world.

Drayton has published profiles of many of these leading public entrepreneurs in paperback format. This is engrossing reading and will tell you not only what civic courage and energy are about, but what obstacles are confronted or overcome in the process. Whether in the favelas of Brazil, the forests and rivers of the Amazon, the highlands of southern Mexico, the small farms of Poland, the migratory fishing communities of Ghana, agrarian India, credit facilities in Pakistan and on and on, the sheer human ingenuity and results-oriented personalities come into clear focus as a common trait of such leaders regardless of differing cultures and traditions.

Now Drayton is turning his attention to creating “Youth Venture” here in the U.S.A. He describes this initiative as “working with youth-serving organizations to create a similar fellowship, or mass movement, of young people primarily between the ages of 12 and 18 who have the drive and creativity to start their own organizations of benefit to their communities and who will become the next generation of capable, innovative, and community-minded leaders.” The projects must be youth-led and youth-conceived, he adds.

Obviously, Drayton is himself the quintessential social entrepreneur — creating, building and then leaving his creation to start another one and then on to another one. Foundations are responding to his requests but nowhere near the level that is needed.

If you want a copy of the stories of these public or social entrepreneurs, write to Bill Drayton at Ashoka, 1700 North Moore Street, Suite 1920, Arlington, VA 22209-1903 and ask for a copy. Until our society and mass media redefine the heroic, you’ll still see far more of athletes, movie stars, misbehaving celebrities and cartoon heroes than the authentic builders of just societies.

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