The Founder of Social Entrepreneurship

Everyone knows you as the founder of Ashoka, but who is the man behind the movement?

B. D. : I was privileged to grow up with an immigrant mother from Australia, whose parents originally came from Bohemia. My father’s family had been American for a long time. Since elemen­tary school, I have always been fasci­nated by the way human society works. I loved history and geography, but can’t say as much for math! Growing up in Manhattan was another gift. Four cen­turies of immigrants have created a powerful culture where you believe you can be successful with what you start with. When I was a young student, I took part in the Civil Rights move­ment, which was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy. It was a his­toric moment, and that environment explains what I became, much more than my degrees and everything else.

Can you tell us what you did after that?

B. D. : I graduated from Harvard, then Oxford, before studying law at Yale. It was a very special school, with a small number of students and a philosophy of understanding what the purpose of the law is, instead of learning whole texts by heart. I had the opportunity to work at McKinsey in New York on regulatory and tax systems. A government expe­rience followed. I worked at the EPA1 under President Jimmy Carter where we designed and implemented several laws regulating toxic substances, hazar­dous waste, air and water pollution.

What triggered the creation of Ashoka?

B. D. : When Ronald Reagan followed Jimmy Carter as President, I left the government and received a fellowship from the MacArthur foundation. The fellowship allowed me to work full time on Ashoka. It was the late seventies. The time had come for the citizen sector to be thoroughly revolutionized like com­merce had been in the 18th century: it was starting to become conquering and modern. Our first job was to popularize social entrepreneurship. In order to do that, we needed to find the best social entrepreneurs and let them be role models, so as to recruit others in their wake. That is how our system of iden­tifying and supporting Fellows2 came to be. We believed the time had come to build a world where each of us could be a changemaker.

You are speaking about the historical context in the USA, but Ashoka was born in India. Why is that?

B. D. : When I was 18, I purchased a minivan with some of my friends in Munich, and we drove to India. This amazing trip changed us. We met Bayard Rustin, a key figure in the Civil Rights movement who had spent twelve years with Gandhi. He introduced us to some wonderful people. When I foun­ded Ashoka in 1980, I already had this interest for Gandhi’s Land. I did create it with several Indian friends. Starting in India increased our means of action several times. We could support a social entrepreneur for 2,500 dollars a year, ten times less than in the United States. Little by little, Ashoka expanded to other nations: Indonesia, Nigeria, Bra­zil… Our strategy was to start with the biggest country on each continent and then go to the next-sized countries, and then the next, like Thailand, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and so on.

Today, Ashoka is present in almost a hundred countries. What is fundamentally different for social entrepreneurship?

B. D. : In 1980, an idea from Bangladesh would not travel to Brazil or France. Now, with the Internet, everyone is connected to others around the planet. The key feature of our time is the expo­nential speed of change. The more it affects the world, the stronger the need for social entrepreneurs. To achieve their goals and be successful, social entrepreneurs can no longer apply an old recipe. The world is changing at an accelerating speed, and they need to imagine solutions that are adapted to where the world will be at twenty years from now. Ashoka now has over 3,600 Fellows. This allows us to predict the direction in which various domains are headed.

How can someone be a changemaker in this new world?

B. D. : The old pattern was giving people a skill which they would repeat for life, sitting in a cubicle. This has become fully dysfunctional today, des­pite the fact that whole chunks of our society keep operating according to this pattern. People must now master different sets of skills, even profoun­dly opposite skills, and organize in fluent and open teams. The distinc­tion between an organization’s staff, inside, and the public, on the outside, is nonsensical. Approximately 95% of the Fellows who deal with children put them in charge. The same revolution is going on in the environmental field or any other sector. Value creation needs to be shared between all actors, and it increasingly is.

Since this is the subject of this book, what are the specific challenges that social entrepreneurs face in the field of health today?

B. D. : Whatever field we are considering, a profound transformation of how we think and operate has to happen. Four skills need to be taught from childhood through practice: cognitive empathy,3 teamwork, collaborative leadership and the ability to be a changemaker. These are the skills of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, the skills of Changema­kers. Every health organization has to go through these changes. If part of the population is disadvantaged, you can’t help them with their health. They are going to be depressed, they are going to be angry, some members may even be affected by substance abuse. Instead, if you give them the ability to change things, they become real changemakers in the health field.

So we are moving towards more horizontal models?

B. D. : The whole model where the doctor controls everything with his pills reminds me of Henry Ford on the assembly line. Watson – IBM’s software – is on the path to replacing 50 % of doctors. For a hundred dollars, 23andMe – a Californian startup – offers to analyze your genome. Apps let you know what kind of nutrients you need to protect against illnesses like cancer. We are all in the process of becoming health changemakers. The power is going from the doctors to the patients, their family, friends, neighbours.

Research is going in the same direc­tion. In the big data era, compartmen­talized research and development just doesn’t work. One of our Fellows based in Seattle, Stephen Friend, works to push towards the sharing of data and open collaboration in the field of health research. He succeeded in making seven universities pool their research in order to generate better articles. Everyone working in health must go through these kinds of changes if they want to remain in the game.

Is this why you launched the Making More Health initiative with Boehringer Ingelheim?

B. D. : Yes. It is a remarkable family-owned company, upholding solid values, that has always cared about research and health. We have learned a lot by working together. Boehringer Ingelheim finds inspiration from social entrepreneurs to rethink how to inno­vates and interact with its partners and employees. On our side, a large part of our understanding of how to help com­panies comes from working with them. Together we can invest in the most pro­mising changemakers in health.

Changemakers are more numerous today, but many people predict the collapse of our civilization under the weight of its externalities.

B. D. : The environment is in a terrible state, and I don’t understand the denial that is taking place, especially among politicians. I worry about the efficiency of governments. It is terrifying that we haven’t had competent global finan­cial regulations since the thirties. How many trillions of dollars did we lose ins­tead of investing them in education?

I do think, though, that we are at a tipping point, with deep and irrever­sible change happening right now in the way we think. When I graduated from Harvard College, there were 1,200 people in my class, and eleven thought about going into what we now call the citizen sector. Now, the biggest student group at Harvard Business School goes there. Since 1980, the citizen sector has caught up. It is now growing jobs at two and a half times the rate of other OECD sectors. And that doesn't even include the growing num­ber of people doing volunteer work.

Social entrepreneurs have incorpo­rated the advantages of liberalism and use them for the good of all and not for profit. In fact, social entrepreneurs are in it for the good of all and dedicate their lives to it. They have understood that if we want our societies to conti­nue, we need to invent new ways to grow. Ashoka’s methodology helps them work together to speed up the rate of change in the world and succeed in their initiatives.

By Côme Bastin

  • 1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • 2. Ashoka "Fellows" are identified through a rigorous selection process. These social entrepreneurs are changing systems for the benefit of all and improving the lives of millions of people.
  • 3. The ability to understand and feel not only someone else’s feelings, but also their thoughts.