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Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 16, 2000. All rights reserved.
Social Entrepreneurship: Ashoka
The ideological battle between capitalism and socialism
is waged on many fronts, including the English language. The way
define their institutions, for example, betrays a belief that
ventures and social advancement must be at odds: there are for-profits
and non-profits, entrepreneurs and public servants. Rarely do the
two meet — no one heard of a "compassionate conservative"
until last year.
Likewise, you do not hear the term "social entrepreneur" in
many conversations unless you work for Ashoka, a Washington-based
organization that has brought "social entrepreneurship"
into the American lexicon. Founded in 1981 by William Drayton
a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under
roughly 1,000 fellows worldwide, people who Drayton believes will
"make a scratch on history." "We don’t have to live in
large bureaucracies and deal with glass-ceilings," says Drayton.
"Practically everyone thinks about starting their own business,
almost no one thinks about starting their own social change, but it’s
practical and the need is much greater."
Drayton speaks on "Promoting Social Policy Entrepreneurship
on Wednesday, February 23, at 4:30 p.m. at the Woodrow Wilson School
at Princeton University. Call 609-258-1792.
Ashoka is named after an altruistic Indian emperor whom Drayton calls
one of the greatest people in history, next to Ghandi. Drayton has
always taken an interest in history and other cultures, but
Asian culture. His father was an explorer, venturing to the Sahara
Desert and Canada’s extreme northern territories for archaeological
digs or mineral mapping. His mother, Joan Bergere, was an Australian
cellist who played with the Melbourne Symphony before moving to
where Drayton grew up.
At Andover, Drayton founded the Asia Society and convinced the
to add more history of the Far East to the curriculum. By the time
Drayton graduated from Harvard (B.A. social studies and history, Class
of 1965), he had been to India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Today,
he still likes to backpack in the foothills of Nepal.
"India had a really big impact," says Drayton. "It helped
me figure out what’s important in life and what’s marginal. If people
respect and love and contribute to each other, you have a happy life.
If you don’t have that, it doesn’t make a difference. Very poor people
in some Indian villages who I’ve gotten to know over the years are
very happy because they have those things."
People the world over are the same, says Drayton, and "once you
know that, you’ve got to do something about hundred to one differences
in income," he says. "Ashoka is the most powerful way to do
something to close the gap."
Mohammad Ibrahim Sobhan
entrepreneurial ideas to the Bangladeshi education system, a system
plagued by a high drop-out rate and poor instruction. The typical
Bangladesh grade school class lasted only 30 minutes. "The teacher
would call roll, grade papers, and have seven or eight minutes left
to teach," says Drayton. "Poor kids were expected to work
after school, and they had no tutors, consequently, they would come
to come to school the next day, be humiliated, and drop out."
Sobhan’s revolutionary ideas for education were adopted by roughly
7,000 schools in Bangladesh. "According to the United Nations,
his new approach increases enrollment 44 percent, cuts the drop-out
rate in half, dramatically improves learning and motivation, and
the alienation between family, work, and school," says Drayton.
"He has done as much for children and young people as Andrew
ever did for steel."
How he did it: Sobhan cut the number of classes in half and extended
each class by 30 minutes, giving teachers more time to teach. Homework
was eliminated, and kids were put in study groups of eight or nine.
The best students mentor the rest. Finally, to resolve the competing
priorities of education and work, work and family, Sobhan brought
work into the schools. From the first grade on the kids make soap
and candles. As they get older, they work in a tree nursery or raise
poultry. Half of the money the kids make goes back to the school,
and the other half goes to a dividend fund set aside for the student
"This is an executive compensation system that my old firm would
be proud of," says Drayton. "There’s more capital saved up
so the parents have more incentive not to withdraw them from school,
and kids are highly-motivated by this — they’re running their
own business." Social entrepreneurship, at its best.
Before founding Ashoka, Drayton went to Yale Law School and spent
five years as a consultant with McKinsey and Company in New York.
He later taught at Stanford Law and the Kennedy School at Harvard.
He did not know President Carter when he was selected for a position
at the EPA. "I’d never met him before, and he called me up quite
out of the blue and asked me to run his regulatory task force,"
says Drayton. "I told him I thought it was a bad idea to have
a task force."
In the end, Drayton says that he developed a great deal of respect
for the former president because "he was the only person that
ever used campaign funds to set up a group that would decided what
to do when he’s president — most people don’t think about that
much before the election. He was such a devoted public servant."
This summer. Ashoka selects its first class of American social
— a term that has been difficult to get Americans to accept.
is a classic example. "My godmother who loves me dearly could
never explain to her friends what I do," says Drayton, who won
a MacArthur "genius" award in 1984. "Social entrepreneur
didn’t mean anything to her or to her friends, but if you say Bill
Gates, everyone knows what you mean."
"It’s only recently that people have come to recognize that you
need courage, clarity, values, in the social arena as well," adds
Drayton. "We need fundamental change in how we bring up children,
how we give health care, how we deal with the environment. There is
nothing more powerful than a new idea in the hands of a first class
— Melinda Sherwood
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