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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

Jimmy Carter, Ashoka ( provides grants to

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, one of Ashoka’s fellows, applied his

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

at graduation.

"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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