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Everyone a Changemaker
The following article is based on the luncheon keynote speech that was delivered by the author at the pre-conference symposium, "Working Convergences: Liberal Education, Creativity, and the Entrepreneurial Spirit," at the 2005 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
We are our parents' children but we're also very much the children of the schools and the universities we attend. As such, our commitment to liberal education must include a commitment to shaping the "whole" person. A liberally educated person is more than knowledgeable. A liberally educated person is ready and confident to deal with all dimensions in life.
There has been a profound historical change recently, and it happened so quickly that perceptions about social entrepreneurship are lagging way behind. The "social" half of the world--health, environment, human rights, rural development, literally half of the world's operations--in a mere two and a half decades has become as entrepreneurial and competitive as business. As a result of this change, the citizen sector is rapidly closing the productivity gap and the field is growing very fast. This affects the strategic environment for business, government, and universities, and it's opening up major new career opportunities for everyone--students, donors, alumni and alumnae, and other constituents. Most people have not seen this change. However, this move toward entrepreneurship greatly leverages the position of those committed to liberal education.
The facts presented in Figure 1 are familiar but no less staggering for that. It is profoundly troubling that 50 percent of the world's people have 5 percent of the world's income. This is not fair, sustainable, or safe. But this is the reality. And this reality is really where the Ashoka idea begins. After reading about and loving Asia for years, I went to India as a nineteen-year-old college student. Those statistics became people. As the need to act became ever more pressing, the idea for Ashoka was born and its heart began to beat. That this happened while I was an undergraduate at Harvard College is no accident. Being part of a culture steeped in the liberal arts led me both to ask the right questions and to feel empowered to question the status quo. The origin of Ashoka illustrates how students can be encouraged to be proactive, critical thinkers.
However, young people are the last large group of people in the world we treat the way we used to treat women, older people, people with disabilities, African Americans, and colonialized peoples. We say to them, "We are in charge of everything--the classroom, the workplace, extracurricular activities where they still exist, and sports--and we don't think you young people are very competent or responsible." This is bizarre because what young people are trying to do when they leave the world of play is to learn how to be powerful contributors, and have an impact on human society. For the most part, adults discourage these efforts. So by the time young people turn twenty or twenty-one, they have come to see themselves as powerless and they haven't had the opportunity to practice teamwork or leadership. Nor have they practiced putting themselves in other people's shoes. It is too late when people reach the ages of twenty-five or forty to expect them to become confident and ethical leaders.
Thus, we perpetuate a world in which only 2 or 3 percent of the population are so-called "natural" leaders. What a difference it would make for this society if we went from 2 to 3 percent to 50 percent in the next generation. Educators can play a big role in building our leadership base by promoting in students the development of the whole person. Everybody should see him or herself as a changemaker. Once so empowered, a person can do anything--and will be richly satisfied in life. Perhaps one can learn computer science later in life, but it is incredibly difficult to redefine oneself as a confident, powerful person and leader without having previously experienced being powerful or having practiced the necessary underlying skills.
Ashoka's core objective is "everyone a changemaker"--to help create a world where everyone has the freedom, confidence, and skills to turn challenges into solutions. This is the fullest, richest life. A society of such people will evolve and adapt faster and more surely than any other: each person, rather better than the body's white blood "attack" cells, courses through society spotting challenges and then conceiving and putting in place the next, better solution.
The Social Entrepreneur
The job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize when a part of society is not working and to solve the problem by changing the system, spreading solutions, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or to teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. Identifying and solving large-scale social problems requires social entrepreneurs because only entrepreneurs have the committed vision and inexhaustible determination to persist until they have transformed an entire system. The scholar comes to rest when he expresses an idea. The professional succeeds when she solves a client's problem. The manager calls it quits when he has enabled his organization to succeed. Social entrepreneurs can only come to rest when their vision has become the new pattern all across society.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to solve the world's problems at the national level. We now must also work at the global level. We can no longer create a safe financial regulatory system other than at the global level. The same holds for the environment and many other areas. So ours is the first field that has to be operationally integrated globally. To the degree that we succeed, we will be building a web of trust that will help support institutions that will ultimately pull the world together. To succeed, many of the laws and frames of mind that today divide the world will have to change. There is tremendous work here for the law schools and many scholarly departments. However, the most powerful integrative force, which is just now becoming visible, will be the competition between social entrepreneurs as our field moves rapidly onto the global stage. As entrepreneurs attack problems that cannot be solved without solutions that are at least in part global, their first successes will be quickly copied; and competitors instantly will be looking for the next step.
This same competition between entrepreneurs will drive the reintegration of the business and social halves of society. These halves drifted apart into a condition of mutual incomprehension over the last three centuries as business became even more entrepreneurial and competitive, and therefore productive, and the citizen sector lagged. Over the last two and a half decades, the citizen sector across the continents adopted the same competitive, entrepreneurial approach and raced to catch up in productivity. As the two sectors draw closer to one another, both groups of entrepreneurs are beginning to seek out mutually profitable collaborations. One early example: a deal between Ashoka fellows serving small farmers in Mexico and the leading irrigation equipment company is now allowing small farmers to get drip irrigation for the first time, and has opened a huge new market for the company.
Because entrepreneurial quality is so much the heart of the matter, let's explore it further. Again, from deep within, these people are compelled to change the whole society. From childhood, an entrepreneur intuitively seeks out an area of interest, for example, health, and then begins the long search for an idea that will be his or her vehicle for leaving a scratch on history. Ashoka does in-depth life histories of every candidate. These interviews leave little doubt that successful entrepreneurs have a strong and long-term internal compass that guides them. Such entrepreneurs study the field--its people, its institutions, its technology, its anthropology, the whole thing. Only after they have done this is it possible for them to reach the moment when they know they have an idea that really is the next step for the field. They also have to have learned how to cause major structural social change. Once they have reached this magic moment in their lives, all they want to do is pursue their idea. This is the moment when Ashoka first steps in, a moment when a little means the world.
Once one understands the centrality of changing the whole society to the entrepreneur, entrepreneurs are easy to spot--even long before they have made their mark. They are married to their vision--and will stick with it for decades if needed. They are equally focused on the "how to" questions. They ask themselves: How do I get from here to my goal fifteen years from now? How do the pieces fit together? How do I solve this and the next problem? Each such entrepreneur encourages many others to care for society's well-being and to champion changes they feel are needed. The multiplication of such decentralized concern and effective action is, of course, the essence of the democratic revolution.
What qualities define an effective social entrepreneur? First, the person must be creative in both goal-setting and problem solving. Second--and this is the toughest screen--is entrepreneurial quality. This is not leadership, or the ability to administer, or the ability to get things done. The driving force here is the fact that such a person is emotionally, deeply committed to making change throughout the whole of society. Once one understands that this commitment itself is the driving force, then everything else follows. The final quality essential to success as a social entrepreneur is ethical fiber. People will not make significant changes in their lives if they do not trust the person asking them to do so. Nor can anyone build a collegial fellowship or community if there are even a small number of people whom the rest intuit they cannot trust. We certainly do not need any more untrustworthy public leaders.
Some of your students will become entrepreneurs. All of them will be profoundly affected by the entrepreneurial/ competitive transformation of the citizen half of society. Indeed, so will business, government, the universities, and scholars and journalists who must understand and interpret the forces at work in society. The citizen sector offers new and very attractive career opportunities for people at every stage of life. It is generating jobs at roughly three times the rate of the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies. The work is important, meaningful, and a good fit with a person's values. One's colleagues are value-driven. There are fewer glass ceilings--and none for the entrepreneur. Salaries are gaining ground on business for the first time in centuries as the citizen sector closes the productivity gap. The sector now needs all types of people--graphic artists and CFOs as well as entrepreneurs. Someone from our sector is now more likely to be more interesting to the other guests at dinner than the investment banker seated across the table. This transformation is just as relevant to institutions. Business or government strategists could ignore the citizen sector five years ago reasonably safely. In five years to do so would constitute malpractice.
A huge, fast-growing sector with high élan, low costs, and great savvy is the elephant in the room. Colleges and universities can do a great service to their students, society, and scholarship by introducing and explaining the elephant. This change has come with extraordinary historical rapidity, leaving understanding lagging way behind. The resulting perception gap is so great that it has become in itself a drag. If people do not see opportunities, they cannot take them.
Bill Drayton is the CEO, Chair, and Founder, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public