Tipping the world: the power of collaborative entrepreneurship

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What defines the true social entrepreneur is that he or she simply cannot come to rest in life until his/her vision has become the new pattern societywide. Scholars and artists are satisfied when they express an idea. Professionals are when they serve a client well, and managers are when their organization succeeds. None of this much interests the entrepreneur. The life purpose of the true social entrepreneur is to change the world.

Ashoka creates detailed life histories of every serious candidate it considers for election into its world community of leading social entrepreneurs, kicking in as far back as childhood and following the making of a social entrepreneur decade after decade.

Once one understands this life-defining drive, a good many other characteristics of the true entrepreneur become obvious. They focus everyday on the “how to” questions. How are they going to get from here to their ultimate goal? How are they going to deal with this opportunity or that barrier? How are the pieces going to fit together? They are engineers, not poets.

For the same reason, they are attentive listeners and they are highly realistic. If something is not working, they want to know right away—and they will then proceed to change either the environment and/or their idea.

The entrepreneur’s job is not to take an idea and then implement it. That is what franchisees do. The entrepreneur is building something that is entirely new—by constantly creating and testing and recreating and then testing and recreating again.

The true social entrepreneur also has an almost magical ability to move people, a power rooted in exceptional ethical fiber. He or she is always asking people to do things that are unreasonable—and people do them because they know they can trust the entrepreneur and his/her idea.

Once one grasps who the true social entrepreneur is, one would have to be crazed to bet against him or her ultimately changing the world at large scale.1

According to the Corporate Executive Board Company’s survey of Ashoka’s impact, which they conducted in 12 languages across the globe last year:

• 52% of the Ashoka Fellows had changed national policy within five years of election.

• 76% had changed the pattern in their field nationally within the same time span.

However striking, these results only begin to tell the story of the social entrepreneur’s impact.

Everyone of them has a second dimension of impact that, especially at this moment in history, may well be more important than the impact he or she is having in pursuing his or her immediate social change objective.

Every social entrepreneur is a mass recruiter of local changemakers. Here is one of the few significant structural differences between the social and the business entrepreneur. The social entrepreneur has no interest in capturing a market and digging a moat. Instead, the goal is, indeed, to change the world.

The way social entrepreneurs do this almost always is to make their idea as understandable, attractive, safe, and as supported as necessary precisely so that local people in community after community after community will recognize that this idea would be hugely valuable to them and judge that they could make that idea fly. The moment some local people champion the idea, they have become local changemakers, becoming able to disrupt local patterns. The multiplication of local changemakers is critical because they will provide grassroots leadership for their newly adopted field, and deepen democracy by becoming a driving force within institutions.

This multiplication of local changemakers is a central contribution to the most important historical transformation in the structure of society since the Agricultural Revolution. For millennia the social structure has been one where a very few people “managed” everyone else, a model that worked in a static period when those being managed essentially had repetitive tasks to do. We live in a time where, as the rate and complexity of change are both escalating exponentially, a shift in the organization of both institutions and societies is required. What we need is flexible teams of teams that come together to grapple specific change opportunities. In this world, everyone must be a changemaker.

Social entrepreneurs are even more powerful when they collaborate with one another and/or with their business peers. Ashoka has always known that its ability to contribute comes largely through the mutual help and collaborations our community makes possible. Because community multiplies strength and impact. Here are a few examples:

• A few social entrepreneurs working together can be hugely effective. One Ashoka Fellow—Silvia Maria Carvalho, based in São Paulo—whose program transforms the perception of preschool from that of stigmatized warehousing to an important step in education, was able to turn trade union prejudice into support by working with an other Ashoka Fellow who employed large numbers of women to provide hot lunches in area factories by providing model facilities on site for their young children. An Indonesian Fellow named Iwan Nusyirwan spread a technique for growing mushrooms on wood chips floating in rice paddies, thus generating a new crop without requiring land, by sharing it with other Fellows looking for new job- and income-creating opportunities.

• Larger collaborations are even more valuable — be it Asian Fellows collaborating across the region to fight the cross-national trade in women and children or twelve Fellows working together to change prison policies across Latin America.

Functional collaborations add further leverage. As security conditions have worsened, especially in Latin America and Asia, Ashoka’s mutual help Fellow security program has become more important, for example in connecting the dots to see danger on the horizon in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Similarly, at least in Asia, the Fellows have learned how to help one another when disaster strikes locally.

Over the last half-dozen years we have been developing something with even more far-reaching impact—collaborative entrepreneurship. There has never been anything like it before.

Once there are several hundred leading social entrepreneurs in a field across the continents, one can be confident that a jump to the next paradigm in the field is near. Given how centrally important it is to each of these entrepreneurs to be able successfully to change the world, they make these life bets of where to commit very, very carefully.

The challenge, of course, is to detect what the next paradigm or “S-curve” is going to be. The Ashoka community has, over the last dozen years, learned how to answer that critical question.

Once it is thus clear where the world must go, we determine what one or two things must happen if the world is to get there—and somewhere between a third and a half of the leading social entrepreneur who are Ashoka Fellows then work together to tip the seven to ten countries that are critical ultimately to tipping the world.

An example? The 500 Ashoka Fellows whose primary focus is serving children and young people have figured out that the old paradigm that defines successful growing up as learning the world’s existing knowledge and rules, while successful in a static world, is thoroughly inadequate in a world of escalating change. In this new world, all children and young people must first master a set of social skills that will enable them to be active contributors to change—empathy / teamwork / leadership / changemaking . The global team of leading social entrepreneurs must, therefore, ensure: (1) that every young child masters and practices empathy (see Ensuring Children Succeed in the Coming Everyone A Changemaker World [www.ashoka.org/resource/6471]), and (2) that all young people have the experience of seeing an opportunity to improve their schools or communities, building teams to do so, and later realizing that they have changed their world (see www.youthventure.org).

What distinguishes social entrepreneurs from everyone else is that their job is to change the overall patterns and systems of society. Can there be anything more impactful than a global team of the world’s best entrepreneurs who develop a strategy to tip the world toward a better future?

NOTE

1. Doubts about the impact of social entrepreneurs are partly the result of two misperceptions: 1) a vast number of people call themselves social entrepreneurs who are really either wonderfully good-hearted managers or professionals, or even poets; 2) some scholars, foundation executives, and others think that social entrepreneurs should behave like and be measured by the same yardsticks as business. But social entrepreneurs are trying to change the world, not capture a market, therefore the standard measures of classic businesses are inappropriate.

Tipping the world: the power of collaborative entrepreneurship

by Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka

Text – courtesy of the author

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