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Everyone a Changemaker: Social Entrepreneurship's Ultimate Goal

By Bill Drayton | Ashoka, Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization | February 22, 2007

Bill Drayton

This excerpt and related Letters to the Editors republished with kind permission from Innovations journal.

Rodrigo Baggio grew up in Rio de Janeiro loving computers. As he matured into an extraordinarily tall, thin man with a hugely wide smile, he became a computer consultant. However, from early on, he was one of the few in his generation who noticed—with concern—that the young people growing up in the favelas on the hills overlooking his middle-class neighborhood had no access to this digital world.

Because he has the great entrepreneur's tenacity of observation and thought as well as action, he decided he had to take on the digital divide—well before the phrase came into currency—and he has been pursuing this vision relentlessly ever since. While beginning to work toward this dream as a teenager, he learned just how motivated and capable of learning the young people in the favelas were. And also how competent the favela community was in organizing. This respect underlies the central insight that has allowed Rodrigo to have a growing multi-continental impact.

Rodrigo provides only what the community cannot: typically computers, software, and training. The community does the organizing, finding space, recruiting the students and faculty, and providing ongoing administration. The result is a uniquely economical model, and also one where, because the investment strengthens the broader community, it is self-sustaining and a foundation for other initiatives long into the future.

Rodrigo's chain of hundreds of community-based computer training schools now serves hundreds of slums across Latin America and Asia. These schools now have 700,000 graduates.

I got a sense of Rodrigo's power when he came to Washington shortly after being elected an Ashoka Fellow. Somehow he convinced the Inter-American Development Bank to give him its used (but highly valuable) computers. Somehow he convinced the Brazilian Air Force first to warehouse and then to fly these computers home. And then he somehow managed to persuade the Brazilian customs authority to allow all these computers in at a time when Brazil was trying to block computer imports.

Several years later, I got a further sense of how his mind worked, when I asked him why he was starting his work in Asia in Japan. Japan, he said, was the only large Asian source of computers where he could imagine getting people to give them to him. Therefore, as his first step, he had to demonstrate the value of his program to the Japanese in several of their own slums.

That is how entrepreneurs work. Having decided that the world must change in some important way, they simply find and build highways that lead inexorably to that result. Where others see barriers, they delight in finding solutions and in turning them into society's new and concrete patterns.

That much is easy to observe. However, there is more to it. Somehow, an unknown, young, lanky Rodrigo, the head of a new and unknown citizen organization, persuaded the managers of one after another of society's big institutions to do things they never would have imagined. He knew they were the right and logical things to do. Somehow they sensed that inner confidence and found it surprisingly persuasive.

What were they sensing? Rodrigo's words and arguments no doubt helped, but few people are willing to step out beyond the safely conventional merely on the basis of good arguments.

Rodrigo was persuasive because his listeners sensed something deeper.

What Rodrigo was proposing was not just an idea, but the central logic of his life—as it is for every great entrepreneur. He mastered and came to love the new digital world from the time he was a young boy. More important, his values from early on drove him to care about the poverty and inequality he could see on the hillsides rising behind the middle-class Rio in which he was growing up. His values and his temperament had him taking on the digital divide before the term was invented.

As a result, when Rodrigo sat across the table from the much older, powerful officials he needed to move, they were confronting not just a good idea, but deeply rooted and life-defining values: non-egoistic, kindly determination and commitment.

This values-based faith is the ultimate power of the first-class entrepreneur. It is a quality others sense and trust, whether or not they really fully grasp the idea intellectually. Even though they would not normally want to step out in front of the crowd, a quiet voice tells them to trust Rodrigo and go with his vision.

Any assessment of Rodrigo's impact that stopped with his idea, let alone his business plan, would not have penetrated to the core of his power. Our field has been impoverished by too many assessments that never get to the essence.

Nor is Rodrigo's most important impact his schools or the life-changing independence and mastery he provides his students. Consider the impact Rodrigo has on a community when he introduces his program. It is not a school created by the government or outsiders. It is a school created by, funded by, managed by, and staffed by people in the community. The students are responsible for learning and then making their way. Think how many patterns and stereotypes are crumpled by these simple and very obvious facts. The psychological impact is a bit like India emerging from 50 years of falling behind to suddenly being recognized as the new challenger at the cutting edge of the most advanced part of the world's economy.

Accompanying this disruption of old patterns of action and perception is another contribution, and I believe it is the greatest one of Rodrigo and every entrepreneur: the idea of catalyzing new local changemakers into being. Unless the entrepreneur can get someone in one community after another to step forward and seize his or her idea, the entrepreneur will never achieve the spread that is essential to his or her life success. Consequently, the entrepreneur presents his or her idea to the local community in the most enticing, safe, understandable, and user-friendly ways possible.

Of course, the entrepreneur's own life story is in itself a beacon encouraging hundreds of others to care and to take initiative. This also increases the number of local changemakers.

Moreover, when these local champions then build the teams they need to launch the idea they have adopted, they are providing not only encouragement but also training to potential next-generation local changemakers.

As the field of social entrepreneurship has grown and multiplied and wired itself together across the globe over the last 25 years, the rate of this plowing and seeding at the local level has accelerated dramatically.

As the number of leading pattern-changing social entrepreneurs has been increasing everywhere, and as the geographic reach of their ideas has been expanding ever more rapidly, the rate of plowing and seeding therefore has multiplied. As have the number of local changemakers.

This whole process is enormously contagious. As the number of large-scale entrepreneurs and local changemakers multiplies, so does the number of support institutions, all of these make the next generation of entrepreneuring and changemaking easier. Not only do people not resist, but in fact, they respond readily to this change. Who wants to be an object when they could be changemakers, when they could live lives far more creative and contributory and therefore respected and valued?

As important as Rodrigo's impact is on the digital divide and on the lives and communities he serves, I believe this second dimension of his impact is far more important—especially at this transitional moment in history.

The most important contribution any of us can make now is not to solve any particular problem, no matter how urgent energy or environment or financial regulation is. What we must do now is increase the proportion of humans who know that they can cause change. And who, like smart white blood cells coursing through society, will stop with pleasure whenever they see that something is stuck or that an opportunity is ripe to be seized. Multiplying society's capacity to adapt and change intelligently and constructively and building the necessary underlying collaborative architecture, is the world's most critical opportunity now. Patternchanging leading social entrepreneurs are the most critical single factor in catalyzing and engineering this transformation.


The agricultural revolution produced only a small surplus, so only a small elite could move into the towns to create culture and conscious history. This pattern has persisted ever since: only a few have held the monopoly on initiative because they alone have had the social tools.

That is one reason that per capita income in the West remained flat from the fall of the Roman Empire until about 1700.

By 1700, however, a new, more open architecture was beginning to develop in northern Europe: entrepreneurial/competitive business facilitated by more tolerant, open politics. The new business model rewarded people who would step up with better ideas and implement them, igniting a relentlessly expanding cycle of entrepreneurial innovation leading to productivity gains, leading to ever more entrepreneurs, successful innovation, and productivity gains.

One result: the West broke out from 1,200 years of stagnation and soon soared past anything the world had seen before. Average per capita income rose 20 percent in the 1700s, 200 percent in the 1800s, and 740 percent in the last century.

The press reported the wars and other follies, but for the last 300 years this profound innovation in how humans organize themselves has been the defining, decisive historical force at work.

However, until 1980, this transformation bypassed the social half of the world's operations. Society taxed the new wealth created by business to pay for its roads and canals, schools and welfare systems. There was no need to change. Moreover, no monopoly, public or private, welcomes competition because it is very likely to lose. Thus, the social sector had little felt need to change and a paymaster that actively discouraged it.

Hence, the squalor of the social sector. Relative performance declining at an accelerating rate. And consequent low repute, dismal pay, and poor self-esteem and élan.

By the nineteenth century, a few modern social entrepreneurs began to appear. The anti-slavery leagues and Florence Nightingale are outstanding examples. But they remained islands.

It was only around 1980 that the ice began to crack and the social arena as a whole made the structural leap to this new entrepreneurial competitive architecture.

However, once the ice broke, catch-up change came in a rush. And it did so pretty much all across the world, the chief exceptions being areas where governments were afraid.

Because it has the advantage of not having to be the pioneer, but rather of following business, this second great transformation has been able steadily to compound productivity growth at a very fast rate. In this it resembles successful developing countries like Thailand.

Ashoka's best estimate is that the citizen sector is halving the gap between its productivity level and that of business every 10 to 12 years.

This rapidly rising productivity means that the cost of the goods and services produced by the citizen sector is falling relative to those produced by business—reversing the pricing pattern of the last centuries that led to the much-criticized "consumer" culture.

As a result, as resources flow into the citizen sector, it is growing explosively. It is generating jobs two and a half to three times as fast as business. There are now millions of modern, competing citizen groups, including big, sophisticated second-generation organizations, in each of the four main areas where the field has emerged most vigorously: Brazil-focused South America, Mexico/U.S./Canada, Europe, and South and Southeast Asia. (The field is also growing vigorously in Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and Australia/New Zealand, but these are much smaller clusters.) All this, of course, has dramatically altered the field's élan and attractiveness.

This is where the job growth is, not to mention the most challenging, value-rooted, and increasingly even well-paid jobs. Just listen to today's "business" school students.

Given the results-based power of this transformation of the citizen sector, more and more local changemakers are emerging. Some of these learn and later expand the pool of leading social entrepreneurs. To the degree they succeed locally, they give wings to the entrepreneur whose idea they have taken up, they encourage neighbors also to become changemakers, and they cumulatively build the institutions and attitudes that make local changemaking progressively easier and more respected. All of which eases the tasks facing the next generation of primary pattern-change entrepreneurs.

This virtuous cycle catalyzed by leading social entrepreneurs and local changemakers is the chief engine now moving the world toward an "everyone a changemaker" future.

No matter how powerful this dynamic is, however, several other changes are necessary if society is to navigate this transition successfully:

  • Most important, society cannot significantly increase the proportion of adults who are, and know they are, changemakers and who have mastered the necessary and complex underlying social skills until it changes the way all young people live.
  • Although it is normal for support areas like finance to lag behind change in the operating areas they serve, the emergent citizen sector is now at significant risk unless it can quickly engineer major structural changes in both its institutional finance sector and the broad grassroots sources of support in its post-breakeven zone.


There are well over 400 Ashoka leading social entrepreneurs whose primary goal is getting society to do a far better job of helping all children and young people to learn and grow up successfully. Each has a powerful, proven, society-wide approach. (Between 49 percent and 60 percent of those elected by Ashoka have changed national policy within five years of their startup-stage election.)

However, each of these approaches is a partial answer. It is built around one insight or principle, works through one delivery system, and addresses one or two client groups. Ashoka's "mosaic" process brings all these powerful elements together, draws out the few universal principles that open major new strategic opportunities for the key decision makers in a field (e.g., in this case, those who run schools and youth programs), and then markets these principles. In effect, these mosaic collaborations promise our community the ability to entrepreneur together, an advance that produces far bigger impact than anything the sum of our solo ventures could achieve.

Roughly two-thirds of these 400-plus youth-focused Ashoka entrepreneurs have learned the same three powerful principles. Because they need human resources to implement their vision and cannot realistically get more teachers, they turn to young people. That young people are a huge, and in fact usually the only significant available human resource is the first insight. The other two follow logically: first, the unconventional assumption that young people are or can be competent; and second, the idea that one must transform youth communities (e.g., in schools) so that they become competent at initiating and organizing, and then train and reward their young people in these skills. Applying these three principles in hundreds of different ways and across the globe produces strikingly similar and powerful results: motivated students, better academic results, and young people who are experiencing being in charge. And a very different feel to those schools and programs from the moment one walks in.

Whether these social entrepreneurs discovered and developed these principles to solve their staffing problems and/or with broader educational purpose, collectively they have created a most powerful set of tools to transform the youth years. Moreover, the repeated success they have had in large-scale and highly diverse applications of these principles leaves one with enormous confidence in the power and practicability of these principles.

Ashoka's young people's mosaic also identified another principle that fits closely with this first cluster: anyone (or any group) who does not master the complex social skill of guiding his or her behavior through applied empathy will be marginalized. Since this is the enormously cruel, destructive state of perhaps 30 percent of the world's people, helping young people master empathy is proportionately important. One of the best ways of doing so is by encouraging them to build teams to contribute important changes and/or services. If their team is to succeed, they must master teamwork, which in turn rests on applied empathy.

Ashoka began developing its mosaic process and the pioneer young people's application in 1990. It was, however, only quite recently that Ashoka realized that its ultimate purpose, an "everyone a changemaker" world, is an unreachable fantasy unless the youth years become years of practicing being powerful and acquiring the required underlying skills: applied empathy, teamwork, and leadership. This realization suddenly puts the mosaic's core principles in a new light: They are as powerful as they are in large part because they are so key to unlocking this historical transition.

If young people do not grow up being powerful, causing change, and practicing these three interlocked underlying skills, they will reach adulthood with a self-definition that does not include changemaking and a social skill set that largely precludes it. Just as one must develop strong emotional foundations in the first three years of life or suffer for a lifetime, young people must master and practice these social skills and the high art of being powerful in and through society while they are young.

Consider how sophisticated the learned skill of applied empathy is: As we contemplate each action, we must comprehend how it will impact everyone at several removes around us and long into the future—and then guide our behavior accordingly. Our world now requires that skill as the ticket of admission to most simple levels of society. A dependably good person can no longer rely only on rules because they are increasingly in conflict, changing, or have yet to be developed.

Those without this complex skill will be marginalized. Moreover, mastering it is only the first step toward learning teamwork and leadership. Like ballet, these skills require extensive and real practice.

The children of elite families grow up at home and usually in school being expected to take initiative and being rewarded for doing so. This confident ability to master new situations and initiate whatever changes or actions are needed is in essence what defines the elite. Entering adult life with confidence and mastery of empathy/teamwork/leadership skills is what ultimately has given this small group control of the initiative and therefore of power and resources for millennia.

However, the other 97 percent grow up getting very little such experience with taking initiative. Adults control the classroom, work setting, and even sports and extra-curricular activities. And this situation, coupled with society's attitudes, drums home the message to this majority: "You're not competent or perhaps even responsible. Please don't try to start things; we can do it far better." Teachers, social workers and others are comfortably in control; and, in fact, most school and other youth cultures are not competent and do not train and support and respect initiative-taking. Instead, the peer group culture, not surprisingly, is resentful and in the worst cultures, quite negative.

Do these inarticulate, frustrated youth cultures bring analogous prior situations to mind? Over the last century, many other groups—including women, African Americans, those with disabilities, even colonial peoples—had to make their way from debilitating stereotypes and little prior practice in taking the initiative to becoming fully accepted, capable contributors. These groups, although very different from one another, had to travel strongly similar human and community transformation paths.

Young people are the last big group to set out on this journey. They are also different; but, in the underlying psychological and organizational transitions ahead, they can learn a great deal from the experience of these other groups.

Building on the history of these earlier movements and also on the accumulated experience of hundreds of leading social entrepreneurs working with young people, Ashoka and many partners have prototyped and are beginning to launch at scale the equivalent of a women's or older person's movement for young people.

Although this movement must ultimately change how everyone thinks about and relates to young people, it is young people and their peer communities who will have to change most and who have the most to gain. Therefore, as with all the earlier similar transformations, it is essential that they be central actors—both in actually shifting to the new pattern (because the best learning comes from action) and in championing the change (because people in any class are most likely to hear and trust peers).

This emergent movement will be far bigger than Ashoka, and once it is past the next six to ten intensely entrepreneurial years, it will require extensive operating management that is culturally inappropriate for Ashoka's "collegial/intrapreneurial" essence. Ashoka has therefore created an independent but close partner, Youth Venture. Working closely with Ashoka's young people "mosaic" team, it has the lead in major spread and emerging operating work. How to launch and build such a movement?

Ashoka, Youth Venture, and their partners are following a strategy that exercises enormously powerful jujitsu-like leverage; leverage that works on four mutually reinforcing levels. They are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Everyone a Changemaker: Social Entrepreneurship's Ultimate Goal.

Each of these four levels in Table 1 needs the others. But they will not snap into place together or everywhere in society instantly. This makes the job facing the pioneers much harder than it will be for their successors; and it requires a phased, several-stage strategy. The central challenge is getting to the scale where the synergies between these four levels— and across schools, neighborhoods, and regions—kick in and become irreversibly self-multiplying. Ashoka/Youth Venture, recognizing this is the heart of the matter, has been experimenting with a dozen different avenues and is gaining increasing traction. Here are some examples:

  • Partnering with national organizations with many chapters (e.g., the Girl Scouts) or broad reach (e.g., Youth Services America).
  • Co-venturing with public-spirited corporate partners, including experimenting with engaging staff, local units, and key customers as nominators, Youth Venturer Allies, and local organizers. (Most recently with Staples in Europe and Latin America).
  • Communicating the stories of Youth Venturers broadly and encouraging others through media partners (including a growing relationship with MTV in the U.S. and Mexico).
  • Using Internet avenues to recruit, help, and network Venturers, Allies, and local Partners.
  • Extending Youth Venture's online "Virtual Venturer" program, which allows young people to become Venturers even in communities without an established organizational presence.
  • Replicating the successful United Way model developed in North Central Massachusetts. After two years, almost all the schools have multiple Youth Venture teams; the area's community college gives college credit for high school Venture work; and virtually all young people in the area experience multiple Venture models. Four other local United Ways are moving to follow, hopefully followed by many others and also community foundations.
  • Partnering with a subject matter segment of the citizen sector (e.g., the environment) to support Youth Venture teams in its field as a means of seeding future leadership.
  • Building a network of stand-alone, volunteer-led local Youth Venture organizations akin to the vast majority of Scout, 4-H, and Little League groups (experiments underway in four metropolitan areas).
  • Breaking through with groups of schools, e.g., those served by an Ashoka Fellow or where we can get support from the leaders of a school system. This is more school system leveraged than working school by school although we welcome individual schools as long as the leadership comes from them.
  • Building links to youth communities (e.g., punk rock bands, debate groups) built around a common interest and that cut across institutions and geography.
  • Getting to scale locally: Using all avenues in a few medium-sized metropolitan areas or small provinces or states (e.g., New Hampshire).

Although the movement is far up the learning curve, all that means is that the pace of experimenting/learning is accelerating and broadening. It needs many more partners who are excited by this movement-building challenge of accelerating to scale, and who will join in experimenting, adapting, and pushing.

And it needs to communicate its alternative vision for the youth years and ultimately for a rapidly multiplying proportion of the population who have the power to change things. As the number of young leaders increases and spreads, this job becomes easier and easier, not least because such Venturers usually gain confidence once they see that, in addition to being the founders of a newspaper or a program to help new immigrant youth or a peer-to-peer counseling service, etc., they are pioneers in an historic moment.

Related Letters to the Editors of Innovations

What are the boundaries of the three major economic classes Mr. Drayton posits: business (for profit), government and social? Where do the charitable classes of foundations, charities, religious outreach groups fit in? Does Mr. Drayton envision social organizations migrating to the business or government sectors as they mature, where appropriate? For example I remember reading about a scheme to bring electricity to the rural areas of Brazil. Might such an idea become a candidate for the business sector?

Are social enterprises essentially altruistic? If so, I think that would probably rule out patents, copyrights, business secrets and infringements. Mr. Drayton writes about the opportunities for financial institutions to make a profit in the social sector by helping social startups. I think they would insist on sound business plans and maybe some sort of collateral to reduce the lender's risk.

—Don Searles
San Diego, CA

Since an eight month period abroad observing NGO, State and Private actors I have been searching for the words to capture what I saw was missing and what I recognized, simultaneously, to be so desperately needed in the regions I traveled (Bosnia, Croatia, Azerbaijan, primarily). The class I was looking for was that of the social entrepreneur.

My first thought as I closed "Everyone a Changemaker" was of the potential value of social entreprenuer consultants. Drayton writes of the three-stage lifecycle of the citizen sector, and notes that in many areas/regions/countries the "post-breakeven" mature phase is never reached because the "citizen base is entirely inadequate". Drayton continues to note that a "broad base of citizen support" must be built ... the challenge is to "jolt the citizen sector". It seems to me, therefore, that Drayton is calling for Ashoka ambassadors-consultants, perhaps, who can inspire, catalyze and empower potential actors to drive the financial vehicles available to them.

—Amanda Leese
Washington, D.C.

External Link: FULL ARTICLE: Everyone a Changemaker

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