Bill Drayton: Helping the Social Sector Catch up to Industry

The founder of social entrepreneur funder Ashoka says adding business expertise to social endeavors can "tip the world in the right direction."

October 01, 2010

| by Michele Chandler

Bill Drayton is determined to “tip the world in the right direction.”

He’s the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the world’s oldest funding and support organization for social entrepreneurs. Organizations supported by the 30-year-old nonprofit provide nurse training in South Africa, develop tools to protect natural resources in Mexico, and introduce workplace daycare programs in Bangladesh. Today, Ashoka has 3,000 entrepreneurs in 60 countries. Drayton, awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his work, described to a Stanford Graduate School of Business audience how he went from jobs as a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. and an assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to become the “godfather of social entrepreneurship.”

The organization is named for the Indian leader Ashoka, who unified the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC, renouncing violence and dedicating his life to social welfare and economic development.

Entrepreneurs funded by Ashoka are connected to like-minded people and also provided with business expertise and advice from Ashoka’s partner firms. “We have to create teams [combining] the leading social entrepreneurs with key business entrepreneur allies to tip the world in the right direction,” Drayton said. The benefit for such alliances is clear because the social sector has much to learn from the successes of the corporate world. While the business sector has advanced dramatically, he said, the social sector remained “stuck.”

“For 300 years, businesses kept reducing the cost and improving the quality” of consumer goods, Drayton said. But leaders “weren’t doing that with education and welfare,” and now the social sector is working hard to catch up with industry’s success.

Children are an important focus for Ashoka’s roster of emerging social enterprise all-stars.

Nearly 500 of the people Drayton calls “change makers” have formed programs that aim to shape young people into effective leaders. Helping youth develop empathy for others is critical to creating a better world, Drayton believes, since both empathy and teamwork are mandatory leadership skills. “If you don’t have those skills you are living in a very scary world and there’s not going to be much demand for you,” he warned. “Anyone who does not have that skill is going to be marginalized.”

To foster empathy in grade schoolers, Canadian Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon would bring an infant to her class several times during the school year. Clad in a T-shirt labeled “The Professor,” the baby sat on a blanket in front of the first, second, and third grade students. Since the infant couldn’t speak, the older children had to use other means to decipher what “The Professor” wanted and was feeling. That program has since been adopted by 2,000 Canadian schools, Drayton said.

Another Ashoka Fellow, former stockbroker Jill Vialet, founded Sports4Kids, an Oakland-based nonprofit providing recreation programs to students in public schools. Her approach uses play to build empathy and foster positive behavior.

“Successful growing up is no longer mastering technology and rules,” said Drayton. “You have to have social skill literacy, empathy, teamwork, and leadership.”

Like most Ashoka Fellows, Drayton knew he wanted to better society from an early age. Drayton, who is white, grew up in diverse New York City, where he joined the NAACP and was actively engaged in civil rights work while in high school.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he founded the Ashoka Table, a weekly forum in the social sciences. Later, at Yale Law School, he launched Yale Legislative Services so students could help key elected officials throughout the northeast design and draft legislation.

After his term at the EPA ended in 1981, Drayton launched both Ashoka and Save EPA, an association of professional environmental managers. He also founded and led Environmental Safety, which helps develop better ways to implement environmental laws. Drayton is now board chair of nonprofits Get America Working! and Youth Venture.

He ended his talk by urging Stanford students to become change makers themselves. “This is a moment in history where you can make a really big difference,” he said. “We need it globally, and we need it in every field, whatever your interests are.”

His hour-long talk before nearly 100 MBA students was part of the business school’s Global Speaker Series. During the program, Rick Aubry, a lecturer at the business school who is an expert in social entrepreneurship and who was elected an Ashoka Senior Fellow in 2008, interviewed Drayton.

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