15 Questions with Bill Drayton ’65

The Ashoka CEO discusses his Harvard roots, social entrepreneurship, and the future of “changemaking”

Last Sunday, FM braved the snowstorm and traveled across the river to the Harvard Business School for its Social Enterprise Conference, rated number one of the top 12 conferences of 2009 by Forbes Magazine.

While there, we sat down with Bill Drayton ’65, chair and CEO of Ashoka International: Innovators for the Public, one of the leading organizations that
fosters social entrepreneurship around the world. His goal: breed a generation of “changemakers.”

1. Fifteen Minutes: Now I must ask, since you have a degree from both Harvard and Yale, if you went to the Game, who would you root for?

Bill Drayton: Mercifully, I don’t like football. Soccer is a different story. I’ll go with the words of John Kennedy of this, “It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds. A Harvard education and a Yale degree.”

2. FM: How is it coming back to your Alma Mater? Obviously, judging by the  snow, some things never change at Harvard.

BD: I taught at the Law School here before, so it’s not my first time back. But I see that the quality of the spirit hasn’t change in the students. One of the things that has changed is the amount of students interested in the citizen sector. When I went here, that was a small minority, but that has changed dramatically.

3. FM: Some people say that right now, it’s sexy to be a social entrepreneur—to be involved in microfinance, non-profits, and the like. What do you say to people that see this recent rise in civic activity as being only fashionable and not sustainable?

BD: It’s a deep structural change, and it only began, [fundamentally], around 1980. That’s a radical change in 25 to 30 years. It took 300 years for the business sector to grow at this rate, since the 1700’s. It’s taken the citizen sector 30 years. That’s not a fashion, that’s an entrepreneurial change.

4. FM: You’ve been involved in many different organizations across many different sectors of society—from McKinsey [& Company] to the Carter Administration. What’s has linked them all for you?

BD: I went to India, as a sophomore at the College, and that is what drove me. There, I learned a tremendous amount. These are people in one village, whom I am still close to, and the decisions we make affect them all.

5. FM: What role does Ashoka play in satisfying this vision of change?

BD: We focus on the moment, when an idea and an entrepreneur intersect in their life cycles. Then, the entrepreneur steps out of the mold. No one will support them, but Ashoka will. By year five, our fellows, who we select as the most influential entrepreneurs in a country, half of them change social policy in their country. We make a very small investment, but with this, you create a huge social impact.

6. FM: What does Ashoka mean?

BD: It’s Sanskrit for “the act of absence of sorrow,” but we base it off Ashoka the Great, the Indian emperor, who reigned over India’s military empire in the third century B.C. He led many bloody military conquests, but afterward, he felt a deep regret for his actions, so he put up edicts, in stone, across the empire. They read, “the wars and bloodshed were wrong and unjust.”

7. FM: It would be refreshing to see that in the present day, no?

BD: (laughs) Yes, it would. But more than that, he was a leader who was incredibly openminded and tolerant, supported the building of schools, and was one of the first great communicators.

8. FM: Looking at Ashoka, it has had incredible success in developing social entrepreneurs. But what is the key to this success—what are your greatest strengths as an organization?

BD: We see the big steps that need to get done. And now, we are collaborating, linking entrepreneurs across borders. We see that an idea is
historic and we sit down and do what we do best: change the world.

9. FM: Are there any challenges in moving toward this goal?

BD: The challenge is how do we get to these people—these [changemakers]. How do we get to the influential schools in a country, how do we get to [the] 15 to 20 most influential people in every key country around the globe? If we do that, we can tip the whole country.

10. FM: It seems that with your organization, you are doing just this, which is remarkable. But what are the limitations to this expansion?

BD: The things I’ve described are sharply focused, and we have to be consistent in this focus. Everyone in Ashoka has to be entrepreneurial, everyone has to be collegial—meaning they are innovative and [empowered]. It’s a team of teams. We are growing at a rate of 35 percent last year, 80 percent next year, and that’s all because we are in this historic moment: the transformation of the citizen sector.

11. FM: With all the work you do, from Ashoka Chair, to other nonprofits like Community Greens, to changing the world, how do you find time to sleep?

BD: I don’t have to do all these things. We have 100 incredibly talented people working in Ashoka. We have almost 2,600 structured fellows serving in the social sector around the world. That is part of the transformation—I don’t have to do it all because everyone is a changemaker.

12. FM: We would like to think that change is possible anywhere, but the reality of some places, like Egypt with a repressive government suffocating the citizen sector, is that it may not be possible. How do you address these challenges?

BD: Look at Indonesia in the 1980’s. When we went there, they said you couldn’t change it. They said it was impossible. It was chaos from war after war for decades. But we went there and worked quietly to find those social entrepreneurs. Over time, the hostility died down, and the New Order collapsed. The first elected President—he was an Ashoka nominator. The first director—he was an Ashoka fellow.

13. FM: When looking at these fellows, what are the keys?

BD: Four words: Integrate and Recruit, and Collegial and Entrepreneurial. These fellows have to be able to spread their influence and embolden others to change with them.

14. FM: What, if you could give one point of advice to us aspiring social “changemakers,” would you tell us?

BD: It’s exceedingly simple. Give yourself permission to do it. Why do so many people put themselves in a box for 20 years after college, when the world needs such changemakers? Give yourself permission to make it happen, and then all you have to do is persist.

15. FM: And what advice would you give to Harvard, as an institution, to spark change?

BD: If the University would do more to bring out these leaders, to get this talent out into the world to make change, we could see a drastic transformation. It’s time to invert these broken systems, it’s time to take down these broken social institutions, and make them better. Harvard should know this and should be doing more to get its students out in the world making change.