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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
FM: When looking at these fellows, what are
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.
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.
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