Ashoka – 2011 TMMBA International Study Tour Company Visit

Monday, March 21, 2011

Our day today started with a presentation from Ashoka.  Ashoka is a non-profit organization aimed at enabling social entrepreneurs.  The concept of social entrepreneurship is new for me.  Wikipedia defines a social entrepreneur as some who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to achieve social change (a social venture).

Ashoka was initially formed in 1981 and currently operates in over 70 countries.  The Ashoka model starts with the individual and seeks to address a specific problem:  many ideas that could benefit and change society as a whole are never realized because the individuals behind them lack the time, resources, or connections to make them happen.  Ashoka seeks “fellow” to invest in through small living stipends designed to enable social entrepreneurs to make ends meet while moving their ideas forward – i.e. allow them to stop working and devote their best energies to the idea.  Downstream, Ashoka can provide access to best practices and networks for financial investment and dissemination of ideas.  In an ideal world, Ashoka is try to identify and spread those ideas that can change the systems in which our society operates.

The concept of Ashoka really struck a chord.  Many great ideas – regardless of scope or intent – die on the kitchen table because a person cannot justify quitting to themselves and/or their family.  This is true especially when the scope of change is the social system because the profit potential may be low.  The public sector cannot often justify investment in such high risk ventures, and the private sector may not have incentive to invest in the early stages because of the low profit potential.  A company like Ashoka provides an avenue to resources in the early stages that would normally require an entrepreneur to assume great personal financial risk.

Ashoka does have a predictable problem though: the scope of their vision crosses many industries and geographies and thus requires a diverse range of competencies and experience.  While Ashoka cannot often recruit and retain high quality talent to address all target fields of work, they supplement their internal human resources with a network of professionals/corporation who devote time and resources to supporting the Ashoka “fellows”.  Participation in the network is promoted as a way to give back and often attracts professionals with extensive connections in the business world as well as the public sector that can enable the change in social system(s) envisioned by Ashoka.

Our presentation concluded with a chance to act as part of that network.  Pamphlets providing overviews of several projects Ashoka is supporting and we were asked to provide some feedback on some of the challenges they may face implementing the ideas.  This activity was a distinct reminder that we do not need to be the social entrepreneur nor the experienced professional “giving back” as part of the network to be part of this desired social change; each of us can use what we have learned here at TMMBA to provide guidance and advice to enable those around us to be more.