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GOOD Q&A: Social Entrepreneur Bill Drayton On His White House Years

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Ashoka is the global association of the world's leading social entrepreneurs, and a GOOD Magazine nonprofit partner. We sat down with founder Bill Drayton to talk about the power of entrepreneurship, his time in the White House, and the best nonfiction of the past decade.

GOOD Magazine: What does a $20 donation do for Ashoka?
Bill Drayton: A $20 donation represents much more to us than just the money. It means that the investor, begins to explore the field of social entrepreneurship. It means one more person becomes aware of the powerful work of social entrepreneurs around the world and it means one more person will hopefully be inspired to create social change. And of course, it also helps provide support to Ashoka Fellows and gives them the freedom to pursue her/his idea. Once launched, the impact will grow and multiply for decades. And success will provide a powerful role model encouraging many, many others to step up and become change-makers. That is the enduring value of a donation to Ashoka.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?
Whenever society is stuck or has an opportunity to seize a new opportunity, it needs an entrepreneur to see the opportunity and then to turn that vision into a realistic idea and then a reality and then, indeed, the new pattern all across society. We need such entrepreneurial leadership at least as much in education and human rights as we do in communications and hotels. This is the work of social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship is the field Ashoka has been building for 27 years that helps the world's most promising new ideas and the social entrepreneurs behind them get started, succeed over their long life cycles, work and collaborate together through the local to global community we are building. The field and Ashoka also must deal with its major structural needs--for example, the urgent need for a far more effective financial system, one analogous to the competitive, rapidly responsive, and therefore highly diverse system that serves business. We are also now demonstrating how the world's leading social entrepreneurs can entrepreneur together, a giant step beyond and greatly reinforcing the work of each individual entrepreneur.

What was your first entrepreneurial venture?
A fourth-grade newspaper, typewritten, with as many carbon copies as could be squeezed into the machine.

How did your family history (abolitionists/women's leaders) shape childhood and growth into the man you are?
We are all very deeply the children of our parents and their parents. Far more than we generally realize. Both my parents showed extraordinary (most would say madly unrealistic!) freedom of spirit at 19. Public service and respect for ideas is a recurrent theme in both the American and Australian sides of my family. The fact that the Grimke sisters (anti-slavery and women's equality) and Wendell Phillips (abolitionist) lie on different branches of the America family suggest another element of deep-seated cultural values that drew these people to one another and, without a word being said, was another wonderful gift from my family.

What appealed to you (or did not appeal to you) about your time at the White House?

White House cultures inevitably reflect the President's character. Jimmy Carter is a thoroughly honest, good person. So was his White House. For example, in the midst of the energy crisis and intense political pressure from refiners and the Department of Energy, all I had to do was show data demonstrating a correlation between the level of lead in gasoline delivered in New York the day before and the level of lead in children's blood there--and we were able to go ahead with getting this lead out of gasoline over the howls of the industry. All it took was to show Jimmy Carter this one graph.

Where do you see Ashoka in ten years?
Ashoka (and all of us in the GOOD community) are serving the most profound historical transformation in the structure of society since the agricultural revolution--the shift from a world led by small elites to an "everyone a change-maker" global society. The agricultural world only had a small surplus, leaving the world a very flat place where almost everyone had to remain in tiny, static communities producing that small surplus for the few. The world is no longer flat. There is an almost infinite number of human groupings and organizations--each of which increasingly must change at an ever more rapid pace because our world now is defined by a logarithmically increasing rate of change in every sector of society. If the solutions are to outrun the problems, and if modern people are to be satisfied in life, we have to break out of the old elite-dominated social structures of the past. In the world ten years from now, it will not be possible to be a citizen without being a change-maker. Anyone who is not will be and feel themselves to be enormously vulnerable. More important, they will not be able to participate in the giving and receiving of love and respect, the heart of human existence, at its most important level--causing change for the good.

Ashoka is intensely focused on what we believe are the most important levers for achieving the rapid transformation now so urgently needed:

•The world's leading social entrepreneurs are critical. The "everyone a change-maker" revolution took off when the structure of business changed and it promised anyone with a better and implemented idea riches, respect, and emulation. Around 1980 (which was why we launched Ashoka then), the social half of the world's operations (health, environment, young people, full economic citizenship, etc.) finally made the same structural leap: Anyone who implements a better idea will gain resources, respect, and quick emulation. As a result, the citizen sector is growing explosively (generating jobs three times as fast as the rest of society) as it races to catch up in productivity and to solve a gigantic backlog of problems. Probably the only significant way social and business entrepreneurs are different is that social entrepreneurs have no interest in capturing a market. Their objective is to change the world, with the result that they try to make their ideas as user-friendly, understandable, safe, and supported as possible so that in community after community, local people will adopt and champion the social entrepreneur's innovation. In other words, every social entrepreneur is not only a role model but a mass recruiter of local change-makers. These local change-makers, in turn, become role models for their family and friends in their communities. Moreover, some of them will become the next generation of major pattern-change entrepreneurs.
This unremarked dynamic is central to the world breaking out toward "everyone a change-maker". From the beginning, Ashoka has helped the most powerful ideas and entrepreneurs get started, succeed, and collaborate. Ten years from now, we will still be doing this, but the community and its "network effect" will be far larger, deeper, and more powerful.

•Second, Ashoka and our community are working hard to define and champion the very different institutions our field and "everyone a changemaker" need. For example, believing that the current institutions that provide institutional financial support for our field are severely stuck, we are working to define and catalyze a very, very different social financial services sector. We expect that there will be new institutions and many new products supported by new laws well before ten years from now. We have also been working for some time to encourage the citizen sector to understand that it can and must develop broad grass roots citizen bases of support. Institutional finance is key in the early stages of organizational growth, but 97 or 98 percent of the support for the sector has to come from the public if we are to be as permanent and stable a part of society as business, religion, trade unions, sporting clubs, etc.

•Ten years from now, the core process for the field that we have been developing over the last decade, our "mosaics", or group entrepreneurship, will enormously enhance both our ability to solve problems and our contribution to bringing the world together. These mosaics start with identifying the most important universal principles in hundreds of examples of very successful leading social entrepreneurs working in a common field, e.g., young people or full economic citizenship. We will then work together to flip the system worldwide. This is the first time that individual entrepreneurs all across the world have come together to share both thinking and action. This will, I believe, be the way that our field ultimately has its chief impacts and defines itself. It is a natural process for us: We may not like writing articles for books, but we love causing change.

What is your favorite place in New York?

I love the streets of New York. They are filled with energy. (New Yorkers walk 15 percent faster than other Americans). They are infinitely diverse, both within one block and from subway stop to subway stop. A block of faces is better than reading a whole New Yorker.

What is a more pressing global concern, the environment or poverty?
How can you divide them?

What is the best piece of nonfiction you have read in the last ten years?
Last year, it was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford [2004]. Piercing all the bad press and negative history written by those the Mongols conquered, it brings into focus a hugely important historical catalyst that helped bring about the modern world--the fact that the Mongols conquered and systematically encouraged cross-fertilization of ideas and technologies all across Eurasia--from China to Europe, Persia, the Middle East, and the doors of South Asia.

What is your personal definition of "good"?
A world in which everyone is universally empathetic and exercises love and respect with full change-making power.

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