Nilima Achwal

Ashoka’s Drayton: Education and the Future Marketplace

Bill Drayton views the more than 2,700 Ashoka Fellows as a sensitive Geiger counter for detecting big economic and social shifts. Once there are hundreds of Fellows working in a particular sector, he looks for patterns in their ideas.

“That tells you what’s possible now, but doesn’t tell you where we’re going,” Drayton said. “It’s the questions that arise that tell you where the world is going.” These questions drive him to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems-even those that are yet to come.

Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka and pioneer of the social entrepreneurship movement (and, as of today, recipient of the Prince of Asturias Prize, Spain’s highest honor and Nobel equivalent), created a global organization based on the core belief that “everyone is a changemaker,” helping thousands of social entrepreneurs to empower tens of thousands of others on the shared quest to a better world. Now, the change-making power held in the Fellows is breathtaking: 50 percent of Ashoka Fellow enterprises achieved a (economic/or governmental) policy change within one year of being operational. In my recent interview with Drayton, it was clear that he plans to tap into the collaborative foresight of the Ashoka Fellows in order to predict-and act upon-the behemoth social issues approaching in the near future.

Drayton succinctly sums up our greatest future opportunity and potential threat: Human capital. “The cities and nations that empower a high proportion of people to be changemakers will become the Silicon Valleys of the world. Those who do not will become Detroit.”

He describes our global crossroads in greater detail. “Changemakers have four fundamental traits that cannot be understated: empathy, teamwork, leadership, and change-making. We are reaching the transition point very quickly, and parts of the world that do not master these traits will be left in terrible shape.” He points to Detroit to demonstrate what happens when a city does not invest in basic human skills; it declined from the pinnacle of wealth in the 50s to one of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities in the United States by the 1980s. On the other hand, in Silicon Valley, companies like Google empowered their people to make change and are growing at a breakneck speed.

The U.S. is headed in the direction of Detroit, he believes.

“Empathy,” he says, “will be like literacy was in the 1300s. Without it, one will be marginalized and unable to function professionally.” Unless a child learns the complex skill of empathy through reinforcement and practice by age 21, she or he won’t have a chance in the global marketplace, he emphasizes. With the world changing faster and faster, he explains, the rules matter less and less. This means that we’re increasingly dependent on the people around us to guide our behavior, which requires an increasingly more sophisticated empathetic skill.

There has to be a paradigm shift in education, beginning in schools and reinforced at home. U.S. schools continue to focus on the old information-transfer model of education, which prepared students for repetitive skills-toiling on the assembly line, farming, working at insurance agencies. These jobs will soon disappear, explains Drayton, and schools will have to prepare students for the new marketplace, or fall behind. An educational system that prepares students for the world that they will inhabit will actively ingrain empathy in its students.

Currently, Drayton estimates about 2 percent of schools in the U.S. (mainly elite charter or private schools) teach the four skills necessary to be a changemaker, having students actively creating change in their communities. “Youth culture is a culture of incompetence-even those youth that are not incompetent simply cling to a few extracurricular activities. That is all that is expected of them,” he tells me. Now, in the same way that society has empowered women and minorities over the decades, it is time to empower the youth to fulfill themselves and become leaders.

“Any teenager who masters these skills and changes their world is bringing 20-25 teenagers with them,” he explains. What’s more, “any teenager that changes her or his world in some way is a changemaker for life.”

This new educational model does not cost much, Drayton continues. And, we know how to do it; that’s not the problem. He cites one of several hundred successful exercises for elementary school students that measurably lowered bullying rates. Quite simply, it just has to be done-society has to see the urgent need.

“If one first grader in the class does not learn and practice empathy before moving to second grade, a teacher should feel like he failed,” he says. The same goes for parents. “Parents must realize the cruelty of not teaching empathy and basic human skills to their children.”

And there will be grave consequences if the U.S. does not adapt to the changing environment. “That’s the end of the U.S. right there,” says Drayton. Noting the young populations, high growth rates, energy, and optimism of many Asian countries, he thinks it will be easier to shift the educational paradigm in Asia, though they pose the difficulty of having more authoritarian and traditional cultures.


Drayton is now pioneering collaborative entrepreneurship at Ashoka, bringing hundreds of leading social entrepreneurs together to solve pressing global issues. Their first target: global education.

“But how are you going to change educational systems across the world?” I ask him. With precision, Drayton brings his vision down to two practical, actionable steps. First, get 5 percent of the schools in a nation to teach these four core skills (empathy, teamwork, leadership, and change-making) successfully over the course of three years. Pick influential schools that represent the diversity of the nation’s education system. Then, infect 30 mavens-leaders, journalists, and the like-to passionately champion the new paradigm in the media and their industries. “They all feed off each other’s energy,” explains Drayton. “And the fever is highly contagious.”

He continues, “You begin with five key nations-China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, and Brazil. This way, you are targeting the countries with the highest populations across the continents. Tip these places, and change will be hard to stop.”

At that point, there will be a tidal wave of young people connecting with others and leading change. Having started young, they will have the foundation to create an immeasurable positive impact throughout their lives. Knowing how to lead a “team of teams,” as Drayton says, they will allow their own team members to “have their own dreams, build their own teams, and lead their own change.” The impact will multiply exponentially.

Our future depends on these teams of social entrepreneurs, Drayton believes. “Systems are always changing, and you need powerful global teams of social entrepreneurs whose value and commitment is toward the good of all. Social entrepreneurs ask, ’How do we change the world?’ Then, they make the ideas as simple and understandable as possible so that thousands of local changemakers can step up to the plate and make it happen.”

In the global marketplace that we will inhabit, the definition of success will change and the very qualities we hold dear will evolve. My view is our youth will be faced with more opportunity than ever to change the world. It is up to us to decide if we will let them.

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Education, Social Enterprise
academia, social enterprise