IDR Interviews | Bill Drayton
In this freewheeling conversation, Bill Drayton emphasises that everyone has the right, and ability, to be a giver. And in today’s world where everything is changing, everybody can, and must, be a changemaker.
Bill Drayton is a pioneering force in the field of social entrepreneurship. He’s the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which he launched in 1981 to find, nurture, and support social entrepreneurs. Over the last four decades, Ashoka’s community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers has grown into a global network of individuals that strive to solve some of society’s toughest challenges. Bill is a MacArthur Fellow and has received many awards for his contribution to social innovation and change.
Over the last 40 years, through your own work and that of Ashoka Fellows, you’ve had the privilege of seeing the world change. What is different about social entrepreneurship today versus when you set up Ashoka four decades ago?
Back when we got started in the 1980s, we had to invent words to describe the new world of social entrepreneurship whose birth we were helping. We were sitting at Nariman Point, in what was then called Bombay, and struggling with naming the idea. We first created the broader concept and name: changemaker. This was easy—just take the two strong verbs ‘change’ and ‘make’ and put them together. However, we needed a different phrase to describe the small number of changemakers who redefine or create society’s big systems. After some trial and error, we ultimately settled on ‘social entrepreneur’.
The word ‘entrepreneur’ tended to be synonymous with business, at least historically up to that point. However, around the late 1970s and early 1980s, the citizen sector was beginning to become entrepreneurial and competitive in the same way that business had been for several centuries. The citizen sector was also beginning to break free from being funded by, controlled by, and prohibited from being competitive by, the government. And India was one of the first places where a significant number of first-generation social entrepreneurs stood up and set out to change the world for good.
Today, the big difference is that the construct of social entrepreneur is part of everyday thinking and language. And just think about what that means. People can look at these entrepreneurs and think: If she can do this, and such work is practical, and she’s being respected for it, then that’s an opportunity for me; it could be an option for my life. So the first step was to introduce the construct of social entrepreneurship everywhere in the world. Social entrepreneurs are people who can change a major pattern or system of thinking and acting. They pull people together, multiply impact, strengthen an idea, and make it more viable and scalable.
The second construct is what we are working on now: Everyone a changemaker. You and I want everyone to have a good life. But one cannot have a good life if one cannot give. And to be able to give, one must be able to play in today’s everything-changing and everything-connected new (and only) reality. So, the biggest change is that we understand that consciously.
Very few people are going to change society’s big patterns. The difference between a social entrepreneur and a changemaker is that an entrepreneur changes major systems and/or frameworks of thinking on a large scale. But everybody can and has to be a changemaker. Saying that out loud and actually working on it is the second big change for us at Ashoka. The Ashoka Fellows remain critical to this new thinking and this work.