Entrepreneur for Social Change

Monday, October 24, 2005

In the summer of 1963, Bill Drayton witnessed the power of a simple idea to effect vast social change. A Gandhian named Vinoba Bhave was walking across India and persuading individuals and whole villages to legally “gift” their land to him. Bhave then redistributed the land more equitably to support untouchables and other landless people, thus breaking an endless cycle of poverty. Drayton, just 20 years old and on summer break from Harvard, drove a red-and-white Volkswagen van from Munich to India to join him.

“Long before sunrise, we’d start walking across dividing paths of rice fields, by the moonlight, stars, and a couple of kerosene lanterns,” says Drayton. At sunrise, thousands of surrounding villagers dressed in their best clothes began appearing in the horizon. By teatime, local landowners had voluntarily ceded their holdings to Bhave. Ultimately, 7 million acres were peacefully redistributed, based on the ability of one leader to turn a powerful idea into reality.

It’s a model of change that Drayton calls social entrepreneurship–a term he coined to describe individuals who combine the pragmatic and results-oriented methods of a business entrepreneur with the goals of a social reformer. Through his global nonprofit, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, based in Arlington, Va., Drayton aims to find change-making leaders around the world, provide them with support and modest “social venture capital,” and watch as they transform ingrained institutions and improve lives exponentially.

A slight man with wispy hair and rimless glasses, Drayton seems not quite of this world. Conversations tend to wander off on arcane tangents–such as a 20-minute lecture on the irrigation system of Bali–before heading back to broader theories like the importance of empathetic ethics in a multicultural world. Drayton always speaks in a library voice. “I was taught by my parents that people who are loud don’t have anything to say,” says Drayton, with his gentle smile. “I’ve found if you’re suggesting quite big changes, a quiet style may be reassuring.”

He’s also prone to long gaps in conversation. “He is a guy who will literally sit in silence for a minute before he speaks,” says Peter Kellner, one of several young entrepreneurs who call Drayton a mentor. Indeed, although Drayton is constantly in a bureaucrat’s uniform of a plain navy blue suit and a skinny tie, one can almost imagine him in monk’s robes, fascinated disciples at his feet.

Yet Drayton, like three of his heroes, Mohandas Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean Monnet (architect of European common currency), is a scholar and political operator deeply rooted in the hows and whys of society. He notes Gandhi’s mania for organization, down to counting pencils. For Drayton, social change isn’t romantic. “It’s not a poem; it’s not like Xanadu,” he says. “There are many people who are creative and altruistic, but they are never going to change a pattern across a continent.” In other words, a vision of Xanadu is nice, but it won’t happen without a transportation plan and a sewerage system.

Which is why Drayton named his organization after another visionary pragmatist: Ashoka was a third-century-B.C. Indian emperor who waged war to unite a huge swath of south Asia. He subsequently renounced violence, adopted Buddhism, and dedicated his empire to tolerance, economic growth, and social projects. Launched in 1980 with $50,000, the organization now has a budget of $30.5 million and has funded 1,600 “fellows” in 60 countries. Fellows, who must undergo a rigorous testing and screening process and numerous interviews, have done things like finding a way to provide cheap electricity for Brazilian farmers, changing the Indian school curriculum from rote to independent learning, and distributing microcredit loans of as small as $60 for poor women in Bangladesh to start businesses. That original program has set a new standard in development work, and microfinance is now used all over the world to help add to the ranks of the world’s entrepreneurs. Within five years, says Drayton, more than 50 percent of Ashoka fellows change national policy in their respective countries.

Visionary. Early on, Drayton saw that while government can be inefficient and the private sector motivated by profit, the nonprofit sector was ripe to provide change. Indeed, this “third” sector, or so-called citizen sector, as Drayton calls it, has exploded–70 percent of registered nonprofit groups in the United States are under 30 years old. “More and more people want to do this kind of work,” says Drayton. “We are creating the jobs; the salaries are going up. We are desperate for managers.”

Much of the change in the citizen sector can be attributed to Drayton, who made it his life’s work to not only expand Ashoka but also develop the field as a whole. “Bill was the pioneer; he really laid the foundation for the rest of us,” says J. Gregory Dees, professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. When Dees attempted to introduce the first social entrepreneurship course in business school, he was rebuffed. Nearly 15 years later, it is a common offering at leading business schools like Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

In many ways, Drayton’s life has been a long road toward learning how to change systems. At Harvard, he founded Ashoka table, where students could ask government and industry leaders how the world really works. Drayton continued at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and graduated from Yale Law School. Later, at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., he learned about public policy and industries. While advising New York City, he created the nation’s first nicotine tar tax. In the Carter administration, as assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he pioneered the concept of emissions trading, in which companies or whole countries can reduce their allotment of pollution emissions by selling those allotments to others. During the Reagan years, Drayton successfully used the media to stop the administration from dismantling the EPA.

Though he characterizes himself as a moderate introvert, Drayton has the innate charisma of great leaders. Former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, who cochaired the 9/11 commission, recalls that he had misgivings when the 21-year-old Drayton volunteered to help on his House campaign in 1964. “He looks like a scholar, and I said to myself, ’How will he fit in with Hoosiers–with Indiana farmers?’ ” Drayton was able to charm local party operatives as well as farmers, and he helped Hamilton win.

The charisma stems from genuine interest and skillful listening. Kyle Zimmer, a board member of Ashoka, remembers meeting Drayton when they worked on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in 1984. “It was tremendously empowering to be around Bill. You felt as if when you talked your ideas were considered.” Zimmer describes similar scenes at Ashoka meetings. “The first time I sat at a meeting, an intern raised a hand, and I thought, ’You have got to be kidding; that’s someone with moxie.’ But it happens repeatedly. Bill appreciates people who are thinking and engaged and he doesn’t care if it’s someone very influential in Washington or a tribal leader in some very remote area of the world.”

Publisher. Entrepreneurship came early to Drayton. As a child, he made crafts and set up a store in his bedroom. And he had no problems recruiting helpers. A one-page newspaper he started in the third grade quickly turned into an ad-supported 64-page publication staffed with elementary school children. “I can’t tell you how excited I was to get this mimeograph machine,” says Drayton. “It’s amazing how supportive my parents were. There were 64 piles of mimeographed paper that had to be collated and stapled, and it never occurred to me this might be inconvenient to my family.”

Even now, Drayton’s enthusiasm for a project has a way of sweeping up bystanders who question how they end up laboring in the eye of his storm. Julien Phillips was working in Venezuela in the early ’80s when Drayton came for a weeklong visit. “He had asked me in his soft way if I could arrange some appointments with people interested in making changes,” says Phillips, a friend from McKinsey who runs his own nonprofit organization. He tried to oblige but soon realized that Drayton, who spoke no Spanish, had expected him to analyze the social structure of Venezuela, find the top 25 change makers, and arrange interviews with at least 10. “He imagined I would drop everything. It’s never clear to me whether he’s aware that he’s making some fairly unreasonable requests or whether he’s entirely oblivious to all that–and he relates to a lot of people in that way.”

But Phillips and others say they tolerate and even admire his demands because they are not driven by ego. “His actions and his ethics are well integrated,” says David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Drayton lives modestly, in an apartment near his office. For years, he did not take a salary at Ashoka. Sushmita Ghosh, president of Ashoka, remembers first meeting Drayton 17 years ago at a hotel in Calcutta, where she estimates the rooms cost about $12 a night. “One of Ashoka’s policies is never to do anything that is not compatible with the lifestyle of the fellows,” says Ghosh.

Although Drayton’s energies are stretched, he is continually moving forward with new projects. His latest, Youth Venture, comes from his belief that children are a great untapped resource in social change–correctly leveraged, they have the power to “flip” society very quickly. He likens their marginalized position to what was once considered a natural secondary place for women and minorities.

“We would like to have every middle and high school become a place where there will be lots of examples of youth competence and confidence,” says Drayton. “You can be a cog in society if you’ve learned enough, but you’ll never be a powerful person.”

Like Vinoba Bhave, Drayton is in his own way walking through the world and trying to persuade as many people to sign over their rights as a cog and join him. “Right now, 2 or 3 percent of people control changes,” he says. “Imagine a world where everyone is really a change maker.”

Source: US News and World Report (link opens in a new window)