Why Ashoka Wants to Empower Teens
If you want true equality, says Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, empower teenagers to change the world.
If you think of most of the world’s great entrepreneurs, they started their rise to the top in their teens, says Bill Drayton, founder of global citizen sector organization, Ashoka.
Richard Branson, for example, was 16 when he set up Student magazine, which he managed from a phone booth. His idea to sell advertising for discounted music records in the back would become the foundations of Virgin Music.
While in high school Mark Zuckerberg was a voracious computer programmer, building a software program to link computers in his house to those in his father’s dental practice, called ZuckNet. Bill Gates meanwhile, wrote his school’s computer program to schedule students in classes, modifying the code so that he was placed in classes with a “disproportionate number of interesting girls”. As a boy, Jeff Bezos displayed technological proficiency, once rigging an electric alarm to keep his younger siblings out of his bedroom.
“In elementary school I couldn’t imagine why I was being tortured with Latin and mathematics,” recalls Drayton, who has been called the godfather of social entrepreneurship. “But I loved starting things.” In fifth grade, Drayton saved up to buy a mimeograph machine to start what would become a 50-page newspaper with writers and circulation well beyond his school.
In his various careers as a management consultant with McKinsey, environmental government official and a university professor, he realised that the world was undergoing a paradigm shift and that education reform had largely missed the boat. “Education is driven by an outdated set of objectives, mastering a body of knowledge and a set of rules. That makes sense in a static world but not one defined by accelerating change,” he explains. “We tell young people ‘you can’t’ in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. But they can, and they must!”
“Once a young person has had a dream, built a team and changed his or her world, he or she will be a changemaker for life, contributing again and again to whatever problem needs solving.”
In 1980 Drayton established Ashoka: a non-governmental organisation that elects and supports individual social entrepreneurs — called Ashoka Fellows — who are visionary leaders creating systems-changing, community-powered solutions to societal problems. Its stated mission is “to shape a global, entrepreneurial, competitive citizen sector: one that allows social entrepreneurs to thrive and enables the world’s citizens to think and act as changemakers”. The premise for Ashoka came from Drayton’s realisation that the old world of assembly lines and law firms, efficiency in repetition, was on the way out. “You were educated in a skill, be it banking or barbering, which you could apply within walls for life,” he says. “A very few orchestrated the many; life was guided by rules.”
But in a couple of decades those high-repetition jobs will no longer exist, while the global population continues to expand. Jobs in banking will all but disappear. For example, Alibaba is now lending billions of renminbi without bankers, using a self-correcting algorithm that produces better results than humans. IBM’s Watson software will soon cut out half of what doctors and nurses do. Self-driving vehicles will make taxi and train drivers redundant, while factory workers and builders will be a figment of history.
Young people these days, says Drayton, need to be educated and empowered in the ability to adapt and contribute to change. Ashoka has 3,600 ‘Fellows’ in 93 countries around the world — social entrepreneurs Ashoka has carefully selected on account of their new idea, creativity, entrepreneurial quality, social impact and ethical fibre. Ashoka Fellows are life-long members of a global network of peers and are provided a 3-year stipend to grow their ideas and impact. Ashoka elects Fellows in every field and newly emerging fields. The Fellowship enables Ashoka to spot the key patterns, for example, roughly 1,000 of the 3,600 Fellows are focused on putting children and young people in charge.
For example, Ali Raza Khan, an Ashoka Fellow in Pakistan, is an education reformer. In 2015 he challenged 6,000 poor students in 74 charity-run vocational schools to create a successful venture within a month. He went to them and said: “I believe in you. You can all start businesses and you can all succeed.” He helped them organise peer groups and get started sharing ideas, providing modest seed capital to each. A month later and 80 percent of the students had profitable ventures up and running.
Meanwhile French-born Tunisian Ashoka Fellow Sarah Toumi was 11 when she set up her first social business. She heard her three girl cousins were dropping out of school because there was no school bus to take them on a 12km journey. With the support of her father, Toumi set up an organisation to help children in her village have access to learning opportunities in and outside school. Within four years, she had raised enough money for a school bus. Now, aged 29, Toumi leads Acacias for All, a movement to curb desertification in rural Tunisia by planting alternative crops such as acacia trees. Her initial programme with 300 farmers produced a 60 percent increase in income, and she is now expanding the scheme to half of Tunisia’s provinces.
Toumi’s early experience as a changemaker was critical to where she is today. “When you start early, you learn how to work with others to problem solve,” says Toumi.
“For those who think that their children will become successful simply if they become a doctor or lawyer, they are wrong. Their children will be out of the game,” she adds.
“Young people have the ability to dream without constraints. They are connected, have access to information, can travel and talk to people who are different across continents. What they need is support from the older generation to believe in themselves, do things and try.”