Ashoka's Bill Drayton: Every child needs to be a changemaker

Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka. Photo by: Jennifer Ehidiamen / Devex

Everyone can be a changemaker and it is never too early too start. That is the premise that global non-profit Ashoka says is behind its new LeadYoung initiative, which seeks to inspire people with stories about successful social entrepreneurs and how they started their work at a young age.

Ashoka, founded by Bill Drayton, first introduced the phrase “social entrepreneur,” which has become a common buzzword in the global development community and beyond. The group works with hundreds of Ashoka fellows across the world, who are developing projects that tackle social problems in their communities.

Within five years of launch, about 76 percent of the fellows changed national patterns in their field and 52 percent changed national policy, according to an impact assessment conducted by Corporate Executive Board.

LeadYoung is a repository for stories on how leading entrepreneurs started early and is intended to serve as a road map for others who want to be changemakers. More than half of Ashoka’s 3,000 fellows started a venture or a project in their teens, according to two internal surveys the organization conducted.

The initiative’s website currently features stories like that of Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar; and Jeroo Billimoria, Ashoka’s first fellow, who founded a nonprofit that helps connect street children to safety. The stories are intended to illustrate how someone had an idea, built a team, and overcame different barriers to bring about a profound change in his or her community — thus becoming “changemakers”.

Devex sat down with Drayton to learn more about Ashoka’s new initiative and its role in creating an “everyone can be a changemakers strategic environment”.

LeadYoung is about encouraging young people to start early. Could you share one or two stories of your own experience of when you started early?

Over 80 percent of the Ashoka fellows started something in their teens that we know of. That was true for me, not surprisingly, like everyone else. Once you see the pattern, it is very predictive. … [At school] I loved history and geography because it helped explain how the world worked. I am not built for contact sports; I'm always the crashee, which is particularly not an enjoyable position to be in. So my energy, family background [and] temperament flowed into starting things.

Very early on, I produced a newspaper for my class by hand typing with carbon paper. There were 20 kids in the class and I could only do five carbons by pounding on this machine. Which means I had to do it four to five times. It was not an efficient process. I eventually saved up to buy a mimeograph machine. That allowed me to do much more. And it [the newspaper startup] grew, in terms of the number of pages and the schools [reached]. And it was evident to me that to keep managing it, I had to go to stores and get ads and deal with kids that are not where I lived.

Did you encounter any conflict during that phase of having to combine school and this startup?

When my mother died I found a correspondence between my home and the principal of the school. “Why is our fifth grader not in your school or our home?” Answer from the principal: “This is the right thing for your son to be doing. You have to have confidence and please don't show that you are anxious. That won't help.” Of course I was oblivious of this. When it was time to assemble this newspaper, a whole bunch of fifth graders and sixth graders came into our home to collate them and staple them … So I knew that I could change the world. Once you have had that experience, no one can take from you the fact that you can change the world for the good. That is totally engaging. It makes you really happy. It makes you live longer; you want to do more and you are bringing a whole group of other kids with you. It is just all good.

What are you hoping to achieve with the LeadYoung campaign?

LeadYoung is very simple. It starts with a series of stories … the great entrepreneurs today almost all started in their teens, [including] over 80 percent of the Ashoka fellows. One of my colleagues a couple of months ago did a survey of LinkedIn and found [66 percent of all professionals] said they started something in their teens — [these people are] four times more likely to be a C-level leader … an entrepreneur … a founder or co-founder … That is an underestimate. We've seen the pattern over and over again. We know one part of the story is looking at the stories that are really significant changemakers today.

In a world where value comes from contributing change and does not come from repetition, anyone who is not a changemakers is out of the game. And that is the new dividing line in the society. Are you a changemakers or not? If you are, you are in the game and everyone wants you and if aren't it doesn't matter what skill you have, you are out of the game. And you are going to be marginalized.

What skills do changemakers need?

You need the fundamental skill of cognitive empathy. You can't do sophisticated teamwork, leadership or changemaking itself if you don't have that skill. This is the first generation … where you cannot be a good person if you diligently follow the rules. You used to be able to do that. It doesn't work anymore. Creative change is so fast the rules cover less and less and you would hurt people, you will disrupt groups if you don't have that set of skills. … Our job is to help every single person, every country, city, community see … the new game. It is a game about contributing to change. We have to make sure everyone we care about has those skills.

How has it worked so far?

One of the recent stories that I enjoy is of Sarah from Tunisia. Her family went to France, but she was spending a lot of time in Tunisia with her family there. And what she saw at 11 was that the girls in her village were giving up on going to school because they had to walk 12 kilometers and it wasn't safe. So she set to work to fix that … and a couple of years later she did. In her early teens, she had the experience of changing her world, and it is not a big mystery that she is an Ashoka fellow today. She is [currently] doing something profound about climate change in North Africa. She has developed a tree planting and associated activity that increases rural agricultural incomes by about 60 percent. So dealing with climate change is not something you deal with because you have to. This is a big win for everybody. She gave herself permission to see the problem. She has seen a problem, she figured it out and solved it. She figured out how to build teams of people, get them working together, and get them to share her vision. Of course, she can do this. If you don't know you are a changemakers, one of the things that you don't want to do is see a problem or see an opportunity. One of the first tests of entrepreneurs is that they see problems and they turn them into opportunities because they are not afraid of them. Please give me a problem, and I will go and solve it.

For stories like Sarah’s and others on the LeadYoung campaign, how does it fit into the broader Ashoka changemaking program?

Their stories are the beginning. We have to start by having a certain number of stories that are very valuable in themselves. This is an example of how these stories are going to have a much bigger impact: There are about 3,600 Ashoka fellows. Over half have changed national policy in five years, three-quarters the pattern in their field at the national level. So they are very powerful.  A thousand of them are focused on kids. And 95 percent of them put kids in charge. … That is a very strong indicator of where the future needs to go.

So that is like creating a changemakers effect?

If everyone has to be a changemakers they better be practicing it in their teens. And as with the normal biological flow that is the time you need to do this. It is way too hard for an adult — it is possible but it is dramatically harder to change your self-definition — to develop these very complicated and interconnected skills, to change the nature of your relationship around you, it is really hard … These stories can help our fellows help these kids understand and have clearer ideas on what they can do, understand the paradigm. And ditto parents, teachers and principals. This is just one example.

You once wrote how “education reform discussion has long largely missed the boat.” Can you explain this in detail?

Most of the discussion about education and education reform is in a part of the world where it made sense to give a person a skill, which they will then repeat for life. It doesn't matter if you are a banker or barber. In a world where there is very little change, this made sense.

How often do you hear people say we are going to solve unemployment in the Middle East through Africa or America by giving these people a skill? Well, if this was 300 years ago, it is OK. The fact is that since 1700, the rate of change has been escalating exponentially and the demand for repetition has been going down exponentially. Giving people a skill is a death warrant. Not only because the skill is not going to be demanded, but because you are not focusing on giving people what they need. They have to be a changemaker.

How does this fit into the bigger child development context?

We had a sort of understanding for literacy and written language that was equally radical 150 years ago. But we needed people to read street signs, and now we need people to be changemakers. It is a change in the definition of success and growing up, and the key measure is what proportion of 12 years old or 15 years old now are changemakers. That is like saying in what proportion of 12 years old are literate. So this is a framework change, and LeadYoung is a critical tool in helping people see the framework change. If you want your daughter to be successful, she has to be a changemaker now. Everyone needs to be a changemaker.

Will you be partnering with others to expand this LeadYoung campaign?

Of course. Everyone can use these stories. We can help people figure out how to do so. We would love to get other people's stories. Tell us your story.

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth

About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters ( with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.