Obama, Ashoka and Social Change
By G. Benjamin Bingham, Social Entrepreneur and Socially Responsible Investor
Four years ago an election was won with two popular slogans: “Change” and “Yes We Can!” Whether or not anyone alone can change the world is a timeless philosophical question. Change is constant like waves that can be surfed or that can pull us down. Whether or not Obama catches the wave this time and proves to be a real social entrepreneur, or change agent, remains to be seen. After reading the new edition of How to Change the World by David Bornstein, I am wondering if the president would have passed through due diligence to become an Ashoka fellow.
Ashoka was founded by Bill Drayton, who was honored at the Social Venture Network’s recent gala along with other celebrity social entrepreneurs. Ashoka was named after the great Indian emperor circa 300BC, who eschewed war and spread peace through Buddhism. Over decades, Drayton developed a set of criteria for spotting game-changing social entrepreneurs in remote places. A McKinsey guy, Drayton was not one to settle for cosmetic change and his team has been singling out and supporting thousands of successful leaders who have brought about systemic and enduring change in many parts of the globe. In the US, the current focus of several Ashoka fellows is to insert the teaching of empathy to children in our school systems. Yes, empathy! So often, this key capacity for cultural stability is not taught at home and is not fostered by digital screens. And it is an essential human capacity that is slipping away from our culture.
For impact investors, Ashoka’s four criteria for choosing fellows could as easily be applied for finding social enterprises that will provide long term and rewarding solutions. The question put simply (in my words) is whether or not the individual (or enterprise):
- Has a creative and unique idea which solves important problems
- In practical ways that will change societal patterns
- For the long haul, while
- Demonstrating the most ethical and trustworthy standards imaginable.
Ashoka Fellows won’t quit. Is Obama this way? We have yet to see. The downward pull of a wave of change is a measure of the powerful and inevitable resistance encountered by the social entrepreneur.. Bornstein hints that the word entrepreneur might be loosely translated as under taker or someone who puts old ideas in the grave while undertaking to overcome the resistance from the demagogues of the status quo. Not an easy combination.
SVN was started by a few visionary “dough nuts” (rich hippies), who wanted to use their wealth to make revolutionary stuff happen. It has attracted a mix of successful social entrepreneurs over the years including Ben and Jerry and Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, as well as the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop. Increasingly there has been a surge of new members representing youth and people of color who are adding richness and capacity to this cultural phenomenon. President Obama certainly would have been welcome at the Social Venture Network’s recent 25th anniversary conference, but, some of SVN’s younger social entrepreneurs might have stolen some of his fire. For example, Tom Szaky of TerraCycle , showed this video as part of his impressive talk. Tom has applied Princetonian cleverness with youthful enthusiasm to reinvent waste streams as product development streams globally. Can this kind of innovation be the legacy of the president’s next four years?
Meanwhile, out of the limelight of obvious celebrity and success, countless heroes and heroines are breaking down the status quo and rebuilding society with new fiber, one stitch of integrity at a time. Read Mariah Fenton Gladis’ story: Tales of a Wounded Healer for example. Mariah has lived for 31 years with ALS (Lou Gehrigs Disease)while working every day using her own form of psychotherapy to help thousands overcome trauma through what she calls “exact moments of healing.” She writes that for her “bitterness is not an option.” Such an idea is game changing.
Or read the article featured in Southwest Airlines’ current Spirit Magazine feature article “The Heart of Darkness” in which Azim Khamisa’s life mission to teach forgiveness in schools began when his college aged son was shot mindlessly by a 15 year old. Yes forgiveness, not revenge!
Such people teaching positivity, compassion, empathy and forgiveness are the Hope of our world and our culture. May this President become the inspiring and principled social entrepreneur first elected four years ago. Business as usual will not cut it. A culture where celebrity and power is achieved through the amassing of wealth without integrity will not stand the test of time. Change, whether inspired or not, is inevitable. The big question is this: are timeless principles guiding the change, or are we going into the forests of the future without a compass? Each of us can only answer for ourselves, but much will depend on this.