Founded by former McKinsey director Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs around the world in creating sustainable solutions to some of society's most pressing problems. The entrepreneurs, who become Ashoka Fellows, receive a mix of professional and financial support for their projects.
"Social entrepreneurs are men and women with solutions to some of the world's most critical social problems", explains Ashoka Ireland director Serena Mizzoni. "Rather than leaving societal needs for the government or business sectors alone to address, social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions which deliver extraordinary results and improve the lives of millions of people through their own drive and initiative."
The first Ashoka Fellows were elected in India in 1981 and today Ashoka includes more than 3,000 fellows in 82 countries – 14 of them from Ireland.
"Our mission is to find the most promising, high potential social entrepreneurs, and support them in their vision to transform society at a national and international level", Mizzoni adds. "Our Irish fellows have business models that are globally unique and a high impact. They are working on areas which range from empowering older people and people with disabilities, treating malnutrition in Africa, providing global free education, to building mass movements of food growers".
Becoming an Ashoka fellow involves more than just having a good idea, however. There is quite a rigorous appraisal process to get through first. “Our fellows have to prove that they are willing to work on their idea full-time to scale it up, preferably internationally”, she points out. “We take a very business minded approach to the ideas and their prospects for success.”
Once the fellows come through the selection process they are provided with start-up funding – usually in the form of a living wage for the first three years of the project and other funding needed to make the project work. They are also connected with a range of pro bono support services which are provided by Ashoka Ireland partners and members of the Ashoka Support Network.
The network is made up of over 400 business leaders across the world. Network members are business entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, top executives and consultants. There are currently 24 members in Ireland, each with engagement plans that suit their particular skills, interests and availability. “They engage with fellows in personal meetings and serve on advisory boards for strategic decision-making”, Mizzoni says.
One Irish member of the network is Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney. "I got involved because I knew some of the Ashoka Fellows such as Caroline Casey of Kanchi", he says. "I got to know Serena Mizzoni through her and I was very impressed by the passion the organisation has for the contribution the fellows can make. I was also impressed by the way the organisation is able to very effectively connect multiple business leaders to support the fellows."
He has a strong belief in the power of social entrepreneurship. “I think it can make a huge difference to society. Ashoka combines the passion, energy, and enthusiasm of the social entrepreneurs with better business practice and provides resources to help them to succeed.”
Coveney has two involvements with Ashoka. “As part of the support network I make a modest financial contribution and I am available to assist individual social entrepreneurs with advice and assistance from time to time. They often have tremendous enthusiasm but can benefit from some advice in putting a business plan together or on some other aspect of their project and I am happy to sit down with them and talk them through that.
I also sit on the advisory board which is there to support Serena Mizzoni and her team as they take on the business challenges of running Ashoka in areas such as fundraising and supporting the fellows with additional resources such as legal, business or tax advice.”
Venture capitalist and fellow network member Brian Caulfield is another strong believer in the potential of social entrepreneurship. "I have always been interested in the idea of taking an entrepreneurial approach to tackling major social problems", he says. "I believe there is an incredibly good fit between the two. Entrepreneurs tend to think outside the box and in a very disruptive way. With most social problems a solution will not be found by throwing money at them. In some cases no amount of money will fix the problem. That's why the entrepreneurial approach is more likely to succeed. Particularly because in many cases it is a community led approach. Rather than expecting some other body or organisation to fix the problem they look for a solution themselves."
As with all network members Caulfield makes a financial contribution. “Part of my involvement is writing a cheque but I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise that”, he says. “I think about it as an investment in social good rather than profit. I have been extremely lucky in life, I have been able to make money, but no amount of money that you could donate will fix most problems. When I give money I am trying to find ways of leveraging that donation so that it will have a disproportionate impact. I have found two things that can do that – Ashoka and education.”
He gives an example of an Ashoka project he has given direct help to. “One Ashoka fellow came up with the idea of City Mart”, he says. “The concept is that a lot of social problems encountered by cities have actually been solved sometime, somewhere else in a clever and effective way and those solutions could be replicated in other cities. But there is no exchange or market for these solutions. There could be something which has been done in São Paolo which could be done in Dublin but the city government here has no way of accessing it or knowing about it. Equally, they have no way of advertising their problems and asking if anyone else has come up with a solution to them. I took on a role with them like a non-executive chairperson to help develop the project.”
He encourages others to join the network. “I absolutely would recommend people to get involved in the support network but it has to be something that fits in with your personal ethic and outlook. I would also particularly like to see an increase in the number of women involved. I hosted a lunch recently for successful Irish women and I hope that leads to an increase. One thing I have to say is Ashoka is very good at matching the engagements of the people who get involved with their skills and abilities and taking into account their other commitments.”