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Visionaries: Bill Drayton

Ecologist

1st April 2009

Bill Drayton is a slight, eager man who straddles worlds. He knows his stuff, having graduated from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, and has a theory of everything.

Or at least what counts. It goes as follows: the Industrial Revolution divided the western world in two. Industry leaped ahead, driven by the culture of competition written into its capitalist DNA and the new-found power of the furnaces themselves. Left in the starting blocks, society taxed the new wealth created by business to pay for its roads, hospitals and schools. Because the money was drip-fed in, the social sector had little need for competition and instead allowed itself to become sedate.

There were exceptions. In the late 19th century emerged a number of what Drayton calls social entrepreneurs, individuals who harnessed the self-starting, competitive charge of businessmen to do good. He suggests Florence Nightingale. Robert Owen, founder of the co-operative movement, is another. But they were few and far between.

Drayton decided to change this, and his inspiration was those most fiercely driven beasts of the 1980s corporate world: venture capitalists, Masters of the Universe who would pour money into a small company with big ideas and help it grow in order to reap a profit.

In 1980 Drayton founded Ashoka, named after a third-century Indian leader. With a $50,000 budget, it used the methods of venture capitalism to find, select and invest in social entrepreneurs doing work in schools, medicine or literacy. It was about bringing two worlds together; looking with a businessman’s eyes for investment opportunities, but measuring the success of that investment not in dollars but social return. Today, Ashoka has an annual revenue of approximately $30 million, 160 staff in 25 regional offices across five continents, and supports 2,000 entrepreneurs.

Among them is Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker and economist who developed the concept of microcredit – very small loans given to the very poor. Yunus became an Ashoka ‘fellow’ in 2001. In 2006 he won a Nobel Prize.

By helping others to help, Drayton’s work has a multiplier effect: ‘An entrepreneur ploughs the field and it weakens the idea that change isn’t possible,’ he says. ‘He seeds with some user-friendly idea. The next entrepreneur comes and there is more ploughing, more seeding. Then hundreds.’ Ashoka teaches other lessons from the corporate world, providing funding and a network so fellows who would otherwise work alone and in often hostile circumstances have access to support, ideas and protection. It offers access to experts in marketing and accounts. Managers at its Virginia HQ join the dots, applying solutions that work in one place to another, linking organisations to amplify impact, making them global. Drayton’s social workers are not saints or socialists; they wear sharp suits, and they work hard.

His approach has influenced others, including the Skoll Foundation, established by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll. Drayton believes we are now on the verge of another revolution, which will end the divide between the business and social worlds. ‘It’s a no-brainer,’ he says. Their division was a ‘nonsensical historical accident’ in the first place, and their reintegration is ‘profoundly important for the health of both’.

Ashoka, Grameen Bank, Skoll Foundation, Skoll World Forum

To read more about the other nine visionaries click on their link below:

Introduction (Society), Ann Pettifor (Finance),

Derek Gow (Conservation),Carolyn Steel (Urban design),

William McDonough (Waste), Peter Lipman (Transport),

Polly Higgins (Law), Jimmie Hepburn (Agriculture), 

George Marshall (Energy), Duane Elgin (Consumerism).

 

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