San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Transforming the World from the Bottom Up

Four environmental activists, one healthcare professional, two education innovators, two agricultural leaders, one indigenous coordinator and an advocate of rights for the disabled comprise the Costa Rican cadre of social entrepreneurs of Ashoka, an organization that’s helping transform the world by finding and promoting social entrepreneurs.

The 30-year-old organization hopes to perfect the art of discovering potential and pinpointing the moment where extra support will generate the greatest return. The group has backed more than 2,000 entrepreneurs worldwide who have fulfilled their dreams and, through their activities, helped fulfill the dreams of thousands of others.

In March, Ashoka Engagement Vice President Lisa Nitze was in Costa Rica to talk about Ashoka’s work, the process of creating a community of entrepreneurs, and the ingredients necessary to make a difference.

As part of the United States government’s Speaker and Specialist Program, she made  appearances at the NationalUniversity,the University of Costa Rica and the San José Palacio Hotel where she shared her organization’s philosophy toward entrepreneurship, her views on the challenges facing change-makers, and ideas to foster positive innovation.

The Tico Times was one stop on her multi-day tour of the country.


TT: Ashoka fellows, like the 11 here in Costa Rica, must go through an extensive vetting process to be selected. Can you talk a little bit about how you choose the people you invest in? Who are your entrepreneurs?

LN: They’re not anyone. Ashoka is looking for people who have a business and market-based model and who are solving a social problem in a systems-changing way. The famous quote of (Ashoka) founder Bill Drayton is, “You don’t want to hand someone a fish. You don’t want to teach them to fish. You want to change the entire fishing industry.” Basically, what we are looking for [are] people who have come up with some brilliant new way to combine society’s resources much more efficiently and (thus) sustainably change society.

It’s not just building a business to solve a social problem, but building a business to solve a social problem in a way in which you are changing whole systems. …We have nominator networks in 70 countries, which are comprised of leaders in government, business, education and the nonprofit sector. They (identify) these people for us and then we go through a vetting methodology, which looks for specific things.


What makes your organization successful in selecting entrepreneurs?

The success rate is based on a methodology for choosing who we invest in. The first  thing we (ask) is, “Are they truly an entrepreneur?” The second thing we look for is, “Do they have a clear understanding of market drivers such that they have a good shot at having their business model be self-sustaining? Do they understand how markets work and where the resources are going to come from?” And the third thing is, “Is it a totally new way of solving the problem? Do we believe that it’s a simple and elegant and brilliant enough solution to solve that problem and that it is likely to be independently replicated in other countries?” Finally, and most importantly, “Do they have impeccable ethics?’” Entrepreneurs see things other people don’t, and they believe they can create something that nobody knows can be created. They have to convince a lot of people to get the support they need to accomplish what they have to. If they aren’t fundamentally trustworthy and believable, they won’t be successful. We use that very, very simple, but important set of criteria.


Ashoka works with entrepreneurs at a very specific stage in the development of their business plan. Can you talk about where your organization comes into the process?

Ashoka is very focused on a particular point, which is once there is proof of concept. Our fellows are very often professionals who have day jobs, who have become passionate about something they want to create, but they need to keep their full time job. They work to create it in the middle of the night and on the weekends, at lunch. … We come in at the point that they know where they are going and they know how they are going to get all the resources to make their business model viable. It is at that point we find our fellows and it is at that point that we come in and we support the entrepreneur leaving their job and jumping off into the water.

We give them three years worth of funding for living expenses. We do not – specifically do not – fund the enterprise. The reason for this is because if we fund the enterprise we would be moving them backwards and (away from) sustainability. The enterprise has to be self-sustaining. So we fund the person so that they can focus 150 percent on making this thing successful.

That is the particular point that Ashoka believes has the highest leverage for being able to bring about the maximum amount of positive social change in the world. If we can catch people at that point and pick the right ones and give them what they need, we can make a huge difference.


Once someone is selected as a fellow, what happens next?

We bring together all of the fellows that are working on a certain topic. For example, we bring together those that are working on potable water so that the person in Africa and the person in India and the person in the United States can share their best practices. Therefore, no one is reinventing the wheel. … They will each have different ways of going about what they are doing. We bring them all together and they take pieces of each other’s business models. And all of them come out with better business models.


Why do you think this model has the ability to change the world?

Because we look for sustainable change. If you have sustainable change, added to sustainable change in one place, and you are doing it in other places and then you network it, eventually you are going to take over the whole world with sustainable change. Bill Drayton’s idea was that international aid organizations are not going to change the world permanently, governments aren’t going to do it, religious groups aren’t going to do it, nation states aren’t going to do it, and corporations aren’t going to do it because all of them have their own limitations and their own perspectives. Who’s going to do it? The philosophical approach of Ashoka is that it is going to be entrepreneurs. They will come up with grassroots solutions to fundamental social problems and then network it, creating a stasis point that improves the world.


There’s a school of thought that Latin Americans wait for the government or God to change things, and they don’t take responsibility for change themselves. Have you encountered this barrier?

We have some of our most amazing fellows in Latin America and we have our largest number of fellows in Latin America, second to India. So, no. There are religious barriers; there are cultural barriers; there are superstitions; there are governmental barriers that have people going along with status quos, which is really fundamentally unacceptable if you are trying to have a minimum standard of living for everyone. The trick is that spark. The trick is that catalyst of society. It’s like throwing a pebble in the pond and having a ripple effect. That is what our fellows are and that is what entrepreneurs are. They don’t accept the status quo and they don’t see the barriers as impossible. They just set about changing mindsets.


How is Ashoka working to ensure that fellows have that ripple effect?

We do it by telling the stories of our fellows. I just took five fellows to India to meet with social entrepreneurs there to talk about how they built what they did and what they did and why.


What is your message when you come to places like Costa Rica?

The initiatives to address social problems in society are being outpaced by the problems. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have the resources to solve society’s problems. The problem is that the resources are locked up in silos. They are locked up in government or businesses or universities or international aid organizations or wherever and they aren’t working with each other most of the time. So what we need to do is break down the silos and have collaborative initiatives in which we are leveraging dollars that are spent to solve social problems.

The best people to do that are entrepreneurs, who put together a business-based model and draw from all the sources of resources in society in a sustainable way for a more creative and more efficient means of (solving society’s problems). This is what we call social entrepreneurs and this is what all societies should be supporting … This is how we are going to get the job done with shrinking resources and with significant social need. And that is what Ashoka is working on around the world.


What is the greatest obstacle in getting an entire community to think entrepreneurially?

What we spend a lot of time on is trying to get schools and parents to educate children on the three change-making skills: teamwork, leadership and empathy. If you can’t really get in someone else’s shoes, you aren’t going to figure out how to work with them. If you aren’t good at teamwork, you are going to really have trouble. If you don’t know how to lead … you are not going to be a change-maker. One of the barriers is lack of educational emphasis on these traits.

There is something that is very fundamental for communities in encouraging change: one is role models and the other is children being educated to see themselves as change makers. Communities need to create want to bring about change to see themselves as being able to do it.


What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing women entrepreneurs, especially in Latin America?

Changing mindsets. When it comes to women’s empowerment and women’s equality in many countries around the world, there is a need to change mindsets. Changing mindsets is hard. It’s drawing a different picture and seeing women’s roles, women’s potential, women’s capabilities and women’s responsibilities differently than how they have been seen before. That’s hard for people. I think the biggest challenge is that often women have been seen in a role that did not involve them being part of economic development.


If you had a piece of advice to give to people that were thinking about jumping  into the water and starting a new venture, what would you say to them?

You have to follow your passion and jump. There are lots and lots of good ideas in the world and lots of people who think about them and there are only a few who jump. More people need to feel empowered and feel responsible and to feel competent about following their dreams and doing what they believe in. If you believe in it enough, you will make it become a reality. People need to not allow societal norms and family input to get in their way. If they believe in something strongly enough, they’ll make it happen.


And if they are committed to making that leap, what’s your advice at that point?

Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up because what happens is the other guys do and so you win. I had someone give me that advice once and it was very true. Most people only care so much, and so they are in your way for a while and then they go off on some other project. If you really care and really believe in what you are doing and stick with it, you’ll get there because you care more than the next guy.

Comments are closed.