The words are familiar: venture capital, start-up needs, problem-solving, leverage, entrepreneurs, change makers, path-breakers. But the context in which Bill Drayton uses them to describe the Ashoka Society is not. He uses them to describe the society's search for and support of people working in public-service jobs in developing countries who have good ideas that can bring about social change.
"It's based on a very simple idea that applies in any field, any country, any period," Drayton said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "Change comes because some person sees the next step."
The society, which Drayton chairs and helped found five years ago, currently operates in India and Indonesia. Headquartered in Washington with national offices in New Delhi and Jakarta, it identifies public servants, usually professionals, who have both a good idea for bringing about social change--usually a practical solution to a problem they have dealt with on the job--and the type of personality to make it happen and follow it through.
The society finds them before their ideas have proven successful and gives them money "to liberate their creativity," as Drayton puts it. Translated, that means small grants of $2,500 per year in India and $3,500 in Indonesia are given to fellows for three years to cover their living expenses while they get to work full time on their ideas.
The Ashoka Society is in the business of taking a chance on:
- Vasant Savangikar, who has created a milk substitute for humans and calves by extracting protein from leaves and is now putting together a village-based processing industry.
- Rashida Begum, who has organized widowed, divorced and handicapped rural Bengali women into a self-help education and economic independence organization.
- Vivek and Vidyulatta Pandit, who discovered widespread debt slavery in western India and have devised a way to free people from bondage and rehabilitate them.
- Iwan Nusyriwan in Java, who has started a mushroom-growing and marketing industry that requires almost none of the overcrowded island's land--the mushrooms are floated on wood in rice paddies.
- About 30 such fellows in India and Indonesia, with plans to get the society started in Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria.
Which is what brought Drayton and Kirtee Shah, president of the Ashoka Society in India, to Los Angeles and several other American cities.
A former fellow, Shah is an architect who decided before he got out of school that his was an elitist profession, he said. He got involved in low-income, nonprofit housing, looking to involve communities in the planning and construction of the buildings and the surrounding environment, taking into account drinking water and public facilities.
He now describes housing as an "entry point" for the organization he helped form, one that has developed its own leadership and works together not only on housing, but income-generating activities, with plans next year for a milk cooperative.
With the help of Drayton's friend, Terry McAdam of the Conrad Hilton Foundation, Drayton and Shah met informally with several small groups of would-be supporters in Los Angeles.
The society accepts no government funds and has supported itself with donations from individuals and a few foundations. In addition to looking for more corporate or private foundation money, Drayton, always looking for innovation, is talking about one-on-one contributions to support fellows for three years, endowments of about $30,000 that would do the same thing, and support groups of successful immigrants to sponsor a fellow in their country of origin. He has also interested returned Peace Corps volunteers. Costs will be going up if they expand, not just because of growing numbers of fellows, but due to higher costs of living in Latin America and Nigeria.
"We've spent five years developing. We're still learning how to do it, but we've got a good track record. Now we need to build up a citizens' base (of support) here," Drayton said.
"Entrepreneurs have a missionary vision of what the world should be like. There's that drive," he said. "Once you start acting on an idea, that is also the moment that you start institution building. If you are really able to see problems in a larger context, you really are becoming a societal leader."
No Type A Go-Getter
In talking about entrepreneurs he is talking about himself, although he is, at first glance, the antithesis of the stereotypical Type A go-getter. Slight, mild-mannered, soft-spoken to the point of a whisper, he fits the stereotype of a bureaucrat, which is what he was.
A former assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for policy, budget, management and audit from 1977 to 1981, he currently chairs the society.