Social change architect starts young

Being an entrepreneur for the public's good always an option but still elusive in Japan


At first glance, it is hard to guess that such a soft-spoken, refined, slim gentleman with a serene smile is an energetic and charismatic leader who has given financial and mental support to more than 2,000 “social entrepreneurs” around the world. But once Bill Drayton starts talking, you can immediately sense self-confidence and a strong will that lies deep inside him.

Drayton, 66, is the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which calls itself “the world’s first global association that supports (the) world’s leading social entrepreneurs with system-changing solutions that address the world’s most urgent social problems.”

Drayton’s next mission is to establish a branch of Ashoka in Japan, where he says the concept of social entrepreneurship — a combination of social service and business entrepreneurship — is not publicly recognized.

“(The concept) doesn’t exist here. Even though there are people who are social entrepreneurs, they don’t have the category, the framework,” Drayton says. “There’s got to be consciousness. Once you understand who you are, then you can find other people in the category. Knowing what the community is is very important. We’re not there in Japan yet. Once we’re there, the cases become clearer, they become clear to the people themselves.”

Since its foundation in 1980, Ashoka has supported more than 2,700 social entrepreneurs in 70 countries by funding them for the first three years from the start of their projects, and giving them support by introducing them to a network of other social entrepreneurs (“Ashoka fellows”) around the world.

According to Drayton, more than half of the “fellows” have contributed to changing national policy within five years of their startup.

For example, Vera Cordeiro, an Ashoka fellow from Brazil, has introduced efforts to break the vicious cycle of poor children who come into hospitals gravely ill, get cured, go home to the same conditions and soon are hospitalized again.

Her nonprofit organization Child Health began helping the families of these children in 1991 by providing them with vital necessities, including shelter and food. This approach has since been adopted by 24 organizations affiliated with public hospitals in six Brazilian states, and eventually became the policy of the municipal government of the capital of the Minas Gerais region in southeastern Brazil, Drayton said.

Drayton has been a social entrepreneur himself since his early childhood in New York. As an elementary school student he started a newspaper in his school and at age 14 joined a society for equality and organized a boycott of a Woolworth’s store branch that was suspected of discriminating against minorities.

After receiving education in economics, law and management, Drayton started his career as a consultant at McKinsey and Co. in New York, and from 1977 to 1981 served as assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to establishing a new Ashoka branch in Japan and recruiting a branch representative, Drayton aims to create a program here that would support youths aged 12 to 20 who “have strong concern about the society they live in and have concrete ideas for solutions.”

The Ashoka Youth Venture program will screen candidates who have such visions, and will support the ideas and help the youths turn them into specific projects. Similar programs have already been set up in 18 countries, starting with its first program in Washington in 1996.

Drayton adds that what is especially important for young people is knowing that social entrepreneurship is a career option open to them.

In their search for candidates in Japan with fresh ideas, they have already come across two possible candidates from Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture, one of whom is a student from China studying in Japan.

The Chinese-Mongolian student finds it very difficult to live and take on part-time jobs in this country, especially with poor Japanese conversational skills. She came up with an idea to create a Web site for Chinese students and tourists, guiding them to restaurants friendly to people from China. The project is also intended to provide an opportunity to Chinese students here to make money by guiding the tourists.

The candidates have told Drayton that one of the obstacles in realizing their dream is that adults don’t take them seriously. Drayton says support from adults is vital in achieving the dreams of young people.

In his own experience, Drayton said a school principal who took him seriously when he created the student newspaper played an important role in his career. He says his parents were worried he was putting too much emphasis on making the newspaper, but the principal encouraged Drayton to continue. When his mother died later, he found correspondence from the principal asking his parents to believe in their son.

Out of the more than 2,000 Ashoka fellows, 500 focus on education-related programs for youth. Drayton says that what he has learned from these fellows is that the old paradigm — growing up is about learning society’s knowledge and rules — is not enough to be an effective person in society when they become adults.

“Instead, the paradigm has to be, first, that every child and young person has to master the skills that will allow them to be a contributor in a world of change: empathy, teamwork, leadership and change-making,” he said.

“The challenge that we have is: How do we help Japan see that ‘everyone a change maker’ world is coming? It’s already there. If you don’t want to be Detroit, and you want to be the next Silicon Valley, you have to change the paradigm framework. Parents have to encourage that.”

For more information on the Youth Venture Program, contact