With a four-decade track record of promoting and supporting social entrepreneurship, both for-profit and non-profit organizations can learn a lot from the ventures that the non-profit organization Ashoka has cherished.
With that in mind, Konstanze Frischen and Michael Zakaras, leaders of Ashoka North America, are about to America’s Path Forward, with lessons from 22 Ashoka social entrepreneurs. Both are co-editors of the book, which is published by Georgetown University Press. “It’s not like the whole country is polarized and dysfunctional,” says Frischen. “There are things happening outside of the ideology that work, with really sustainable impact and these stories aren’t being told enough.”
They recently discussed some of the most important lessons from the book.
You talk about the importance of using empathy to shape social entrepreneurial ventures. Why is that so crucial?
Michael Zakaras: People often think that Ashoka entrepreneurs, or peers, have been so successful because of the business plan or an innate talent. But it is that they have the ability to deeply understand a problem, often from people who have lived with that problem themselves. When you really understand who your customers are and what they struggle with, you build a smarter solution.
Constance Frischen: It’s a different view of how development works. Often large development projects that are implemented from the top down don’t work. They don’t match what people think is necessary on the ground.
Zakaras: Real change won’t happen if we just focus on treating symptoms. One of the four criteria for us to select Ashoka Fellows is whether they have a system-changing approach.
Can you tell us more about that approach?
Zakaras: It means that social entrepreneurs are less focused on ‘serving people’ than on changing circumstances. They do it through policy change, by creating new markets, by seeding the work elsewhere. We look at what we call independent replication: how many people take what I do and copy it elsewhere.
Frischen: Our fellows work on changing roles, changing structures, changing mindsets.
Zakaras: Changing mindsets and culture takes real patience. What matters is what you do to introduce a new normal to the world. Are you focused on the underlying causes? Or are you focused on treating symptoms of much deeper issues?
Frischen: It may be in an area where markets have failed. But social entrepreneurs see ways to tap into the resources of the people who live there and create systemic incentives to build something new that works.
One social entrepreneur that seemed to stand out is Brandon Dennison and Coalfield Development in Appalachia. Can you talk a little bit about his approach to seeding businesses?
Zakaras: Brandon’s role Coalfield development is almost like an orchestra conductor as opposed to an engineer of a particular thing. He started with the idea that workforce development in Appalachia doesn’t work. We train people, but there are no jobs. He has a model of 33 hours of paid work, six hours of study, and three hours of professional and personal development, while also incubating local-level businesses, often green ventures. The goal is to create a forward-looking 21st century economy.
Through his new coalition, which just got a huge infusion of federal dollars, he’s working with mayors, social enterprises, corporations, universities, non-profits and saying, how can we reinvent the economy in Appalachia? It’s not about how we launch one solar venture — although they launch many social ventures, including solar ventures, because that’s the opportunity. He says we have the people, minds and infrastructure to pump massive amounts of power out of West Virginia. But this requires collaboration, working on staff development in a different way, helping social enterprises start and succeed.
Frischen: He builds an ecosystem. You don’t do it in isolation. You do that as a municipality.
It’s an example of starting bottom-up, listening to people. He has vocational training. But it’s also about tapping people to the ground in a community-owned way with their ideas of what should be built.
In addition to training, you need smaller seed grants that these companies can use to start. That’s a way to rebuild the infrastructure at a fraction of the cost that a top-down approach would require. There have been so many attempts from above to develop this region and it never works.
Zakaras: To create the right kinds of for-profit economic activities that allow many more people to thrive, there is a critical role for non-profit or community organizations that lay the groundwork for this economic impact.
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