Ending on a Starting Note
Wednesday was my last day at Ashoka, marking the end of what was a most unique and exciting journey. In just 8 weeks I had become educated about a new city, a new organization and a new way of thinking that is so particularly (for lack of a better term) Ashokan.
Most importantly, after so many weeks spent on an embryonic project, it was amazing to see the first emergence of limbs. My superiors have just returned from Nairobi, where they ran a summit which marked the official launch of the Entrepreneurial Talent initiative (note the name change form Rural Talent—everything, including the name, has been evolving). On Wednesday, we convened in an empty office to discuss the future of the project, a discussion which ironically served as the closing salvo to my time at Ashoka.
But while it did make me wish I’d be able to stay to see the ongoing development of the program that had changed so much in my brief summer stint, it also got me really excited. To finally see the future—and potential—of this program forming was invigorating. For instance, one fellow’s insight—Jocelyne Kompaore—that in her work she viewed an inherent connection between autonomy and talent, will undoubtedly be useful as the ET team further develops the initiative. Finally, I got a sense of the value it could add, if done right, for the participating fellows, for current and potential partners, and even for rural dwellers beyond our current purview. The online platform will launch in under two weeks (it will be hosted on the Ashoka Changemakers site, if you want to check it out) and I’m excited to see the discussion and collaboration that will be sparked in the coming months, helped along by some pieces I’ve prepared on our participating fellows.
As I left my last meeting, the big-picture perspective Ashoka provides, which had been more clear to me in the other (more mature) initiatives I had encountered there, finally seemed to come into focus in my own project. The idea of mapping the creation and preservation of entrepreneurial talent in rural areas, based on the work of Ashoka’s fellows, and then seeing how that system could be maintained, improved, and spread, finally seemed like a possible and valuable goal. And it felt good to contribute to the mix of ideas, adding my thoughts based on experience living in different East African villages, pointing to varying gender roles and divisions of labor which could prove crucial for the development of the project.
When one leaves a summer internship, it’s always hard to see something you’ve spent so much time thinking about, and so much energy invested in, slip through your fingers. You realize it is not yours—it belongs to an entity, where it will be continuously developed by those who will stay past summer’s end. But hopefully—and I’ll admit my fingers are slightly crossed at this statement—my work and my insight were able to provide some small fraction of help to this big-thinking project. And of course, I hope the big thinking leads to some even bigger results. (For now, I’m still ghost writing for the Ashoka Rural Innovations and Farming Facebook and Twitter—feel free to give them a “like” to learn more about innovations in the rural sector, and what Ashoka is thinking/doing! I also built the Facebook page—any and all feedback is welcome!)
Finally—immeasurable thanks go out to the Show Me Campaign for allowing me to have such an eye-opening summer experience. Organizations like SMC are what allow our generation to fully pursue their passions for positive change and maximum impact.
More than a Feeling
The “Brown-Bag Lunch” is one of the many perks of working at Ashoka. Not merely a chance to chow down with your do-gooder co-workers, Brown-Bags are often organized around the arrival of an esteemed Ashoka fellow to the global (DC) office. Recently, Ashokans got a particularly special treat—a conversation with fellow and Dialogue in the Dark founder Andreas Heinecke.
Andreas’s enterprise (which now has franchises all over the world) invites people to experience complete darkness as a blind guide leads them through different “real life” situations, encouraging empathy in a particularly stark way. Hearing from Andreas was particularly meaningful for me, as I had taken part in Diagoue in the Dark while living in Israel before I began college. In a long year of religious study and reflection, the trip, scheduled well in advance with a friend (Andreas’s program is quite popular in Israel and requires significant advanced booking), was meant to be an enjoyable one, a step away from the seriousness expected during much of my time in Jerusalem. Yet it turned out to be one of the deepest and most self-reflective experiences I had the entire year.
Reflecting on my own experience with Dialogue in the Dark and contextualizing it within Andreas’s description of its founding—largely influenced by his realization of Nazi atrocities against the Jews—gave me new insight into Ashoka’s work and the value in it. While I spend most of my time at Ashoka working on a program focused on growing rural talent, I am continuously drawn to and intrigued by our new Empathy initiative. To have an entire sector of the organization focused around a feeling was, at first, a bizarre concept to me. Within my first few weeks, one of my most meaningful learning experiences was the realization that Empathy’s mission—to have every child master empathy—actually made an enormous amount of sense. At Princeton, the people I met who are heading toward careers embracing social entrepreneurship, high-impact giving, and other high-level forms of practiced magnanimity have been trained and instilled with empathy. Whether by their parents, a summer experience, or otherwise, they have each realized that pursuing social causes is of utmost importance. Bestowed with intelligence and equipped with passion, they are taking the value of empathy and applying it in the most meaningful ways they can imagine.
Every fellow and employee I’ve come across in my own work at Ashoka has been equipped with this very skill—otherwise they would certainly not be doing what they’re doing. Their work is almost universally low on personal gain, and many are working in environments in which the easiest route would be to take advantage of others to move to the top. However they learned it, their mastery of empathy has allowed them to work toward a future in which previously impoverished populations can thrive.
So, taking a broad look at the work of Andreas, Ashoka, and my fellow co-workers and classmates, the lesson seems clear. In the pursuit of solutions to the world’s most dire problems, brains and drive are only useful tools—mastering empathy may indeed be the first step to a better world.
When I meet people here in D.C. for the first time they, as is customary, ask me what I’m doing for the summer. Here’s how the conversation usually proceeds:
“I work for Ashoka. It’s a non-profit.”
“Oh cool. What does it do?”
“It…[considers giving real answer but decides to go with more succinct one]…supports social entrepreneurship around the world.”
The truth is, describing what Ashoka does—and even describing what I do at Ashoka—is quite a challenge. Ashoka does support social entrepreneurship—they have over 3,000 fellows and counting engaged in it all over the world. And they’ve also started numerous programs which have fostered new ventures in the entrepreneurship field—from large scale citizen/business sector collaborations to a program focused solely on instilling children with empathy (it is, logically enough, called “Empathy”). Thinking even larger, they are hoping to “tip the world”’s practices, moving beyond the individual to systems-wide change that will make the the world a more friendly, profitable and beneficial place even for its most disadvantaged citizens.
These are all centered around one idea: Everyone (can be) a Changemaker.
Overwhelmed yet? I certainly was. Now, I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a cynic. When I walked into the office and started hearing the word “change” an average of five times every minute, my eyes had to train themselves to refrain from rolling. But while working here does require a bit of sipping (err…gulping) from the Kool-Aid, it doesn’t take that long to realize how satisfying—and how right—that Kool-Aid may actually be.
What grounds Ashoka (and makes it make sense), even as it reaches for outer space, is the work of its fellows. All of the new programs and ideas which come out of this organization—and its founder/CEO Bill Drayton—are based on insights gained from its thousands of fellows. Theories of “changemaking” aren’t simply whisked into existence by the power of imagination—they’re based on hard realities, and fostered by some of the brightest minds in the business. (Drayton, who coined the term “social entrepreneurship,” spent years with McKinsey, a top consulting firm).
For instance, the new program I’m working on, called “Rural Talent” is based around the growing need for contextual education and knowledge in rural areas: the necessity of turning farming and its attached occupations into profitable endeavors, and rural regions from brain-drained areas of poverty into thriving homes of enterprise. As we begin amassing fellows and assembling the platform it’s become increasingly clear—this community can (if we do it right) make a real impact, and we don’t know this from a hunch—we know it because its what the fellows are telling us.
Now does this mean I’m sure that everything Ashoka does—and every idea they have to “change systems” and “tip the world”—will come to fruition? I’m not sure. Probably not. But working here, I certainly have gained the confidence that this organization, multifaceted in its work but singular in its purpose, may getting some big—some huge—things right. And more on those to come!
Announcing our 2012 Show Me Campaign Fellows
Congratulations and a warm welcome to our 2012 Show Me Campaign Fellows! Visit the Fellows page to meet these 10 amazing students and learn about the organizations they will be supporting this summer. From Philadelphia to Paraguay, they will be working hard to improve education and alleviate poverty using innovative solutions.
Follow this blog all summer to read about the Fellows’ unique experiences and gain new insights into how YOU can help change the world for the better.
The Show Me Campaign Team