Awakin Calls » Bill Drayton

Bill Drayton: Visionary social impact leader, social entrepreneur
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Aug 1, 2020: Ashoka's Legacy: Everyone a Changemaker


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Read: Summary By Preeta Bansal  


“Once young people see themselves as changemakers, the world will be on a very different path—a path that is limitlessly hopeful.” -- Bill Drayton

Considered one of America’s leading pioneers in the field of citizen-led service for humanity on a global scale, Bill Drayton is the behind-the-scenes lever of social entrepreneurship, having coined the term himself in 1972. The rise of social entrepreneurship reflects a growing sense that many of the most promising solutions to global problems don’t necessarily depend on action by large institutions, government aid, or foundation grants. They come from individuals at the grassroots level willing to bring entrepreneurial thinking to bear on some of our toughest social problems.  Social entrepreneurs are "pragmatic visionaries" that share many characteristics of successful business entrepreneurs but seek social impact, not business profit.

Today, Drayton is the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a world-famous organization he created in 1980 to help support, connect, and build up social entrepreneurs and their ideas. Many of the most innovative and successful social entrepreneurs of our time have received grants, fellowships, peer and other support through Ashoka. Ashoka is now active in more than 90 countries and supports the work of over 3,600 Fellows – assisting social entrepreneurs from the start-up phase onward as the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs.

By funding and supporting the work of social entrepreneurs around the world, Drayton has impacted issues ranging from human rights abuses to climate change to poverty.  Drayton’s vision of social entrepreneurship received global recognition when Ashoka fellow Mohammed Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for launching microfinance through Grameen Bank as an essential tool to support the small businesses started by the world’s poor.

The seed of social entrepreneurship was planted on Drayton’s trip to India in 1963 when, as a 20-year-old student on summer break from Harvard, he drove (along with 3 other students) a red-and-white Volkswagen van from Munich to India to meet Vinoba Bhave, widely considered the spiritual successor to Gandhi and founder of the Land Gift Movement. Vinoba had traveled around India asking for, receiving, and redistributing land given by farmers to those of lower castes. The efficacy of Bhave’s journey was astounding – successfully  delegating and redistributing 7 million acres of land in India to aspiring landowners, and creating one of the most successful voluntary transfers of land in the world's history. 

Drayton was inspired by what he saw as a display of social entrepreneurship – what he perceived to be sharp business sense combined with a commitment to social betterment. He advocates for the increasing awareness of motivation rooted from deep within to serve the whole, the sum, through equitable and sustainable solutions. He speaks out against indoctrination that leads to the repetition of static problems that plague our world. Drayton emphasizes that the transformation of a changemaker is the transformation of a human to a giver – and “we all know that being a giver means a longer life, a healthier life, and a happier life.”

Public service and strong values run through the history of the families of both of Drayton’s parents, including several of the earliest anti-slavery abolitionist and women's leaders in the U.S. Born in New York City, Drayton attended high school at Phillips Academy, where he established the Asia Society, which soon became the school's most popular student organization. He attended Harvard where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965, where he created the Ashoka Table, bringing in prominent government, union, and church leaders for off-the-record dinners at which students could ask "how things really worked". Drayton entered Balliol College, Oxford and received a Master of Arts degree in 1967. He then completed Yale Law School, where he founded Yale Legislative Services, which, at its peak, involved a third of the law school's student body.

After working at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant for almost ten years, he taught at Stanford Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. From 1977 to 1981, while serving the Carter Administration as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, he launched emissions trading (the basis of Kyoto) among other reforms. He launched Ashoka in 1981, using the stipend received when elected a MacArthur Fellow in 1984 to devote himself fully to Ashoka. Bill is Ashoka’s Chair and Chief Executive Officer. He is also chair of three other organizations; Youth Venture, Community Greens, and Get America Working!

Bill has won numerous awards and honors throughout his career. In 2005, he was selected one of America’s Best Leaders by US News & World Report and Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. Other awards include the Yale Law School’s highest alumni honor, the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award International; and the National Academy of Public Administration National Public Service Award.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2008, Drayton was named one of Utne Reader magazine's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World".

Driving Drayton is the desire to help ordinary citizens and individuals realize their potentials as changemakers.  Noting that old hierarchical systems are dying, Drayton wants us to adapt and "move into the new reality of an everything-changing world where everyone has to be a changemaker to be able to contribute. This is the underlying reality."

Join us in conversation with this world-transforming visionary and changemaker!

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