Ashoka Founder and CEO Bill Drayton has spent the past 40 years building and nurturing the world’s largest network of leading social entrepreneurs. Here, he explains why anyone – young or old – has the ability to create powerful, lasting change for the good of all.

During a time of political tensions, climate disruptions and rising uncertainties, there has never been a more crucial moment to become a changemaker. After all, the existence of our Earth depends on it.

Coined by Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton in 1980, changemakers are the essential keys to creating a utopian world. “No-one had any idea what a social entrepreneur was, there was no word,” Drayton tells The CEO Magazine. “We had to invent the word ‘changemaker’, which we did in the spring of 1980 sitting in what was then called Bombay [now Mumbai, India].”

Quite simply, a changemaker is anyone who takes creative action to solve a problem for the greater good. Ashoka, which means ‘active absence of sorrow’ in Sanskrit, was founded with this vision at its crux, where its community is driven to form innovative solutions that permanently change existing systems.

With a vision for people to achieve positive change through empathy-based living for the good of all – from equality to environmental sustainability and eradicating poverty – Drayton believes everyone needs to become a changemaker in order to truly thrive.

“Being a changemaker is absolutely critical,” he explains. “When everyone’s a changemaker, we don’t have disadvantaged people. The most modest person and the most disadvantaged person can help someone else be a giver. Everyone can give.

“The world’s leading social entrepreneurs are really important threads of a tapestry – and it’s a very beautiful tapestry. They’re in it for the good of all so they see all, which is a huge advantage, and they’re setting out to make big changes.

“Every social entrepreneur wants to help everyone have the power to give, because that’s what brings health, happiness and longevity. We want every single person to have a good life, but in reality, with everything changing and everything being interconnected, you have to be a changemaker to make it happen.”

The award-winning pioneering social entrepreneur has found leading changemakers in every country, with the highest ratios currently being in India, the US, Indonesia and Brazil.

Through the concept ‘Everyone a Changemaker’, Ashoka and its 3,700 Fellows in 97 countries are driving the global mission to empower everyone with the skills and knowledge they need to create change. Stemming from local communities up to government levels, across businesses and global conglomerates, being a changemaker spans all aspects of society.

And while the term ‘changemaker’ only made it into the dictionary about nine years ago, the concept has been around for centuries. “The Everyone a Changemaker revolution really took off around 320 years ago, and you can see that curve going up exponentially since then,” Drayton says.

“In 1980, which just happens to be when we launched Ashoka, although it’s a 1960s idea, the citizen question of the world’s operations broke free and became extra real and competitive. This is part of that exponential escalation.”

After inventing the term and spearheading the somewhat silent revolution, Drayton says the next step was to get people involved through universities, with the ultimate goal of making social entrepreneurs as respected as physicists or lawyers.

“One of our earliest successes was showing anyone anywhere in the world that becoming a changemaker was a real option, because then people would think it’s cool,” he reveals. “My godmother used to stumble around saying, ‘My godson is kind of a lawyer but not really,’ and now all she says is, ‘Oh, my godson is a social entrepreneur, that’s very good.’

“Everyone a Changemaker completely flows from that. We’re already partially there because this construct is already in everybody’s heads, and you can’t take it out. We’re in the awareness tipping zone right now, and we’re about to hit the change point years.

“This is a structure that’s in everyone’s core interest to have everyone else be powerful because you get the greatest possible personal pleasure, and therefore health, longevity and happiness.”

“We want every single person to have a good life, but in reality, with everything changing and everything being interconnected, you have to be a changemaker to make it happen.”

Simplistically, Everyone a Changemaker seems quite uncomplicated – do good things to create a happy, healthy society. However, creating a world of changemakers faces one huge threat: inequality. With habits engrained for generations, Drayton believes the only way to overcome the inequalities faced is to help everyone become a changemaker.

“A society where everyone is helping everyone else to become a giver, this is completely internally consistent and neutrally reinforcing,” he says. “The world is struggling, but everyone – not just a small elite – everyone gets to express love and respect and action. Everybody. They have the power to give.”

How to become a changemaker

Understand the most important quality

“Conscious empathy-based living for the good of all is key. The number of people, different types and different teams you’re in are constantly changing and morphing – if you don’t have this fundamental ability, no matter how much you try, you’re going to hurt people, you’re going to disrupt groups,” Drayton says.

“That’s what’s happening to a big part of the world at the moment – it’s the new inequality and it’s unethical, it’s terrible, it’s a root cause of the division that’s swept the world in the past seven or eight years.”

Listen to our youth

“As a kid, you know you have what the world wants, and what the world needs now are people who can see an opportunity to change the world,” he explains. “The moment a kid has had her dream realised, whatever it is, she knows she’s a changemaker. She has that superpower – that’s how it all begins.”

Start young

“If your six-year-old daughter hits her four-year-old brother, you have an opportunity to help her master cognitive-based empathy based on the good of all,” he points out. “This takes a lot of learning and practise. You have the opportunity to walk her through four practices in cognitive-based empathy for the good of all.”

Drayton suggests following these four practices:

  • Ask your child to reflect on themselves by saying: “You must have been pretty upset when you did that. How do you think your brother felt when you did that?”
  • Ask the question: “Why do you think he did what he did?”
  • Follow up with: “What do you think we should do now?”
  • Finally, acknowledge any good behaviour by asking the same questions.

“You don’t have to have a PhD, it’s really simple,” he says. “It works, we know it works. If you do that as a parent, you’re learning that too and you’re becoming a changemaker just as much as your six-year-old daughter. That changes the congregation, the company, the union. Because then you have a group of people who have this, they’re as excited as their kids, and they become a group of people who help congregate change as a whole.”

Shift your thinking

“Help your parents or older generations get out of the age trap,” Drayton advises. “You don’t ever say to them, ‘Let me help you with that.’ Instead, you say, ‘Here’s a challenge we need you on.’ When you do that, and you know that you’re doing that, you’ve just become a bigger person, and a happier, healthier person. It’s just completely mutually multiplied. It’s structurally in favour of not lone equality, but everyone growing our abilities.”

Everyone has the power

“Women, younger people, older people and Indigenous people – they’re the four biggest groups of people we disempower systematically,” Drayton explains. “There are lots of others but those four are pretty big. Every single person can help stop that. It’s not just about saying it’s a bad thing. Give people the chance to give and change.”

Spearhead action

“A key part of getting change done is developing what we call jujitsu partners,” he says, referring to entities that have the influence and leverage to drive significant social shifts. “These jujitsu partners are one of our most powerful forces if we’re going to change society’s definition of success and growing up, education unions, universities, schools, general publishers, specialist education publishers and cities or states.”

Through the partnership, Ashoka hopes to have the most powerful organisations – that are ethical and a good cultural fit – aligned towards an Everyone a Changemaker world. This then allows the social entrepreneurs to uncover the next generation of leaders.

“We’re not looking for the division heads [within the partner organisation] – they’re too busy running the existing thing – but the next-generation leaders who are open to and rather like the idea of Everyone a Changemaker. Then we can form a team of five of those people inside the organisation and then connect them,” Drayton says.

“We had a meeting in the Amazon a couple of weeks ago with seven young Ashoka changemakers, three schools, a jujitsu partner, a Fellow we elected 29 years ago and another Fellow elected two years ago, and a syndicate of the people who run the school.  They all share the same purpose – to make sure every kid in the Amazon gets her or his power as a changemaker. That’s what it’s about. I can’t tell you how exciting this meeting was.”

Ashoka’s jutjitsu partner model is currently in action in Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia, as well as building blocks in other countries including Bangladesh and the US. “When you’re in the presence of a young person who has her power, that’s it. That is it. It’s evolution speaking to you,” Drayton enthuses.

Embrace the new era of leadership

“The new leadership, it’s not Henry Ford having a great idea that we’re going to ask 20,000 people to repeat for the next 30 years – that’s gone,” he says. “New leadership can envisage, enable and ensure. It’s a really different game. You can’t do that if you don’t have the first ability.”

Drive change in business

“The governments were historically structured as monopolies – there’s no reason for that,” Drayton suggests. “Monopolies can’t stand competition, so the money came along with a ‘don’t compete, don’t do that’ – and we broke free. It was a revolution.

“The old world where you sit there repeating the same thing, occasionally getting a new contract where you repeat transactions – that’s gone. You have to have this very different way of organising, and you have to have all your people become changemakers. In an ever-changing world, there are people, not changemakers, who are on the way out.”

Question everything

“Think about the organisations you care about. Is your company a place that encourages everyone to be a changemaker instead of being a fluid, open, integrated team of teams? How does it work? Is it still an old stoke-cranked bureaucracy with walls and punishments? You could probably do something about that,” he says. “Change is very contagious.”

Find a solution

“Anyone can see a problem – all they have to do is give themselves permission to find a solution and figure out who they want to bring into their team. They can do it,” Drayton insists. “If you look at the world of the great social entrepreneurs, it is not astrophysics, it’s really simple stuff.”


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