Once we realized that social entrepreneurs were the key to making the world a better place, we decided that the most important thing we could do was identify the best of them and help them excel. Our efforts towards this goal--finding and supporting social entrepreneurs--characterized the first stage of our development, sometimes referred to as Ashoka 1.0.
From the beginning, Ashoka has identified and supported these outstanding individuals with ideas for far-reaching social change by electing them to the Ashoka Fellowship. As defined by Ashoka, the social entrepreneur has the same makeup as a business entrepreneur—in attitude, vision, bias for action, and skills—but the social entrepreneur seeks to better the world in a specific way. “Social entrepreneurs, for some reason deep in their personality, know from the time they are little that they are in this world to change it in a fundamental way,” Drayton explained.
Bill Drayton and Ashoka’s Earliest Years
While Bill was an undergraduate at Harvard, he started the Ashoka Table, a discussion group which invited prominent public leaders for off-the-record dinner conversations with inquisitive young students. At Yale law school, he founded Yale Legislative Services, an analytic and drafting service conducted by law students and provided to legislators who lacked their own staff support. As assistant administrator for planning and management at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Carter Administration, Drayton designed and pushed through an array of market-based approaches to environmental regulation, including the now widely disseminated idea of tradable pollution permits to control greenhouse gas emissions.
The idea of creating a global fellowship of social entrepreneurs had been in Drayton’s mind since his college years. While at the EPA and later as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he began to search actively for nominators and Fellows candidates. Nominators were those who had the knowledge and contacts that could be used to identify the extraordinary individuals whose social ideas Ashoka wanted to encourage and support. The candidates who were ultimately selected as Ashoka Fellows would become part of a global fellowship of their own, a community of social entrepreneurs from all parts of the world.
Before launching this venture, in 1978, Drayton and several supporters visited India, Indonesia, and Venezuela to assess the climate for their enterprise. They interviewed 364 people in a wide range of social fields such as the environment, education, and children’s advocacy. They wanted to ensure that they could develop an independent, systematic approach for identifying high potential candidates, and that they might avoid suspicion that their program was a front for other, clandestine “political” activities. On June 3rd, 1980, the fellowship organization was incorporated in Washington, DC under the name "Society for the International Public Interest." The board of directors of the SIPI consisted of 3 people: Bill Drayton, Julien Phillips, and Bill Carter.
The organization's first stated mission was to "encourage and assist development of public interest work in developing countries," including:
- Assist in the design, testing and development of public interest programs in developing countries.
- Disseminate ideas and provide information and advice to public interest groups.
- Assist in funding start-up costs of public interest programs in developing countries.
- Build bridges between public interest groups in different countries and the international community.
The following year, the organization elected its first Fellow. Four years later Bill Drayton was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” award), and began to work full-time on building the organization.