Fellow Selection Process: An Interview with Erin Fornoff

In the lead-up to the latest Ashoka Fellow Selection Panel, now underway in Dublin, Search Lead Erin Fornoff took some time out of her day to talk about her role at Ashoka Ireland. Erin has a talent for getting social entrepreneurs to open up, with a keen eye for potential Fellows and a low tolerance for inauthenticity.
 
Prior to setting her course for Dublin, Erin worked with Ashoka in Washington D.C., stepping away to join the 2008 Obama campaign. After President Obama won, Erin joined Ashoka’s relatively new Ireland office to manage Venture (the countrywide search for the best and brightest new Fellows) across Ireland and for the Scandinavian countries.
 
Erin also works with the CEO and team in the US to recruit senior-level people to run global programmes. As she says with humour, “I find people for jobs that are significantly more qualified than I am.”
 
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What makes you good at scouting the right kind of talent?
 

Practice gives you an eye for these things. In the case of the Scandinavian Director, we interviewed 90 people. I used to be intimidated when interviewing, say, someone who was CEO of an enterprise in 80 countries or assessing someone for a job who could essentially buy and sell me. But if you arrive and they talk down to you or treat you like a little girl, that’s useful information and very telling.
 
I’m sort of “non-threatening,” so people open up to me and say things to me that they wouldn’t say otherwise. I also think as an American here, you can get away with asking questions that maybe Irish people wouldn’t ask.
 
New Fellow candidates are coming to panel this week, what do they go through during the selection process?
 

The Fellowship programme began when the Ashoka CEO and Founder, Bill Drayton, saw a pattern throughout history. He saw shifts beyond geopolitics, war, etc., where an individual came up with a new idea and pushed it forward with the innovation and impatience of an entrepreneur. They ran with it until a whole field was different, like Maria Montessori or Florence Nightingale. He saw this as an actual personality type. If you can find the people with the really creative ideas, give them resources and support, and then get the hell out of their way, you facilitate social change.
 
We find Fellows through a sweep with a nominator network that consists of leaders in the field, existing Fellows and social entrepreneurs, foundations, journalists, and so on. The best nominators are usually other social entrepreneurs because they recognise people doing great, game-changing work. We then delve deeper and discover if the person nominated is the founder of their organisation. The nice thing about being a founder is the flexibility that goes along with that role; you can pivot and adapt and grow your idea however you want. We research if this is truly an original idea, and if this idea is something the founder is really committed to or if it is a side project.
 
We start doing interviews to understand this candidate’s motivation and background. We want to know how they solve problems, and we want to know the scope and complexity of their project. Are they looking at this in an international impact context? Are they creative with strong self-definition? Do they feel that they are the person who can change the world with this idea? Can they answer those kinds of questions clearly? We check references, ask the candidate to fill out an extensive application, document the process thoroughly, and if everything checks out, the candidate goes to panel.

What are some red flags that develop in the interviewing stage?
 

If they are misrepresenting their work and telling you what you want to hear. If they are really motivated by money or being in the press. If there is no interest or curiosity in expanding. They need to think about what is the biggest impact they could possibly have.
 
We would get candidates sometimes who would say, “We had 5 media hits on the BBC, we had an article in the Guardian, and we had this celebrity in favour of our organisation.” I would ask in response, “Okay … but what is the measurable impact? How many refugee families have you reconnected through this online platform?” The answer will be none, but they are getting a lot of traction in the media. That is not important if the idea is not working and actually helping people. That’s an element of the ethical fibre we search for.
 
Can you describe the panel?
 
The panel involves a second opinion reviewer, usually a high-level senior entrepreneur from a different continent who conducts a very intensive 3-hour interview. Often the Fellows find this pretty life changing, as it is rare for someone to sit down and ask you to tell them about your life for 3 hours. Part of what happens is candidates start to see a thread through their life and recognize themselves in a different way.
 
The interview is also about pushing the candidate’s ambition. They will, at the very least, leave with a much bigger sense of what is possible. If the second op goes well, they go to the panel which consists of three or four 1-hour interviews back-to-back by business and social entrepreneurs. All of those people come to a consensus after hours of deliberation and then we send it all to the global board.

Erin Fornoff (fourth from L to R) with the Ashoka Ireland Fellows, ASN Members, and team.

Erin Fornoff (fourth from L to R) with the Ashoka Ireland Fellows, ASN Members, and team.

After interviewing more than 100 fellows, what would you say are some of the traits they share?
 

I’ve worked with Fellows all around the world and whether it’s a Zimbabwean princess, a 9-foot-tall Stockholm professor, or someone working in the River Basin in rural Peru, they have a similar way of approaching problems and breaking down barriers.
 
Fellows share an abiding passion and a gleam in their eye when they talk about their project. They talk about solving a problem in some creative way like it was a fun challenge. That’s how they are. I remember an interview with Ashoka Global Academy member Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for being a leader in micro-credit lending. He described how in Bangladesh, banks wouldn’t lend to people without collateral. When asked how he was able to overcome that issue, he said, “We just changed the law and then we could start the project.” That’s a huge thing to accomplish but you treat it like it’s nothing.
 
What stands out about an Irish Fellow?
 
They are less willing to talk about themselves. That’s true personality-wise for Irish people in general, I think. In the US it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to describe themselves as “a world-class entrepreneur and visionary.” In my experience, an Irish person would rather gnaw off their own arm before they would ever say something like that [laughs].
 
Has there been an experience putting a Fellow to panel that has changed your life in any way?
 

Working with one Fellow, Mark Johnson. I didn’t take him through his interviews but I worked with him to expand his work in Ireland. He is an ex-offender and was a homeless heroin addict in London’s West End. He started this group called User Voice that works to get prisoners’ voice into policy. His programme for finding jobs for ex-offenders uses entrepreneurial avenues because, according to Mark, often if you do not have problems with authority before going to prison, you definitely do by the time you get out. He found it’s better for ex-offenders to be their own boss.
 
I was just blown away by him because he showed such radical compassion and focused on the people who were the hardest to love. He was so deeply empathetic to the most difficult people, with such a sense of humour about it. I found his approach so moving, that I am moved thinking about it even now. I find Fellows endlessly inspiring, and working with them further opens my eyes to the world.

This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.