University News

Nonprofit founder talks up innovation

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Diana Wells ’88, president of the global social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka, spoke about the future of business-based ventures for achieving social change before a small crowd in Barus and Holley Wednesday night. Wells outlined Ashoka’s mission and discussed the group’s future in the rapidly growing movement.

The event was sponsored by Brown’s Social Innovation Initiative.

Founded approximately 30 years ago by Bill Drayton — the “father of social entrepreneurship,” according to Wells — Ashoka is a worldwide organization that supports efforts to achieve social change.

“Ashoka came out of the idea that folks working for the social good are as entrepreneurial as their counterparts in business,” Wells said.

About 2,500 innovators selected as Ashoka fellows have worked to effect change on issues including education, health care and the environment in 70 countries.
“The focus is on changing a system,” Wells said. “We are looking for ideas that will have a major social impact.”

Ashoka looks for innovators with ideas that can be spread and reproduced elsewhere, she said. In contrast to the business world, Ashoka does not promote ownership of ideas, Wells said. Rather, the merit of an innovator’s idea is often measured in terms of its ability to be replicated.

Wells said that when she joined Ashoka, the goal of the organization was to “build a profession of social entrepreneurship,” but now it has expanded significantly as many people make careers out of it. The field is receiving more publicity and gaining momentum, and President Obama has promised to start a national social entrepreneurship agency.

Charlie Harding ‘09.5, a member of the executive board of the Brown Social Innovation Initiative, mediated the conversation with Wells. He asked questions about social entrepreneurship and the actions Ashoka is taking to continue and expand it.

Wells emphasized Ashoka’s youth venture, which provides funding and mentoring for children between the ages of about 12 to 15 who have ideas they want to implement at their school or in their community. Ashoka wants to “make sure more young people have access to be able to effect change,” Wells said. She also noted that Ashoka is working with students on college campuses to encourage social entrepreneurship.

Wells is not the only Brown alum involved in Ashoka, and she said she thinks the selection process for Ashoka fellows is very similar to the Brown admissions process.
Just as Brown looks for free-thinking, socially conscious students, Ashoka looks for innovators “whose ideas are born out of cross-disciplinary intersections,” Wells said.

Harding said social entrepreneurship awareness on campus is largely attributable to a Group Independent Study Project he participated in that aimed to promote and increase awareness about the subject.

“We wanted to raise the profile of social entrepreneurship on campus by bringing in an expert,” said event coordinator Dana Teppert ’10, a member of the Social Innovation Initiative executive board and a Herald staff member.