Positive Leadership

Being a changemaker (with Bill Drayton, Ashoka Founder and CEO)

April 20, 2022 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 3 Episode 4
Positive Leadership
Being a changemaker (with Bill Drayton, Ashoka Founder and CEO)
Show Notes Transcript

This week's Positive Leadership Podcast guest is JP has long admired: Bill Drayton, the founder of  Ashoka and widely considered to be the father of #SocialEntrepreneurship.

We can all learn so much from Bill about leading purpose-led individuals and empowering them to turn their ideas into actions that make an impact. 

And we can all be inspired by his deep belief that everyone is a Changemaker – capable of solving the problems that they see in the world around them.

Listen to the full episode now.

VO: Recorded at Microsoft in Paris. This is the Positive Leadership podcast with Jean-Philippe Courtois, Microsoft Executive Vice President and President and the founder of Live for Good. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Hey, Bill, good morning. Can you hear me? 

 Bill Drayton: I can. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: What've you been doing, Bill? Great to see you. 

 Bill Drayton: I have been having a totally wonderful time.

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Great. 

 VO: In the Positive Leadership Podcast, he talks to some of the sharpest minds in business and beyond about their approach to leadership. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: My guest today, Bill Drayton, is a pioneer of social entrepreneurship. In fact, he's credited with inventing the term back in 1972. Eight years later, in 1980, Bill funded an organization called Ashoka. And for the last 40-so years, he's been on the search across the globe for social entrepreneurs with a practical idea to improve the lives of those in their community and to drive creativity to make them work. 

 Bill Drayton: What is the most powerful force in the world? It's always a big pattern change, mindset change idea, but only if it's in the hands of a really great entrepreneur. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Through Ashoka, Bill and his team have provided practical and financial support to over 4,000 changemakers in 95 countries. 

 Bill Drayton: It's a fellowship of, as well as for the second big idea. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: He shared with me his views on the world's most pressing problems, and where Ashoka inspires and enables change making in the public at large. 

 VO: Inspiring and intriguing conversations from around the world. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts to the Positive Leadership Podcast with Jean-Philippe Courtois. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Bill, I'd like to get us started in your childhood. You deeply believe that this is where things could happen and where the minds can open up to the world. So could you share with us a little bit more about the role of your parents? Tell us a little bit about the way you grew up in a way, and where this started in your mind. 

 Bill Drayton: I was very lucky. I had two parents. So they were open to and comfortable with a kid who had that spark. And I also had a principal in elementary school who I later discovered was very helpful. So if I was with you physically, you would quickly detect I am not physically built for contact sports, and I could not imagine why I was being tortured by Latin and math and other such things. So my energy flowed increasingly to starting things, including a newspaper, which I originally hand typed with carbon paper, if anyone remembers what that is. It had to have ads and I had to work with kids in other schools. And so I couldn’t always be where I was supposed to be. 

 And like most kids you're focused on what you're doing and you're sort of oblivious to other things. And my parents’ correspondence with the principal, I saw this much later. Why is our fifth grader not in your school or our home? Principal to parents. You've got to have confidence in your son. This is the right thing to do. And please don't show you're anxious. So I had that great gift. And once you have it, it is so special. You're helping everyone else in your team get it. You're doing something you believe in, producing this newspaper, for example. And you do it once and you're going to do it again and again and again. And this is what an everything changing world needs. It needs you to be able to have a dream that will solve a real problem, build a team and make it happen. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Pursue it. Yeah. What if we will start Bill in terms both of your caring parents while not showing anxiety will let you cross the street young enough to go and do what you wanted to do to start changing the world. One newspaper at a time or one initiative at a time. I think it's a great… and by the way I had some fantastic examples of the same from [INDISCERNIBLE 00:04:40] Adela, Arianna Huffington and [INDISCERNIBLE 00:04:43] about their childhood in a way their parents’ dedication kind of shaped their minds to go and try to change more of the world, so that talks to me. And I see the same myself I would say as a cofounder of Live for Good as well, where with my daughters, I've got also this exciting relationship where they get engaged. And we, of course, are very meaty discussion about the wine and how we're going to make some of that. I would like to continue, Bill, about the kind of your career start. You started, if I’m not mistaken, very well-known, respected consulting company, McKinsey, and you worked there for ten years. My question is, would you do the same today if you had to restart everything again? 

 Bill Drayton: Well, first of all, it was just a very, very productive ten years. And I went to law school, not business school and studied economics. And McKinsey didn't hire lawyers. But because of Yale Legislative Services, I think they made an exception. And they were very, very… it was a wonderful place to work. So they allowed me to develop a practice area, in effect, in the first five years designing regulatory and tax systems. And let me tell you one story. One of the taxes we designed for New York City was a tar and nicotine tax. And high tar cigarettes got to pay a bigger tax. And that was something that you couldn't hide. Or if you hid it, you'd have a smaller profit margin. And to say that there was a large tobacco company in New York and they didn't like this one little bit. So I was called to a meeting with the mayor and these people did not tell the truth. And so very politely… I was a 20-something junior associate and I made the mistake of putting my name down, Bill Drayton, McKinsey & Company. 

 Well, this tobacco company tried to bring pressure to bear on McKinsey. And I was a little nervous about this, but Marvin Bower, who was the man who really built the firm, he saw this as a threat to his most important word: professionalism. And so McKinsey fired this tobacco company as a client. It was a really big client, and New York City was a really small client, and the partners did not like Cartoons in the Daily News of a slinky consultant taking money from the barrel of time of John Q. Public. But they did the right thing. So McKinsey has loyalty and respect. And then later, I was able to help build that industry strategy because as the rate of change accelerate, you couldn't assume industry anymore. And to prototype that in finance and medical devices. So I had a wonderful time there. Not having been to business school I got to work with some really interesting companies. So it was a perfect apprenticeship. The emissions trading started with work we were doing in Connecticut. That later came with me to EPA. So it was fun and important and a very professional and ethical place. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Now, very clearly, I mean, your story resonates so well these days, even more so I’d say Bill. But at the time taking such a decision from the leader of McKinsey to fire the customer because it didn't find the customer ethical was pretty, pretty bold move that I'm sure not many companies would have taken at the time. So I'm glad you could learn through this environment and obviously develop a lot of capabilities. In my case, I started 39 years ago in a startup company, a software company, because a software company actually is a French software company first because I saw that was a nascent industry software that could really empower millions of people in the world to have access to information at their fingertips. And then I joined another startup company at the time, Microsoft, with a few hundred people, which grew up eventually and but in a way, of course, very different journey, Bill, but I can certainly relate to the deep learning you've had in your case with McKinsey and what I've learned myself, with startups and then with a growing cooperation, I would say globally. No, I like actually, Bill, for you to really tell listeners what triggered the need for creating Ashoka? Where did it start in your mind, in your heart or in your guts? Where did this get started and why? 

 Bill Drayton: Well back again in elementary school I loved history and geography, and I discovered that Asia was two out of three great historical cultures and two out of three people, hmm, pretty important. And so I dreamt about getting to India and I eventually got three friends and we got a Volkswagen Microbus from Munich and drove to India. And because I'd been involved in civil rights here, Bayard Rustin, who was a very key Quaker leader of the movement, had spent time in India, knew some of the key [PH 00:11:09] Gandhians so he introduced us. And it was just an extraordinary time. India, as you know, people love to talk. They're very warm and welcoming. 

 So all the statistics became people you knew, and 100 to 1 difference in per capita income. What? No. You have to do something about it. But sophomores control nothing. And therefore, the question was, well, okay, we want to change this. Well, we better find something that's pretty high leverage. That's where the Ashoka idea comes from. There's a whole series of institutions to support business entrepreneurs. But at that point, and even 15 years later when we started Ashoka because was the timing was right, there was no word for social entrepreneur, not even a word to describe it. But we thought we could actually help some of the social entrepreneurs that we could see starting in India. Very low cost and really powerful. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Yeah, really fascinating to hear about your journey in India because you've been, I think one of the first ones to get that inspirational journey across India. I know many social entrepreneurs from the U.S., Europe, I have followed your past over the last 20 years to truly study, understand what kind of societal frugal innovation can be coming out of India that could actually also be extended to the world. And I think that that was a wonderful moment for you, obviously, to ignite the creation of Ashoka. So now, as you said at the time in the eighties, honestly, to add the world social, particularly, I would say in my home country, I think the same in the US. I've been working of course with an American company for decades now. This is a term that is somehow loaded, right, with entrepreneurial. So can you define for a broad audience, because not anyone knows, actually, what is it that you call a social entrepreneur? How do you define that species on the planet? And who is that person? 

 Bill Drayton: Well, I'll start with the word entrepreneur. That means changing the system. It's not direct service. We need teachers in classrooms, we need someone running the local restaurant. That's not what we're talking about. But it's Microsoft changing the world. Bill Gates is a really major entrepreneur. Nig idea in the hands of an entrepreneur. Now a social entrepreneur, the word social means that the human being, the entrepreneur is from deep within, driven to serve the good of all. And that is profoundly different. It's also an advantage because if you're there to serve the good of all, you're looking at the impacts on all. And that is a real advantage. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Yes. I love the way you frame actually the definition of what it is. And I like to get your wisdom shared as well. What does it take and how do you get there as a social entrepreneur? In other words you don't necessarily… you’re not necessarily born as a social entrepreneur, but somehow you finding yourself, as you said, the passion and then you want to address that issue, that challenge, and you go after it. So I like you in a way to illustrate with some examples some of the people, the fellows you have in Ashoka who are, for you, the role models of social entrepreneurs. 

 Bill Drayton: I can first of all, say to the people who are with us, the first thing is, please give yourself permission. It's not hard to see a problem you care about. They're all around. And if you look at the work of the great entrepreneurs, it's not astrophysics. They're really simple ideas. Those people gave themselves permission. And most of us have been told all our lives, no, you can't. Don't. Dearie, let me help you with that. i.e., you can’t. And that's the first thing. You got to give yourself permission. 

 So let me give you some examples. This is a Bangladeshi example. This is a man who started with nothing. His father had no land. Did labor as a clerk in the village store. You couldn't get much for it. But this man, [PH 00:16:37] Ibrahim Soba, he got through seventh grade. Now, at that point, only 15% of Bangladeshis made it into the fifth grade. And he got a clerk's job in a government agency in Dhaka. And every day when the government closed, he would get on the bus and go out to a rural district. And his purpose was to figure out how all kids could get educated. And he did in multiple different ways that have spread well beyond Bangladesh. 

 I’ll just give you one of several examples. Starting in first grade, the kids make things. So, candles, tree nurseries, chickens, diesel pump set repair, you get older. And his organization, the In School Association had a market brand. And so at the end of each year, the teacher would get a little something and then half of it would go as a dividend with a kid, i.e. a poor family would have savings and they could buy a radio that they never could imagine otherwise. The other half went into a secondary school fund for the kids. This was very clever because the moment you take your kid out of school, you lose all the money that's been accumulating that year. This is very motivating. It doesn't say parents go away, you’re second rate. They get this. And when the rich people in the village have to go to a kid in a poor family and say, please come and fix my diesel pump, this is really good. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: And what did Ashoka did for Ibrahim? 

 Bill Drayton: He's a fellow. So we elected him a fellow, and we provided him a stipend for four years so he could quit his job and work full time on building and launching the In School Association and developing the ideas. And he participated in meetings with other fellows dealing with kids. And so he traveled to what was then called Bombay and across North India, West Bengal. And so his ideas are there. And his ideas traveled to the state of Brasilia. And they described it as the Bangladesh plan. And he learned from other fellows how to develop a different type of curriculum that was sympathetic to kids being in charge. 

 Now we have 1,300 fellows, about a third of the total focused on kids. Ibrahim is, what… 89% put kids in charge. And I'm just giving you one example. Now we see a pattern, and that pattern fits with an everything changing, everything connected world needs. The kids who do this, they have their power. We know all across the world, no matter how disadvantaged the kids, if you put them in charge math scores go up, language scores go up, bullying rates go down. Those are the three things that schools measure. What we really care about, those are important, is kids have given themselves permission and they've started practicing what's really important. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Well, it's a wonderful story. And again, I wish we had such entrepreneurs, ministers of education in many of our countries to truly empower young kids to give themselves, you said, the permission to do more and then bring all the committee together, because that's wonderful in your example is the teachers, the parents, everyone is connected to the same idea of success. And that's fantastic. I don't know if this is a definition of empowerment when you talk about the power building your own way. As a non-obviously English native speaker myself when I tried to translate in parliament in France there's no words. But I love the way you say to give, right? Which I think is so clear about what it's all about. And I like actually to build on your very clear philosophy of changemakers. Recently [INDISCERNIBLE 00:21:50] that you know really well as a fellow at Ashoka in my podcast. And something she said in the podcast is, on my mind, she said, no change can come if you don't have a seat at the table. And that's also, I think, part of, I believe, the team of teams concept you've been talking about. And as I have been learning from you, reading, watching you over the past many years, and you've been talking about the three levels of impact, direct impact, pattern impact, framework change. And then you said, but, you need the teams of teams. And before giving you the thought on team of teams, it reminded me of a book that you may have read called Team of Teams, very different type of character, personality, from former General Stanley McChrystal, who held the position as head of Joint Special Operations Command in Middle East, where he realize that to defeat the enemy, he need to reset completely that incredible military operation into a network that combined, as he called it, robust, centralized communication, a shared consciousness, that were his words. We as a decentralized managing authority and [PH 00:23:04] poor execution. So is that the right definition of team of teams when it comes to changing the world, not defeating the enemy, but going after a number of very positive impacts in the world? 

 Bill Drayton: I'd go even further and say that any organization, business, now has to be, and each one of these words is important. Fluid, open, integrated. Let me give you an example. Over the last seven years, we have learned how to develop what we call jujitsu partners with the most powerful mega forces around the framework changes we're trying to bring. So what are the most powerful forces? Education unions, ed schools, general publishers, specialized publishers, and a carefully selected city or province. So five. And all five of those feed one another. I’m going to give you a very concrete example in a for profit company, Santianna is the world's largest education publisher in Spanish and Portuguese. Well if they just kept producing conventional stuff and somebody else came along at this moment and people are ready to change and they have the materials and Santianna, that's really… that's dangerous. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: It would become irrelevant. Yeah. 

 Bill Drayton: Very quickly. And so we have helped them and they now market materials that are very different for six to 12 year old and for three years of high school. They started selling high school materials in September. In the first month they sold over 50,000 units. They are very happy with this. They've taken it to Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Spain in Spanish. Oh, well that makes it pretty easy for [PH 00:25:26] Langerin Books, which is the leading English publisher of education materials, West Africa, etc. When you're dealing with the group of people trying to change the Amazon, you've got three ed schools. They send letters to their alumni. That's virtually all teachers. And they can say, well Santianna materials are available and the syndicate supports this. Now, there you are seeing there is a team, the five people. They have to, because it's their core strategy, they drive it down and it becomes the first circle and then the third circle. It's massive. The third circle, those ed schools send those letters out to all their alumni. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: So this is a very powerful example, Bill. And it was great you could really articulate what it takes to build a team of teams of teams and the rippling effects of the first thing on full circle. Now I like to kind of elevate ourselves and abstract from that fantastic proof point you have now in Brazil and expanding, to really reflect on what are, according to you, the core skills needed, the skills need to become a social entrepreneur. And if that's different, the skills need to become a changemaker because I’d like you as well to address the difference between the two if there's any in terms of the skills. 

 Bill Drayton: Well every great social entrepreneur is also a changemaker, because every time you turn around, things have to change. And great entrepreneurs start in their teens. Well when you're starting your virtual radio station and it's pretty thrilling that you have 500 people listening. That isn't actually changing a pattern, but it is change making. And out of that comes bigger change and greater skill and more confidence, i.e., people who, from the time they were 12 and 14, have given themselves permission and they stop listening to people telling them they can't. And, well, that's where, not surprisingly, the great entrepreneurs have always come from. And all we're saying now is that we're at a point everybody has to have those skills to be able to give, everybody. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: That's a great, not just advice, but strong encouragement, inspiration, I think, for all of us. Let me shift gears, Bill, and talk about one of the biggest challenges I think we will all have to deal with, climate change, obviously. You’ve been, if I'm not mistaken, you've been involved in one point of your career in the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. I’d love to ask you the question if you are today in charge of the similar administration, as I think the current administration is laying out a plan to try to do something about climate change in the US and you see the same globally, by the way, it's not just about the US. What would you do today if you were leading that initiative? 

 Bill Drayton: Well, there are two dimensions of response. One is specific solutions and we need them. But their half-life is very short and getting shorter. And so do we have the right decision making architecture? And is it a self-correcting decision making architecture? And so for every human environment interface you have increasing levels of human density and economic density per person. But the sinks, the amount of air, land, water, the body's ability to absorb doesn't change. So you're driven up a cost curve unless you increase the rate of innovation in production, processes and control systems. And that's what emissions trading is designed to do. It gives every plant engineer an incentive to find a different way of producing whatever they're producing. 
  That's an example of changing the decision making architecture. Here's a case of need. Work in the environment almost always starts with and is defined by research. Once we demonstrate to you that  triethyl chicken fats makes your nose fall off, then the public says, we don't want any of that around. And that's why research by some people is considered to be a “regulatory threat”. 

 Now, what are the incentives for research? So business has a tendency, maybe not Microsoft, but a tendency to focus research on specific products in the short term. Government research tends to respond to political groups. And new things don't exist. They don't have a political group, whereas the dying industries are screaming and they're highly organized. Well, if those are 95% of research resources, we have a structural problem in society's decision making. How can we change that? So where we are focused is on how do we change the self-correcting decision making architecture. There are lots of fellows working on individual problems, but you can see the connection. So there's an Indonesian fellow who said, look, here are these poor people who are cutting trees illegally and they have to do that to survive. That's reality. Now he has turned them into sustainable foresters. Everyone wins. And the Indonesian Government has now given as a first step over 5 million acres to these sustainable foresters. That is aligning the interests of the people who live in the forests with the future of the forest. 

 And that's, again, part of the decision making architecture. Who gets to play? So I can give you many examples of the work all of us are doing. It's not the specific solutions, it's the architecture. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Very clear, Bill, thanks, in terms of the clarity and decision architecture. Now I'd like to end our discussion, Bill, on what I think is, in a way, driving again, older generation social entrepreneurs, positive impact entrepreneurs, leaders, which is what has been called passive leadership. And particularly when I think about positive leadership, I think typically about the three circles, the impact we can have. Number one, the first circle is myself, oneself to make sure we take care of ourselves, to make sure we build self-awareness, self-confidence and then empathy eventually in all those cognitive services to make sense and have a positive image of yourself. Then the second circle, which you talked a lot about, myself and others, so invite others with that positive energy, communication to do most together. And then the third one, which is myself and the world where, wow, I can connect my myself, my mission with that bigger mission in the world, whether it is deforestation or something else. And I’d like to finish asking you about the way you stay yourself positive. How do you work on that? How do you stay positive? Do you see also all these fellows basically embracing the positivity to connect it to the world so that they can change the world?

 Bill Drayton: Well, I think it would be impossible to be an unhappy person if your community is the world's best social, committed to the good of all entrepreneurs. And this is magical. So I can't imagine anyone who has the fortune to be in this community not being very satisfied. The other thing I'd say is every single human being wants to, needs to help others, and that, when you do that, that is what brings health, happiness, longevity. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: I love it, Bill. Love it as a conclusion, if I may. What I feel myself whenever I have the opportunity and I'm trying to give myself the permission to have more opportunities to spend time with those changemakers and trying to express that power to give. And it is so powerful and so fulfilling in return. So I would echo what you said. Be a giver in any way, shape or form. Your family, social circles, company, business unit, whatever it is, I think is so powerful in terms of that positivity in yourself that can really drive the change. So with that, I like to really thank you deeply, Bill, for the time you spend with us. And I think you got a lot more changemakers now on their way as they listen to your podcast. And I really look forward, of course, to do more things with you, Bill and Ashoka, which is a wonderful change.

 NARRATOR: To hear more inspiring conversations with innovative global leaders, subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts to the Positive Leadership Podcast with Jean-Philippe Courtois. 

 Jean-Philippe Courtois: Thank you so much, Bill, and take care. 

 Bill Drayton: Well, thank you. And thanks to everyone who's been with us.