Social Entrepreneurship, Ashoka Fellows, and Where I Fit In

By Erika Takeo
Our program is called Global Social Entrepreneurship. So, naturally, I should be thinking a lot about social entrepreneurship. It seems though that the more I learn about social entrepreneurship the less I know about it. This post will hopefully help me organize some of my knowledge and thoughts about SE.

I’ve learned a fair amount about social entrepreneurship in the context of the Ashoka Foundation. The Ashoka Foundation was started in 1980 by Bill Drayton and is a platform to provide social entrepreneurs with resources and networking. For Ashoka, a social entrepreneur is someone who has an innovative idea to solve a social problem with the ability to create systemic change. Social entrepreneurs are very creative people who devote their whole self to making social change a reality (this is where the entrepreneurial quality comes in). There is a quote by Drayton that helped me better understand social entrepreneurs when we were learning about it in our spring seminar. It was again repeated by Tania Jairaj from the Ashoka Foundation who oriented us when we first arrived in Bangalore:

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or to teach how to fish. They will not stop until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

The Ashoka Foundation elects leading social entrepreneurs to become Ashoka Fellows via a rigorous selection process. There are over 350 Ashoka Fellows in India alone. Shanti Raghavan, the founder of EnAble India, is the Ashoka Fellow that I have personally worked most closely with. She started EnAble India in 1999 after witnessing the difficulties her brother (who is visually impaired) had when trying to find employment despite having great qualifications. This was a social problem that she wanted to change. Her innovative idea was to start providing training for persons with disabilities that matched what was needed by the employers.

At EnAble India, candidates (the people with disabilities) are registered and then an analysis is done to see what type of job would best suit the candidate. The candidate then receives the proper training for the job and EnAble helps place them with an employer. Moreover, EnAble visits the employers themselves to come up with “workplace solutions” that will make that company accessible for someone with a disability. A workplace solution could be something as simple as screen reading technology for someone who is visually impaired. Once a disabled person gains employment, EnAble’s job is not complete. They continue with post-placement reviews. EnAble also does trainings with employers to so that workers in the company can understand how to work with a disabled person.

EnAble India trains its candidates very well. When a person with a disability is placed into a company by EnAble India, they become a change agent. This is where Shanti’s ideas begin to create systemic change. Employers see that a disabled person can do excellent work and they then begin to want to hire PWD just because of their skills, not necessarily to fill quotas. This starts a process where disabled people can have more than just employment. They can have economic independence. They can have dignity because they enjoy their work and their work is valued by others. They can have a livelihood. They can begin to teach people that disability is just one part of a larger diversity of human beings.

Talking with Shanti in meetings has been very inspiring for me. She is truly driven by her vision of dignity for all persons with disabilities. She has countless ideas about how to work on these social problems and she is constantly networking and partnering with others to work for social change. Working with Shanti and learning about her path with EnAble India has really shown me the power of someone who is a social entrepreneur. It is great to see that people like her have become Ashoka Fellows. (And, as someone who was brought up with an empowering all-girls high school education, it is great to see that a large number of Ashoka Fellows are women.)

Since I’ve arrived in Bangalore I have been thinking a lot about where I fit in in terms of social entrepreneurship. Not everyone is a social entrepreneur. I do not consider myself to be one. If you have read any of my blog posts you know that I am passionate about working for systemic change. However, I don’t have any innovative ideas to a social problem and I don’t have the entrepreneurial skill set like social entrepreneurs do to create the systemic change. Or at least I don’t have these things right now. So is social entrepreneurship the only way to create systemic change? What can I do in terms of helping to create the systemic change? I reflect on it every day. I don’t have any answers yet, nor do I think I will by the time I leave India. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it.

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