Bill Drayton – Empathy and Collaborative Entrepeneurship

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Ashoka‘s Founder and CEO Bill Drayton recently spoke to Dowser about a new approach to problem solving – collaborative entrepreneurship.

By pooling together hundreds of entrepreneurs (and their passion, innovation, and zeal) who are working on issues pertaining to young people and children, Drayton hopes to give rise to a more empathetic generation, one that understands that we’re part of a team, not a hierarchy of institutions.  For Drayton, empathy is at the root of social change, a value that will enable everyone to become a changemaker.

Here are snippets of the interview.  For the full interview, please listen to our conversation with Bill Drayton.

Dowser: Recently, Ashoka launched a new initiative focusing on empathy.  Can you summarize what it’s about?
Drayton: The rate of change is increasing exponentially in the world. It used to be that if you mastered a body of rules, you could apply the rules and be a productive person.  But that doesn’t work anymore.  Rules work less and less.

Rather, every child must master empathy.  And anyone who hasn’t mastered empathy will not be helpful in this new world.

Today, we don’t talk about how many children are empathetic to be able to apply the knowledge that they learn to society.   We measure the success of a teacher/ school on other metrics. But,  there are 700 Ashoka (out of 3,000) fellows that work on young people and children.  We know how to help children grasp empathy – bullying rates come down and stay down when we work on this.  But until we get principals and teachers to understand, little is going to change.

So, the program is using collaborative entrepreneurship  to make sure that this idea is applied in the classroom.

How do we prevent empathy from becoming an empty buzzword?  How can we ensure that this translates into action and be measurable to some extent?
We can measure it to some degree. We’ll get better at measuring empathy as we progress. For instance, Canadians have very good measuring rates of bullying – if you’re bullying then you’re not being very empathetic. Canadian entrepreneur Mary Gordon has been working in this space for years now.   Her work shows us how empathy can be introduced in schools.

Recently, I came across a study that looks at how children respond to anger- can they identify it or not.  The study stated that two-thirds of children in a number of African countries, can’t tell.  So, how does that impact society?  How can we get children to identify such emotions and be more empathetic? After all, little children are the best at non-verbal communication.

And we have to give them the opportunity to be a part of a society.  To be a good person is to be part of society.

Companies also have to make the transition to become a team of teams.  If they’re going to function in a world of change, it’s absolutely essential for them to recruit people with empathy. A lot of people in corporate America are not aware of this.  So, that’s our job. We have to get them to understand this.

The faster things change, the higher skill of empathy people have to have.  You can’t just say you’re going to do it, swallow a magic pill and it happens.  It takes time.  But that’s what we’re striving toward – getting everybody to be a changemaker.

You travel regularly for pleasure and work.  Do you find that some societies tend to be more empathetic than others, due to culture, traditions, history?
That’s a tough question.  But for example, I’ve noticed that people in Indonesia  and Thailand are highly sensitive, not wanting to upset other people.  That’s a traditional value.  So maybe you would say that behavior there would suggest that.

But, America has a huge advantage here.  Look to what we acquired from the UK and Europe who developed democratic societies within their city states.  So, we have that.  But, then we lost it during the reign of empires. De Tocqueville also pointed it out with our associational skills.  But we’ve been losing that.  America is more divided now.  Can we turn it around?  Otherwise, we can slip.

Ashoka is usually identified with entrepreneurs in the developing world.  But Ashoka also has a large number of entrepreneurs in the US. How can they make an impact in these difficult economic times?  Do you see an urge to focus on issues at home?
The level of social entrepreneurship globally, including America, has been going up rapidly in the past 30 years.  In the beginning, we had to invent a phrase (social enterprise) to get people to understand.  But that’s changing.  Even in today’s world, we’re seeing growth in the citizen sector.  We have some great minds coming into this space.

There is tremendous need right now.  And the faster things change, the more they’re out of whack, the more there are opportunities for things to be better.

We’re 4% of the world.  We have a higher proportionate of really good social entrepreneurs.  But they’re also the bridge through whom some of the best social ideas come from because they weave in ideas from the other world.  They see what’s working elsewhere and apply that to their organizations.  And their work is on a large scale.  So, America has a lot to contribute to the world and vice-versa.

There’s so much activity in the social enterprise space with an increasing number of SEs and incubators for SEs.  But what do you think is still lacking in this space? What do we need to work on more?
We have to get everyone to understand the transition from  small elites running everything to having everyone be a changemaker.   Everyone now has to become team of teams. Once they’ll see it, they’ll respond.  It’s going to go quickly.  But it’s really important.

Collaborative entrepreneurship – this is a gigantic breakthrough.  Leading social entrepreneurs from all across the world are working together.  This is amazingly powerful.  Empathy comes out of the work of 700 Ashoka fellows.  Collaborative entrepreneurship – when an issue is ripe, you get a wave of entrepreneurs throughout the world.  We know the area is ripe when so many people are working on one area – for example children/ young people.  So, you can identify patterns and build paradigms.

The field is just learning how to work together.  It’s a gigantic breakthrough.

Collaboration goes hand in hand with technology today.   What has made the greatest impact, in terms of technology, in the social sector?
Technology has played a big part and making it possible for us to build a global team of teams.

If we’re creating a global teams of teams, for instance to address young people, the Web is invaluable.  We can sit in different continents and work together.  We can see one another and getting rapidly better, less expensive.

These are fluid, kaleidoscopic team of teams.  When we had a world dominated by institutions, that didn’t work.

What’s one book that you would recommend for those who are interested in getting into this space or want to set up their own organization/ company?  And what words of wisdom would you impart on them?
Give yourself permission.

Mary Gordon was teaching at a school in Toronto when she began to see aggression in the children.  She gave herself the permission to see that and then change it.  Everyone can be a changemaker. Nothing in the steps to doing so is rocket science.  Anyone who is with us can do this.  But you have to give yourself permission.

And they have to very politely ignore all the people who tell them that they can’t.

As for a book, this may seem biased but David Bornstein’s How to Change the World is still the classic book for the field because in the five years that he worked on it, he truly applied his personal honesty to understand social enterprises.  From that book, you can understand what it is to be an entrepreneur, which is very similar to being a social entrepreneur.  I think it will be a classic for the field in the future as well.


LISTEN – For Complete Interview:



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