Change Agent

William Drayton promotes socially conscious entrepreneurs

With degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, and a post at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Carter era, William Drayton '65 had the world in his palm. Rather than follow any one of those roads, however, he built his own multinational highway to uncharted lands. He incorporated pieces of all he had learned through these "apprenticeships" to become what he is today: a social entrepreneur in charge of a network of like-minded people "doing good" across the globe. His nonprofit organization, based in Virginia, is called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public.

William Drayton
William Drayton thrives on "knockout ideas."
Photograph by Steven Rubin

Akin to a venture-capital firm (minus the monetary profits to investors), Ashoka funnels private donations from individuals and foundations to "Ashoka Fellows." Ashoka has named 1,200 fellows since it began in 1981. They run projects in fields such as education and prison reform, rural development, drug rehabilitation, reproductive rights, technology, and AIDS treatments throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, central Europe and, most recently, the United States.

The fellows are people who have passed Drayton's "knockout idea" test--something completely original that could have systemic impact--and who possess personal "entrepreneurial" qualities such as passion, drive, creativity, and integrity. "A social entrepreneur can be defined as someone who cannot be a happy person until they have changed the whole society," Drayton says. "A changemaker." About 10 percent of the people recommended for fellowships are accepted--roughly 150 people annually--and to those Ashoka provides three years' worth of living expenses and professional expertise. Drayton's epiphany was that with a small investment (the organization's entire budget was $12.5 million last year) and carefully selected projects, it is possible to make significant changes in social structures. "There is tremendous demand for work to be done, and so few social entrepreneurs," he adds. "There are huge opportunities."

Drayton likes to say that "social entrepreneurs are born, not created," and this may be especially true for him. His sentences ring with youthful idealism and he claims not to have changed much since elementary school. "I loved history and geography and rather detested Latin and mathematics--all those things you had to memorize," he says. "But anything that explained how the world worked was totally a different matter. I was fascinated by that." He was influenced by the civil-rights movement in high school, and by Gandhi's impact on it. That, coupled with his early interest in India, led Drayton to travel there in 1963 to study Indian nationalism, and to return in 1972 to assess the impact of the green revolution on rural communities. He named Ashoka (Sanskrit for "the active absence of sorrow") after a third-century b.c. Indian emperor who embraced Buddhism and nonviolence after a particularly violent conquest, and who subsequently became known for his social innovation and benevolence. The company has its origins in a discussion group called the "Ashoka Table" that Drayton founded in the Lowell House dining hall. "We'd invite people in from the real world [a local bishop or the head of the sanitation department] for off-the-record discussions on how things really worked," he says. "We'd ask what they were trying to do and if and how it worked to provide a solution. Those are things entrepreneurs ask."

After college, Drayton studied economics at Oxford and then earned a law degree from Yale. "People told me, 'If you want to work in public life, then you have to do the law,'" he recounts. "It's the last time I did anything that anyone told me I should do." Though he benefited tremendously from his experiences in academia, he says he finds some traditional teaching methods counterproductive--just as he believes young people's natural entrepreneurial spirits are often quashed by their unenlightened elders. "If you don't have self-confidence coming out of your youth, it's hard to get later," he asserts. "You go to law school, where you're fitted into a little box. They tell you the first day, 'We're going to teach you to think like a lawyer.' Well, God help you....Anything we can do to keep the stuffed shirts from killing that early confidence is our social obligation." Youngsters, with whom he comes into contact through an Ashoka offshoot called Youth Venture, have all kinds of new ideas and plans. "You ask them why they can't do it, and they say 'The adults won't let us' or adults tell them to 'Be quiet, stay out of the way.' It's just pathetic that this is how young people are treated," he says, clearly ruffled. "This is precisely the group for whom we should be doing 100 percent the opposite."

After law school, Drayton took a job as a consultant at McKinsey & Company's Manhattan office because "it was an opportunity to see how institutions worked. Like an academic institution, McKinsey did studies. The only thing they cared about was causing real change." (Drayton still has ties to McKinsey: The Center for Social Entrepreneurship in Brazil is a joint project where McKinsey employees work with Ashoka fellows on a pro bono basis.)

Looking at his career choices, Drayton soon divined a pattern. "Law, economics, and management--these are the three interventions used in effecting social change," he says. "These are the tools you go in and hammer away with--other than history. History is the master of them all. If I were not a compulsive entrepreneur, then I would be an historian. I would be completely lost without it." He advises anyone interested in a career in world affairs to study history first. Equally valuable is working for an election campaign, especially for a non-incumbent candidate.

The only component missing was a lesson in how government works. In 1977, he was tapped for what he deems "one of the 20 best jobs around": working as the assistant administrator in charge of policy, budget, and management at the EPA. It was a time of sweeping changes in environmental and public-health policies, he says, over which he exerted a significant amount of control. (When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, Drayton immediately resigned and was soon so disturbed by the new administration's "radically destructive policies toward the EPA" that he helped establish SAVE EPA to provide Congress, the media, and the public with "in-depth reliable information--to put a spotlight on this flank attack," he writes in his twentieth-anniversary class report.)

While at the EPA, Drayton had also begun Ashoka, and in 1981 named the first three fellows. Last year, more than 100 were chosen, and the organization plans to select 100 United States fellows by 2005. (Ashoka is on a constant quest for funds--and original ideas.)

Drayton says there are infinite opportunities out there for socially conscious people with business acumen. To career-seekers, he has some specific advice: "There is a coherence to the way people live, and if you can step back and say, 'What are my values? What are my beliefs? What are my interests? What do I like to do?' then an answer will come." Navigating a career is like looking through a gyroscope, he adds: the influences and surroundings may change, but the direction of the individual, set at an early age, does not move. He speaks sadly of people who are trapped by their professions--a lawyer he knows who won't leave the job, although he is miserable, because of all the time he has invested in getting there. "People torture themselves," he says. "Certainly anyone who has been to Harvard can come up with their own path, if they just give themselves permission."

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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