BOSTON — Bill Drayton remembers it as his first brush with the dynamics of being an entrepreneur: five years old, standing in his bedroom, selling little items to his parents' dinner guests.
Jump to nearly 50 years later and Mr. Drayton has gone on to amplify entrepreneurship to include a new concept: "social entrepreneurs." He defines them as people just as driven to make social changes in the world as business entrepreneurs who strive to launch new companies.
"Social entrepreneurs are very rare," Drayton says, mentioning historical examples such as Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
"They know their role in life is to change society," he says. "Our purpose is to find the ones who will have a giant impact, leave a scratch on history, and be role models for the field. If all goes well, we will have a relationship with them throughout their careers."
Drayton is the founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, an international organization based in Arlington, Va., that has supported 937 social entrepreneurs in 33 countries - all local people involved in self-started projects ranging from slum improvement to saving girls from prostitution.
The group takes its name from a warrior who conquered India in the 3rd century BC. Shamed and remorseful over causing such bloodshed, Ashoka renounced violence and dedicated his life to public welfare and economic development. In Sanskrit, Ashoka means "absence of sorrow."
At the heart of Ashoka is the process for selecting the fellows. It's a multilevel process involving nominators, researchers, interviewers, visits to work sites, and reviews by professionals from each country. Stipends average three years and range from $2,500 to $20,000 a year.
"When we do life histories of the fellows," says Drayton, "we've discovered that in 70 percent we find a family member who had very strong values. The values could be religious, conservative, or whatever. It didn't matter what, only that someone in the family took values very seriously. Clearly this plays a part in creating a person with a strong conscience for the community."
Successful Ashoka fellows include Magdaleno Rose-Avila, a youth worker in El Salvador who created Homeboys United. His work is an anti-gang effort that uniquely encourages solutions from within gangs in helping members break away from violent lifestyles.
In Brazil, Marilena Lazzarini and Josue Rios founded the Institute for Consumer Defense (IDEC). When the Brazilian government froze bank accounts in l990 and eliminated nearly $14 billion in savings, IDEC sued several banks for restoration of the money and won.
In northern Thailand, Sompop Jantraka started the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities to save young girls from being pulled into prostitution. He established six residential homes enrolling 400 girls who are now counseled, trained, and operate a student-run restaurant.
Drayton's fascination with entrepreneurship grew from childhood into a vision hinging on two convictions: that positive social change can come through highly motivated people anywhere, and that a collegial organization, supporting the uniqueness of social entrepreneurs, can help them achieve their goals.
The point? "Change the world," Drayton says. "My first stirring in setting something up for change was in putting out an elementary school newspaper. It was just wonderful. We got advertisements for 60 pages, and working with kids from other schools was really important to me."
Throughout his days at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., Drayton launched initiatives that involved students in politics and cultural issues.
And slowly over the years he and friends worked at establishing a fellowship of social innovators. While Drayton worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s, and at the international consulting firm of McKinsey & Company later, he and his friends traveled to countries seeking people who had reputations for social advocacy at the local level.
"We compiled all the names and backgrounds, and people began volunteering to help further," says Drayton.
Drayton knocked on the doors of foundations and corporations asking for support, but the concept of a global fellowship of social entrepreneurs failed to ignite interest. The Ashoka plan of small amounts of money over a long period was foreign to traditional foundation approaches.
Brian Vogt, the Asia desk officer at Ashoka, says, "Bill is a person who will not rest until his dream is realized. He's sure of his vision, and that's what he looks for in the fellows, too."
In 1984 the money drought ended when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Drayton $200,000 over five years. He quit his job at McKinsey and went on to raise millions of dollars over a decade in establishing Ashoka's operations.
Now with a worldwide staff of 89, Ashoka has offices in more than 33 countries with a budget of $6.9 million, derived mostly from US and international foundations.
"The MacArthur award gave us a certification of respectability," says Drayton, "and made it a little less frightening for other foundations to step up. It's important now to let the concept out that being a social entrepreneur can be a career."
One criticism of Ashoka came early on from countries suggesting the group focused too much on individuals. "This came in part because we are Americans, and always are suspect in favor of individuals," says Drayton. "So we amplified the process to make sure everybody knew the work has a beneficial impact on large numbers."
Former US Sen. Bill Bradley says Ashoka is "sparking social change in the regions of the world where it is most critical, and for the people most in need."
Louis Harris, founder of the Harris poll, applauds Ashoka's efforts for finding and supporting individuals with vision. "I back Ashoka," he has said of Drayton's work, "because it backs the courageous few, and it does so when they're taking their biggest risk."
Drayton sees Ashoka's success as coming at a critical time. "The last two decades have seen the emergence of a competitive citizen sector," he says, "a rapid multiplication of the number, size, and skill level of citizen organizations. It's as important as the emergence of the competitive business sector many centuries ago."