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In the summer of 1963, Bill Drayton witnessed the power of a simple idea to effect vast social change. A Gandhian named Vinoba Bhave was walking across India and persuading individuals and whole villages to legally "gift" their land to him. Bhave then redistributed the land more equitably to support untouchables and other landless people, thus breaking an endless cycle of poverty. Drayton, just 20 years old and on summer break from Harvard, drove a red-and-white Volkswagen van from Munich to India to join him.
"Long before sunrise, we'd start walking across dividing paths of rice fields, by the moonlight, stars, and a couple of kerosene lanterns," says Drayton. At sunrise, thousands of surrounding villagers dressed in their best clothes began appearing in the horizon. By teatime, local landowners had voluntarily ceded their holdings to Bhave. Ultimately, 7 million acres were peacefully redistributed, based on the ability of one leader to turn a powerful idea into reality.
It's a model of change that Drayton calls social entrepreneurship--a term he coined to describe individuals who combine the pragmatic and results-oriented methods of a business entrepreneur with the goals of a social reformer. Through his global nonprofit, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, based in Arlington, Va., Drayton aims to find change-making leaders around the world, provide them with support and modest "social venture capital," and watch as they transform ingrained institutions and improve lives exponentially.
A slight man with wispy hair and rimless glasses, Drayton seems not quite of this world. Conversations tend to wander off on arcane tangents--such as a 20-minute lecture on the irrigation system of Bali--before heading back to broader theories like the importance of empathetic ethics in a multicultural world. Drayton always speaks in a library voice. "I was taught by my parents that people who are loud don't have anything to say," says Drayton, with his gentle smile. "I've found if you're suggesting quite big changes, a quiet style may be reassuring."
He's also prone to long gaps in conversation. "He is a guy who will literally sit in silence for a minute before he speaks," says Peter Kellner, one of several young entrepreneurs who call Drayton a mentor. Indeed, although Drayton is constantly in a bureaucrat's uniform of a plain navy blue suit and a skinny tie, one can almost imagine him in monk's robes, fascinated disciples at his feet.
Yet Drayton, like three of his heroes, Mohandas Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean Monnet (architect of European common currency), is a scholar and political operator deeply rooted in the hows and whys of society. He notes Gandhi's mania for organization, down to counting pencils. For Drayton, social change isn't romantic. "It's not a poem; it's not like Xanadu," he says. "There are many people who are creative and altruistic, but they are never going to change a pattern across a continent." In other words, a vision of Xanadu is nice, but it won't happen without a transportation plan and a sewerage system.
Which is why Drayton named his organization after another visionary pragmatist: Ashoka was a third-century-B.C. Indian emperor who waged war to unite a huge swath of south Asia. He subsequently renounced violence, adopted Buddhism, and dedicated his empire to tolerance, economic growth, and social projects. Launched in 1980 with $50,000, the organization now has a budget of $30.5 million and has funded 1,600 "fellows" in 60 countries. Fellows, who must undergo a rigorous testing and screening process and numerous interviews, have done things like finding a way to provide cheap electricity for Brazilian farmers, changing the Indian school curriculum from rote to independent learning, and distributing microcredit loans of as small as $60 for poor women in Bangladesh to start businesses. That original program has set a new standard in development work, and microfinance is now used all over the world to help add to the ranks of the world's entrepreneurs. Within five years, says Drayton, more than 50 percent of Ashoka fellows change national policy in their respective countries.
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