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Why Systems are Core to Transformative Social Change

For social entrepreneurs tackling our world’s most complex and deep-rooted challenges, creating sustainable social change can seem a herculean task. Is the initial step to target policymakers with a solution or to change how key stakeholders think about a social issue? Is it better to start local and build a model that works or to target key influencers within international bodies who can affect widespread change?

In Ashoka’s 2018 Global Fellows Study, we learned that most Ashoka Fellows’ (Fellows) response to these questions is simply “Yes.” Changing policies and mindsets often go hand-in-hand. And in order to scale a solution, Fellows usually first need to demonstrate their innovation works. For the majority of Fellows systems change is not one monolithic strategy for addressing societal challenges; rather, like chess players, Fellows are employing different, multi-step strategies and engaging every piece on the board to win the game of social change.

Ashoka first began electing Fellows --  social entrepreneurs “with a systems-changing idea” --  in 1980. Since then, a rich literature and field of study exploring systems change has developed at universities and research institutions around the world. Core to this field is the idea that social entrepreneurs must fundamentally shift an entire system in order to create long-lasting change. As social entrepreneurship researchers Gregory Dees and Paul Bloom explained, “social entrepreneurs must understand and often alter the social system that creates and sustains the problems in the first place.”1 Systems researcher Sally Osberg has termed this “equilibrium shift.”2

Measuring ‘Systems Change’ Through Idea Spread, Not Organizational Scale

Ashoka’s selection criteria have remained the same since its founding, but the metrics with which we measure Fellows’ systems change have matured considerably. This evolution is explained in Diana Wells’ 2007 article on how Ashoka tracks systems change.3 Ashoka’s core impact metrics for systems change --  independent replication, mindset shift, public policy, and market change -- mirror Fellows’ single-minded focus on spreading an idea to achieve systems change rather than achieving traditional private sector measures of “scale.” Former Ashoka employees Jon McPhedran Waitzer and Roshan Paul have written extensively about the inherent contradictions and challenges in social impact-oriented organizations adopting business scaling strategies. They argue that systems-changing social entrepreneurs “let loose a well-defined idea to create a movement or mission-aligned ecosystem, rather than only growing the organization behind it.”4

Because Fellows see “scale” in terms of how deeply an idea spreads rather than as an increase in employees or direct beneficiaries, they often pursue distinct systems strategies. Achieving “scale” means changing market systems by shifting societal narratives and how people think, rather than just what they buy. And it means challenging existing power structures to make space for everyone to be an active participant in social change. Whether Fellows’ ideas spread through open-sourcing, social franchising, licensing, training other institutions to copy their model, or strategic partnerships with government, the end result is the same. In sharp contrast to most for-profit entrepreneurs, systems-changing social entrepreneurs are willing to relinquish control and ownership of their idea in order to see it spread as far as possible. 

With so many strategies to achieve systems change, not to mention Fellows’ diverse fields of work, target populations, and geographic contexts, it has been a challenge for Ashoka to develop comprehensive and inclusive metrics for systems change. As Ashoka team member Odin Mühlenbein explained in his recent article “Systems Change -- Big or Small?” systems change encompasses both “big vision” goals such as free access to clean water, as well as “targeted systems change” strategies that break the big vision down into concrete steps.5 In this study we used Ashoka’s previous work in measuring systems change as a foundation to develop more comprehensive questions to understand both “big vision” and “targeted systems change” strategies that Fellows employ.  

Ashoka’s Systems Change Questions

The 2018 Global Fellows Study involved a survey of Ashoka Fellows, with 858 respondents, as well as 43 in-depth interviews for further context on Fellows’ unique systems change strategies. For an overview of the methodology used, please see Diana Wells’ article in this issue. It is notable that all systems change data was self-reported by the Fellows themselves. While we did validate reported systems change in the 43 interviews, we did not do so with all 858 respondents. 

The following questions were used in the survey to measure “systems change.”

  1. Since becoming an Ashoka Fellow, has your idea been replicated by other groups or institutions?
  2. Does your idea focus on influencing societal mindsets/cultural norms?
  3. Since becoming an Ashoka Fellow, to what extent has your idea and work achieved change in public policy?
  4. Since becoming an Ashoka Fellow, to what extent has your idea achieved change in market systems?

While every Ashoka Fellow is pursuing a unique strategy to achieve systems change, broad connections appeared in the study that demonstrate how together Ashoka Fellows and the social innovation ecosystem of educators, policymakers, journalists, business partners, and others can create collective systems change. We are excited to share a “big vision” picture of how Fellows achieve systems-level impact emerging from the study and new insights that we’re learning from using a more in-depth analysis of Fellows’ systems change achievements.

Independent Replication

Ashoka Fellows know that in order to spread their idea quickly and turn it into society’s new normal, they must employ innovative strategies to get their idea into the hands of as many people as possible. Independent replication is one indicator Ashoka has consistently used to measure Fellows’ “idea spread.” We define independent replication as a partnership with another organization or institution that takes on a Fellows’ idea and brings it to even larger scale and indirect impact. Independent replication can happen through strategic partnerships, licensing, or open-sourcing, among other strategies.6 With the advent of new technologies and digital tools, it is becoming easier for social entrepreneurs to make their idea accessible and easily replicable.

90 percent of Ashoka Fellows have seen their idea replicated by an independent group whether at an international or national level. During interviews, Fellows told us that they viewed independent replication as key to their strategy for social change, although it often took them several years of trying and failing on their own before they realized they needed to give up “control” over their idea in order to scale it.

Kritaya Sreesunpagit is a Fellow from Thailand whose story illustrates this trajectory. Kritaya’s Why I Why Foundation nurtures young leaders to articulate new ideas for social development and connects them to the resources and skills they need to bring their ideas to life. She explained that over time, she shifted from a direct service model to consciously replicating her idea through partnerships. She began training other groups and institutions in her model in order to expand across Thailand. 

“Once we start working for a couple years, then we look more at like policy expansion so that we know that we can cater to the whole country or for the whole region. We want to find partners and for them to take on the ideas and adapt to whatever approach that's more suitable for the areas. So, we work with the National Innovation Council so that [our approach] could also be incorporated into their strategies, in supporting innovations.”


Mindset Shift

“Mindset shift,” also referred to as social norm change, is a key component of Fellows’ strategies for sustainable impact. Especially for Fellows working towards systems change for under-represented and marginalized groups (such as women and girls, LGBTQ people, and migrants), changing societal beliefs and acceptance towards certain behaviors is often necessary for sustainable, long-term social transformation. 

In the survey, 97 percent of Fellows reported that their idea focuses on influencing societal mindsets/cultural norms. While this high data point certainly reflects a certain degree of “bias” towards selecting Fellows focusing on mindset shift, it also demonstrates that Fellows may share Ashoka’s view that mindset shift is a core strategy for systems change. The percentage of Fellows who reported that mindset shift was “core to their strategy” was particularly high in MENA and Asia. 

During the interviews, we found that Fellows often employed multiple “targeted systems change” strategies to achieve mindset shift, such as empowering a marginalized group to lead while simultaneously educating and incentivizing key partners. As Czech Fellow Dagmar Doubravova knows, mindset shift in itself is not a single strategy -- in her work improving outcomes for incarcerated people, she used a multi-pronged mindset shift strategy including media campaigns, peer mentoring programs, and volunteer coaching programs in prisons by private sector leaders. Dagmar believes that without public understanding and support of criminal justice and the related debt reform, even changing legislation and developing scaling mechanisms for successful programs will not be enough for systems change

“The first goal [in mindset shift] was that we were able to cooperate with the media, so if they call us and ask for some stories, we are ready to prepare our clients so that they are able to share their stories positively. The second is community centers where we have organized many activities for the public, but behind these activities and gardening center are also our clients. So, people can see our clients in other situations and change their own attitudes.  It's good for everybody if we give a second chance to people with a criminal past.”

Policy Change

The term “policy change,” often brings to mind the most well-known end result: legislation. Indeed, new or modified legislation can have widespread and long-term social impact -- for instance, due in large part to Fellow Akkai Padmashali’s tireless advocacy for transgender rights, Karnataka state in India has passed the first civil rights bill for transgender individuals that will impact an estimated 400,000 people in the state with legal protections from discrimination. 

However, in addition to new legislation, Ashoka measured several other “targeted systems change” strategies for policy change in the 2018 Global Fellows Study. Especially for Fellows living in countries prone to political corruption and high attrition rates of government officials, legislative change may not be the most feasible or sustainable solution. Other strategies that Fellows employ to change public policy include representing marginalized populations or challenging laws in court, convincing governments to allocate funding to a specific cause, advising policymakers as an expert, or providing research/previously missing data to policymakers. All of these strategies can be thought of as subsets of the overall category of “policy change.”

Indian Fellow Sailakshmi Balijepalli is involving stakeholders such as local governments, educational institutions, and private providers to address the gaps in public healthcare with a particular focus on neonatal and maternal health. Sailakshmi has been intentionally working to convince the government to allocate funding to her idea (one of the “targeted systems change” strategies for policy change) so that it can be replicated and scaled at a level she could not have achieved on her own. By convincing the government to take up her idea, she is able to scale her community-based healthcare model across the country without increasing her staff, operating budget, or number of direct beneficiaries. 

“What we have achieved by collaborating with the government of Tamil Nadu and operationalizing 73 Neonatal Intensive Care units across the State to bring down Infant Mortality Rates, that model is being replicated in other states of India. And apart from this, global chapters are being set up where members learn the model hands on and manage it through local chapter implementation.”

Market Change

Similar to policy change, developing indicators to measure systems-level change in markets presented a challenge. The indicators needed to be inclusive of Fellows both in developed markets with strong infrastructure and investment, as well as those in markets dealing with volatility and insufficient capital. Under the large umbrella of “market systems change,” we used the indicators below to measure more targeted systems change strategies.

Overall, 93 percent of Fellows report having changed market systems at the international, national, and/or regional levels. The majority of Fellows have achieved change at the national level (70 percent) and the regional/local levels (55 percent). 40 percent have achieved change at the international level.

The most common targeted systems change strategy reported was “creating new markets” with 60 percent of Fellows reporting that they had achieved this type of change. For example, U.S. Fellow Kevin Kirby is creating a new market for substance abusers, their loved ones, and their employers to both prevent and treat addiction. Kevin is breaking down stigma around addiction, in part through a public education campaign, but mainly by pointing out the economic incentives for employers to become part of the solution. To date there is no other for-profit organization that has targeted employers with these types of prevention and treatment services. 

“There's nothing even remotely like us in our field. There's nobody penetrating the private sector and delivering value to those with the most skin in the game in the community, being employers. We could have an army of peer addiction management coaches operating out of our facilities. But if we haven't done anything to systemically address the issue in a community, we're just another service provider. [Our services are] a necessary step, but we also have to mainstream addiction into the employer-employee relationship or we're not going to get sufficient penetration to solve the problem in a community. We also have to mainstream addiction into healthcare.”

New Insights Emerging Around Systems Change

1. Significant Gender Differences Exist in Systems Change Achievement

For independent replication, policy and market systems change indicators with international, national, and regional levels of achievement, a consistently higher percentage of male Fellows reported achieving change at the international level. This difference is notable because overall, a higher percentage of female Fellows reported achieving systems change at any level. While female Fellows often achieved higher rates of systems change at the national and/or regional levels, a much higher percentage of male Fellows were achieving systems change at the international level -- sometimes with a difference of more than 25 percentage points.

According to female (and male) Fellows consulted in the qualitative interviews, a complex web of factors influenced these differences, including a general lack of female representation in leadership positions, and in certain sectors discrimination and stereotyping and barriers to fundraising and investment for female Fellows. In the qualitative interviews we also discovered that male Fellows tend to collaborate more exclusively with other male Fellows, while female Fellows tended to collaborate more equally with all genders. For a more in-depth discussion of gender differences emerging from the study results, please see Iman Bibar’s article in this issue.

2. Systems Change Rates Have Been Increasing Over Time

When we look at the data by election period, a new trend emerges: rates of international-level systems change have been increasing over time for policy change, markets change, and replication. This increase is particularly pronounced because Fellows elected more recently, by definition, have had less time than their peers to create systems change. 

The shorter timespan makes this find all the more striking: Fellows elected in the past five years are already reporting the same levels of international-level systems change as Fellows elected in the 1980s and 1990s. For most measures of social impact we would expect that Fellows elected more recently would have lower rates of systems change, simply because it takes time to achieve. 

Why are Fellows elected since 2000 (particularly those elected since 2008) making systems change faster than their peers elected in the 1980s and 1990s? This finding certainly may reflect a bias in Ashoka’s selection process in recent years towards Fellows who are on track to create international-level systems change. However, most Fellows are selected at an early stage of their idea and it would be nearly impossible to predict international-level systems change. More research is needed to understand this phenomenon, but one hypothesis is that globalization and new digital tools like Facebook and Skype may be assisting Fellows in increasing their rate of international change. Other hypotheses include network effects from other Fellows and from the social entrepreneurship sector more broadly as it has continued to evolve from the 1980s.  

3. Fellows Whose Organizations are Pure “Nonprofits” Have Higher Rates of Systems Change

In the survey we asked Fellows “What percentage of your organization’s revenue comes from selling products/services?” This question was intended to be a proxy for the type of organization Fellows run -- whether for-profit, nonprofit, or hybrid. Overall, just under one-third of Fellows responded “0 percent” to this question, indicating that they are non-profits. 12 percent of Fellows reported that 100 percent of their revenue comes from selling products/services, indicating that they are either for-profits or have a hybrid model. 

On every systems change question in the study, we found that non-profit Fellows reported much higher rates of change. For example, 32 percent of nonprofit Fellows had achieved change in legislation or public policy compared with just 12 percent of for-profit Fellows. The comparison between these two groups on independent replication was even starker, as seen in the chart below. 

Similar to independent replication, a much higher percentage of Fellows who reported no revenue from selling products and services focused on mindset shift as “core to their strategy” -- 33 percent compared to 11 percent of Fellows who reported all of their revenue from selling products and services.

Learnings from a Smaller Group of Fellows Who Have Achieved Systems Change on At Least Three Levels

We decided to take a subset of the data by creating a new group called the “Systems Changers” (SCs) who reported that they had achieved systems change on at least three levels -- independent replication, focus on mindset shift, and public policy or market systems change.i We analyzed this smaller group of 501 “SC” Fellows (58 percent of the respondents) to see if there were any characteristics significantly different from their peers that might explain their systems change achievements.

To eliminate any potential bias, we first compared whether SCs were more or less likely to have received an Ashoka stipend. Ashoka tends to give stipends to Fellows who are at an earlier stage of their idea and are more in need of funding. Therefore, if the percentage of SC and non-SCs who received a stipend is the same, then we can determine that neither group had any “advantage” in terms of being more advanced in their idea when selected for the Ashoka Fellowship. There was a small difference in stipend awarded (79 percent to non-SCs compared to 86 percent for SCs), which means that SCs are slightly more likely to have begun their Fellowship as earlier-stage entrepreneurs.  

1. Systems Changers Are More Likely to Collaborate

In the study we found that SCs as a group were more likely to collaborate, both with their peers and others. Within the Ashoka network, 79 percent of SCs have collaborated with another Fellow compared to 66 percent of non-SCs, and 24 percent of SCs have collaborated with six or more Fellows compared to just 10 percent of non-SCs. 

We also found that outside the Ashoka network, SC Fellows continue to show higher levels of collaboration with every stakeholder group. For example, 64 percent of SC Fellows report partnering with national government compared with 48 percent of non-SC Fellows, and 61 percent of SC Fellows report partnering with primary/secondary schools compared with 38 percent of non-SC Fellows. This finding could be interpreted as correlational evidence of Fellows’ systems change achievements (Fellows who achieve systems change will have been successful in collaborating with more stakeholder groups), or it might signal that SC Fellows are successful because of their inclination towards collaboration. Additional research is needed to understand how collaboration may factor into Fellows’ systems change achievements.

2. Systems Changers Are More Likely to Change Their Strategy

Overall, SC Fellows are more likely to continue to pursue their original idea than non-SC Fellows (93 percent and 87 percent respectively), which is to be expected. A potentially new insight is that of Fellows who are still pursuing their original idea, a much higher percentage of SC Fellows report having changed their strategy significantly to achieve the same idea. 53 percent of SC Fellows report that they are “working on the same idea, but my strategy has changed significantly” compared to 42 percent of non-SC Fellows. 

Similar to previous findings, we do not know whether this insight is correlation or causation -- are Fellows achieving systems change success because they changed their strategy or because they were the type of leader who was open to “failing fast” and evolving from the beginning? Additional research is needed to understand the characteristics of SC Fellows and whether being open to significant strategic changes is a factor in Fellows’ ability to create systems change.  


Ashoka’s thinking on measuring systems change has evolved significantly over the past 38 years, but the most important component of systems change -- measuring Fellows’ idea spread -- has withstood the test of time. New technologies, tools, and models for institutional, political, and citizen movement organization will continue to disrupt how we measure Fellows’ systems change strategies. 

In the four “big vision” categories measured in this study, the results demonstrate that Ashoka’s strong selection process and criteria elects social entrepreneurs who are achieving significant systems change and seeing their idea replicated by independent groups in changing mindsets, policies, and market systems. 

This data is crucial in showing us what kinds of systems change Fellows are having, including by gender, election period, and geographic context. However, it does not explain how Fellows make strategic decisions or why certain groups have different outcomes (such as female Fellows having lower rates of international level change than male Fellows). Now that we have the what, it is much easier for Ashoka and the global community of researchers, academics, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders to dig into the how and the why social change is happening to create a stronger and more effective ecosystem for all social entrepreneurs to create transformative and sustainable change.


i  Included in this group were Fellows who reported that mindset shift was “core to their strategy,” Fellows who reported that their idea had been replicated by independent groups either within country or internationally, and Fellows who reported making either policy or market systems change at any level. Some Fellows’ work does not focus on markets, and some Fellows are not able to influence policy due to political and socioeconomic barriers. Therefore for this cohort of “Systems Changers” we included Fellows who, in addition to focusing on mindset shift and having seen their idea replicated, had achieved systems change either in policy or markets.  

Works Cited

1 Bloom, Paul N., and Gregory Dees. "Cultivate your ecosystem." Stanford Social Innovation Review 6.1 (2008): 47-53.

2 Osberg, Sally, and Roger Martin. “How Social Entrepreneurs Make Change Happen.” Harvard Business Review (October 2015).

3 Leviner, Noga, Leslie R. Crutchfield, and Diana Wells. "Understanding the impact of social entrepreneurs: Ashoka’s answer to the challenge of measuring effectiveness." Research on Social Entrepreneurship and Contributing to an Emerging Field (2006): 89-103.

4 Waitzer, Jon McPhedran, and Roshan Paul. "Scaling social impact: when everybody contributes, everybody wins." Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization 6.2 (2011): 143-155.

5 Mühlenbein, Odin. “Systems Change — Big or Small?” Stanford Social Innovation Review (February 2018). 

6 For a more in-depth explanation of different independent replication techniques adopted by Fellows, please see Ashoka Belgium’s presentation on the topic:

Founded in 1980, Ashoka has become the largest global network of social entrepreneurs, now encompassing almost 3,600 Fellows elected in 92 countries. While other organizations have focused on social entrepreneurs as leaders of social enterprises or social businesses, Ashoka realized early on that what characterized social entrepreneurs was not so much their ability to generate revenue from their activities, but rather their ability and desire to think big, to include diverse partners in the solution, and to successfully change systems for the benefit of all, not just those directly touched by their work. While Ashoka has tracked Fellows’ ability to influence systems change for more than 20 years (both in terms of changes in policy and laws as well as changes in market dynamics), in 2018 Ashoka began to collect data to investigate whether and how it has had a role in accelerating the impact of its Fellows’ ideas. Therefore in the Global Fellows Survey we added questions to measure the impact that Fellows attribute to Ashoka, in addition to 43 qualitative interviews where we delved deeper into our findings from the survey. 

The personal stipend that Ashoka gives to most Fellows emerged from the surveys and interviews as one of the most important benefits of entry into the Fellowship -- what we have named the mutual support network of our social entrepreneurs globally. The stipend is meant to help the social entrepreneur focus full-time on their social mission without the need to work elsewhere to maintain themselves or their families. We asked respondents who did receive a stipend whether it had been the first significant source of funding for their ideas. The responses were equally split between those saying that it was (50 percent) and that it wasn’t (50 percent). There were however significant variations by geography. The stipend had been the most significant source of funding for 62 percent of Fellows operating in Latin America, for 56 percent of Fellows active in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Asia, and for 54 percent of Fellows in Africa. These results may reflect wider availability of funds for Fellows active in Europe and North America. A Latin America fellow tells us about the help of the stipend in the early stage of her venture: 

 "Ashoka made it possible to move ahead in a way that didn't create a conflict between my need for income and [my organization’s] need to build itself up independently."

In the Global Fellows Study we explored whether, in addition to being the first significant source of funding, the stipend had indeed helped Fellows to focus full-time on their idea. Globally, 92 percent of Fellows reported that the stipend helped them focus full-time on their idea. This number went up to 97 percent when it came to Fellows active in Africa, and to 94 percent for those working in MENA.

Based on these results and the interviews, we can conclude that the stipend is a key factor enabling Fellows to both find initial funding and to focus full-time on their idea. Although the survey results showed that the stipend was particularly helpful in non-Western countries, European and North American Fellows in interviews confirmed that the stipend was critical in their context as well: 

“I [couldn't be] any lower to the bottom of the cycle of life the moment that Ashoka called. So, in a real way, it empowered me, it gave me legs to stand on. It proved to me at the time when I was doubting everything I had been doing up to that point that indeed what I was saying was really real and valid. So I don't think you can get more empowered than that. Plus it gave me money to live on during the transition.” 
(North American Fellow)

Ashoka’s selection process, which typically lasts between six months to one year, is often cited by Fellows as a key learning experience where they were able to think differently about systems change and have the opportunity to interact with many partners and Fellows in the Ashoka network.  When we asked Fellows in the survey whether the selection process had helped them strengthen and articulate their idea, two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) fully agreed with this statement, with more than a quarter (27 percent) agreeing to some extent. The number of those fully agreeing goes up to three-quarters for Africa (75 percent) and MENA (74 percent). 

An Indian fellow that took part in the qualitative study exemplifies the impact of the selection process:

“My fellowship selection took a long time: almost two years! I was able to evolve that strategy towards co-creation. When I was selected in Ashoka we were working in a smaller magnitude within villages. Through the Ashoka selection, the scaling strategy was defined, and we understood that most important factors were interfacing the technology, gender integration with the technology, involving ourselves in open-source technology, and to create open inclusive process of all technical institutes [working with us] that dramatically changed our model.” 

It is perhaps worth explaining the nature of the selection process of Ashoka, which may help to explain why it can take years but also why it tends to elect people who end up staying in the field for decades and create long-lasting impact. Ashoka’s Search and Selection process is very different from a pitch to a jury, but rather a collaborative conversation of ideas. The main goal is to test how candidates solve problems and think about change, not what they think. 

Ashoka’s 3,600 social entrepreneurs have been selected after considering hundreds of thousands and screening tens of thousands. Ashoka elects fellows at an inflection point, only when there is consensus among all those involved at all five stages of selection. The process begins with a nomination by someone who is part of our network. Ashoka’s Venture representatives across the globe consider thousands of nominations a year. Those people that seem to possess new system changing ideas, an entrepreneurial track record, creative problem solving, the potential for significant impact, and unquestionable ethical fiber are approached. There is significant face-to-face, in-depth interviews and site visits by our national teams. The next stage includes an Ashoka board appointed interviewer from another continent, who can evaluate the system change potential beyond national context. Then a panel of peers who know what it takes to create big change also interview and assess candidates against the same criteria as the previous three steps. The final stage is a review by Ashoka’s global board. 

The above results are a strong indicator that Ashoka’s thorough selection process is in itself an impactful process for the majority of Fellows. For some simply the time with interlocuters who care enough to ask both big and small questions is value itself. For many the stipend is often the first significant source of funding as well as an important factor in Fellows being able to pursue their idea full-time. The selection process and stipend allow the great majority of Fellows to strengthen and articulate their idea and at the same time to focus full-time on the solution of a social problem. 

The Ashoka Fellowship has two unique characteristics compared to its peers within the field of social entrepreneurship. First, we look for social entrepreneurs who both have an entrepreneurial “track record” as well as a systems-changing idea. Second, our stipend is given to fund the Fellow rather than a specific organization or project. By selecting social entrepreneurs who have made the solution of a problem their life’s mission, and funding them to focus full-time on their idea, we maximize the chances that they will persist in solving the root of the social problem. 

The social entrepreneurs who become Ashoka Fellows are leaders who recognize the need to give up control over their idea to see it spread. They are resilient and adaptive to change; the majority of Fellows practice a type of leadership that is transitional and non-hierarchical. In the interviews, Fellows confirmed that they lead by giving up power rather than consolidating it. Many Fellows voiced the opinion that their mission was to spread their idea so effectively that they themselves would no longer be necessary to solving the problem.

To understand whether Ashoka had any influence on Fellows’ leadership or thinking on systems change, in the survey we asked Fellows whether as a result of Ashoka they had changed how they think about systems change or how they practice leadership. When asked whether Ashoka has helped them see their work at a system change level, 86 percent responded positively. We went on to ask those who saw their work differently whether their strategy had changed as a consequence of this new perspective: 92 percent confirmed they had indeed fully or partly changed their strategy. 

A European fellow, interviewed in the qualitative phase of the study, confirms this trend when interviewed: 

“My mission has remained the same. I continue working for the wellbeing and integration of refugees. By my strategy has changed significantly. I now focus more on system change. Before [our methodology] was purely project based work (…), whereas right now we still continue to work in projects, but from the very first minute onwards we want to re-define the new role model for integration of refugees in Germany.”

In terms of leadership, 89 percent of Fellows report that Ashoka changed how they see themselves as a leader, and of those Fellows, 94 percent are leading differently as a result. 

This was confirmed in the qualitative study. A Fellow from Africa, for example, reported that:

“Ashoka’s Globalizer1, as well as working with other Fellows, showed me how to implement systems change. Now my organization is growing, and I am comfortable stepping out of a leadership role to start a new entity and make space for others to lead.”

Fellows were also asked directly whether Ashoka has helped them increase their impact. 84 percent confirmed that Ashoka helped them increase their impact, with seven percent not sure about it, and nine percent who said it didn’t. 

Based on the Global Fellows Study results, not only do we now have evidence that Ashoka’s selection process strengthens the ideas of its fellows, but that the Ashoka Fellowship contributes significantly to systemic thinking and leadership qualities of its Fellows, with the consequences that many of them change their strategies accordingly. A majority of Fellows confirm that this helped them increase the impact of their work. 

While the Venture process (the search and selection of new Ashoka Fellows) is standardized across the globe, how recently elected and existing Fellows are supported varies greatly depending on the local context of each country, the presence and size of Ashoka staff, as well as the organizations accompanying social entrepreneurs and the maturity of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem. For this reason, we asked social entrepreneurs what kind of help they have received from Ashoka and by which members of this global network. 

As visualized in the chart above, the most common type of support is strategic guidance (80 percent) as well as the creation of new partnerships (77 percent). Two-thirds of Fellows mentioned mentorship to improve their leadership (65 percent). More than half claim that Ashoka has created new funding opportunities (59 percent), helped them to focus on their wellbeing (55 percent), or increased their media visibility (54 percent). A South Asian fellow tells us that:

“Ashoka helped me to connect with the right people who provided mentorship. They connected me with media houses. Ashoka really raised my profile to high-level people. I was able to access international forums on climate-related issues.”

In each of these subcategories, Ashoka staff tends to be the most significant source of help, followed closely by other Ashoka Fellows. Indeed, Fellows report a structured collaboration or partnership with an average of 4.1 other fellows, with seven percent of them collaborating with 10 or more Fellows. Mentorship and strategic guidance are often delivered by external partners engaged by Ashoka. 

A North American fellow exemplifies the role of other fellows in bringing value to their mission: 

“I’ve met a lot of people through my cohort who are helping me with emotional support but also think about scaling differently.” 

While Ashoka has conducted studies of Fellows elected in the previous five and 10 years, the 2018 Global Fellows Study is the first-ever study of all Fellows in the Ashoka network ever elected. Because of the large sample size and the addition of questions on how Ashoka may have accelerated the Fellows’ work, we are now able to draw conclusions about Ashoka’s impact over time and across geographies.

The data presented in this article gives evidence for the first time that particularly for Fellows active in the Global South, the stipend is the first significant source of funding for their idea. All Fellows in the global network receive mentorship, strategic guidance, connection to funders and media as well as support to their wellbeing. This helps most of them to see the critical social or environmental problem they are trying to tackle in systems change terms and many of them change their strategy accordingly. The guidance received by Ashoka staff, by other Fellows and external allies also contributes to how Fellows perceive themselves as leaders. 

Our findings strongly indicate that Ashoka has a valuable role in accelerating Fellows’ social impact that positively improves policy and market dynamics. We find that Ashoka has been able to bring to the surface ideas that may otherwise have been lost or remained confined locally. Fellows also report that Ashoka plays a role in validating their ideas and work by confirming that they are on the right track. We look forward to conducting more research in the future to gain a more in-depth understanding of Ashoka’s impact, and how we accelerate the impact of our Fellows.


1 A program offered to Fellows aimed at scaling the impact of their work internationally 

Author bio

Alessandro Valera is the Director of Ashoka Italy and co-founder of Ashoka’s Impact and Evidence Unit. Alessandro Valera has studied in Italy, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He holds a MSc in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. In the last 10 years he has gathered experience in the field of research, public policy, communication, human rights, and social entrepreneurship. He has worked as a Senior Researcher for EdComs, a UK-based consultancy specialized in research on children and young people’s issues. He has also collaborated with European Alternatives, where he was Director of Policy and Reseach. He co-founded a research agency, Con-Senso, active in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the UK, as well as his own social business Edu-Care, aimed at training teachers and parents on social networks and their responsible use by children and young people. In 2014 he was selected to become the Launch Director of Ashoka Italy. In one year, he gathered the funds, team, and network to start Ashoka Italia. In 2017, he co-created the Ashoka Impact and Evidence Unit to better measure and communicate the impact of Ashoka’s work around the world. He is a guest lecturer on the subject of Social Entrepreneurship at Luiss Business School in Rome. 


Ashoka Fellow Kritaya Sreesunpagit of Thailand started her first social change initiative in high school, convincing her peers to help a community build a new reservoir. Ashoka Fellow Christoph Schmitz of Germany started his first social business at 12, growing Christmas trees on a plot of his family farm to benefit the local orphanage. Kritaya and Christoph are just two of nearly half of Ashoka’s leading social entrepreneurs worldwide who knew they were changemakers before the age of 21. Their stories emerge from the 2018 Global Fellows Study which underscores a key finding: Over Ashoka’s 40-year history of finding and investing in the world’s top social entrepreneurs, there is a clear pattern of changemakers taking the lead from an early age. 

In fact, the majority of Ashoka Fellows (65 percent) started their changemaking journey by joining someone else’s social change efforts before the age of 21. What’s more, 48 percent of Fellows actually started and led their own initiatives in their teenage years. This finding lies at the heart of Ashoka’s efforts to share stories of successful business and social entrepreneurs as well as young changemakers in their teens who “lead young” for the good of all. As we explore the Fellows’ responses in this article in more depth, we begin to see why the importance of supporting young changemaking -- indeed, the mantra LeadYoung -- may serve as the guiding principle for anyone who influences the education and development of young people. 

The New Game

Why is young changemaking significant? Imagine the following scenario: you grew up playing baseball. For years you practiced batting, throwing the ball, and catching with a glove. You show up to the field one day to play and instead of baseball, there is an entirely different game going on. They are playing soccer. There are no bats, no touching the ball with your hands, and a whole lot of running. The team dynamics are different. The skills needed are different. Even the pace of the game has quickened. If you don’t know the rules of the new game or if you have never practiced the skills you need, you are certainly going to be disruptive to the other players on the field -- and will most probably be taken out of the game.

This is what a large portion of people around the world are feeling today: they’ve woken up and the game has changed. Our world is drastically different from the world of our parents and grandparents. It is no longer a world of repetition where you learned a skill, trade, or profession and repeated it over and over. Instead, the rate of change and the degree and extent of interconnection are increasing exponentially. According to a report published in 2017 by Dell Technologies, 85 percent of jobs in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.1  

So how are we preparing young people for this new game, which is defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and hyper-connectivity?  

Problematically, our institutions are still largely rooted in the past. Schools continue to focus on literacy and numeracy, academic attainment, and employability as the primary indicators of “success.” Policies, curricula, assessments, teacher training, and many other systemic mechanisms often reinforce this highly individualistic and narrowly economic focus. This needs to change. Schools and the wider education system need to find a new definition of success -- a definition that is centrally about empowering young people as empathic changemakers, who live for the common good. New policies, assessments, teacher training programs, and other systemic mechanisms will be vital, but just as important is the need to change mindsets.

We need to pay attention to make sure that every young person becomes equipped and inclined not only to adapt to change, but to create positive change. Without this attention, we risk the alternative: feeding the tendency in the face of uncertainty toward fear and anger that is dividing our societies. Instead, once a young person has become empathic, identified a problem they care about, created a solution, built a team, and changed their world, they will have the confidence to be a changemaker again and again. 

Ashoka Fellows have been quietly leading this movement to empower people as changemakers for nearly 40 years, creating pathways for young people to develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that are essential to living for the common good and to making our new world a better world. Ashoka Fellows spread their ideas for solving the most difficult social problems in their societies by getting that solution into the hands of as many people as possible. This includes young people.   

When we look at how to support young changemaking by building a society that supports young people to practice changemaking at an early age, we look to Ashoka Fellows -- both their own childhood experiences and their work today with young people -- to see how it’s done. All Ashoka Fellows go through a rigorous selection process that demonstrates their mastery of key changemaking skills (like empathy and leadership). What insights can we learn from the Global Fellows Survey about these Fellows’ lead young experiences that could determine best practices and insights for all young people?

Social Entrepreneurs Lead Young

Ashoka’s Global Fellow Survey provides us with key insights around providing young people with the space and support to thrive in a world defined by change. We asked all Ashoka Fellows what people/groups were most influential in supporting their development as a person who creates social change. The top influences were parents, other social entrepreneurs, peers, and teachers (See Table 1 for breakdown). Perhaps not surprisingly, among the Fellows reporting leading change at an early age (i.e. starting their own social change initiative before the age of 21), the influence of parents (67 percent) and teachers (40 percent) was most prominent.

We also asked a subset of Fellows to share more about their early childhood experiences in qualitative interviews. The following common patterns emerged across Fellows from diverse backgrounds who were “leading young.” First, home environment was most important in terms of being encouraged to question the “status quo” and take creative action to solve problems around them. Second, respondents who “led young” as changemakers were encouraged early to take on leadership roles at school and with other organizations. Thirdly, Fellows were exposed to a diversity of people, cultures, and experiences.

While there is a need for future studies to compare this rate of young changemaking to other professional groups, the results show an important pattern that, despite some regional variations (see Article by Irene Wu) holds true across geographies, gender, and culture: early changemaking can lead to a lifetime of leading and adapting to change. Moreover, these leading social entrepreneurs have lessons for how to help every young person practice changemaking as a central experience of growing up.

Social Entrepreneurs Empower Others to Lead Young

Beyond leading young themselves, an important pattern across Ashoka Fellows is that they put young people in charge as a way to create positive social and environmental change. According to the 2018 Ashoka Global Fellow Survey, of the Ashoka Fellows working with young people, 77 percent reported that they put them in charge of leading initiatives within their own organizations. According to one Fellow, Kritaya Sreesunpagit, of Thailand, the reason for giving young people the experience of starting their own social innovations is precisely because early changemaking experiences often create a pattern -- and direct a pathway -- of changemaking for life. “It really forms who you are,” says Sreesunpagit. “What you are exposed to during those years will form how you lead your life afterwards.”  

What’s more, an even higher percentage of Fellows, 84 percent globally, reported encouraging young people (defined as 0 to18) to create independent initiatives to spread and scale the Fellows’ work. The reasons for this are interesting. While helping young people benefit directly from the experience, many respondents cited the idea that young people add significant value to the Fellow’s own strategy. Some Fellows noted that young people inject new perspectives into their work where adults may be limited in their thinking. Others saw the leadership of young people in their organization to create their own initiatives as a key way to ensure the sustainability of their idea for the future.  

How to Nurture Changemaking

So what does this data show us about how to foster and support young changemaking? The following are some recommendations drawn from the the qualitative evidence about the key influences in the lives of the Fellows that led them to pursue social change work.

Engage parents to create a home environment that encourages questioning, debate, creativity, and positive action

Growing up, Fellows’ home environments were the most important factor in their empowerment as changemakers. Usually, the influence of one or both parents, or a close grandparent/aunt/uncle, gave the Fellow the support and encouragement they needed to take risks and start something they cared about. Fellows told us that their families encouraged them to question the status quo, to debate, and to experience the freedom of being creative. Fellows often mentioned their parent's own career or lived experience (sometimes as educators, psychologists, or as members of marginalized groups, like refugees) as influencing their focus on social impact and in developing a "can do" entrepreneurial mindset. Fellows also specifically mentioned their family's emotional support as a significant factor in their development as a changemaker.

Trust and encourage young people to take responsibility and leadership roles

Fellows were encouraged by their families and teachers to join other people’s initiatives at a young age. This gave them opportunities to explore their passions and to take responsibility and leadership roles. Contributing to other peoples’ initiatives gave them the opportunity to practice building teams and leading in a way that empowers others.

Increase exposure to individuals, communities, cultures and ideas that are different from their own

The third most common experience that Fellows said was important for leading young was exposure to individuals, communities, cultures, and ideas that were very different from their own. Some of these experiences involved trips or families moving to a new country that turned the Fellow into an "outsider" in their new environment. Fellows explained that this experience of being an outsider enabled them to see social structures and problems more clearly, and to gain empathy for populations they previously had not encountered.


In surveying some of the world's leading social entrepreneurs we see critical insights for everyone around the world involved in supporting young people especially parents and those responsible for designing institutions and systems addressing their needs. The implications of these insights from leading social entrepreneurs seem especially relevant when we consider the exponential rate of change across all disciplines and fields. First, for individuals to thrive, they must become empowered to create positive change in service of the public good. And, for this empowerment to take place young people need powerful learning experiences through which they become empathic, face up to the world’s problems, find their purpose, take the lead, and work with others in creatively solving those problems. Given the challenges we face locally and globally, we believe there is nothing more urgent for the future.

To address this urgency, Ashoka is currently investing in a set of strategic initiatives -- called “4 Drivers for Mindset Shift” -- that draw out these insights and make them tangible for any organization or group to engage with and be part of the broader Everyone a Changemaker movement. 

First, Ashoka has recently begun to do exactly what 84 percent of its Fellows working with young people have done: put young people in charge of independent initiatives to help spread their work. The Ashoka Young Changemakers program identifies top young changemakers in their teens who not only have started their own ventures and are empowering other young people as changemakers but who have the desire and capacity to co-lead the movement for an Everyone a Changemaker world.  

Next, we are sharing what we call LeadYoung stories that is, stories of social entrepreneurs, young changemakers, and other successful system leaders that provide clear examples, role models, and pathways of young changemaking with the aim of establishing the young changemaker mindset as the new norm.  

To support this movement, Ashoka is prototyping a third “driver” -- a Peer-to-Peer mechanism for young changemakers to connect and support one another. Additionally, in a concerted effort to make this work visible to organizations and leaders from all sectors and industries, Ashoka has also developed the YourKids program, a workshop model that provides a mindset-changing experience for adults that helps bring to life and personalizes the power and urgency of the Everyone a Changemaker vision.

The insights from Ashoka Fellows have always guided Ashoka’s work. But with this urgency to change mindsets about changemaking and growing up, the learnings from Fellows about leading young become even more relevant and critical in driving our collective impact towards a better world.    

Works Cited

1 “Emerging Technologies’ Impact on Society and Work in 2030.” Dell Technologies and Institute for the Future (2017).

Author bios

Claire Fallender is the Director of Global LeadYoung Initiative at Ashoka. Claire leads Ashoka’s Global LeadYoung Initiative, a storytelling campaign that creates awareness and social demand for the new definition of what constitutes success in growing up -- every teen knowing they are a changemaker -- and the framework for getting there. In this role, Claire draws from her expertise in social entrepreneurship to build and cultivate teams, establish strategic partnerships, and develop key content for Ashoka’s framework change efforts around young people. Previously, Claire served as Director for Global Venture and Fellowship, Ashoka’s largest program that identifies and supports leading social entrepreneurs around the world. Claire holds a Master of Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a B.A. from Yale College.

Ross Hall is a Leadership Group Member of the Europe Youth Years at Ashoka. Ross has founded and grown more than 20 businesses around the world. Over the past eight years, he has focused his energy on building a groundbreaking education program that aims to empower and incline young people to be changemakers -- to make a better world. The Better World program aims to develop a sophisticated understanding of what quality of life actually is -- and a deep knowledge of our inner powers that most determine our quality of life. The program is currently live with 500,000 children in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, and is now being extended to Ghana, the UK, and Mexico. This grew out of earlier projects that Ross conceived and led for Pearson (under the banner of Education for Economic and Social Development), which involved ministries, employers, and educators evaluating and improving the effectiveness of education systems, institutions, and programs around the world.


When it comes to entrepreneurship and social change, the existence of enabling and supportive ecosystems is a key ingredient and catalyst. Organizations like Ashoka who are working to promote social entrepreneurship often find themselves asking the question: Have we succeeded in creating the kind of ecosystem necessary to support social entrepreneurs? While many of us working in the sector may constantly debate the concept of an ecosystems framework, one reality remains -- social innovators might be able to survive without an ecosystem of support, but it is highly unlikely that they will thrive. Vibrant ecosystems of support are necessary for truly transformative systems change. What ecosystems do to support social innovators is as significant as what social innovators do to transform ecosystems. This article will take a close look at what matters to Ashoka Fellows as a guide to building better and stronger ecosystems of support. 

What is an Ecosystem?

It is important to remember that ecosystems are controlled by a multitude of factors, and that a social entrepreneur’s ability to thrive depends on an ecosystem’s ability to evolve when needed. Ecosystems are dynamic. They are constantly impacted by disturbances and working to find equilibrium again. Nearly 40 years ago Ashoka embarked on founding an ecosystem to support social entrepreneurs, and now this ecosystem is also in a process of seeking equilibrium through evolution. At Ashoka, an ecosystems’ framework is important to support social entrepreneurs. Similar to the  beliefs of Paul Bloom and Gregory Dees in their article Cultivating Your Ecosystem, we believe that it is important to look closely at, and incorporate the broader environment within which organizations operate. This is “particularly important for social entrepreneurs, who must leverage complex systems of interacting players in rapidly evolving political, economic, physical, and cultural environments.” 

According to Daniel Isenberg, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, core pillars of an enabling ecosystem of support includes: 

  1. Financial Capital (grants, crowdfunding, venture capital, debt, etc)
  2. Culture/community of support (success stories and societal norms) 
  3. Market demand (beneficiaries, partners, networks, etc)
  4. Human Capital/Talent 
  5. A strong policy and regulatory environment
  6. Supports (legal, accounting, bankers, training and education) 

If we want to see social entrepreneurs thrive, it is important to not just understand the pillars mentioned above, but to also understand how the pillars are interconnected and how they evolve over time to support social innovators. The next paragraphs will provide clarification on how Ashoka sees its role in the six ecosystem pillars and what evidence our 2018 Fellows Global Study can support our claims. 

Where We Are: Lessons from Three Decades of Supporting Social Entrepreneurs 

According to 2018 Global Fellows Study results, 90 percent of Fellows surveyed agree that in their country, Ashoka has been a leader in fostering an enabling ecosystem for social entrepreneurs. This belief may be due to Ashoka’s focus on directly or indirectly supporting the majority of the key components mentioned above; often with social entrepreneurs specifically taking on advocacy for a better policy and regulatory environment. In terms of capital, the majority of Fellows believe that having access to the Ashoka stipend allowed them to focus full time on making their ideas a reality. Furthermore, a very high percentage of Fellows believe that Ashoka has succeeded in helping them to better articulate their ideas as well as to better understand the systems that need to be transformed. 

Ashoka has always believed that a peer community of support is one of the most powerful components of an ecosystem for social change. When an Ashoka Fellow has a specific challenge, the answer to that challenge and the support required to overcome it will likely come from his/her own peers in the community. According to the 2018 Global Fellows Study, 70 percent of Ashoka Fellows have received support from other Ashoka Fellows. 

From its early years, Ashoka has been using the Fellows selection criteria, which focuses on entrepreneurial profile, ethical fiber, innovation, creativity, and social impact, to also identify and engage new staff members, individuals, and institutional partners. As a result, a community of trustful changemakers was formed and it has been referred to by Ashoka Fellows as one of the most valuable assets they have in their journeys as social entrepreneurs. Our data has specifically shown that 83 percent of Ashoka Fellows are supported by Ashoka staff members, and 50 percent report they have received support from other Ashoka partners.

Where We Need to Go

According to Ann Mei Chang’s recent book Lean Impact, “Solutions to social challenges are often designed to address a narrow, immediate problem without sufficient consideration of the broader ecosystem or how growth will be achieved over time.” What we as supporters in the social entrepreneurship field need to build are ecosystems that allow innovators to design and scale their ideas within collaborative environments. Global solutions cannot be implemented alone or with a competitive mindset. At Ashoka we are seeing a strong shift towards collaboration in our Fellows that works more with a mindset of abundance as opposed to scarcity. For instance, 90 percent of Fellows report seeing their idea replicated by independent groups/institutions, and these Fellows have collaborated or partnered with an average of more than four other Ashoka Fellows.

However, significant challenges remain for social entrepreneurs in a world where incremental change is rare due to technological advances and uncertainty is constant. The sections below highlight some of the most important challenges from Ashoka’s perspective, and areas in which we would like to see reflected within the core pillars of an enabling ecosystem.

 Moving Towards Creative Financing Models

Many social entrepreneurs continue to be dependent on philanthropy and donors for financial support. Although 12 percent of Ashoka Fellows have ventures that are fully based on revenues with a wide spectrum of Fellows using hybrid models, it is important to pause and think about how the ecosystem can more creatively unlock varying forms of capital for social entrepreneurs in a way that will allow for sustainability, scale, and collaboration in the long term. The 2018 Global Fellows Study revealed that one of the top needs of social entrepreneurs is capital. Therefore, the social entrepreneurship ecosystem needs to evolve to include access to more blended forms of financing such as equity financing from venture capital and private equity funds, as well as crowdfunding and other options like debt financing. These traditional forms of investment capital can be coupled or “blended” with donor funding, philanthropy, and government-led financing. Tackling global problems at the pace required to achieve something as ambitious as the UN Sustainable Development Goals for example, will require that providers of all forms of capital join forces. 

Building Deeper Connections of Support 

The path to social change is a long and difficult one. While Ashoka has succeeded in identifying and supporting social entrepreneurs across the globe, in the 2018 Global Fellows Study we found that Fellows want a stronger connection to other entrepreneurs across borders and regions to deepen learning, create a sense of community, and to build partnerships for systems-level impact. The global ecosystem for social entrepreneurship has yet to provide an efficient way for social entrepreneurs and other changemakers to connect and collaborate with each other in a meaningful way. Traditional entrepreneurs may be able to spread their idea by simply using economies of scale and broadening their consumer base. It is not always as simple for entrepreneurs seeking social change. Scaling impact and changing mindsets often requires the leveraging of partnerships and deep collaboration. This necessitates platforms that allow changemakers a way to find each other and formulate the deep connections required to scale ideas. As one of our Fellows said:

"I believe it's not about how much I can scale my operations, but how much I can share what I'm doing with others, for the model itself to be scaled. I mean I'm not looking to have an office in every city of the world, but probably looking to have an ally in every city of the world, and I know that through Ashoka's network I could achieve that." 
(Ashoka Fellow, Latin America)

Using Technology for Social Good 

The age of incremental change has come to an end as a result of technology. The time has come for social entrepreneurs to not only leverage existing technology for social change, but also to find ways to influence the evolution of technology in a way that creates no harm. The Google X’s and Facebooks of the world are thinking in terms of creating technology that can solve global problems with the potential to impact at least a billion people as a target. The ecosystem now needs to evolve to find ways to leverage big data, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technology to solve social problems of a global scale in a positive and effective way. An ecosystem that allows for the cross pollination between big tech and social entrepreneurs needs to be developed by players from both sides. 

Enhanced Support for Twenty-First Century Leadership and Collaboration

The majority of the stakeholders supporting the field of social entrepreneurship focus on preparing social entrepreneurs and their organizations to lead in a competitive world. Services provided by varying stakeholders supporting social entrepreneurs still focus on hierarchical organizational models and competition-driven approaches as opposed to focusing on models of collaboration needed for systemic social change, such as replicating one’s idea through government partnerships, open sourcing, franchising, and others. The ecosystem needs more players supporting social innovators in developing skills that will allow them to grow and succeed as empathetic leaders in more collaborative environments. This requires a broad range of non-financial services and capacity building that includes, but is not limited to, adaptive leadership, organizational change and development, design thinking, financial modeling for co-creation, and collaboration. In the last few years, Ashoka’s engagement with its Fellows has been prioritizing this kind of support to them and it is preparing them to lead in this new world. According to 2018 Global Fellows Study, 89 percent of Fellows report that Ashoka changed how they see themselves as a leader, and of those Fellows, 94 percent are leading differently as a result. 

Self-Care, Mentorship, and Wellbeing 

The journey of a social entrepreneur can be a very lonely one. The current ecosystem is designed to support and promote the hero-driven model, in which a leader is responsible for the success of their own team, organization, and the social impact they set out to achieve. Over the years, including for the authors of this article, we have seen many cases of burnout, anxiety, and depression due to a lack of self-care, mentorship, and personal support. A new ecosystem for social entrepreneurship should recognize the personal needs of social innovators and support them in creating/pursuing the pathways that will allow them to grow as sustainable entrepreneurs and human beings. This requires the creation of a network of mentors who have a deep understanding of the lifestyle of a social entrepreneur. Silicon Valley has become known for having established an ecosystem where successful entrepreneurs mentor new generations of entrepreneurs. The same needs to be provided by the ecosystem supporting social entrepreneurs with an addition -- the ecosystem should value and contribute to the personal wellbeing of such leaders.

 Human Capital for Social Change

As practitioners with several decades of combined experience in the social sector in addition to experience in building our own social ventures, finding top talent to work on systems level social change is not an easy task. While Ashoka has worked closely with universities and schools over the years, it is important that all ecosystem players work to engage schools and universities in a way that allows youth to see social change as a career path and to develop the mindsets and skills sets required to pursue that path. If we want to see a generation of empathetic changemakers emerge, this requires structural changes within global education systems that are both technical and pedagogical in nature. 


More than any other time, the world is focused on social entrepreneurship as a source of positive change and hope. If we want to see the work of Ashoka Fellows as well as the work of other social entrepreneurs around the world be adopted at a global level, a lot of work needs to be done to build an effective ecosystem that will not only support social entrepreneurs in spreading their ideas, but also society at large in adopting and scaling them.  

Author bios

Dina Sherif is the Senior Advisor of the Global Fellowship Team at Ashoka. Dina founded Ahead of the Curve (ATC) in Egypt to promote responsible/sustainable management practices, more inclusive and equitable economies, and the development of socially innovative business models to support both economic growth and social change. Dina has also founded the Center for Entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo and serves as an Advisor to the President of Egypt for economic development and job creation. She is the author of several key publications such as the book: From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy, and key reports including a seven-country study on trends in responsible business practices in the Arab region and the 2015 UNDP Business Solutions Report. In 2016, she was chosen as one of 10 United Nations Global Compact Sustainable Development Goal Pioneers.

Maria Clara Pinheiro is the Director of Global Fellowship at Ashoka. Maria Clara joined Ashoka in 2003 and has worked extensively to select, support, and promote collaborations between leading social entrepreneurs in different parts of the world. After launching Ashoka’s Senior Fellows program in 2008, she moved to India to set up the first hub for Ashoka in Bangalore and to build the new leadership team in Asia. Back in Washington DC, she co-created the Wellbeing Project and launched Ashoka’s global efforts in building a culture of wellbeing for changemakers. Maria Clara is a meditator at Isha Foundation and is passionate about Yoga and Ayurveda. She graduated from Fundação Getulio Vargas, Brazil. 


Across the world and in all sectors, women remain severely underrepresented and under-acknowledged in leadership positions. In politics, only 24 percent of members of Parliament worldwide are women.1 In work, only 50 percent of women globally are in the labor force, and women on average earn 24 percent less than men.2 Furthermore, in business, only 22 percent of individuals currently holding senior managerial positions in both the public and business sectors are women.3 Women comprise only four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and 33 percent of all companies globally do not have any females in senior management.4

However, the status of women in social entrepreneurship importantly disrupts many of these patterns of gender inequality, as the sector has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders in its own field, and of changing the lives and welfare of all women. Over 40 years and across 92 countries, Ashoka has continuously led the sector with a strong track record of electing and empowering leading women social entrepreneurs as 38 percent of our global network. This rate far surpasses the level of representation and leadership in business and government, among many other fields. Furthermore, this is a particularly dramatic number in light of our high-level criteria for selection, which means that 38 percent of our network represents ideas authored by women and organizations or movements established and led by women.

In this article, we leverage the compelling results of Ashoka’s 2018 Global Impact Study to argue that women in the social entrepreneurship field have excelled and created impact that affects deep and lasting social change. However, we also highlight that women social entrepreneurs face pervasive gender-specific challenges that can disrupt the achievement of their full potential. Furthermore, and more importantly, the insights from the Global Impact Study validate our thinking that success and growth in social impact have been narrowly defined to the neglect of more encompassing descriptions, systematically excluding women social entrepreneurs from being widely acknowledged as successful by the mainstream. The insights within this article therefore tell the story of how leadership and success in social entrepreneurship can and must be redefined from a gender perspective, transforming how women, and indeed all social entrepreneurs, are perceived in the field.

Why Women’s Leadership?

Redefining the metrics of success in social impact is key for increasing the power and the place of women social entrepreneurs. In fact, the two ideas are mutually reinforcing. When we reframe the definition of success in a way that better includes and celebrates women social entrepreneurs, we curate an ecosystem that is more likely to inspire and nurture women changemakers. This increased presence, in turn, inherently leads our metrics closer to a positive frame about the unique ways in which women lead and create social impact.    

Ashoka envisions an Everyone a Changemaker World -- a world fit for a new rapidly changing environment, a world where every individual is equipped to create solutions that outpace social challenges. In this world, women -- who represent at least half of the world’s population -- must be fully included. We know that women are disproportionately represented and supported even in social entrepreneurship but do not have disproportionate solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

We also know that there are tangible incentives in the clear links between women in leadership and success in social impact. The evidence from our 2018 Global Impact Study reinforces the existing knowledge and Ashoka’s observations and experience from 40 years of working with more than 3,500 Fellows that women are uniquely capable of uplifting the lives of other women, families, and communities. According to the World Bank, women entrepreneurs contribute substantially to economic growth and poverty reduction and are more likely to contribute to children’s education, health, and nutrition.5 Furthermore, women are 45 percent more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating empathy consistently. Among other qualities, women outperform men in inspirational and transformative leadership, conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability, teamwork,6 and responding to global challenges following crises.7 These same qualities distinctly position women to transform communities and societies, both within and outside of social entrepreneurship.

This article is organized as follows: the preceding section answers the pressing question of why women’s leadership matters for social entrepreneurship. The following two sections subsequently outline the key findings from 2018 Global Fellows Study -- first summarizing the gender-specific challenges faced by Ashoka’s female Fellows, then demonstrating the differences between the impact models generally adopted by female and male Fellows. These differences both improve our understanding and raise new questions around how female and male Fellows relate to their beneficiaries and to their cause to create diverse levels of change. Finally, this article concludes by arguing for a need to reframe the current limited definition of impact and success and introducing Ashoka’s new program, Women in Social Entrepreneurship (WISE), which endeavors to do so. 

Gender-Specific Challenges

Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world, and with more than 1,200 leading women social entrepreneurs, marks the world’s largest resource for knowledge on women in social entrepreneurship. Our 2018 Global Impact Study, Ashoka’s greatest research effort on its Fellows to date, critically tapped that resource and illuminated key insights around the gendered barriers and successes of women social entrepreneurs. The qualitative interviews conducted within Ashoka’s Global Impact study revealed that the most common challenges shared by women Fellows were that their sector was heavily dominated by men, that they were discriminated against for their appearance (particularly if they were also young), that they were not listened to or given decision-making power in group situations, and that fundraising and networking were easier for their male colleagues. Female Fellows often felt underrepresented (either in their sector of work, in “elite” gatherings such as board meetings, or as entrepreneurs), stereotyped (as more “empathetic” and “caring” than their male peers), or simply not accepted. Moreover, the global survey found that women Fellows, despite representing the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, were likely to face barriers in investment and access to funding, discrimination and stereotyping, and industry gender bias and representation.

According to our global survey nine percent of the Ashoka Fellows who reported experiencing gender-specific challenges shared that they had faced financial constraints such as attracting funding and investment as a result of their gender, and the same challenge emerged as a more prominent theme within the qualitative interviews where several women Fellows reported that fundraising and networking were easier when a male colleague was present. Of those who reported gender-specific challenges, 26 percent faced related barriers of discrimination exhibited by a lack of respect or credibility. 

“I sometimes have the impression that I have to [put in] more effort to be heard and taken seriously, because my style of expressing myself maybe is more ‘feminine’ and does not always [fit] the more ‘masculine’ types of meetings, pitching events…”
(Female, Europe) 

Furthermore, the study found that 20 percent of those who reported gender-specific challenges experienced stereotyping or preconceived notions about gender roles or characteristics, and 13 percent faced challenges in representation, including gender predominance in certain sectors and disproportionate representation in decision-making power. 

Impact from a Gender Perspective

At the heart of why women social entrepreneurs remain underrepresented in the “hall of success” are not only the gender-specific barriers that slow or stall their progress, but also and more critically, the limited definition of success that has dominated the sector and systematically excluded women social entrepreneurs from being considered successful by the mainstream. The success of many women social entrepreneurs is made invisible when the prevailing model of success in social entrepreneurship considers impact according to a definition that favors male-dominated notions of broad impact through scaling out and franchising, what I call the fast-food franchising model. That is, the sector has largely copied its metrics of success from the business, development, and academic sectors -- namely number of customers/beneficiaries served, and breadth of area reached. Those inherited “mainstream” metrics continue to dominate among the social entrepreneurship sector and to distort understanding of what it means to scale, neglecting the actual and unique value proposition of social entrepreneurship. In the field of social entrepreneurship, where individuals dedicate their lives to solving major social problems, leading big idea changes, and making the world a better and safer place, it is important to demonstrate, as our survey proved, that women leaders have in fact succeeded and achieved their goals, albeit in a different way than how mainstream male-gendered lenses have traditionally defined success and growth. 

While there is increasing knowledge emerging on the different impact models applied by men and women in the for-profit sector, Ashoka’s Global Impact Study results provide a further developed perspective of social impact from a gender lens. The primary motivation for both men and women to become social entrepreneurs is to address a social problem or to benefit the community. This is central to the vision of Ashoka, where we elect as Fellows only those entrepreneurs for whom social change is the core and engine of their work. However, the nature of scaling models and impact between women and men reveals that although the motivation is shared, the manifestation greatly differs. The survey and qualitative interview results demonstrate that social impact enacted by Ashoka’s men and women social entrepreneurs systematically differs in choice of type of growth, relationship with the cause, leadership style, and breadth and depth of scale.

One of the most prevalent findings from our Global Impact Study is that women Fellows tend to spread their idea locally and/or nationally, while male Fellows are more likely to spread their solution on an international level. While women Fellows on average were active in four countries, the global average for men was significantly higher at 6.8. 

This disparity in international breadth of scale underlies various levels of impact measured by the Global Impact study. For example, while female Fellows reported achieving a similar overall rate of policy change, a higher percentage of male Fellows reported achieving changes in public policy at the international level. 35 percent of male Fellows reported achieving change in policy at the international level, compared to 25 percent of women Fellows. In addition, while female Fellows were more likely to report that their idea has been replicated by other groups or institutions within their country of residency, male Fellows were more likely to answer that their idea had been replicated in other countries.


Furthermore, one of the most popular metrics of success in social impact inherited from the private and development sectors is the number of beneficiaries (or customers) reached. According to survey results, 35 percent of male Ashoka Fellows had directly reached more than 10,000 people. Meanwhile, this number had been reached by 22 percent of women Fellows. This clear gap, in conversation with the compelling insights around international scale, provides strong evidence that male social entrepreneurs tend to scale broadly: geographically replicating and disseminating their idea, often through a franchising model that has worked effectively within the for-profit sector. 

Meanwhile, the insights from Ashoka’s Global Impact Study suggest that women Fellows are more cause-driven than their male counterparts, which influences every stage of their establishment and scaling. 63 percent of women Fellows have a personal connection to the problem they are tackling, compared to 59 percent of male Fellows. This tendency may be due in part to the greater likelihood of women Fellows, according to Ashoka’s impact survey, who have a personal connection to the social or environmental problem they are tackling. It can also critically explain why women social entrepreneurs may have a greater tendency to scale deeply, prioritizing the penetration of a solution over its expansion. 


For example, our global survey revealed that female Fellows were not only more likely to work with children and youth (by 60 percent versus 51 percent for male Fellows), but they also are more likely to provide youth with opportunities to start their own initiatives as a core part of their strategy. Carving the minds of youth and affecting their mindsets has a deep and long-term impact beyond the metrics, as they represent the next generation of mothers, fathers, and leaders in all sectors. In addition, female Fellows were more likely to work with women (by 55 percent versus 43 percent for male Fellows), who, in social development, have proven more capable of passing on benefits to their families and communities than male beneficiaries. 

The interview results further demonstrated that female Fellows were more likely to be aligned with Ashoka’s EACH strategy in terms of decentralized leadership, empowering young people, and creating changemakers on their teams (affirming the existing knowledge on higher levels of empathy among female leaders).

Moreover, female Fellows were also more likely to directly target patterns of behavior and cultural value within their solution. According to our survey results, 97 percent of Fellows overall reported that their idea focuses to some extent on influencing societal mindsets/cultural norms. Meanwhile, female Fellows were slightly more likely to report that this is core to their strategy (76 percent compared to 73 percent).

Conclusion: The Need for a New Frame -- Scaling Broad vs. Scaling Deep

Because the social entrepreneurship sector has in many ways inherited the success metrics of the private and development sectors, where immediate revenues and physical expansion are widely acknowledged and rewarded, the impact of women social entrepreneurs is often neglected and undercelebrated. However, defining and measuring impact and success by the number of people and countries directly reached fails to address the systematic challenges that preclude women from such achievement, and more importantly, fails to capture the deeper patterns and behaviors that shape the world. 

Although it is important to acknowledge, as our global study has done, the gender-specific challenges and disparities that guide variations in impact, it is also necessary to understand that women’s ways of leading differently does not mean leading less impactfully or successfully. In the private sector, “larger” and “scale” are the key words synonymous with success in a field where the strongest business models are replicated and franchised. However, the emphasis and the drive for social entrepreneurship is and continues to be the scaling of impact, which does not and should not exclusively mean larger, broader, or more of the same thing.  

Moore, Riddell, and Vocisano in 20158 argued that there are indeed different strategies for the social entrepreneur to have an impact. Scaling up, which is popularly used to mean general growth and spreading, is defined in their research as impacting laws and policy, based on the belief and understanding that structural problems and their root causes can be resolved by creating appropriate laws and policies. Scaling up includes new policy development, but also advocacy to advance certain legal changes and even redirecting institutional resources. Given this definition, a large number of female Fellows have in fact scaled up. Meanwhile, scaling out was defined by the authors as impacting greater numbers of people through replication and geographical dissemination. Finally, scaling deep includes changing relationships and shifting cultural values and beliefs. Through transforming mind sets, value systems, and norms, such impact has a deep and long-lasting impact on a selected community and its future generations. Based on the results of the Global Fellows Study, we now know that women Fellows are more likely to be achieving this type of impact than their male peers. Scaling deep means that the social entrepreneur can generate revenue in different ways, but the focus is on the added value and mind shift that creates a long-term and sustainable impact on the community. 

This diversity in impact models reflects the fundamental difference between the private and social entrepreneurship sectors. While the success metric in the private sector remains replication and reach, the more salient measure of success in social entrepreneurship is idea spread, which can be accomplished by scaling up, out, and deep. Indeed, for a social entrepreneur, scaling internationally may not be the highest level of systems change, and a woman social entrepreneur’s choice to scale nationally rather than internationally more often reflects a choice than a challenge -- a choice, for example, to prioritize deep-rooted structural solutions over physical expansion. 

Consider the case of microfinance institutions (MFIs). Although female borrowers are by far the largest market for microfinance institutions, only 27 percent of MFIs globally were run by female CEOs in 2008 and the largest MFIs today are predominately led by men. This gap is due in part to the fact that many formative microcredit institutions that were created by women, including my own in 1987 -- the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) -- were not concerned with physical expansion but rather with penetration. They were more concerned with providing women with access to credit through collaborating with sister organizations and transferring the know-how than with franchising. This pattern has materialized throughout Ashoka’s experience with leading women social entrepreneurs who have excelled in spreading their idea. 

Elected in India in 2006, Hasina Kharbhih created the nationally and internationally acknowledged Meghalaya Model, a comprehensive tracking system that successfully brings together the state government, security agencies, legal groups, media, and citizen organizations to combat the cross-border trafficking of children in the porous Northeastern states of India. She succeeded in embedding her model for change in local government anti-tracking operations and today the venture has evolved into a global program that aims to put an end to human trafficking and exploitation worldwide. The Impulse NGO Network has rescued 72,442 women and children across the eight states of North-East India to date, and the countries that India shares borders with, including Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. As such, Hasina stands as an effective model of scaling both up and out for idea spread and social impact. The replication of her solution worked not through direct expansion or franchising, but predominately through collaboration with local NGOs and government adoption -- creating sustainable, even if less traceable, pathways of her social impact. Hasina’s story also reflects our survey findings that female Fellows tend to work within existing systems to scale their idea, while male Fellows tend to form their own organizations and/or models to spread their idea outside of existing systems. 

The cases of women social entrepreneurs leading MFIs and the specific case of Hasina demonstrate the prioritization of a solution -- universal access to micro-credit or reducing child trafficking -- through collaboration, training, and the transfer of knowledge, and not necessarily the growth of their own ventures. This difference between expansion and penetration is at the heart of scaling deep: changing the roots of culture, relationships, and values to enact truly lasting and sustainable change. 

The preliminary findings of Ashoka’s Global Impact Study demonstrate that women social entrepreneurs are likely more inclined than their male counterparts to scale deep. Anecdotally through our Fellowship in the Middle East and North Africa, we have also found that women Fellows are more likely to work on sustainable change through future generations, to work deeply within localized communities to change patterns of behavior and enact longer-term impact, and to place influencing societal mindsets/cultural norms at the core of their strategy.

Abla Al Alfy, elected in Egypt in 2013, developed and introduced a new category of healthcare professionals in Egypt -- licensed Child Nutritional Counselors. The guiding objective was to educate and change the behavior of mothers, focusing on a child’s most critical years: the first two. The Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population, persuaded by her success, soon integrated Dr. Abla’s certification process into the public healthcare system. In areas of implementation, stunted development dropped from 21 to 10 percent, and the exclusive breastfeeding rate grew from 13 to 52 percent. In 2015, Dr. Abla began to expand -- not to different countries, but from a child’s first two to first six years of life (during which 95 percent of a child’s brain and physical growth happens). Dr. Abla’s foremost objective remains to achieve the penetration of deep and lasting behavior and culture change in how health officials and young mothers think and act with regards to children’s nutrition, thus affecting the health status of all current and future children in her targeted governorates. As such, Dr. Abla stands as an effective model of scaling up and scaling deep for idea spread and social impact.

How we define success is essential not only because it excludes many social entrepreneurs --especially women -- but also because it limits our understanding and recognition of viable solutions. It hides how positive change through the spread of a new idea can and does happen at different levels. This is the starting point for Ashoka’s new global frontier, the Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE): to comprehensively redefine the terms that preclude women social entrepreneurs from being acknowledged for their success and that prevent all social entrepreneurs from creating and growing diverse system-changing solutions.

Works Cited

1 “Women in National Parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union, last updated 1 October 2018, accessed 25 October 2018,

2 British Council, “Activist to Entrepreneur: The role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment,” 2017, accessed 25 October 2019,

3 “The Global Gender Gap Report 2017,” World Economic Forum, 2 November 2017, accessed 24 October 2018,

4 “Women in Top Leadership Positions,” Market Inspector, last modified 22 November 2017, accessed 25 October 2018,

5 “Female Entrepreneurship Resource Point - Introduction and Module 1: Why Gender Matters,” World Bank, n.d., accessed 24 October 2018,

6 “New research shows women are better at using soft skills crucial for effective leadership and superior business performance, finds Korn Ferry Hay Group,” Korn Ferry, 4 March 2016, accessed 25 October 2018,

7 Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard, and Sandra Sancier-Sultan, “Women leaders, a competitive edge in and after the crisis, Women Matter 3, McKinsey & Company, April 2010, accessed 25 October 2018,

8 Michele-Lee Moore, Darcy Riddell and Dana Vocisano, “Scaling out, scaling up, scaling deep: strategies of non-profits in advancing systemic social innovation,” The Journal of Corporate Citizenship 58 (2015): 67-84.

Author bio

Iman Bibars is the Regional Director for Ashoka Arab World (AAW) which she launched in 2003. Iman is a Leadership Group Member and Global Diaspora Leader in Ashoka. She is the co-founder and chair of ADEW, a CSO providing credit and legal aid for impoverished women. With more than 30 years of experience in strategic planning, policy formulation, community development, and project design, Iman has dedicated her life to working with marginalized and voiceless groups -- female heads of households in Egypt's poorest areas. Iman has also worked with UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, CARE-Egypt, GTZ, and KFW. Iman holds a PhD in Development Studies from Sussex University and a BA and MA in Political Science from American University in Cairo. She was a Peace Fellow at Georgetown University and a Parvin Fellow at Princeton University. Iman has been featured in several national and international press outlets and also authored several books.


A number of research studies have examined the field of entrepreneurship in an effort to understand the social, environmental, and personal antecedents of entrepreneurship. Single studies (for instance, see (de Pillis, Emmeline, Reardon 2007), (Leutner et al. 2014), and (Bosma et al. 2012) and meta-analyses (Brandstätter 2011) confirm the importance of personality. While these studies provide key insights to understand the origins of entrepreneurship, they may be misleading in the context of social entrepreneurship because entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs have different primary motivations. 

In fact, the fundamental makeup of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs may be at odds: in comparison to other business people, a meta-analysis shows that entrepreneurs have lower scores on “agreeableness,” meaning they are less pro-social, have a reduced communal orientation, and are less altruistic than other business people (Brandstätter 2011). This is in sharp contrast to social entrepreneurs, whose efforts are undergirded by empathy and a desire to give up control over their idea for the wider social good. For instance, in the 2018 Global Fellows Study, 90 percent of Fellows report that they have seen independent organizations replicate their idea.

Most existing analyses of entrepreneurial behavior -- including the relatively few studies on social entrepreneurship -- focus on motivation or intention to become an entrepreneur. In contrast, our interest is in understanding if early experiences and behavior in childhood and adolescence are a factor in determining an individual’s journey as a social entrepreneur. With the 2018 Fellows study data, we can go a step further and attempt to use childhood experiences to predict which social entrepreneurs are likely to produce extraordinary social transformation. Ashoka is collecting data on these topics because it believes that a world of constant change requires changemaking skills (empathy, teamwork, leadership, and creative problem solving for the social good) that, if mastered during childhood, are likely to become a permanent characteristic of adulthood.


In 2018, Ashoka conducted its first ever Global Fellows Study (see more on methodology in Diana Wells’ article). Prior to that study, in 2017, Ashoka sent out a questionnaire to more than 100,000 people, including past challenge entrants, challenge network partners, and Ashoka staff and alumni. The Pulse Survey was an initiative of Ashoka’s Changemakers team,1 which activates a global network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, business leaders, policymakers, and activists to build an Everyone a Changemaker world. It was viewed by 1,885 individuals, begun by 605 of them, and completed by 180. Slightly more than one-quarter of responses came from the United States, with India, Nigeria, Brazil, Kenya, and Canada providing approximately another quarter of all results, and no other country providing more than four percent  of the responses.

Nearly 90 percent of respondents reported they had taken ”creative action to tackle a social problem within the last six months.” These social problems included education, children and youth, the environment, among others. Respondents played a number of organizational roles: 27.5 percent described themselves as entrepreneurs; 18.4 percent as team members; and others played roles including producing a concert and acting as a consultant. 80 percent of respondents received an award or recognition for their changemaking including: being featured in the news, giving a keynote, and being appointed to a leadership position.

Why is it Important to Identify Early Changemaking Influences?

Predicting who is likely to become an extraordinary social entrepreneur or changemaker in general, is important in several ways. One, knowing the specific environmental and social influences may ease and make more accurate the process of identifying and then supporting these individuals. Two, it may help identify more context-specific strategies to engage a broader swath of society in becoming truly effective changemakers. In order to achieve an Everyone a Changemaker world, organizations and individuals that provide support in the broader ecosystem must understand the childhood influences and experiences that are key to promoting changemaking success. 

In this article we explore two possible factors that might predict who goes on to become a systems-changing social entrepreneur: one’s earliest changemaking experiences and one’s most significant influences growing up. We then compare a smaller subset of Fellows who have achieved systems change at an international level to Fellows who have not in order to analyze any differences in early changemaking experiences or influences.

Insights on Early Changemaking Experiences

Both Fellows and Pulse respondents were asked to report their first changemaking experiences. In this context, “changemaking” is defined as taking creative action to solve a social problem and may or may not include starting one’s own initiative. “Social entrepreneurship” is defined as launching an initiative, either nonprofit or for-profit, with the explicit intention of solving a social problem.

Pulse respondents were asked “When was your first changemaking experience?” and Fellows in the 2018 Global Fellows Study were asked two questions about their early changemaking experiences. 

  1. Think back to the first time you joined someone else's initiative to create a solution to a social problem. How old were you? 
  2. Think back to the first time you personally took the initiative to create a solution to a social problem. How old were you?

All three questions required a numerical response.

The data in Table 1 compares the results. Because not all Fellows started their own initiative after joining someone else’s (for some Fellows it was the opposite), in this table the earlier of the first “changemaking experiences” is recorded.

These data demonstrate that Fellows are having earlier changemaking experiences than the broader population of Pulse respondents. By age 24, nearly 79 percent of Fellows have had their first changemaking experience, compared to only 61 percent of Pulse respondents. By age 16, Fellows are more than 50 percent more likely to have had a serious changemaking experience than Pulse respondents; and by every age from eight through age 24, they are at least 28 percent more likely.  

These results show that, on average, Ashoka Fellows, who are exemplary changemakers, have changemaking experiences earlier in their lives than Pulse respondents (a still-accomplished but less accomplished group), lending support to the hypothesis that the age of one’s earliest changemaking experience can predict one’s later achievements in changemaking activities.

This conclusion that early changemaking experiences are significant influences in becoming a social entrepreneur in adulthood was supported by qualitative interviews with 43 Fellows in the summer of 2018. The majority of Fellows in these interviews reported that they had changemaking experiences while under the age of 20. These experiences were diverse, including participating in an entrepreneurial program in school, being part of a protest movement, or helping out with the family business from a young age. The common thread in these experiences was the opportunity for the Fellow to gain leadership experience in a supportive environment where they were encouraged to fail, be creative, and challenge the “status quo.” 

“I had a teacher when I was seven or eight years old. She came with…project ideas for development projects. When I was eight we made a small water pump and sold it to people in Africa. We raised money for this, and [to be able to make] a change and see, yes there is our water pump there, it made things real. Not only to talk about, but also to support giving young kids the idea that if you do something, there is an impact. The process from my point of view, it was like an inflection point.”
(Austrian Fellow)

Early Changemaking Experience as a Predictor of Systems Change Achievement

Recent research demonstrates that changemaking experiences (including leadership, teamwork, empathy, and creative problem solving for the social good) experienced by children and youth can have powerful effects on their identity and behavior. For example, adolescents who participated in youth-led participatory action projects improved their critical thinking skills and gained psychological empowerment and wellbeing (Ozer 2017). Controlling for other factors, high schoolers who participated in community service activities have higher civic engagement as adults (Hart 2007). However, this body of research is lacking a link between young changemaking experiences and later adult “success” in changemaking. 

While the data discussed previously show clearly that Ashoka Fellows have earlier changemaking experiences than the general population, they do not address any potential link between Fellows’ systems change achievements and the age of their first changemaking experience. We sought to address that question directly using data collected from Fellows in the 2018 study.

In the study, Ashoka measured systems change in public policy and markets, at the international, national, and regional/local levels. For a complete list of systems change indicators please see Appendix A. For the purposes of this paper, the highest level of systems change success was identified as international level change in any of the categories in Appendix A. By collapsing these various ways of exhibiting international influence, we identified 424 Fellows in the survey who had achieved systems change at the international level and another 432 who had not. 

The number of these Fellows is shown in Table 2. The left-most column lists the difference (in years) between first launching and first joining. For instance, the row headed by < -10 pertains to Fellows whose own social change efforts pre-dated joining someone else’s by more than 10 years; whereas 11-20 pertains to Fellows who joined someone else’s social change efforts 11-20 years before launching their own.

Table 2 shows how similar the data are for the international systems changers compared to other Ashoka Fellows. A chi-squared analysis confirms that age-difference (between starting and joining) is statistically independent of being an international systems changer or not.

Still, an intriguing observation stands out: International systems changers were more than 50 percent more likely than other Fellows to start a social venture more than 10 years before joining one. 

Why don’t we see differences in starting vs. joining when comparing international systems changers and other Ashoka Fellows? One possibility is that all Fellows have been so rigorously screened before selection that international systems changers are indistinguishable from Fellows as a whole, at least on this dimension. Another hypothesis is that early changemaking is determined more by access to networks and capital rather than Fellows’ intrinsic personality and abilities, and therefore the age of early changemaking may not change Fellows’ eventual systems change achievements. 

Social Influences on Changemaking

Both the Pulse data and the Fellows data inquired about individuals’ most important early influences. Fellows in the 2018 study were asked: “Which people/groups were most influential in supporting your development as a person who creates social change?” Pulse survey participants were asked: “Who was the most supportive or influential person in your life that led you to start changemaking?”

Table 3 complies the results from the two questionnaires. It normalizes the data to account for the fact that Fellows could report multiple influences.

These data reveal that parents were a strong influence on Pulse data respondents and equally on  Fellows who had had influence internationally and those who had not, with each group registering approximately one-quarter of all responses. Teachers, on the other hand, appear to have had a greater influence on Fellows (13.45 percent and 15.25 percent for Fellows without international influence and for those having international influence, respectively) than on Pulse data respondents (only 5.26 percent of whom named teachers as being “most influential”). Similarly, other inspiring social entrepreneurs had far more influence on Fellows (approximately 20 percent) than on Pulse data respondents. Consistent with these data is the hypothesis that teachers and social entrepreneurs both act in exemplary ways that truly propel those who rise above the rest as changemakers.

The qualitative interviews supported these findings, with the majority of Fellows citing parents, other inspiring social entrepreneurs, and teachers as key influences in their changemaking journeys. Fellows told us that these role models were key in encouraging and mentoring them in “changemaking skills” including empathy, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to challenge the status quo and understand complex systems. Many Fellows reported that their heightened sense of social responsibility and awareness was due to these role models’ professions (several Fellows said that their parents were public servants or in socially-motivated careers), values (to challenge authority), or their own experiences of marginalization. For example, two of the 43 Fellows we spoke with had parents who were refugees from World War II, and another two Fellows had parents who were immigrants and dealt with poverty and discrimination.


There were several limitations to this study that prevented it from being a more rigorous analysis. First, the childhood influences question in the 2018 Fellows study was “select all” so we were not able to prioritize which influences were the strongest for Fellows. Furthermore, all of the data were self-reported with no validation of childhood influences or experiences. With no control group (except the Pulse respondents, the majority of whom are not similar to the Ashoka Fellows in key characteristics) and a lack of longitudinal data on consistent survey questions, it is difficult to come to any concrete conclusions about the relationship between childhood changemaking experiences and influences, and social entrepreneurship behavior and success.

Much more research is needed to untangle the complex web of factors that may influence an adult to become a social entrepreneur -- and beyond that, to become a systems changing social entrepreneur. However, the 2018 Fellows study data, combined with the Pulse survey, is a start towards classifying different components of the ecosystem. Based on these data as well as the 43 interviews with Fellows, we do know that Fellows believe early changemaking experiences and influences are key ingredients in their decision to become social innovators, and factors in their systems changing achievements. Some common categories of young changemaking experience that emerged from the interviews included having the opportunity to lead an initiative, forming empathy through exposure to diverse groups and cultural contexts, and being inspired and emotionally supported by social entrepreneur role models including parents and teachers.

We also know that key influences and early changemaking experiences vary substantially by geography and somewhat by gender, leading to the conclusion that a global analysis will not be able to tell the whole story of the impact of young changemaking. More rigorous research segmented by geography, gender and other demographic characteristics is needed to begin to uncover the potential ripple effects of early changemaking on later career choices and achievements. 

Works Cited

Bosma, Niels, Jolanda Hessels, Veronique Schutjens, Mirjam Van Praag, and Ingrid Verheul. 2012. “Entrepreneurship and Role Models.” Journal of Economic Psychology 33: 410–24.

Brandstätter, Hermann. 2011. “Personality Aspects of Entrepreneurship: A Look at Five Meta-Analyses.” Personality and Individual Differences 51: 222–30.

de Pillis, Emmeline, Reardon, Kathleen K. 2007. “The Influence of Personality Traits and Persuasive Messages on Entrepreneurial Intention: A Cross‐ Cultural Comparison.” Career Development International 12 (4): 382–96.

Hart, Daniel, et al. "High school community service as a predictor of adult voting and volunteering." American Educational Research Journal 44.1 (2007): 197-219.

Leutner, Franziska, Gorkan Ahmetoglu, Reece Akhtar, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. 2014. “The Relationship between the Entrepreneurial and the Big Five Personality Traits.” Personality and Individual Differences 63: 58–63.

Ozer, Emily J. "Youth‐led participatory action research: Overview and potential for enhancing adolescent development." Child Development Perspectives 11.3 (2017): 173-177.


1 Many thanks to Reem Rahman for leading the Pulse survey, and to the support of Samer Yousif and Hunter Bryant.

APPENDIX A: Ashoka’s Systems Change Questions 


Author bios

Michael Gordon is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Social Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, where he teaches social entrepreneurship and social finance.

He has had broad experience helping organizations around the world address societal problems, partnering with prominent scholars, nonprofits, and social businesses. He supports students and others in launching and running nonprofits and social enterprises.

He is author of the books Social Enterprise and Sustainable Business: Design Your Life, Change the World and Inclusivity: Will America Find its Soul Again? His forthcoming book, You Want to be a Social Entrepreneur?: Starting, Scaling Up, Staying True, distills lessons from more than one hundred social entrepreneurs he has interviewed in depth.

He is interested in fostering inclusive communities in the United States, especially Detroit, and creating formative experiences for the rising generation of changemakers. He is currently researching, teaching, and writing about how everyone can “do good with money.”

Sara Wilf is an Impact and Evaluation Specialist for Ashoka’s Impact and Evidence Team. Sara conducts quantitative and qualitative research on social entrepreneurship and changemaking. After beginning her career working with nonprofits and schools in New York, Chile, and India, Sara obtained her Master of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Since then she has conducted research and program evaluations for nonprofits working on women’s economic empowerment, financial inclusion, school attendance, and children’s socioemotional outcomes and wellbeing. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. 

Yuwa, Inc., Jharkhand, India
Photo Credit: Yuwa, Inc.

There’s a myth that still needs to be busted.1 It’s the idea that the main way that social change happens is with a hero, that change won’t happen until we have a charismatic leader to show the way. Hollywood understands the power of this idea: stories about superheroes2 are a billion dollar industry, making up almost half of the highest grossing films of 2017. And in the field of social innovation, the majority of conferences and awards are focused on recognizing the lone founder behind initiatives. 

There is a certain truth behind this myth. In our work to support transformative ideas for social change at Ashoka, being the individual who is the originator and catalyzing force behind an idea has remained a core criteria for more than 40 years.3 And undoubtedly, social movements are galvanized by inspiring leaders who motivate others to take action.4 

Collaboration and Collective Leadership Are Essential for Systems Change

However, Ashoka has observed that leading social entrepreneurs don’t only create impact as lone heroes -- they need others -- and in many different ways. First, they need teams to achieve their impact; Ashoka Fellows are employing an average of 58 team members each. Second, they need to create roles and enabling environments for as many others as possible to also participate and lead in change. Our 2018 Global Fellows Study impact, for example, found that more than 77 percent of Ashoka Fellows are putting young people in charge of leading initiatives. Lastly, they need collaborations beyond their organization in order to achieve impact at scale. More than 90 percent of Ashoka Fellows have reported creating systems change in markets and/or public policy, and creating open collaborations is a widely shared strategy: 90 percent of all Ashoka Fellows are openly encouraging other institutions or groups to replicate their idea in order to achieve their impact rather than solely focusing on growing the size of their organization. 

Ashoka Fellows also have a high degree of peer-to-peer collaboration; Fellows average four collaborations with each other. Patrick Streubi of FairTradeUSA and Krishna Mishra of Ekutir are one example. FairTraideUSE and Ekutir have partnered to increase their impact by creating Blooom, a platform to better enable farmers to get fair prices for their produce by selling directly to local and international markets. The collaboration is yielding impact:5 on average, the communities where Blooom works are able to increase their yield by 75 percent, cut their food waste in half, and double their income. 

The literature about large-scale collaborations (which covers topics such as collective impact6, multi-stakeholder initiatives,7 community collaboratives,8 inclusive markets,9 and cross-sector collaborations10) cites five major motivations for pursuing a collaborative approach for scaling up social impact despite how much more difficult it can be to coordinate across multiple organizations. Collaborative approaches to systems change are seen as: 

  • an effective way to tackle the nature of complex social problems. Certain social problems have the qualities of being large-scale, multi-sector, interconnected, and constantly changing, so they require solutions that have those same qualities as well;
  • designed to remain accountable to having impact that reaches the entire community served; 
  • a more efficient way to optimize resources to overcome fragmented, "service delivery chaos11" by leveraging resources outside of just a single organization;  
  • an essential way to keep up with the hyper-pace of innovation and change and ensure sustainable value chains; and
  • a more realistic way to ensure sustained impact because they pay deliberate attention to diversifying the stakeholders as co-owners. 

There are, however, two major mindset shifts needed in order to take collaborative approaches to systems change. These include:

  1. Shifting from traditional to collective leadership: According to Chris Underhill, founder of the global mental health initiative BasicNeeds: “Long gone are the days when one institution such as ‘Save The Change’ can go in and just make something happen that is top down.” BasicNeeds, has served the mental health needs of more than 680,00012 people through collaborative partnerships with local government, ministries of help, and the formation of more than 600 locally-lead, self-help groups. A key to building such a distributed, impactful network was moving beyond a traditional, hierarchical leadership style where a few people take key decisions towards a more collective approach to leadership where many different people and organizations can take decisions and lead as well.  
  2. Moving away from strategic planning to emergence: Systems change -- creating a new and better pattern in society by tackling the root cause(s) of a problem -- requires recognizing that there isn’t a single, static problem that is being tackled. Tackling a problem at greater scale means seeing how it is interconnected, shifting, and difficult to understand by just analyzing any one part. It requires an understanding of emergence -- seeing a whole pattern that can’t be seen by looking at any one part -- but rather by looking at the interactions between many parts. Paul Born, founder of the Tamarack Institute, emphasizes how “the biggest tragedy [is] when people implement a strict planning process; they seem to shut down people’s ability to imagine and explore.” He instead supports the formation of networks of organizations that are not just creating plans, but are also deliberate about listening, learning, and adjusting decisions on a regular basis based on engaging all those who care and are affected by the targeted issue. As a result, Tamarack Institute has reduced poverty for more than 250,000 families13 via a network of organizations committed to reducing poverty in more than 50 Canadian cities.  

Opening up and Letting Go

One of the most important considerations for social entrepreneurs who are contemplating collective leadership is determining how much they are willing to open up their model and let go of controlling the full outcome and its execution in order to enable others to also lead, shape, and deliver on achieving a shared vision. This requires questioning and innovating in every dimension of leadership, including organizational structures, decision making, beliefs about people’s capacity, resources and information management, how learning happens, and the role of empathy and conflict resolution. 

Raj Jayadev exemplifies14 this shift. He is a part of a growing national movement to advance the concept of “participatory defense” where families and communities most impacted by mass incarceration in the United States can effectively participate in the criminal defense process and transform the landscape of power in the court system. So far, networks of community members have established hubs applying this model in more than four states, and collectively they “have saved nearly 4,000 years of potential prison terms for defendants through cases won or reduced sentences.”15 Raj did not start more chapters of his organization with him at the center as the E.D., but instead uses an open model that works to train and support local cities to start their own chapters, with the community organizations that were already in place, allowing them to make their own decisions. Instead of becoming a large, chapter organization, the hubs form a National Participatory Defense Network.  

Figure 1: The Collective Leadership Spectrum for System Change

The following is an overview of collective leadership as a way to enable many more participants to quickly collaborate towards systems change. It is offered as a spectrum because it is not binary: no one approach is necessarily “bad” or “good;” the approach depends on specific context.  

A more careful look at one of the largest networks of social entrepreneurs shows us the same insight as a more careful viewing of why the Avengers may be one of the most popular of the superhero films: there’s a story more powerful than just the lone hero; collaborations -- and the collective leadership needed to achieve them, are central to the most effective pathways for social change. 

Works Cited 

1. Papi-Thornton, D. "Tackling Heropreneurship." Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship-University of Oxford, (Clore Social Leadership Programme) (2016),

2. Fennessey, Sean. “The Superhero Movie Generation.” The Ringer, The Ringer, 13 Nov. 2017,

3. “Recommend an Ashoka Fellow.” Ashoka | Everyone a Changemaker, 5 Sept. 2018,

4. Morris, Aldon D., and Suzanne Staggenborg. "Leadership in social movements." The Blackwell companion to social movements (2004): 171-196.

5. “Democratizing the Future of Farming.” Blooom,

6. Stachowiak, Sarah, and Jewlya Lynn. When Collective Impact Has an Impact: A Cross-Site Study of 25 Collective Impact Initiatives. ORS Impact, 2018,

7. Biekart, Kees, and Alan Fowler. "Ownership dynamics in local multi-stakeholder initiatives." Third World Quarterly (2018): 1-19,

8. Jolin, M., P. Schmitz, and W. Seldon. "Needle-moving community collaboratives: A promising approach to addressing America’s biggest challenges." The Bridgespan Group (2012),

9. Koh, Harvey, et al. Shaping Inclusive Markets How Funders and Intermediaries Can Help Markets Move toward Greater Economic Inclusion. Rockefeller Foundation, FSG, 2017,

10. Henig, Jeffrey R., et al. "Putting collective impact in context: A review of the literature on local cross-sector collaboration to improve education." New York, NY: Teachers College, Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis (2015),

11. Grossman, Allen S., and Ann B. Lombard. "Business Aligning for Students." Harvard Business School (2015),

12. “Our Impact.” Basic Needs,

13. Tamarack Institute 2017 Progress & Impact Report | Celebrating 15 Years of Community Change. Tamarack Institute, 2017,

14. “Raj Jayadev.” Ashoka | Everyone a Changemaker, 2014,

15. Raj Jayadev. MacArthur Foundation, 2018,

Author bio

Reem Rahman is the Director of the Ashoka Changemakers Learning Lab, dedicated to helping anyone with an idea for social change succeed in making a difference. She is passionate about co-creating open-source tools for learning and designs products to increase collaboration, impact, and sustainability. These have included reports on trends in social innovation such as "Youth Unstuck: Innovations for Youth Livelihoods and Leadership." Reem has a Master’s degree in Management Research from the University of Oxford focusing on strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. 

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