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The Roots of Social Change: Young Changemaking in Global Context

Disruptive Innovations


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.