I took a short trip to an alternate universe the other night. It started with a 5-minute ride on a party bus equipped with a huge refrigerator and gleaming stainless-steel sink. Tiny twinkling stars were set into the ceiling. From my cushioned seat, I stared at freeform glass panels separating passengers from the driver: they cycled hypnotically through all the colors of the rainbow.
This made it challenging to read the non-disclosure agreement I was handed when I boarded the bus, and to use the free ballpoint that came with with it to sign on the dotted line. By now you will have guessed that I was passing into the high-tech world, specifically Google intergalactic headquarters, site that evening of an extraordinary gathering. Unless you’ve visited there yourself, you may not comprehend how unlike the ordinary world it is, from the free laundromat for employees near the main entrance to the heated toilet seats in the women’s bathroom. How did I get there?
Barry’s fellowship supports the incredible pioneering work he and Debora Barkan do through their Live Oak Institute, transforming our understanding of elders in society and remaking the culture of elder care from warehousing to an expression of joy, dignity and grace. The new crop of North American fellows includes Dune Lankard, whose work is to return stewardship of Alaskan native interests and lands to native hands; Cecilio Solis, whose work is to turn Mexican eco-tourism into something that benefits local development; Ron Chisolm of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based group dedicated to undoing racism; and thirteen equally impressive others.
After 26 years, Ashoka has become a global organization with a budget of nearly $30 million. The underlying idea is to support a climate of change and an entrepreneurial spirit of change-making by investing in social entrepreneurs, defined as people with sustainable, replicable, innovative solutions to social problems.
As I listened to talk of world problems and opportunities from Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin and Salar Kamangar (who is in charge of its “monetization products”) and from Ashoka’s founder Bill Drayton, a man with vast public/private experience, I realized that my horizons have been narrower than I knew. In my world, what these folks call “social entrepreneurship” has generally been sustained by the voluntary sacrifice of entrepreneurial organizers, aided by small, hard-won grants and contributions. My old-school frame of reference was formed in a social climate that pitted agents of business and of social change against each other. For most of my life, corporate business’s prime directive has been to maximize profit at all costs, while change agents’ prime directive has been to put other things first: people, planet, justice, social well-being.
Those same values drove Ashoka to the leading edge of a new phenomenon, the emergence of business leaders as supporters of social change. Its funding comes entirely from the private sector; no government grants. I had an interesting time Web-surfing the North American program partners listed in Ashoka’s program for the induction ceremony: a few of them were consulting or law firms, but most were family foundations or other wholly or partly philanthropic ventures founded by people who’d made their fortunes in high-tech. Contrary to the dominant paradigm, most of these people have done something nearly unprecedented: at a certain point, they decided they had enough money, turning their attention to investing a sizable chunk of it in good causes around the world, new paradigm solutions rather than old paradigm charities.
As the 12th century sage Maimonides wrote, this is the highest form of redistributive justice, willingly assisting people with the means to become self-sufficient, foreclosing the need for charity.
Like the emergent entrepreneurial world of new technologies, Ashoka’s leadership, funding and programs are fully globalized, grounded in this virtual community’s facility with communication at a distance, with collaboration across lines of culture and nationality. Even though I had previously heard of some of its projects (for instance, some of my writing is referenced on its changemakers.net Web site), until now, I didn’t understand the scope and character of this parallel world.
I’d definitely like to go back for a longer visit, which will start right here at my computer. Bye for now: I’ve got a long list of new URLs and hours of Googling before I sleep. If there were only a place online to do my laundry…