Ashoka: inspiring change

Arnaud Mourot is Co-Director of Ashoka Europe. With over 3500 supported entrepreneurs, Ashoka is the world's largest network of social entrepreneurs. Its mission is to train agents for change and to promote a new vision of entrepreneurship.

Ashoka: inspiring change

Ashoka is the world's largest network of social entrepreneurs. How do you manage to articulate the local scale and the global scale?

Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs on various themes, including environment, health and social integration. The core mission of the organisation is to identify and support men and women who take a different view on society's issues by providing radically new solutions, while taking into account the sustainability and replicability of their models. This network of social innovators enables us to identify global trends in the response to certain major societal issues, and thus to move from individual support for entrepreneurs to a more collective, international contribution to the construction of the social innovation sector. With this two-track approach, our core business enables us to identify new sectoral paradigms.

What we are observing today is that is no universal project, the geographical scope of most projects is local, at the scale of a region or a country. However, some solutions can be spread out internationally, and we support our social entrepreneurs to do so whenever possible. We do not want to copy-paste a model, we are rather interested in exporting and sharing its main principles of intervention. For example, micro-credit is not a universal phenomenon but its main principles can be applied and adapted locally.

The collective dimension I mentioned earlier also comes into play, because we believe that each entrepreneur brings part of the response to a broader societal question, and it is our objective to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Before seeking to grow social companies, we wish to maximize the power of social impact.

One of your objectives is to create a bridge between the public sector, the private sector and social entrepreneurs. How is this transversality the economic model of the future?

The social issues that arise in today’s world affect billions of people (access to drinking water, education, healthy and balanced food). It is illusory to think that these global issues will be resolved by social entrepreneurs or by the public authorities alone: their margin of manoeuvre is too limited compared to the magnitude of these issues. We have therefore sought to mobilize the strike force of large companies in order to "industrialize", and thereby increase, the impact of social entrepreneurs’ actions. But there is a very important cultural gap in terms of aims and methodologies between these two universes (traditional and social companies). Boehringer Ingelheim, a German laboratory specializing in health, is now convinced that working with social entrepreneurs is relevant, that it is a real business challenge and not just a matter of social responsibility, and that social innovation is as important as other forms of innovation. It was necessary to do a real work of acculturation of the company, but also to train and sensitize Boehringer's workforce to the skills and challenges of social entrepreneurship. We believe that this model can be replicated in all other sectors because it allows us to respond to problems that require new skills in an ever-changing world.


How do you select your fellows? Do you favour those who have already proven themselves, and why?

We select them through a rigorous process, which is in effect in the 90 countries where Ashoka operates. There are five main selection criteria:

  • innovation: is it an innovative project in the systemic sense?
  • the potential for impact: does the project have a local or international impact?
  • the entrepreneurial qualities of the project leader, which are just as important as the project itself
  • creativity: how does the entrepreneur solve problems, build his strategy to achieve his objectives?
  • the ethical dimension: is the entrepreneur driven by a genuine intrinsic motivation to resolve a social issue?

The selection process lasts 8 months on average, it is composed of a succession of analyses, interviews, meetings and evaluations made by local and international teams, in order to have a 360° vision of the project. It also ensures complementarity between the different social entrepreneurs we support around the world.

What kind of support do you offer to your fellows? Have you measured the accelerating effect of this support?

For three years, we provide funding that will allow the social entrepreneur to focus exclusively on developing his project. We then support the project with different levers, from which the selected entrepreneur can benefit throughout his entrepreneurial career:

  • skills sponsorship: we mobilize a team of pro bono partners who provide technical expertise in law, tax, logistics, strategy, etc. They provide human support adapted to the level of development of the project.
  • a network of other social entrepreneurs: we bring together all of our project leaders so that they can learn from each other's experiences.
  • a network of entrepreneurs and business leaders: these philanthropists are mentors who share their experience in finding investors, project development, stabilization. This mentoring relationship can be reversed in favour of traditional entrepreneurs, who have as much to learn from social entrepreneurs.

This support has a very strong labelling and prescription effect, because the Ashoka experience strengthens the entrepreneur's project and gives it more legitimacy with respect to other actors. Moreover, the survival rate of our entrepreneurs' organisations is around 90% over 10 years, and 9 out of 10 projects will be replicated by other independent organisations. Finally, 50% of the entrepreneurs we support will have an influence on the implementation of public policies in their sector of activity.


You also want to make young people agents for change: can one learn to become a social entrepreneur? What are the keys to a successful social entrepreneur?

At Ashoka, being an agent for change is not limited to being a social entrepreneur: each citizen, through his capacity for action on his own scale, can contribute to solving social issues without becoming a social entrepreneur. In any case, our experience shows that becoming an agent for change requires a certain number of soft skills, which can be acquired very early in life. We have found that nearly 85% of the entrepreneurs we support have embarked on an entrepreneurial project in their adolescence.

One of Ashoka's challenges is to define a new paradigm in the learning experience of the youngest, which enables them to develop - in parallel with fundamental knowledge - skills such as self-confidence, a collaborative spirit, a capacity to take risks, challenging oneself, empathy, etc. In a world where labour is increasingly uncertain and where individuals will have to change jobs fifteen times in their lives on average, it is necessary to highlight these skills and create spaces for experimentation where young people can learn from their successes and failures. We will then be able to have a new generation of citizens who feel concerned by social issues and who are committed to a fairer, more equitable and more sustainable society.

The figure of the social entrepreneur is becoming more and more prominent in the business world. However, a few preconceived ideas persist: how to fight them?

It is important to give visibility to social entrepreneurs by “massifying” their projects. Their success will help overcome preconceived ideas. Social entrepreneurship must become a new norm. What works in our favour is the search for meaning that is emerging in society: twenty years ago, four students from the ESCP Europe business school wanted to get involved in social entrepreneurship after graduating. Today, more than 25% of promotions take this path. Individuals aspire to new models of success and want to control their life trajectory. What matters more and more is personal development, the impact on society and the meaning we give to our existence. Within the next 10 to 20 years, I hope that the line between social entrepreneurship and traditional entrepreneurship will have blurred, that the whole economy will have integrated a social dimension and that every social company will have integrated economy. I think that it is the course of history.