This interview outlines Ashoka’s vision of social entrepreneurship, innovation and new leadership. We asked Adam Lent, researcher and expert on social innovation, to talk about his new role at Ashoka and how he is trying to promote a change-making world where everyone can be contribute and generate change. Adam discussed the importance of a new form of leadership, often linked to technology and social media, where there are rapid organisational shifts: “The most powerful way to generate change is to give power away, not hoard it”.
Interview by Stephanie van de Werve, Communications and Marketing Manager at Aleron
Social Entrepreneurship

Aleron: What makes a social entrepreneur?

Adam: In Ashoka’s experience a social entrepreneur is defined by entrepreneurial drive and charismatic personality, as well as a very strong sense of wanting to generate social impact and change. That spirit and can do approach often exhibits itself during the teenage years. At a young age, social entrepreneurs often develop a sense of their own agency and a desire to generate change.

OF course, the dividing line between what we call social enterprise and what we might think of as conventional businesses is beginning to dissolve. It becomes more and more difficult to differentiate social enterprises from commercial enterprises.

We know from Ashoka’s work that the most effective social entrepreneurs, and increasingly the most effective businesses in general, are those who put a really strong emphasis on empowerment and on developing models that give others the tools to generate change. The great social entrepreneur is one who recognizes that there are people out there who want to be empowered, to change their world, and to become change-makers. Giving these change-makers the tools they need is at the heart of many successfully business models. It is a massive shift occurring in our society’s economy.

Aleron: How does Ashoka support social entrepreneurs practically?

Adam: Fellows are given a wide range of support. Ashoka works in 85 countries, and social entrepreneurs in different countries have different needs and approaches. Generally, fellows are first given funds to allow them to concentrate more of their time on developing their social enterprise. Secondly, we often provide access to networks of people who bring specific skills to their business; for example, we will link them with investors to take their business to scale.

The biggest value that Ashoka fellows get is having the ability to tap into a network of some of the greatest social entrepreneurs in the world. Some have even won Nobel Prizes for their work. Linking up with these people, learning from them and finding possibilities for new collaborations and partnerships that you never would have thought of before is an incredible opportunity. The fellowship process is also very difficult, so it is seen as a prestigious award.

Adam is developing and implementing Ashoka’s vision of a world in which everyone can be a Changemaker. Before joining Ashoka in May 2015, Adam was Director of the Action and Research Centre at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Prior to the RSA, Adam was Head of Economics for the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an experience which he credits with giving him a ‘doctorate in politics and campaigning’. His latest book, “Small is Powerful: why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing” is due to be published in early 2016. He combines a deep understanding of how the world is changing, together with practical entrepreneurship in social innovation.

Follow Adam on Twitter @adajlent and read more about Ashoka at

Aleron: Ashoka’s approach intervenes on three levels: The social entrepreneurs, the network and infrastructure. Do the network that receives the most focus from Ashoka?

Adam:It varies greatly from country to country, as each Ashoka country office is very autonomous. You cannot have one fixed offer when you work in such a diverse and complex area. However, it is definitely about being part of a global network of entrepreneurs. You can spend your working life at Ashoka, there are events happening constantly all across the world that add enormous value to people who are trying to set up their enterprise.

Moreover, when you are an Ashoka fellow you remain a fellow for life. Different fellows at different stages of their lives will access Ashoka‘s support and network as they see fit. They will use it in different ways. For some, just the prestige of being part of Ashoka is enough and a huge benefit to their credibility with funders and stakeholders. Others will get deeply engaged because the enterprise they established is built around Ashoka’s support network and offers.

Research and Innovation

Aleron: What does it mean to be Ashoka’s director for Research and Innovation?

Adam: Ashoka believes that the nature of society and economy is evolving quite radically to one where people desire the resources, tools and skills to be change-makers. In fact, economies are becoming so fluid, complex and fast moving that people require change-maker skills to be able to work at all. The traditional world of standardized products, repetitive tasks and jobs and standard career path is dying, and individuals and organizations need to adapt to that world now.

My role is to understand how Ashoka can help individuals to adapt to this new world where everyone is a change-maker. How should organisations rethink their business models to be adapted to the change-making world? How will social, political, economic systems need to adapt?

What has been the social impact of Ashoka’s research so far?

Adam: Historically, Ashoka has been enormously successful delivering social impact through supporting social enterprises and networking 3000 fellows around the world. This will continue but my role and the role of my colleagues is evolving to deliver impact in a different way. We are now working to change people’s mind-set, to help them understand the new landscape where “everyone is a change-maker” and help them understand what that means for them as individuals and organisations. It is about mind-set shift rather than impacting a particular sector transformation.

Aleron: What are the practical steps organisations should take to encourage innovation?

Adam: It is an absolute necessity for organisations to adapt and recognise that great ideas and innovation can come from anywhere. This means radical change to business models. They need to develop flatter structures and a different relationship with their customers, empowering them and providing tools rather than products.

This is hard to do; it requires cultural changes in organisations and institutional change. It can be very challenging as people like power and the new reality will mean that will have to change roles and relinquish some power.

Aleron: How would that apply to charities?

Adam: The key thing for charities and social enterprises is to see themselves as organisations that empower their clients rather than serving them. One cannot treat the people one works with as people without minds or who cannot make decisions for themselves, one must try to create a supportive environment and give them the tools to make change for themselves.

A lot of charities got to that position a lot earlier than big ventures did because they were influenced by movements in the 1970’s which disrupted the sector very effectively. Charities changed enormously over the last thirty years; they were ahead of the game.

Social Media and Leadership

Aleron: You recently talked about new leadership and the importance of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. It is undeniable to say that social media has transformed business structures, but are there other factors that lead to the new leadership?

Adam: I am a strong believer that we overstate the importance of technology. For 40 years, we have accumulated a huge wealth of undeniable evidence around the world which show that people increasingly want self-expression, autonomy, choice. In the past, for many the most pressing question was simply, have I got enough food on the table? Once those things are provided, people begin to wonder about life fulfillment – do I live the life I want? It is probably one of the most important social-cultural-economical trends of the last half a century.

Social media has highlighted changes but it has not delivered them. Technology does not change people, people do. It’s about the relationships and the values that people hold that creates change.

Aleron: What will this desire for self-expression and determination lead to? Will technology become our egotistic boss? How do you picture an organisation chart in 10 years?

Adam: I think it is difficult to forecast because things move too quickly. The chart will differ from the structure we have nowadays but nothing gets completely replaced. Look at Apple for example, it is an enormously successful business which has not adopted open innovation or let their customers have a say. Their model is to build a very good product. Whether that will survive as a model in ten, twenty years is a very interesting question but I think for most organisations the shift has got to be towards models which place empowerment to their heart: the empowerment of staff, customers and investors.

There are lot of different organisations providing tools for empowerment. Social media is about empowerment of the customer. Online market places are about empowerment of the consumer. Crowdfunding, equity funding is about empowerment of the investor.

The interesting question is whether there is going to be an organisation that brings all these things together, that will empower the full range of different partners: staff, stakeholders, investors and customers. Perhaps that is the organisation of the next ten years, one with a much flatter staff structure and a flat Investing model. It is a completely different model and we are not there yet, but technology is evolving rapidly enough to get there in the next five-ten years.

Aleron: Do you imply that social enterprises have a better chance to be more powerful in the next 10 years because they empower people?

Adam: I think the dividing line between social enterprises and conventional commercial enterprise will completely dissolve. Indeed, Etsy or Wikipedia do not see themselves as businesses, they see themselves as movements. They have a vision of a different type of world they want to create with a small economy dominated by small business where people are autonomous and creative. It is not about generating profit, it is about the vision. Etsy is successful because it has empowered small suppliers in a way they could not have imagined to five years ago. That speaks very much to that trend towards self- expression. That movement, that vision is a fundamental part of their business model.

Aleron: You said: “The most powerful way to generate change is to give power away, not hoard it” –Is that a good conclusion to this interview?

Adam: Yes! That is the thing that the best businesses are learning. Businesses that forget that lesson begin to suffer reputational damage and ultimately get disrupted by newer business. One could argue that big Silicon Valley firms may be forgetting that lesson. Our politicians should learn that vision as well, they are obsessive power hoarders, and they hate the idea of giving away power. They are out of the trends of empowerment and control of change-making. There is transformational change underway but there are enormous blockages such as political and economic systems which raises contradictions and tensions.

Ashoka is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and fostering social entrepreneurs worldwide. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.
Founded by Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka has provided start-up financing, professional support services, and connections to a global network across the business and social sectors, and a platform for people dedicated to changing the world. Ashoka launched the field of social entrepreneurship and has activated multi-sector partners across the world who increasingly look to entrepreneurial talent and new ideas to solve social problems.