The secret of Israeli innovation, what does that spell for the future?

“Ashoka exists to help people find their inner changemaker,” she told me. I quickly learned that is not an empty phrase.

Changemaker nation?  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Changemaker nation?
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli creativity has launched some 7,000 start-ups and attracted some 350 global companies to establish R&D centers in Israel. All are driven by profit. This is understandable. Profit is to start-ups what oxygen is to living things.
 
But in the meantime, Israel has huge social problems. In the absence of adequate resources and in the face of deficit-ridden government budgets, these problems have to be tackled with creative ideas. In practice they are not. Overcrowded hospitals, low-achieving schools, a pension and national insurance system headed for bankruptcy, a dysfunctional political system, billionaires enjoying tax breaks together with too many poor families – those are just a few of the social challenges. 
 
However, in the area of social change, with important exceptions, entrepreneurs are nowhere to be seen. Israel today badly needs an army of changemakers who tackle social challenges, as well as start-ups that create apps or gadgets. 
 
There are a few. (See, for instance, “Rebuilding Israel’s public civil service” in The Jerusalem Report, May 17). But we need many more. 
 
Very far from Israel, I found a possible solution, at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico’s Technion, in Monterrey, Mexico, a city of one million in northwest Mexico. There I spoke at a conference on entrepreneurship. I met Emily Lamb, a senior manager at Ashoka, a global social entrepreneurship organization based in Washington, DC. We took part in a panel together. 
 
“Ashoka exists to help people find their inner changemaker,” she told me. I quickly learned that is not an empty phrase. I will recount my conversation with her, after explaining what Ashoka does.
 
Ashoka is a global organization that fosters social entrepreneurship – projects whose goal is to create change that helps people, rather than to make a profit. Ashoka’s mission: “To shape a global, entrepreneurial, competitive citizen sector – one that allows social entrepreneurs to thrive and enables the world’s citizens to think and act as changemakers.”
 
Ashoka was founded 39 years ago by Bill Drayton, a former McKinsey & Company consultant who pioneered the concept of social entrepreneurship. As early as 1972, he said, “social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.” Drayton and Ashoka have had huge impact all over the world.
Ashoka finds entrepreneurs with solutions to social challenges who want to make big changes in society and seek public improvement rather than personal gain or profit. Social entrepreneurs who are chosen are called Ashoka Fellows and each gets a modest financial stipend so the fellow can be devoted full-time to innovative social ideas. The stipend is provided for up to three years. Ashoka takes no government money and raises funds from private donors.
Emily Lamb, tell me about your background, and journey to Ashoka. When did you first join?
 
 “I began my career as a student director of the community outreach center at the University of Kansas. As student director, I connected thousands of students to volunteer experiences and, on a deeper level, an understanding of their purpose. In those two years, we thought deeply and critically, experimented and problem-solved creatively, collaborated authentically, and rallied a community around a shared goal. We forged deep community relationships, established cross-university partnerships, and even managed to hire a full-time staff person to oversee our efforts. And, through that experience, I learned more in two years than I had through years of formal schooling.
 
 “After I graduated, I searched for an organization whose mission aimed to empower the next generation to be engaged agents of change. That desire eventually led me to Ashoka. I’ve now been there since 2014 and I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of educators from hundreds of institutions across six continents to explore one big question: How can we prepare students to be lifelong agents of positive social impact?
 
What is your current role at Ashoka?
 
“My official title is Changemaker Campus Network Manager at Ashoka U, Ashoka’s program supporting changemaker programming in higher education. Changemaker Campus is the leading institutional designation for social innovation in higher education. To date, the Changemaker Campus designation has been awarded to 45 leading institutions across 10 countries for its campus-wide commitment to social impact and changemaking.
 
“My role title doesn’t capture the unique nature of this designation. The designation is an invitation to commit to collective action as a Changemaker Campus network. My work is to foster creative collaboration across roles, silos, institutions, and institutions with the shared commitment to educate students across the globe to be lifelong agents of change or as we say, “changemakers”.
 
 “Changemaker Campus is a program of Ashoka. For nearly 40 years, Ashoka has been fostering social innovation and catalyzing change in communities across the US and around the world. To learn more, visit Ashoka U’s website: https://ashokau.org/changemakercampus/”
 
 You stressed in your panel remarks that ‘understanding the [social] problem’ really, really well is crucial. Please expand on this, with examples. 
 
 “Time and time again we see students set out to become a social entrepreneur and start an organization, for profit or not, with a social purpose and an intention to change the world. We find that often formal education programs through universities, accelerators, hackathons and so forth do an exceptional job teaching the steps and skills to start a venture, but they often miss teaching a crucial component of impactful socially focused organizations: the importance of deeply understanding the context and the problem that organization aims to address.
 
“At Ashoka U, we find that it’s important to slow down before speeding up in the social entrepreneurship education process. As Daniela Papi-Thornton emphasizes in her article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, ‘Tackling Heropreneurship,’ addressing a major problem requires something different than traditional entrepreneurship education: (1) awareness of the problem (2) a systems thinking lens and approach; (3) an understanding of self, skills, and how to uniquely contribute; (4) and a grounded understanding of the served-community – e.g. What are their needs? What is their culture? How do they operate? What do they value?
 
“Why does this matter? It matters because millions of dollars are funneled into start-ups, development projects and other organizations based on the promise of a well thought out business plan and a hope for transformative impact. But there are a few important questions a business plan might not answer: Does a version of the project already exist? Is it a viable solution for the community it aims to serve? Will it address the root (or even part of the root) of the problem so an impact can be made?
 
“Over the past five years, we’ve started seeing examples of entrepreneurship education that incorporates a more holistic education and ensures hard questions are raised to the surface. Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, a Changemaker Campus, starts the entire entrepreneurship curriculum with units about systems and systems-based problem-solving. The “Map the Systems Challenge,” led by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, is a global student competition that selects winners based on their understanding of a challenge and not based on their solution. 
 
“What happens when social entrepreneurs don’t go beyond a business plan? A famous example is the PlayPump. It was a development project aimed to make clean water collection easier for communities in rural South Africa. A Western group designed and created the water-filtering systems as merry-go-rounds, so communities could get involved, have fun, and get exercise. And they were useless in the end. The pumps were abandoned, unused, and left to rust. Although designed beautifully, cultural competence and community buy-in were not part of the pumps design. We know this could have easily been addressed if the creators just asked a few more questions.

“It takes a village.” Start-ups have one two or three founders. But the amazing Israeli Ashoka Fellows created entire systems and organizations (Hatzala, Medical Simulation, Israel Flying Aid). (See box on p. 34, “Four Israeli Ashoka Fellows”). How does Ashoka help build social organizations?
 
 “For the past 40 years, Ashoka has selected over 4,000 leaders across the globe because of their commitment to and proven success with systems-changing, and movement-building ideas for the good of all. We call them Ashoka Fellows. They pioneer new agricultural techniques, transform modern education practices, create health care solutions for the good of all, and much more.
“Based on this selection process and 40 years of work with the world’s largest global network of systems change leaders, we’ve discovered five critical skills pervasive among the most impactful social entrepreneurs: Empathy – the ability to understand where another person, who might be different, is coming from. This also requires a sense of one’s own self; Teamwork – the ability to work in concert with others with a shared goal; “New Leadership” – the ability to allow all to be powerful and co-lead, or what Ashokawe calls “team of teams”; Critical thinking – the ability to understand complex systems; and Changemaking – the ability to believe in one’s ability to act and the enact the change
 
“These principles and learnings have become a key part of all we do at Ashoka, including how we advise education practices in K-12 schools as well as higher education institutions.
 
“Based on over 200 interviews with educators, Ashoka U has further elaborated on the key qualities recognized as critical for changemakers and critical foundations for social innovation education such as “ethics of social change,” “adaptive communication” and “building trusting relationships.” You can read how changemaker skills, mindsets, and knowledge are incorporated into the classroom in Ashoka U’s recent publication, “Preparing Students for a Rapidly Changing World.”
 
“But Ashoka is not alone. These qualities align with the skills the World Economic Forum deems critical for today’s world. They also map what is being touted as “21st century skills.”
 
“At Ashoka, we emphasize a key point of distinction between many entrepreneurs and what we’ve found in Ashoka Fellows: a systems-thinking orientation (vs. direct service, scaled direct service, etc.). They see themselves as part of a greater system, often connected across silos, across disciplines, across geographies, across sectors, which impact their actions, programming, and ability to spread impact. This “it takes a village” mindset leads to impact that which one organization and even one area of expertise cannot achieve.
 
I often argue that all entrepreneurship is social, because all technology-driven start-ups have social impact. The question is, impact for good or evil? Facebook? Bringing false political ads to millions? Definitely social impact, but highly negative. Let’s understand that all start-ups are social, or should be – those driven only by economists’ bottom-line-is-all-you-need are, I believe, dinosaurs. We can no longer tolerate this. I think millennials get this! What is your take on this?
 
“I appreciate that you bring up this point. Ashoka operates on a similar assumption. Ashoka aims to inspire and equip all people to be changemakers – to see a challenge, big or small, and be able to address that challenge. We’ve learned what this mindset makes possible based on our 40 years of awarding the Ashoka Fellowship to thousands of innovators. Under this vision, we aspire to foster a world where individuals and organizations alike have the skills, knowledge, and mindsets to operate for the good of many.
 
“We’ve found that millennials and Gen Z have an orientation for pro-social action. According to a study by 2012 NetImpact on workforce priorities, nearly three out of four college and university students rate finding a career where they can “make a difference” as important or very important. We see this playing a part in career choices, workplace choices, and general purchasing choices. And this desire is shaping business as we know it, made evident by the recent Business Roundtable announcement redefining the purpose of the corporation. Going further, we know businesses must understand the depth of this desire and the complicated, systems-oriented nature to “make a difference.” As you mentioned the example about Facebook, intentions are one thing and actions and impact are another.
 
“So, what does this mean for education? To prepare future generations to understand the social implications of ventures, organizations, etc., we know this requires post-secondary curriculum that values soft skills in addition to more technical skills. This means introducing ethics and system thinking as core parts of traditionally technical degrees like computer science, engineering, and business. We see this as a critical, core component of primary education as well.
 
“Our rapidly changing world requires that our systems of education, business, etc. rapidly change as well. Now the question is, what will it take to step up to this challenge?”

“Imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” John Lennon sang. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….I hope someday you’ll join us….And the world will live as one.”
 
So, imagine – a large part of the immense Start-up Nation creativity in Israel focuses laser-like on poverty, hunger, hospitals, schools, elderly, traffic – and on a host of social problems. An army of changemakers emerges. They change Israeli society, and the world, for the better, implementing tikkun olam – just as Beer, Ziv and Lusky have done. 
 
Changemaker Nation! Imagine! 
Israel has nine amazing Ashoka fellows. Here are four of them: Eli Beer,  Gal Lusky, Amitai Ziv and Shai Reshef.
 
Eli Beer created United Hatzalah, which launched the ambucycle – a motorcycle equipped with emergency lifesaving gear able to speed through traffic and reduce response times.  Patients are treated fast, before ambulances arrive, and many lives are saved as a result.  It is all volunteer and the idea has spread widely abroad.
 
Dr. Amitai Ziv launched the Israel Center for Medical Simulation (MSR), in 2001. The center uses simulation technology for teaching medical students, to mitigate medical error and improve patient safety worldwide.
 
Gal Lusky initiated Israel Flying Aid. Its 1,200 volunteers fly to disaster sites and work to save lives and provide food and clothing and medical care.  She and her volunteers have worked even in countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.
 
In 2009, Shai Reshef launched the University of the People, a recognized online tuition-free university that offers higher education to the world, to those who cannot afford college tuition. 
 
S.M.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com