Where the real power lies

William Drayton

In 1996, when he was elected an Ashoka Fellow, Rodrigo Baggio had a powerful idea and an equally powerful commitment to using it to close the digital divide across Brazil and the world. Rodrigo’s movement to democratize the digital era has helped hundreds of local slum communities in a dozen countries across Latin America and Asia successfully build and run computer training schools. These schools now have over 600,000 graduates — almost all of whom are successfully employed in the new digital economy. How did Rodrigo accomplish all this?

I remember seeing Rodrigo in action in Washington shortly after he was elected. He somehow persuaded the Inter-American Development Bank to give him its ‘used’ (ie extremely valuable) computers. He somehow persuaded the Brazilian Air Force to warehouse and transport these computers. He somehow managed to get them through customs at a time when Brazil was a good deal less relaxed about informatics imports than it is now.

That is how entrepreneurs work. Where others see a barrier, they imagine a logical solution and then turn it into reality. Getting some of society’s biggest institutions to respond to a young, unfamous person representing a then unknown organization was simply the right, logical thing to do. That inner confidence, it turns out, is remarkably persuasive.

There is another critical element that Rodrigo brought to this process. His work flows from the inner logic of his life – as it does for every great entrepreneur. CDI[1] was not just a clever idea he had two days before. It was rooted both in his personal love for and mastery of the new digital era and, even more important, in deep-seated values. He saw the poverty around him, and focused on the digital divide before there was such a phrase. That combination of love for his field and values then led step by step, over many years (starting when he was a teenager), to his vision and life commitment.

As a result, when Rodrigo sat across the table from these powerful and much older officials, they were confronting not just confidence in a right idea, but deeply rooted and life-defining values. A non-egoistic faith.

I believe that this values-rooted faith is the ultimate power of a first-class entrepreneur. It is a quality and a force that others can sense and trust. They may or may not understand the idea. They may be afraid to do something out of the ordinary before others have done so. But a quiet inner voice tells them they can and should trust Rodrigo.

Any assessment of Rodrigo’s success that stopped with his ideas and his excellent (McKinsey assisted) business plan would not have penetrated to the core of his power. Our field has been impoverished by too many assessments stopping at this level and missing the underlying magic.

Sixty per cent of my performance agreement with the Ashoka board focuses on helping to create ‘irreversible institutions’ for our field (and also for Ashoka). I have therefore been studying the very few citizen organizations operating at a global level that have succeeded in doing so, for example the Jesuits.

Recently I was discussing the five centuries of Jesuit success with Brizio Biondi-Morra, leader of Ashoka’s long-standing partner AVINA and a former Jesuit. Towards the end of the conversation, he commented: ‘The founder was unquestionably an organizational genius, but that is not the source of the order’s power. It is faith.’

Of course.

Given my own ten years with McKinsey, I had been looking through management glasses. I was impressed with the way the order empowered and trusted its members and thereby won their exceptional loyalty. But I had not focused on the underlying vision and values. We are most likely to understand this at the personal level. Anyone who truly knows his/her purpose in life has a calm power that others recognize and value. A great entrepreneur has this power.

That is not enough, however. The entrepreneur must be fully committed to good means as well as a good end. That is why one of Ashoka’s four selection criteria for both Fellows and staff is ‘ethical fibre’. We cannot build a good Ashoka community or a good profession and field with people who do not have this quality. And it is virtually impossible to get people to make big changes in their lives and in their relationships with others if they do not trust the changemaker. Society already has too many untrustworthy public leaders.

Over the last century, society, to its great loss, has shied away from treating ethical fibre openly. This is probably because the cerebral cortex fears the primitive brain; society fears instinct may confuse otherness with untrustworthiness and bureaucracies fear exercising judgement. However, Ashoka and others (notably the Hilti Corporation of Lichtenstein) have been developing approaches that make it easier to test for ethical fibre. One example: after an interview, imagine yourself in a situation that brings fear right up into your throat (I picture myself on the edge of a cliff) and then inject your interviewee into that picture. Your primitive brain will let you know (do you feel yourself reaching for the edge of your chair?) if there’s a problem before the cerebral cortex can edit.

Vision/values and ethical fibre are just as critical for organizations as for individuals. If a social entrepreneur is to succeed, (s)he must somehow create an organization/movement with these same core qualities. Far more social entrepreneurs would reach scale if our field’s literature and common wisdom felt more comfortable with, and therefore focused on, organizational vision, values and ethics. This is where the real power lies.

1 Committee for Democracy in Information Technology.

Bill Drayton is Chair and CEO, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public.

See http://www.ashoka.org

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