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2/8/07

Inspire Change, One Citizen at a Time: Become an Ashoka Fellow Social Entrepreneur

By Anouk Lim

 
Visionaries exist among all of us. Whether we recognize it or not, every day driven individuals worldwide develop a new language, a new way of looking at our surroundings, a new way to accelerate positive change. What this means for the Persian community and for the world as a whole will be revolutionary, to say the least.
 
These people have several things in common: they are motivated, determined, and ready to tackle major social issues and introduce new ideas for global change. They are social entrepreneurs – individuals with ground-breaking solutions to society’s most critical social problems. Instead of leaving such responsibilities to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs identify the root of the problem, develop system-changing solutions, spread their ideas, and encourage entire communities to join the movement.
 
It is this concept that has driven Ashoka, a global organization with a 25-year history and a network of more than 1,800 social entrepreneurs in over 60 countries, and PARSA Community Foundation, a philanthropic institution that helps Persians foster goodwill in their communities locally, nationally and worldwide, to invite applicants of Iranian origin to become a celebrated Ashoka fellow. The Ashoka PARSA Partnership for Social Entrepreneurship will financially support a fellow anywhere in the world Ashoka operates for three years based on his or her need, giving the fellow the resources to develop and implement his or her idea full-time.
 
PARSA is fueled by a passion to focus on social entrepreneurship among the Persian community. The reasons are three-fold: Firstly, while the Persian diaspora contributes greatly to our local economies we are not spending enough to take care of our own community. Our elderly are in need of Persian language services, our youth are losing sight of Persian culture, and we are increasingly finding ourselves at a loss to preserve our heritage in our adopted homes. Secondly, we are outspent by the Arab diaspora population, confusing our identity in the Western world, as Persian programs in higher education and museums are lost in the mix to Arab-funded ones. Lastly, the Persian community’s demand for money far exceeds the supply of money. It is pertinent then that we develop sustainable and long-lasting solutions to address these needs and ensure wise spending and positive results.
 
PARSA and Ashoka support social entrepreneurship because it is self-sustaining, delving to the root of the problem rather than producing a superficial solution. Such a feat is often a matter of looking outside the box, so it is little surprise that PARSA board member and world-renowned space traveler Anousheh Ansari along with her family are tremendous supporters of Ashoka, sponsoring entrepreneurs in Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Israel. While Ashoka cannot support entrepreneurs working in Iran, Ashoka and its supporters are hopeful that a fellow will someday be established there.
 
The power and scope of a social entrepreneur should not be imposing to those interested in applying for a fellowship. Most social entrepreneurs start small, from humble beginnings, yet with something unique: a vision that will change the world, an idea that can live long after the entrepreneur. In the words of Ashoka’s founder, Bill Drayton, “There is nothing more powerful than a new idea in the hands of a social entrepreneur.”
 
Take Ashoka fellow Fabio Rosa, for example. Rosa first arrived in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande Do Sol in the early 1980’s, when most of the rural population lived without electricity because they could not afford the installation costs. He saw that by using a single wire system instead of the usual three wire system he could bring affordable electricity to most of the people in the region, while reducing costs up to 90%. After over twenty years, in one of Rosa’s many victories (which include a successful low-cost solar home system model), the Brazilian government announced it will use his single wire model to bring electricity to millions of Brazilians.
 
In yet another telling case of the power of social entrepreneurship, Ashoka fellow J.B. Schramm founded College Summit in 1993, which works with high schools and low-income students with talent to help them make the leap to college. College Summit organizes intensive four-day workshops to help low-income students complete their college applications, trains students to advise their peers, and screens student participants against host college campuses’ admissions criteria. "The young man who is the first in his family to go to college ends poverty in his family line forever," Schramm says.”It is irreversible progress." Today, 79% of College Summit’s participants have enrolled in college, double the rate of students at the same income level, and 80% of them have graduated.
 
Finally, consider Ashoka Global Academy founding member Fazle Abed, founder and chairman of the Bangladesh Rural Action Committee (BRAC). Founded in 1972, BRAC has become the largest citizen sector organization in the world, expanding its services beyond Bangladesh in the spirit of national replication. By mobilizing the capacity of the poor to improve their lives through self-organization, BRAC has helped 3.8 million women establish 100,000 village organizations and schooled over 1 million girls. It also runs a microcredit program that has disbursed $1.8 billion in loans with a 98% repayment rate. Says Abed, “Poor people are poor because they are powerless. You must organize people for power. They must organize themselves so that they may change their lives.”  The enormous scale of BRAC’s operations is proof that the power of an individual social entrepreneur can expand beyond the reach of one’s imagination to touch the lives of millions.
 
Clearly there is a need for a new kind of entrepreneurship, but support systems are required to allow it to reach its full potential. This support lies in the hands of future social entrepreneurs, people who will build enduring supportive institutions. In the words of Bill Drayton, “Our job is not to give people fish; it’s not to teach them how to fish; it’s how to build a new and better fishing industry.” Take that step and be the first to venture into new territory, to lead the way, and to build the new industry: apply to become an Ashoka fellow today.
 
For more information, please visit Ashoka’s English language website at http://www.ashoka.org/nominate, its Persian language website at http://persian.ashoka.org/farsi, and PARSA Community Foundation at http://www.parsacf.org/grant-seekers/past-grantees.
 

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