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The Importance of Having Empathy: Insights From Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka [Be Inkandescent]

By Hope Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine

Bill Drayton has been a social entrepreneur since he was a New York City elementary school student. He was born to a mother who emigrated from Australia as a young cellist and an American father who, also unafraid to step into the unknown, became an explorer at an equally young age.

Public service and strong values run through the stories of both parents’ families, including several of the earliest anti-slavery abolitionist and women’s leaders in the United States. These family influences, the rich diversity and openness of life in Manhattan—as well as America’s deep cultural concern with equity, which flourished during the Civil Rights years—all interacted with one another and with Drayton’s temperament to plant Ashoka’s earliest roots.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Drayton to talk about the powerful international organization that he founded in 1980—which today is focused on creating a world where every child masters empathy. Scroll down for our Q&A.

We also interviewed Danielle Goldstone, the Change Leader in charge of Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative. Click here for her three-part strategy on how to ensure that your child, and your company, are empathetic, in our Tips for Entrepreneurs. To learn even more, stay tuned for our upcoming podcast with both Drayton and Goldstone on Inkandescent Radio.

BILL DRAYTON’S START EMPATHY INITIATIVE: How to Create a World Where Every Child Masters Empathy

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about about the power of empathy, the importance of having this skill—and how if kids aren’t empathetic by the time they’re 12, there could be a problem.

Bill Drayton: Let me start by talking a little about when I came up with the idea of Ashoka. I was 19, and in India for the first time. It was the early ’60s, and the differences between poverty in America and India is no longer a statistic. I saw real poverty first hand, and it made a huge impact. If you are empathetic, you see that and want to take action and close the gap. That’s when the idea for Ashoka was born.

Be Inkandescent: It is a big goal, and one that others have likely had before. But creating an organization that can really make such a dramatic change is only effective if it’s in the hands of a great entrepreneur, right?

Bill Drayton: That’s absolutely right. There is a magical moment when the entrepreneur knows their idea is the next big step for the field—environment, human rights, whatever—and that they have learned enough to be able to change the structure of society on a really big scale.

That’s when they need to take the next step. But it’s not easy—especially when it comes to social entrepreneurs, because they often have an idea that doesn’t fit the way most people in their societies think, or the way existing organizations and corporations are set up. Uusally by this time they’ve got a family to support—because the apprenticeship period is typically 10 years.

Plus, in most of the world, there’s no social security system, and so the family they are supporting often really gets upset if the prime breadwinner stops doing the job that brings home the bacon.

Be Inkandescent: And that’s where Ashoka intervenes? Your organization is set up to assist these social entrepreneurs so they can make their big ideas a reality?

Bill Drayton: That’s right. With very small expense, Ashoka is able to allow those rare, rare people who are true social entrepreneurs—one and a half per 10 million, roughly—to quit their day job to work full time at launching their big ideas. It takes some time. They have to test and refine it, then refine it some more. And then they’ve got to figure out how to explain it, and they’ve got to build an organization and movement.

On average, that takes about three years. And we give those entreprenuers’ ideas the freedom to do that. So we give them personal financial support, as long as they need it, to the degree they need it. More important, we invite them into a family of their peers of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Be Inkandescent: That must be incredibly powerful, because I imagine they feel supported.

Bill Drayton: It’s hard to overstate how important that is. You’re a part of a profession, you have colleagues who operate in the same way, you share ideas, methodologies, and truly help one another. Together we are so much more powerful than the sum of the individuals.

And these individuals are really powerful. More than half of them have changed national policy within five years of their launch, and 75 percent have changed the pattern in their field at least at the national level, within five years. Imagine 3,000 Ashoka Fellows working together—it’ll be one of the most powerful forces in the world.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give us an example of what the Ashoka Fellows are doing—and how they are using their empathic powers to make change?

Bill Drayton: Through the work of Muhammad Ibrahim Sobhan, there has been a 44 percent increase in enrollment in rural schools, and the drop-out rate has been cut in half. He was the first Ashoka Fellow in Bangladesh, and what’s beautiful is that the concept behind his Association for School Based Education is so simple. He put young people in charge, beginning with deciding how long school lasted.

The problem was that poor children couldn’t stay long enough at school because they had to go home to work. And, there was no time to do homework. They got frustrated, and felt humiliated they couldn’t keep up, and dropped out. So Sobhan persuaded 4,000 Bangladeshi schools to change.

Classes are now 60 minutes long, and the teacher comes and teaches for 25 minutes; then the kids then sit in circles outside. Whichever child has mastered the lesson leads the group through exercises, and kids who get it right help those who don’t. The teacher goes from group to group as a resource. No homework. Just learning. Now, poor kids have no reason to fall behind.

Be Inkandescent: Clearly, Sobhan is highly empathetic, and smart about knowing how to solve a giant problem. Can you give us another example?

Bill Drayton: Take a look at Canadian Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon. She was teaching in Toronto, and increasingly saw children coming to school who were very aggressive. That invited other kids to be aggressive back. Every time kids went through that cycle, it got more ingrained.

So she found a way to break the cycle. At the start of the school year, she brings an infant who is 2-4 months old to “teach” the class. The baby wears a T-shirt that says, “The Professor,” and sits on a green blanket with its mom. The students then have the responsibility of figuring out: What is the professor saying? What is the professor feeling? It’s limbic learning, and it’s powerful.

Be Inkandescent: This is the essence of empathy, right? Is it something we are all born with?

Bill Drayton: Yes. We’re all born with an intense inherited and necessary need to be a part of society. We can’t survive without it. In that first decade of life, though, it can be bullied out of us. And that’s a concern, because if more people aren’t skilled at empathy—increasingly, they’ll be marginalized in life.

Why? To find out:
• Click here to read our entire interview with Bill Drayton.
• Listen to Drayton’s advice on Inkandescent Radio.
• In this month’s Tips for Entrepreneurs, Ashoka Change Leader Danielle Goldstone helps us discover the Start Empathy Initiative’s Three Ways to Be More Empathetic.
• And Holstee’s Michael Radparvar shares what he’s learned in Start-Up Rules for Business Success.


More Be Inkandescent Magazine Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.