Ashoka, which was founded in India in 1981 and has been operating in France since 2006, is one of the most influential NGOs in the world. Its goal is to support entrepreneurs around the world who are committed to tackling a social issue in an innovative way.

A conversation with Laura Zimer, Director of Communication at Ashoka France.

How did Ashoka get its start?

Ashoka was started in India in 1981 by the American Bill Drayton, a man with an eclectic background who had worked at McKinsey and for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This gave him exposure to both the private and public sectors. Over the course of his meandering, he discovered a third type of entity in India that was neither public nor private. These enterprises – in the original sense of the word – were led by entrepreneurs who had taken the initiative to harness their entrepreneurial talents to solve a social issue. The entities were as likely to be private companies as associations or simply a personal project. Bill Drayton came to call these initiatives social entrepreneurship. This is how he met Gloria de Souza, who was the first person to join Ashoka in India, where the first branch of the network was formed.


How did the network develop after that?

The early branches were created in developing countries in Asia and South America where the social needs were the most glaring. The network then spread to North America, with a program launched in the United States in 2000, then in Western Europe, where the French branch of Ashoka emerged in 2006.


What criteria must a social entrepreneur meet to join the Ashoka network? How does the selection process work?

First, the project must provide an innovative take on a social problem. In addition, it must have already proven itself in terms of impact and it must have the necessary potential to deeply transform a sector.  For example, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and an Ashoka Fellow (Ed: a social entrepreneur who is a member of the network), revolutionised the knowledge sector by making information available to everyone on the Internet.


Beyond the relevance of the project itself, the entrepreneur backing it must also meet specific criteria: they must have entrepreneurial qualities, a strong sense of ethics and creativity.


The selection process lasts eight months on average and is both national and international in nature because it is the same in every Ashoka branch in the world. During this period, the applicant has interviews with international experts, including Ashoka members and non-network specialists. At the end of the selection process, the application will be reviewed by the Ashoka board to maintain consistent quality in selections throughout the world.


How many entrepreneurs join the network each year?

A new crop of social entrepreneurs joins the network each year: approximately 150 worldwide and between 5 and 10 in France. The numbers are really quite small because are criteria are extremely stringent. Plus we are a small NGO in terms of human and financial resources. Our goal is not to grow the size of our structure, but to grow our impact.


Concretely, what kind of support does an Ashoka Fellow receive?

Once an entrepreneur joins the network, they can access various levels of support: a financial grant in the form of a monthly salary so they can devote themselves full time to their project; the peer network, which enables them to learn from successes and best practices, as well as any challenges and obstacles encountered; and skills support to help the Fellow take on the inherent tasks of creating a business and for which a social entrepreneur is not necessarily trained.  To achieve this, Ashoka gives its Fellows access to partner companies which offer advice through a skills sponsorship mechanism. It could be a specialised consultancy, for example, with legal or financial expertise. Thanks to our network of philanthropists, the social entrepreneurs also benefit from another kind of skills support that is more individualised.

Finally, we give them the visibility they need to successfully implement their project by promoting on a daily basis the initiatives that we support and social innovation writ large.


Are all the social entrepreneurs’ projects sustainable? What is the five-year success rate?

At the international scale, our numbers speak for themselves: 93% of Ashoka’s social entrepreneurs are still in operation after five years. In addition, 56% of the project we support have resulted in a law being passed in their country. Clearly, their impact is significant!

Can you give us an example of a French fellow who had that kind of impact?

Marie Trellu-Kane, who created Unis-Cité, was one of the first people to join the Ashoka network in France 10 years ago with, at the time, rather limited visibility. Today, Unis-Cité is present in nearly 50 cities and Marie is the one who inspired the introduction of Civic Service in France in 2010.


What were Ashoka France’s key achievements in 2017?

For us, the major highlight of 2017 was moving our office to Station F, which is a symbolic of the relationship ‒ even a blend of cultures ‒ that we try to promote on a daily basis. We thought it would be valuable to add this social innovation component and show that innovation can have a positive impact on society.


To mark the occasion, we launched Share IT, the first incubator for social entrepreneurs dedicated to tech. We hope to use it as a springboard to create a new sector in France, Tech for Good. While it is already quite developed in the United States (once again, Wikipedia is a perfect example) and the United Kingdom, this sector is still at the embryonic stage in France. First, we want to promote and support tech entrepreneurs who are working to address social issues. Second, we want to help social entrepreneurs whose impact could be amplified with the addition of a technological dimension to their project.


What are your goals and plans for next year?

Because the entrepreneurial spirit is part of our DNA, we always have a thousand projects at Ashoka! Beyond social entrepreneurship, which is the first stage of the rocket and our core business, we are pursuing two other topics in parallel:

  • Facilitate hybrid collaborations between “social” and “business” and thereby create new types of economic models.
  • Encourage the emergence of new skills among the young generations and ensure that, beyond being able to read, write and count, young people also know how to be leaders, engaged citizens and good collaborators.


Can you tell us more about your partnership with the Altavia group?

Our collaboration with Altavia began last year when we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Ashoka France and were looking to modernise our communication tools. This is what led us to meet with the Group’s CSR Director. We were thinking that we could begin by overhauling our brochure together. We really needed someone with expertise in formatting and production. The Altavia team was thrilled to be able to share this expertise with us under a skills sponsorship arrangement.

How did the brochure go over?

It was a great success both internally and externally. At Ashoka, we were delighted to finally have a professional communication aid that was clear and comprehensive. We also got a lot of positive feedback from the people in our network.


This year, Altavia managed both production and creation of the brochure, so we know it will look even better!