The Inspiration Behind The World’s Inveterate Changemakers

The Inspiration Behind The World’s Inveterate Changemakers

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Diana Wells was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.

Because she is president of Ashoka, the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, Diana Wells is uniquely positioned to see the trends and trajectories of the world’s most successful changemakers. She has supported and witnessed the work of nearly 3,000 social entrepreneurs around the world in every sector and at every level of changemaking. Here, she shares some of her insights, from generating a spark of inspiration to creating global impact.

The biggest change moment is when people recognize that change is possible and they have a role to play in it. That moment is, paradoxically, also the biggest barrier to getting more problems solved: there is a very significant portion of the population that doesn’t believe change is possible.

So much of the work that we do at Ashoka is helping the broader population – not just social entrepreneurs, but all citizens everywhere – to recognize that change is possible and help them make the transition to being part of the changes they wish to see in the world. We do this by sharing stories every day to reveal people at every level of changemaking. These stories provide the how-tos for making change—to inspire and spark the imagination. Inspiration is a really critical piece of the puzzle.

Then, as social entrepreneurs try to grow their organizations, one key thing to keep in mind is that scale is not necessarily about institutional growth. Unlike the business sector, if you really want to have social impact, your prime focus must be to spread the idea and to answer the question: “What is the best strategy to make sure that the maximum number of people understand and benefit from the insight, intervention, and innovation?’ That is the different currency by which social entrepreneurs must measure themselves. And that is ultimately the driving force that is going to lead to their scratch on history.

One of my favorite examples is a social entrepreneur in Bangladesh who recognized that she was resisting hiring young women in a garment factory because they either had small children, or were likely to have small children. When she reflected on this, she came up with the idea of having a daycare system at the factory. It was so popular that she was asked to develop similar services in other garment factories and her organization doing this grew. Then the idea took off more broadly to other industries – she had tipped the system and her own organization was no longer needed to do this. Her idea scaled and tipped the system but the organization she started to get this done became irrelevant in the process.  In the business world this would have meant failure in the social sector it is the success we are all after.

A corollary to that is that many people think funding is a barrier. Funding is, indeed, an important day-to-day issue, but it’s not a barrier for good ideas. Nor is it a barrier to visionaries that are passionate about good ideas, especially for those shaking up the status quo by solving problems that are seemingly intractable.

Right now, there is a huge investor appetite for new models and for innovation. Businesses are recognizing the remarkable market intelligence that social entrepreneurs have that can help grow business and reach consumers that have been as yet untapped. Legislation is being developed to advance investment in initiatives that have social impact. It is a new moment in terms of creative options and opportunities to cross the financing hurdle, and that will only grow in the years to come.  Social entrepreneurship has also been a driving force for collaboration across sectors.

At Ashoka, we foster collaboration that is sector-agnostic. For example, what is an old idea in education might be brand new in health care, and vice-versa. We know that innovation happens when we get out of the silos bred by living and working within one field, and when two intersecting kinds of knowledge collide. The impact we can have by breaking down those boundaries is limitless.

For women, too, social entrepreneurship offers the promise of falling boundaries and limitless possibilities. We see that at Ashoka, where 40 percent of our network of leading social entrepreneurs is women. It’s extraordinary. What other industry has 40 percent representation of women’s leadership – leadership that by virtue of having passed Ashoka’s selection process – we know includes having authored the idea and built an institution to drive the change they want to create.

And this brings us back to that simple, yet critical idea of a story to inspire. For women who might not otherwise believe they are capable of playing a role, to see other woman making change and taking a lead in that change, is powerful. Those women, in turn, not only inspire others to action, but also help them succeed.

Virtually all of Ashoka’s social entrepreneurs say they got started when they were young people, and they credit a mentor—someone—whether it was a neighbor, a family member, a teacher, or someone from their religious community who helped them give themselves permission to take the next step; to help them over the hurdles of failure and pick themselves up; and to take the next step forward. We have seen that pattern over and over again: the importance of that first spark of inspiration to becoming a changemaker.


Dr. Diana Wells, President of Ashoka, joined the organization in the 1980s after graduating from Brown with a BA in South Asian Studies. Her intrapreneurial drive quickly led to the creation of Fellowship Support Services, which links Ashoka social entrepreneurs to one another and to a wide array of information and supports. After a leave to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology, she returned — and has provided her characteristic quiet, strong leadership ever since. She tactfully but firmly strengthened Ashoka’s leadership in a number of countries. She helped systematize management of the key Fellow selection process as the number and types of selections increased. She also conceived and developed Ashoka’s widely respected Measuring Effectiveness program. In 2008, Diana was celebrated as one of 10 winners of the first annual Women to Watch award, by Running Start, a Washington, DC based organization that empowers young women to be political leaders.