When Dreams Defy Reality

Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World

Beverly Schwartz

288 pages, Jossey-Bass, April 2012

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Currently, social entrepreneurship is as much a field as it is a social movement. A whole new generation of ethical change agents—whether in business or academia or the media—is building a new sensibility about the way we live and interact. For many people, ‘‘social entrepreneurship is now a viable and desirable career path, where work is not just something that you do, but rather something that you are.’’2

All of Ashoka’s Fellows (the people Ashoka deems to be leading social entrepreneurs and elect into a lifelong Fellowship of like-minded people) ripple their innovations through society by influencing other social entrepreneurs, the policy development process, and the actions of the private sector. As I came to know the Fellows I interviewed for this book, I found that they all, at a minimum, possessed four inherent qualities:

  • Purpose
  • Passion
  • Pattern
  • Participation

These characteristics have become my favorite manner of determining if the person is starting out with the defining characteristics of what constitutes a social entrepreneur.


I have never met an Ashoka Fellow who did not put society above personal interests and was not firmly focused on the fulfillment of their chosen role. Fellows may takemany roads to get there, but the goal is sacrosanct—and they do not get sidetracked by the boulders strewn on the path. Their clarity of purpose is often the decisive factor that brings individual and organizational efforts together. This is because it defines why they are working toward something and why it is worth working on it collectively. Purpose becomes the invisible glue that connects different actions and actors while it bonds everyone with inspiration. It infuses boldness and calculated risk and it creates loyalties by helping people understand why their contribution is valuable and valued. Purpose mitigates fear and allows inspiration to replace fear with action. Purpose leads to a sense of possibility.


I am not sure if I can separate the passion from the purpose because I have come to believe that both are always present, tightly intertwined and inextricably linked together. Like strands of DNA (which passion and purpose may actually be part of) you cannot pull them apart. Passion connects to spirit and relates to strength—strength of character, of determination, of connection to others. It kindles and nourishes a ‘‘follow one’s heart’’ courage of judgment. Ashoka Fellows have taught me that real strength lies not in the physical realm but in an indomitable spirit, intense passion, and determination aimed toward goals.


The entrepreneurs in this book all decorate their own innovation in patterns. They base this on purpose, passion, and personality. But in a bigger sense, these patterns become models or guides for others to follow. The particulars of their patterns differ greatly, and in fact that individuality is the nature of an entrepreneur. They cultivate new ground and put together new combinations of solutions—or maybe they come upwith just one that no one has ever configured in such away. I’d like to say that they ‘‘build a bettermousetrap’’—but in essence, they eradicate the need for mousetraps altogether by figuring out a way to decrease the populations of mice!

Instead of just trying to alleviate the symptoms of problems, their organizations are trying to find the societal patterns that will unlock the clues to solving the underlying issues. To create significant and long-lasting changes, social entrepreneurs must understand and often alter the social system that creates and sustains the problems in the first place. This way of looking upstream toward solving the root cause of a problem is far more sustainable than looking downstream by trying to put a patch on the outcome. To borrow from public health parlance, ‘‘It is not enough to cure the symptom—for a cure to be sustainable, you must treat the underlying illness. If not, the cycle between cause, symptom and illness will continue to evolve causing a spiral of exacerbated and related problems.’’3


The Fellows discussed in this book all exhibit leadership abilities. They are often unanticipated leaders, but whether they perceive themselves to be leaders or not, their ability to influence people and have them believe, follow, and join is an attribute that is completely natural and a necessary component for impact. It is that quality that attracts involvement and eventually morphs into civic engagement.

Certainly our 2011 current events lesson on the strength and accomplishment of civic participation in Egypt should make it obvious why this last characteristic plays such a huge part in an Ashoka Fellows program. As an old but true adage goes, ‘‘There is no strength like strength in numbers.’’ The role of the citizen, of the parent, of the child, of the street vendor, of the teacher, of the government official, of the person who is differently abled or who has positive distractions in changing an entrenched cultural pattern are all of significant consequence. It is as much the number of participants as the quality of the participation that is essential for supported and sustained social change to take place. To think boldly, act locally, and scale globally, innovators need more than their efforts as individuals; they need to get multitudes of people involved in seeing their vision, believing in the possibility, actively supporting it, and participating in creating change themselves. Leading social entrepreneurs know that if they are going to make a scratch on history, they can’t do it alone. There is a point when they all know they must step back and let go of any ego-limiting ownership of the idea if they are to involve and instigate the rise of changemakers who can help spread the seeds of change and grow them into a movement.

The ability of social entrepreneurs to scale their programs depends on the strength of people’s participation and their capacity to create movements that are strong enough to shake the foundations of poverty and inequality the world over. But what really makes social entrepreneurs unique? Where do they get their inspiration and passion? How do they convert that inspiration into purpose and who empowers them to think in such new ways? How do we clone these people so that we end up with a better world for all?