[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

I had my 30 seconds with Bill Drayton

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Last night, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Bill Drayton at a speech he gave at Princeton University. He is one of my role models and I don’t think its an exaggeration if I see him as a modern day version of Gandhi. He is on a mission to identify, encourage and support “changemakers” across the breadth and depth of human society. These ‘changemakers’ are working on the ground solving pressing social problems and Mr. Drayton ensures that these changemakers get whatever they need to do their best and sustain their impact. We need more Draytons and more organizations like the one he is pioneering: Ashoka. If I have a choice to be someone, I would like to be Mr. Drayton someday. Seeing him yesterday talk and spending a few seconds that close to him has reinforced my faith that I will be able to do what he has done, and more.

Mr. Drayton is credited for bringing social entrepreneurship to the forefront of America. During his speech yesterday, he pointed out that social entrepreneurs and their enterprises existed for centuries (so all we are doing is just finding more and more of them and shedding some global light on their work). He said we might just be reaching a “tipping point” of getting social entrepreneurship to mainstream. Many other organizations and individuals have dedicated their lives to direct welfare of society, but Ashoka has done it differently, in my humble opinion. I say it because I see their model as based on what I call ‘McKinsey of Social Enterprise’. When I graduated from NYU Stern, I seriously considered working for Ashoka. There were many personal reasons for not pursuing it rigorously. But the desire continues to deepen. That’s part of the reason why I showed up right away in Princeton, when I got a google alert that Mr. Drayton is speaking there.

He speaks so softly that folks at back couldn’t hear everything clearly but he spoke with a good sense of clarity regarding whats required to make meaningful changes in the society, for good. He was speaking to an audience of about 100 students from the Princeton’s engineering school, particularly those enrolled in Gordon Bloom’s Social Entrepreneurship program. The fact that such courses are already being offered to under graduate students and that Mr. Drayton’s latest Youth Ventures is reaching out to younger generation to be “changemakers” speaks for the “tipping point” of social entrepreneurship. On the topic of leveraging human potential, Mr. Drayton has also written an insightful article recently on the topic of how flight of increased productivity year after year is causing the depletion of natural resources and why the world must wake up soon to “engage people and to retire things”.

When I look back at my own life growing up in Coimbatore, India, I had been a “changemaker” in a real sense. I was an active member for many years in a social service club (Rotaract)and was also the president of the club during which we won awards for some innovative service work. I felt good doing that type of work, even while hanging around with my best buddies. However, I never consciously thought about what I was doing and if it will have any inherent relationship to what I will do in future.

I remember vividly the times I had spent with the Handicapped Children Society. We loved the smile on their faces so much that they became our default place to campout every other Sunday and do some gratifying social work. I can’t forget how much the children enjoyed a Sunday afternoon of Rajnikanth movie. There was this one boy who really wanted to grow up to be like Rajinikanth. I hope he is doing well somewhere.

My life, however, moved on after I graduated from Engineering College and commitments from the family front required me to stay focused on earning. It reminds me of the opening scenes of ‘Forrest Gump’; I went with the flow just like a feather caught in the breeze, moving to Chennai and then to US, building a career that I didn’t think much about. I hate to think this way, but I did lose sight of social work for quite sometime, until it dawned on me again.

Just around the mid point during my 2.5 years in NYU, I figured I had pretty much ended up where I am in life, by sheer ‘go with the flow’ mentality without thinking through what I really want to do or be. This is not to say I didn’t have commitment. I worked very hard to be where I am and grateful for the people and opportunities that helped along the way. But, as they say, ‘you know when you are on a mission’. I knew I was not.

I enrolled for a Social Enterprise class with Bill Shore. I was one of the just 5 guys in about 30 students who enrolled (guess more women cared about society, than men, at least in Stern, that year!). Stern is known for Finance majors and I wasn’t surprised that there were only 30 students. In fact, it’s the opposite, the 30 students really knew what they were getting into and possibly why. So it couldn’t have been a better setting. Having read Bill’s book prior to start of the sessions and sitting through the classes, guest lectures and case discussions made me feel like I have somehow found the deepest core of who I am and what I want to be. Perhaps, it goes back to my high school days of social work around Coimbatore and I do think experiences from childhood, one way or other, returns to remind who you really are. At last, I found something that just was always there for me for the taking. I want to be a social entrepreneur. A big, audacious changemaker.

I truly believe God has placed the seed within all of us. A seed to become meaningful persons and play particular roles in serving the humanity. The seed grows and symptoms of its growth may manifest more clearly during childhood, but somewhere along the way due to family and social settings, the growth is inhibited. For many, the seed gets buried deep enough that it takes a lot of time and energy to unearth it. But the fact is, the seed is there for us to find, nurture and make a beautiful tree out of it.

All said, how to get to from where I am today to where I want to go, is going to be work in progress. It starts with the faith, the rest must fall in place. I must continue to do what I need to do.