Behind every great transformation, there lies a remarkable individual who ignites change with a vision and decision to take action. Armed with innovation and an idea more important to them than anything else, social entrepreneurs are determined to solve a particular problem, regardless of what it takes. Although they exist in every community, working tirelessly to see their vision materialized, they may not be readily identifiable. The Persian community stands to benefit by finding these people, supporting them, and helping them fulfill their dream of social change.
What exactly is a social entrepreneur? A social entrepreneur is a transformative power, a person with a vision to address vital problems, who is persistent in their quest to see their new idea succeed, who will not relent until their idea has crossed borders, cultures, and has become the norm rather than a curiosity. Whether their passion is civic engagement, economic development, the environment, healthcare, human rights, or education, it will take an inspired individual with resolve and motivation to work towards the innovation that society needs to fight its most challenging ills.
It is this concept that has driven Ashoka, a global organization with a 25-year history and a network of more than 1,800 social entrepreneurs in over 60 countries, and PARSA Community Foundation, a philanthropic institution that helps Persians foster goodwill in their communities locally, nationally and worldwide, to invite applicants of Iranian origin to become a celebrated Ashoka fellow. The Ashoka PARSA Partnership for Social Entrepreneurship will financially support a fellow anywhere in the world Ashoka operates for three years based on his or her need, giving the fellow the resources to develop and implement his or her idea full-time.
PARSA is fueled by a passion to focus on social entrepreneurship among the Persian community. The reasons are three-fold: Firstly, while the Persian diaspora contributes greatly to our local economies, we are not spending enough to take care of our own community. Our elderly are in need of Persian language services, our youth are losing sight of Persian culture, and we are increasingly finding ourselves at a loss to preserve our heritage in our adopted homes. Secondly, we are outspent by the Arab diaspora population, confusing our identity in the Western world, as Persian programs in higher education and museums are lost in the mix to Arab-funded ones. Lastly, the Persian community's demand for money far exceeds the supply of money. It is pertinent then that we develop sustainable and long-lasting solutions to address these needs and ensure wise spending and positive results.
PARSA and Ashoka support social entrepreneurship because it is self-sustaining, delving to the root of the problem rather than producing a superficial solution. Such a feat is often a matter of looking outside the box, so it is little surprise that PARSA board member and world-renowned space traveler Anousheh Ansari along with her family are tremendous supporters of Ashoka, sponsoring entrepreneurs in Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Israel. While Ashoka can not support entrepreneurs working in Iran, Ashoka and its supporters are hopeful that a fellow will someday be established there.
With a penchant for entrepreneurship and a tradition of philanthropy, social entrepreneurship is a natural fit for Persians, providing an opportunity to approach challenges at their core and affect enduring change in our communities. For example, Kahrizak Charity Foundation in Iran, founded in 1971 by the late Dr. Mohammad Reza Hakimzadeh, began as a tiny charity and has blossomed into a financially independent and successful institution that provides housing and support for the disabled and elderly, people who were once stigmatized by society and a source of shame for their families. By providing classes that teach residents skills such as sewing, painting, and carpet weaving, Kahrizak has enabled them not only to make a living through selling the goods they produce, it has also contributed immensely to their well being and sense of self-respect. A testament to the power of social entrepreneurship, Kahrizak has become a major manufacturer of gowns, overalls, and lab coats, used by schools and hospitals in Tehran.
Although Ashoka fellows can not operate in Iran, they have been making amazing strides elsewhere in the Middle East. Magda Iskander is an outstanding example of the poignant humanitarianism that can arise from social entrepreneurship. Dr. Iskander has transformed care for the sick, disabled and elderly, something that was traditionally done by extended families and is now run inefficiently by expensive hospitals. By introducing home health care, she has created a replicable and sustainable model, giving birth to a whole new industry in the region. Dr. Iskander seeks intelligent and compassionate recruits and teaches them to care for the elderly in their homes, thus giving her recruits a respectable, professional job and at the same time providing quality care for the elderly. This long-lasting solution is typical of the work Ashoka fellows do.
Yet another inspiring social entrepreneur is Brazilian Oded Grajew, founder of Ethos Institute, a leading organization that advocates and mobilizes companies to manage their businesses in a socially responsible manner, making them partners in a fair sustainable society. He is also the founder of the World Social Forum (WSF), an annual meeting that attracts thousands of organizations to discuss alternatives to globalization. Championing corporate social responsibility, Grajew envisioned bridging divides between labor and private sectors, and making institutions such as Ethos and WSF the standard among all societal sectors. Today, Ethos Institute has more than 1,000 corporate members who make up 38% of Brazil's GDP and WSF attracts over 80,000 non-profit organizations annually. Such is proof that social movements are often created by small but very creative and bold individuals who manage to develop an idea that grows until their mission becomes self-sustaining.
Finally, consider the now infamous case of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank. He pioneered the idea of microcredit by leveraging small loans into major social change for impoverished families. The Grameen Bank's use of microcredit has been duplicated across the globe since Yunus started the project in Bangladesh in 1976. Loans as low as $1 have helped transform destitute individuals into budding entrepreneurs with self-sustaining livelihoods. With a repayment rate greater than 85%, it has become a sustainable model that works in all kind of cultural and economic environments around the world. A true social entrepreneur, Yunus has lamented “Poverty is not caused by poor people. Poverty is caused by the system we built, by the policies that we pursue.”
Clearly there is a need for a new kind of entrepreneurship, but support systems are needed to allow it to reach its best potential. This support lies in the hands of future social entrepreneurs, people who will build enduring supportive institutions. In the words of Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, “Our job is not to give people fish; it's not to teach them how to fish; it's how to build a new and better fishing industry.” Take that step and be the first to venture into new territory, to lead the way, and to build the new industry: apply to become an Ashoka fellow today.