No photo for this post folks: the panel deliberation happens behind closed doors. (It would probably have been a pretty standard people-talking-around-a-table-photo anyhow, so you can use your imagination). Right now panelists are comparing notes on the changemakers they just met, debating the newness of new ideas, the viability of plans to scale, the promise of potential partnerships, etc etc. They’re also debating whether these candidates are in a position to truly gain benefit from Ashoka’s network. Ashoka staff members are furiously taking notes to capture the conversation. Those notes—and the panelists final suggestions for whether candidates should move forward as fellows—will be passed on to Ashoka’s Board of Directors, which has the ultimate say in who joins the Fellowship.
One of the coolest facts about the Ashoka Fellow Selection process? It’s been around for 30 years. Conversations, references, site visits, and ultimately a panel—this scaffolding helped elect the very first Ashoka Fellow in 1981.
(1) Candidates Aren’t In Competition
Not only are candidates not competing with each other to the death, they’re not competing with each other at all. There are no quotas; no “slots.” Let me repeat: fellow candidates are not competiting with each other.
(3) Panel is Not Nationally Televised
While panel isn’t a secret—you’re reading about this important step in the selection process on a public blog—panel is an internal affair. The very human “who-will-make-it?” question that makes The Hunger Games (and The Bachelor, and Survivor, and much of reality TV) so addictive, it absolutely antithetical to the ethos of panel. All candidates who make it this far in the process are incredible changemakers, thinkers, doers, and leaders. At this point in the game, whether they become Ashoka Fellows has to do with their fit with our specific selection criteria.
(3) Dystopia has no Role Here
The dystopian vision of the future that is the backdrop of The Hunger Games couldn’t be further from conversations that happen at panel. These are conversations about how the future can be more equitable, more just, and more efficient. Correction—these are conversations about how candidates are, today, making the present world more equitable, more just, and more efficient.
Lunch break is around the corner as the fourth round of today’s interviews comes to a close. This morning 6 candidates working in a smorgasbord of fields—from remaking manufactured housing to reinventing primary care in the US, to creating schools that work with rather than against new immigrants—have sat in hour-long conversations about their big ideas. Leading those conversations are panelists of equally diverse backgrounds: an Ashoka Fellow; an Ashoka colleague; a director of a national “think-do-invest” tank dedicated to increasing economic opportunity; a leader in human-centered consulting. Special thanks to colleague Hanae for powering through the combinatorics problem of figuring who meets whom, when and where.
This week is panel week for the US team. This means that 7 social entrepreneurs will be visiting our offices to have conversations with 4 panelists. While these social entrepreneurs are here, they have an opportunity to make a 3 minute professionally produced video describing their work (see a few from the last panel here and here). Binders of background materials are being couriered to panelists, people are walking faster and with more purpose, jumping over mic cables, greeting panelists, discussing the brilliant ideas of the entrepreneurs. For me (and perhaps for all of us), this is why we joined Ashoka – to be able to support and be inspired by amazing social entrepreneurs.
When I was going through the interview process to join Ashoka as staff (which mirrors the Fellow selection process), I remember one night madly going through old grad school applications and college essays to try to remember all the initiatives I had begun. Oh yes, I began a “Fast for World Hunger” tradition in my high school the Thursday before Thanksgiving. I started an annual book sale with proceeds going to charity. I started the first Indian Students’ Association in college. During previous job interviews, I’d been asked about technical skills, about my ability to work with a team, about managing large projects but not once had anyone asked if I had changed anything in the places I’d worked or communities I had lived. No one ever asked if I had been a changemaker.
The first panel I attended was in India. I was very curious to understand the “magic” of Ashoka’s selection process. I sat in on some interviews with the panel chair Jan Visick who has been associated with Ashoka for many years. By design, she is not Indian and provides an external perspective on the work of each person. These 3-4 hour interviews covered topics from childhood influences and experiences to the business models of the specific work. Jan masterfully wove these threads together to understand the person behind the ideas. Some people have described it as almost a form of therapy – how often do you have the chance for someone to hold a mirror up to you and your work? The entrepreneurs then went on to a series of three 55-minute interviews with the other panelists. During the afternoon, the panel deliberated on the fit of each entrepreneur with the Ashoka criteria. Does the idea have national or global potential? Have the entrepreneur considered the challenges s/he will face? What is the business model? Does the entrepreneur inspire trust, will s/he be able to build the partnerships needed? Is this the right historical moment for this idea? Is the work at an inflection point where Ashoka can contribute? I was honestly stunned by the attention and thought given to the work of each entrepreneur; all trying to answer the core questions of ‘Is this a pattern-changing idea?’ and ‘Is this the entrepreneur to achieve this idea?’.
This is the process that goes on around the world in over 40 countries as we elect Ashoka Fellows with remarkable consistency. I think a big part of the “magic” of our process is that we ask different questions. We are famous for asking “You were born, and then?” One of the most profound questions that Ashoka asks is “How is your school or community different because you were there?” I reflect on this question almost every day. In the end, the panel week holds a mirror up to us all and I think we are all better changemakers as a result. —Karabi
As graduation season slowly passes, people’s favorite commencement speeches are being posted online for continuous viewing and contemplation.
I stumbled upon a collection from the Chronicle of Higher Education that had this fantastic portion of Ashoka Fellow Don Shalvey’s speech at the University of Southern California:
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned since my graduation:
Lesson 1. Experience disappointment and disillusionment early in your career. … Disappointment gives you wisdom. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; it does accumulate, and often by accident while you’re trying to do something else. …
Lesson 2. Make excellent mistakes. Work for someone who will let you fail so you’ll learn to embrace the learning that only comes from failure. …
Lesson 3. A great workplace isn’t fancy technology, lattes, health care, sushi lunches, nice offices, or big compensation, but rather it’s stunning colleagues. …
Lesson 4. Remember either you’re networking or you’re not working. Everyone you meet offers lessons in life, insight, and endless possibilities.
Lesson 5. Don’t wait for Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Spiderman, or all the Avengers, for that matter. Believe in the power of local heroes like your parents, neighbors, coaches, farmers, and the like. …
Lesson 6. When given the choice of doing well or doing good, choose doing good.
Lesson 7. People will tell you to make a plan, get a plan, have someone help you design a plan. Take it from me, there is no plan. … Trust the direction your heart sends you. Take a pass on the plan.
Don Shalvey is Deputy Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of Aspire Public Schools.
One of the most common questions we get from people is “How do you select Ashoka Fellows?” When faced with the question, we have two options: describe the process itself-its steps and our Fellow selection criteria-or explain why it exists and what its impact is on social entrepreneurs, on the sector as a whole, and on us. This week we are about to embark on the third of five U.S. panels for the year, so now is a good time to explain what that means.
Panels are essentially a series of one-on-one interviews between Fellow candidates and entrepreneurs (social or business) who are intimately familiar with Ashoka’s selection criteria, but who do not work directly with our Venture (Fellow selection) team. By the time candidates get to panel, our team has reviewed the work of hundreds of social entrepreneurs (roughly 600 per year) and determined that the fit of a select few is strong (based on conversations with candidates, input from field experts and site visits). Through these initial conversations over the course of several months we learn about the social entrepreneurs’ trajectories as entrepreneurs - often going back to their childhood. We also tease out the most important insights that led them to a big new idea. And, using the the socratic method, we push them to identify, refine and describe the important levers that will incentivize a broad adoption of their work, changing the rules of the game and eventually leading to scaled social impact.
The role of the panel interviewers is to explore from their different vantage points whether they see the same potential our Venture team sees. Most importantly, they push social entrepreneurs to think deeply about how they will eventually shift a critical norm in their respective fields. While that is in fact our aim, it is always sobering to hear from social entrepreneurs that the selection process is valuable in and of itself. Most, though not all, gain new insights, refined strategies and sometimes acquire a brand new identity as social entrepreneurs.
This year, we aim to bring in 25 U.S. Fellows into the Ashoka Fellowship. The goal is not only to contribute to accelerating the impact of each Fellow by bringing them into a network of peers and connecting them to resources at a critical time in their growth trajectory. Ashoka also undertakes this work in 70 countries around the world to build a critical mass of innovators who collectively can have an impact that is greater than the sum of its parts. In addition, Ashoka Fellows help us imagine the future. As an aggregate, they help us spot important trends and guide Ashoka’s strategies to build an Everyone a Changemaker™ world. Our Empathy work exemplifies this phenomenon: a critical mass of Ashoka Fellows working with young people have continuously pointed to empathy as a core skill. Now we’re partnering with them and many others to ensure that every child and young person can master that skill.
This week, we’ll be hosting 7 Ashoka Fellow candidates in D.C. for one of our last panels of the year. I personally love this time of the year. It’s the culmination of months of work, an opportunity to engage in some of the most fascinating conversations with the country’s leading social entrepreneurs and a reminder of the value of our tried and tested selection process.
To get a good idea of the range of innovators we bring into our network every year, check out the eight Fellows we elected most recently!