Tag Archives: Ashoka

Social Enterprise and Health Care: Serving the Poorest of the Poor


Although I usually write about advancements with regard to social entrepreneurship and women, I ask that you forgive me as I digress and write about a phenomenon led by a (gasp!) man. (Seeing as how they do represent 50% of the population perhaps we ought to give them credit where credit is due…) I digress mainly because health care is an issue that I am passionate about; there’s no greater gift than being able to improve the quality of someone’s life so that they might reach their full potential and live a fulfilling life.

While in India I had the opportunity to meet David Aylward, the Senior Advisor for Global Health and Technology at Ashoka*. Says Aylward, “We need to shift from a sickness focus to a wellness focus.” That means understanding how outside factors like diet, sanitation and environment contribute to one’s health. Also important is the need to focus on patients and not doctors and hospitals. Why? “In the developing world they don’t have the doctors and the facilities.”

Enter technology: roughly two billion people have mobile phones. Innovators, such as Aylward, are looking for ways to use mobile phones as a means to store and collect data, information and connections. Aylward and others who are working in this field hope to someday connect diagnostic services and monitoring devices to cell phones of people in rural areas, allowing them to self-diagnose without ever setting foot in a hospital or paying to see a doctor. For example, earlier in his career while working with mHealth Alliance his company gave a grant to an individual who had invented a plastic lens that cost about $2 to put on a cell phone. Then, after taking a picture of a person’s eye, it produced a prescription for eyeglasses. “That’s where groups like social enterprises and Ashoka fellow set-ups come in. They create entities that can test these kinds of systems and devices in the field, figure out what works, what doesn’t, feed that back into the global network that we have created and are creating.” However, it is imperative that these services become sustainable. Once the right devices, systems and products have been found or created, the challenge becomes distributing everything throughout the world at a low price that people in developing countries can afford. Although a daunting task, Aylward has hope; “
By analogy, if you look at what happened with wireless, here you have devices that got very inexpensive, and service that got very inexpensive. Therefore people in the poorest parts of the world are now paying cash so that they can have access to information. We need to do the same thing in health.”

However, there are a few caveats to this intersection of health and technology. First is the fact that cell phones can’t conduct operations, limiting long-distance communication. Also, several people argue that a cell phone can never truly replace the touch of a highly trained specialist and could even lead to misdiagnoses. Lastly, many people in rural developing areas are not literate, posing problems with medicine or injections once those products have been received by a village from a neighboring clinic.



*Ashoka is a nonprofit organization that supports the field of social entrepreneurship. It was founded by Bill Drayton in 1981 to identify and support leading social entrepreneurs through a Social Venture Capital approach with the goal of elevating the citizen sector to a competitive level equal to the business sector.


Who is the Social Entrepreneur?


“A person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change.”

Let’s be honest; what exactly is a social entrepreneur? The above is a definition one gets when “social entrepreneur” is typed into Google. But what does this term really mean? It seems to be cropping up everywhere nowadays, from appearances in newspapers to Facebook posts, tweets and other forms of social media. What I attempt in this article is to re-define this slippery, somewhat mysterious term and give it back some of its dignity.

In order to look at a cohesive definition of the term “SE” I sought reputable organizations within the social enterprise realm and looked at their definitions. In other words, the below definitions can be considered “trustworthy”:

Stanford Social Innovation Review: “(1) identifying a stable but inherently unjust equilibrium that causes the exclusion, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve any transformative benefit on its own; (2) identifying an opportunity in this unjust equilibrium, developing a social value proposition, and bringing to bear inspiration, creativity, direct action, courage, and fortitude, thereby challenging the stable state’s hegemony; and (3) forging a new, stable equilibrium that releases trapped potential or alleviates the suffering of the targeted group, and through imitation and the creation of a stable ecosystem around the new equilibrium ensuring a better future for the targeted group and even society at large.”

Skoll Foundation: “Entrepreneurs change the face of business; social entrepreneurs are the change agents for society. They seize overlooked opportunities by improving systems, inventing new approaches and creating sustainable solutions to transform society for the better. Social entrepreneurs search, constantly, for superior ways to solve the problems that plague society.”

Ashoka: “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.”

Whew! Lots in there, especially Stanford’s definition, but the few ideas that all definitions manage to convey is this: innovation, change, wide-scale problems. I’m no expert, but what I’ve gathered as I’ve researched and worked in this realm is that social entrepreneurship is, at its heart, trying to do good. Social entrepreneurs use business models and blueprints, but the social change must always outweigh or equal the financial returns. I guess the missing ingredient that perhaps might separate social entrepreneurship from “business” is the greed element. That is to say, social entrepreneurs, and therefore social enterprises are greedless. Social entrepreneurs are a unique bunch indeed, and I had the pleasure of working and interacting with them during my time in India. They are passionate about the world’s most pressing needs, from female empowerment, to technology dispersal, to healthcare reform and everything in between. They have courage, talent, and an unyielding desire to make this world a better place. When they fall, they don’t just get back up-they come back with a new plan, a way to re-route and fine-tune their seemingly crazy idea that they believe in. When they don’t have cash they dip into their bank accounts. They are unafraid to ask for your help or seek advice, and they look to family and friends as the cornerstones of their foundations. They don’t have bedtimes, working around the clock, writing emails on their phones during their “downtime.” They research, investigate, question, and never accept the status quo. They are unwavering, in their pursuit and their desire, for a more just world, and being in their presence can be an inspiring, if not somewhat intimidating experience. Simply put, they want to leave this world a better place than they found it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have my own qualms and hang-ups about social enterprise, what it means, it’s implications, looking for the hard data out there showing that this stuff actually works. I don’t know that social enterprise is the answer to big issues in this big world of ours, but I do believe it is a start. It is creative, versatile and a fresh perspective to what has been offered in the past, i.e. foreign aid, donations, military aid. I came across a review of the book The Search for Social Entrepreneurship by Paul C. Light, which investigates social enterprise using data and hard facts. The book is quite comprehensive, beginning with defining social enterprise, the debates surrounding SE, analysis of successful SE’s and the problems that social entrepreneurs face today. Perhaps Mr. Light can offer some insight into the woes of social enterprise for those of us who are still grappling and playing around with this definition and this space. Happy reading!