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Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

U.S. NPO seeks 'social entrepreneurs'

Ashoka branch targets youths who strive to think outside the box, help others and benefit

Staff writer

A U.S.-based nonprofit organization that has helped "social entrepreneurs" around the world opened a Japanese office this month, its first branch in East Asia, with the goal of creating a similar community in a country where the concept itself is little understood.

News photo
Seeking innovators: Bill Drayton (center), founder and CEO of Ashoka, stands with the organization's Japan office representative Kashiwa Maki (left) and senior adviser Nana Watanabe at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, founded in the United States in 1980, has provided financial and professional support to people who combine social service and business entrepreneurship. It now has a network of nearly 3,000 people worldwide.

At a news conference Monday, Ashoka's founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, said Japan has high potential for fostering social entrepreneurs with new ideas, because "there is no other country in the world that has grown as much as Japan has in the last 150 years," he said.

Kashiwa Maki, representative of Ashoka Japan, said one of the goals of the new office is to select social entrepreneurs to form a network of "Ashoka fellows" who can change society with more speed.

With the launch of its Japan office, the group started its "youth venture" program, which, according to Ashoka, helps youths in Japan with ideas to solve social problems and "to learn the skills of teamwork, leadership and empathy that they need in order to be successful future leaders."

Drayton said he noticed that all of the social entrepreneurs his organization has supported had something in common: They all had experience creating innovation at a young age.

"Once you create innovation at age 15, the chances are you will be a change-maker at age 30," he said.

Ashoka first launched the youth venture program in the United States in 1996, and has since started the program in 16 other countries, including Brazil, Israel and the Netherlands.

"It's important to cultivate a good environment for the youths where they can spread their ideas more and implement those ideas, which might be a solution to some of the problems in society," Maki said.

Maki noted not all youths have a clear vision from the beginning of what they want to do to change society, but that most have the potential of being a social entrepreneur. "When (youths find) out that something is going wrong in society, there's a high chance (they) want to solve that problem," said Maki, a former company worker who in 2003 launched a project in the U.S. providing support for children with developmental disorders.

Most youths already have charcoal inside themselves to build a fire with, he said, noting it's just a matter of starting the fire inside them.

Although youths need some kind of a mentor for guidance, they shouldn't wait for adults to tell them what to do, and should try to find solutions to problems themselves, Maki said.

"It's important to find a chain of youths that share the same kind of values. We will try to build up such a community among Japanese youths," he said. Ashoka is also trying to recruit adults who would lead them through the process.

Nana Watanabe, Ashoka's senior adviser based in New York who pushed for creation of the Japan office, agrees. "I find that many youngsters, from a very young age, try to say or do what the adults expect of them," she said. "But the kind of youths we're looking for are those that may even make the adults angry, youths that have the courage to act out of the box," she said.

From last May to July, Ashoka held a pilot program inviting youths between the ages of 12 and 20 to present their ideas to solve various problems in society — and then gave them feedback. A total of 33 teams, each consisting of a few youths, applied and presented their ideas mostly related to learning, education and living abroad. Fourteen teams have so far proceeded to the stage where they will turn their ideas into projects with the support of Ashoka.

With grants provided by JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Ashoka provides the youths with ¥100,000 as seed money and also gives them advice for launching their projects.

One of the projects launched is a program offering elementary school students, especially from low-income or single-parent families, with free tutoring service. Launched by Keio University students Haruki Okada and Tomoyuki Osonoi, both 20, the program sprang from Okada's idea that students from low-income families should not be deprived of opportunities to receive extracurricular education that would help them go to universities.

Okada said he had attended a high school with low academic levels, where he found out that many of his classmates came from low-income families and their parents could not afford to give them extracurricular education. "I thought it was not fair that bright young people lose future opportunities like this," he said.

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Learning curve: Tomoyuki Osonoi (left) and Haruki Okada have jointly launched a program to offer free extracurricular teaching to elementary school children in Yokohama. MAMI MARUKO PHOTO

They did extensive research on which area in the Kanto region had large numbers of families receiving welfare benefits. They found out that Tsurumi in Yokohama was one such area, so they negotiated with the headmaster of a local elementary school and succeeded in starting a free tutoring service for its students. They rented a classroom for free, and organized volunteers who would teach students mainly Japanese and math.

On a recent Friday, six students came to the class, where each volunteer teacher taught one or two children. Twenty children showed up at a Saturday session.

Osonoi said the service has been well received by both students and parents since it started in September. "A parent said that her child was disappointed when the class was canceled once. I was happy that the students really wanted to come to learn," he said.

A fifth-grade student who took part in a recent class by the volunteer tutors said she likes to attend the class "as I can reinforce my studies and get closer to getting the best marks in tests."

"I would like to make this a model case, and spread the same kind of system all around Japan," OKada said. "There are so many problems accumulating in the world. My dream is to do something that has an impact of even changing the world in some way, and to bring profit to as many people as possible," he said.

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