#FridayPhilosophy: What is a changemaker?

A remarkable thing happened last week at the United States Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia: Bill Clinton chose to encapsulate Hillary’s public service career with one description: "She is the best darn changemaker I have ever known." News outlets around the world carried headlines about the speech, with some wondering, what is a changemaker?

For us at Ashoka—a network that has been dedicated to building an "Everyone A Changemaker" world for more than a decade—it’s an exciting moment to witness changemaking become part of our collective consciousness. And it's even better when it prompts a debate about who might qualify as the most effective changemaker. But the moment comes with trepidation, too. It’s imperative that the term doesn’t become partisan. The complexity of societal challenges are too great for any one party to lay claim to an identity as uplifting as changemaker.

Changemakers are school children in Haiti creating new traffic safety systems, American truckers preventing human trafficking, and Nobel Peace Prize winnersbringing banking to Bangladesh and fighting for child rights in India. They can come from anywhere in the world, they can come from any sector, and most importantly, they can have any political leaning. 

So if we shouldn’t gauge a changemaker by their shade of blue or red, what qualities do they exhibit? Three qualities stand out:


They use a deep-rooted sense of empathy for others, identify a specific problem or opportunity to tackle, and give themselves permission to do something about it. But it doesn’t stop there. Changemakers are relentless. Picture a child who wants to recycle plastic to protect local wildlife. By doing so, she has taken her first steps in changemaking. But when recycling becomes commonplace, she’ll graduate to the next major challenge in managing resources (a scenario that is already becoming true in some places). 


Changemakers cannot just parachute into a community as an outsider who has come to save the day. They must be personally connected to the issue they want to solve. Take the example of Khalid al-Khudair, a social entrepreneur who focuses on creating jobs for women in Saudi Arabia. He is passionate about women’s empowerment in the Middle East not as a theoretical development professional from abroad, but as someone born and raised within Saudi Arabia, and having witnessed the struggle of his sisters search for employment firsthand.

Further, changemaking is not just the domain of a privileged few. People seen as being "in need" often create and drive their own solutions, many addressing the most pressing issues of our time. For example, street children in India are running their own helpline to quickly reach other children in distress, women in Nigeria are incorporating technology to build wealth beyond subsistence farming, and ex-gang members are leading efforts to reduce gun violence by more than 75% in American inner cities or mentoring other youth for tech careers in South Africa.


Not every changemaker launches their own startup. Sometimes it is the changemaker within an existing institution that’s most powerful. For instance, a cell-phone company employee worked to help informal businesses in slum areas function by giving them mailing addresses through mobile phones, or a pharmaceutical company employee began working on cheap, accurate, paper-based diagnostic kits for anemia after a family friend died without being diagnosed. Known as social "intrapreneurs," these are people—like many of us—who understand the mechanics of their own firms and are in a great position to innovate for the greater good.

We live in a rapidly transforming, increasingly interconnected world. The size and complexity of global challenges needs changemakers of every shape and size. And while the Clintons were among the first politicians to publicly embrace the association, our country—and our future—depends upon changemakers across the political spectrum.

As Engineers Without Borders founder and inspiring changemaker George Roter says, "Everyone has changemaking in their DNA; it’s just a matter of unlocking it."

Reem Rahman is the director of the Ashoka Changemakers Learning Lab and coauthor of recently published report: "More than Simply 'Doing Good': Defining Changemaker."

Kris Herbst is the chief editor on the Ashoka Framework Change Team. 

Tim Scheu is the director of engagement management at Ashoka Changemakers.

This article originally appeared on Fast Company.

Celebrating Women's Day: Inspiration from Leading Social Innovators

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

International Women’s Day is upon us!  Events are held worldwide on this day to highlight the importance of women and their influence on the modern world.  At various events women recognised for excellence will speak about equal opportunity and the potential each woman has to make her voice heard.  

Ashoka has a long history of supporting social entrepreneurs (‘Ashoka Fellows’) who are breaking down barriers. Ashoka Fellows build strong organizations and networks that tackle global challenges like education, disability access, and elderly inclusion.  Mairead Healy (founder of Future Voices), Caroline Casey (Inclusion Advocate, TED talk speaker and founder of The Ability Awards), and Mary Nally (founder of Third Age and Fáilte Isteach) are all leaders positively transforming society, encouraging every individual, no matter the circumstance, to reach his or her full potential as changemakers. These remarkable women blend innovation, humour and intelligence, and share their experiences with honesty.  We chatted with these Ashoka Fellows about female solidarity, dealing with criticism, and the lessons amassed on their journey to success.

Do women need to work harder to receive the same recognition in the workplace?  The answer to that universal question is dependent on several factors.  Caroline Casey experienced that her gender was less significant that perhaps that of other women doing this work. Because of her vision impairment, she worked harder to overcompensate and make everything look easy, her gender taking a backseat to her disability.  That identity was what people tended to focus on.

Mairead Healy and Mary Nally had different experiences. In previous political positions before setting up Future Voices, Mairead spoke of instances when she knew if she put forward an idea it would not be taken as seriously as a male colleague’s contribution. “I knew male coworkers in similar positions received preferential salary. I recognized that this may be because I did not have the confidence to negotiate a higher salary for myself.” Now a leader in the social sector, Mairead sees more leadership roles for women, as more women gravitate to this field and its supportive atmosphere.  Mary recounted starting her organization, Third Age, 28 years ago.  She agreed women needed to be very ambitious to get ahead. “It was very much a man’s world. Looking at the politicians and ministry positions held at that time you can see that.  The tide has since changed but there is still room for improvement.”

Caroline discovered when she was beginning to establish herself professionally that her gender became more relevant doing media work. “The media element made me much more conscious of my femininity and its importance.  People would remark on how much I moved my hands!  I was worried about what people were going to think of me.”  As a society we often stress how people look physically.  Caroline remarked women have a tougher time when it comes to criticism and it is important to support and relate to each other through this.

Solidarity was a big part of each woman’s professional journey.  For all three, having a mentor and being able to mentor someone in return is a part of the cycle of solidarity.  Mairead hesitated to seek a mentor, thinking she would be a bother.  But, once she reached out, she found many women who wanted to help her and share their wisdom.  “One mentor told me to surround myself with people who have your back.  These people can be your eyes and ears. They should be encouraging but not afraid to call you out as well.”  Mairead now mentors people herself and finds it highly rewarding.

Mary found being a mentor “absolutely brilliant. She also recognized the importance of having a female mentor who understands your experiences.  She realized a different pair of eyes help you see things in a new way, making you better at what you do.  “Though I’ve worked extremely hard at building up the organization, I have received as much and more as I give. Surround yourself with really good people who help you in your journey.”

Caroline relayed one piece of advice she gives to the young women she mentors. “Learn to say no and ask for help if you need it. I think a lot of women can relate to this idea that we need to be superwoman. We try to take on so much and we don’t reach out to others for support.” She thinks women are very hard on themselves.  She tries to reassure them that, as they get older, they won’t invest so much of their opinion of themselves in what other people think.

Mary, Caroline, and Mairead are powerhouses of innovation and change.  They are also women who share parallel experiences across three different generations, and three different specialized fields.  Regardless of age and profession, women face a lot of scrutiny.  All three Fellows expressed having, at one time or another, felt this pressure.  Their approach to dealing with the pressure and criticism of being a female leader was a solid recipe of knowing one’s self and one’s principles.  Women must surround themselves with positive mentors and honest supporters.

This year’s International Women’s Day campaign is #PledgeForParity, a commitment from men and women to stand up and fight for gender equality. The pledge urges action over talk, and calls for gender-balanced leadership across the world to develop more respectful, inclusive cultures.  If you are interested in helping women achieve their goals and accelerating gender parity, you can #PledgeForParity here.  

This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.