Ashoka takes the entrepreneurial approach to tackling social problems

Ashoka's network of business leaders contribute their skills to improve the lives of millions. 

Ashoka Ireland is headquartered at 23 South William Street, Dublin 2.

Ashoka Ireland is headquartered at 23 South William Street, Dublin 2.

Founded by former McKinsey director Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs around the world in creating sustainable solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems. The entrepreneurs, who become Ashoka Fellows, receive a mix of professional and financial support for their projects.

“Social entrepreneurs are men and women with solutions to some of the world’s most critical social problems”, explains Ashoka Ireland directorSerena Mizzoni. “Rather than leaving societal needs for the government or business sectors alone to address, social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions which deliver extraordinary results and improve the lives of millions of people through their own drive and initiative.”

The first Ashoka Fellows were elected in India in 1981 and today Ashoka includes more than 3,000 fellows in 82 countries – 14 of them from Ireland.

“Our mission is to find the most promising, high potential social entrepreneurs, and support them in their vision to transform society at a national and international level”, Mizzoni adds. “Our Irish fellows have business models that are globally unique and a high impact. They are working on areas which range from empowering older people and people with disabilities, treating malnutrition in Africa, providing global free education, to building mass movements of food growers”.

Becoming an Ashoka fellow involves more than just having a good idea, however. There is quite a rigorous appraisal process to get through first. “Our fellows have to prove that they are willing to work on their idea full-time to scale it up, preferably internationally”, she points out. “We take a very business minded approach to the ideas and their prospects for success.”

Once the fellows come through the selection process they are provided with start-up funding – usually in the form of a living wage for the first three years of the project and other funding needed to make the project work. They are also connected with a range of pro bono support services which are provided by Ashoka Ireland partners and members of the Ashoka Support Network.

Engagement plans

The network is made up of over 400 business leaders across the world. Network members are business entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, top executives and consultants. There are currently 24 members in Ireland, each with engagement plans that suit their particular skills, interests and availability. “They engage with fellows in personal meetings and serve on advisory boards for strategic decision-making”, Mizzoni says.

Patrick Coveney is the CEO of Greencore and a member of Ashoka Ireland's Advisory Board

Patrick Coveney is the CEO of Greencore and a member of Ashoka Ireland's Advisory Board

One Irish member of the network is Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney. “I got involved because I knew some of the Ashoka Fellows such asCaroline Casey of Kanchi”, he says. “I got to know Serena Mizzoni through her and I was very impressed by the passion the organisation has for the contribution the fellows can make. I was also impressed by the way the organisation is able to very effectively connect multiple business leaders to support the fellows.”

He has a strong belief in the power of social entrepreneurship. “I think it can make a huge difference to society. Ashoka combines the passion, energy, and enthusiasm of the social entrepreneurs with better business practice and provides resources to help them to succeed.”

Coveney has two involvements with Ashoka. “As part of the support network I make a modest financial contribution and I am available to assist individual social entrepreneurs with advice and assistance from time to time. They often have tremendous enthusiasm but can benefit from some advice in putting a business plan together or on some other aspect of their project and I am happy to sit down with them and talk them through that.

I also sit on the advisory board which is there to support Serena Mizzoni and her team as they take on the business challenges of running Ashoka in areas such as fundraising and supporting the fellows with additional resources such as legal, business or tax advice.”

Venture capitalist and fellow network member Brian Caulfield is another strong believer in the potential of social entrepreneurship. “I have always been interested in the idea of taking an entrepreneurial approach to tackling major social problems”, he says. “I believe there is an incredibly good fit between the two. Entrepreneurs tend to think outside the box and in a very disruptive way. With most social problems a solution will not be found by throwing money at them. In some cases no amount of money will fix the problem. That’s why the entrepreneurial approach is more likely to succeed. Particularly because in many cases it is a community led approach. Rather than expecting some other body or organisation to fix the problem they look for a solution themselves.”

Brian Caulfield is a Partner at Draper Esprit and a member of the Ashoka Support Network

Brian Caulfield is a Partner at Draper Esprit and a member of the Ashoka Support Network

As with all network members Caulfield makes a financial contribution. “Part of my involvement is writing a cheque but I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise that”, he says. “I think about it as an investment in social good rather than profit. I have been extremely lucky in life, I have been able to make money, but no amount of money that you could donate will fix most problems. When I give money I am trying to find ways of leveraging that donation so that it will have a disproportionate impact. I have found two things that can do that – Ashoka and education.”

Solution exchange

He gives an example of an Ashoka project he has given direct help to. “One Ashoka fellow came up with the idea of City Mart”, he says. “The concept is that a lot of social problems encountered by cities have actually been solved sometime, somewhere else in a clever and effective way and those solutions could be replicated in other cities. But there is no exchange or market for these solutions. There could be something which has been done in São Paolo which could be done in Dublin but the city government here has no way of accessing it or knowing about it. Equally, they have no way of advertising their problems and asking if anyone else has come up with a solution to them. I took on a role with them like a non-executive chairperson to help develop the project.”

He encourages others to join the network. “I absolutely would recommend people to get involved in the support network but it has to be something that fits in with your personal ethic and outlook. I would also particularly like to see an increase in the number of women involved. I hosted a lunch recently for successful Irish women and I hope that leads to an increase. One thing I have to say is Ashoka is very good at matching the engagements of the people who get involved with their skills and abilities and taking into account their other commitments.”

 

This article was written by Barry McCall in October 2015. Read the original article on IrishTimes.com.

Mental health in a language you speak: the inclusive approach of MyMind

One in six people in Ireland will deal with mental health difficulties at some point in their lives.

One in six people in Ireland will deal with mental health difficulties at some point in their lives.

Ashoka Fellow Krystian Fikert's organisation MyMind is making mental healthcare accessible and affordable for thousands of people in Ireland. Their innovative online platform offers online counselling, with in-person treatment offered in four national clinics, based in Cork, Limerick, North Dublin and South Dublin.

You’re living in a new country.

You’re surrounded by people speaking a different language and while you can understand some of what they’re saying, you’re still learning and struggle to keep up.

While you’re slowly mastering simpler things like ordering coffee in a restaurant and making small talk with a colleague, a full grasp of the language seems a long way off.

Now imagine you’re struggling with a mental health difficulty in this new and foreign place.

You may be feeling anxious or depressed while a long way from home. You may be homesick or experiencing culture shock, loneliness or stress.

You know that talking to a counsellor would help you sort through these issues, but if you can barely make a restaurant reservation, how can you possibly talk to someone about something as important and complex as your mental wellbeing.

Now imagine there is somewhere you can go that offers care and support in many different languages, and where you can talk to someone about how you’re feeling in your own mother tongue.

A place like MyMind.

Mental health challenges are widespread in the modern world.

In Ireland, one in six of us will suffer mental health difficulties at some point in their lives.

Life events such as the loss of a loved one, unemployment, financial hardship, migration and identity issues are just a few things that can cause mental distress. 

If you’re living in a new country, there may be times when you miss home and family, you may struggle to feel understood – or perhaps you have moments of feeling isolated without the support of people who know you best.

This can make you feel anxious, depressed or stressed, and can affect how you feel about yourself.

Due to language barriers, stigma and lack of knowledge of services available, it can be especially difficult for people from migrant communities to reach out for help.

MyMind provides services to people in their native language, opening up a channel that allows them to learn more about mental health and get the support they need.

MyMind has a team of mental health professionals to choose from, you can get an appointment within just 72 hours and even have a session online in the comfort of your own home.

MyMind psychologist Brenda Pedrosa, who is from Brazil and speaks both Portuguese and English says, “Many of my clients feel lonely, they are homesick, and are far away from their families, so having a mental health professional to turn to, who can speak to them in their own language, is very important.” 

 

This blogpost was written by the team at MyMind. Find out more and book appointments on their website: www.mymind.org

Teaching coding: Europe is making progress, but more can be done.

CoderDojo is a global movement of voluntary coding clubs for kids.

CoderDojo is a global movement of voluntary coding clubs for kids.

Coding is a skill for the future. Ashoka Fellow James Whelton's organisation CoderDojo is a global, volunteer-led network of coding clubs, which is spread through the CoderDojo Foundation. Below, Global Development Lead Giustina Mizzoni describes the challenges and opportunities ahead.

To date, 15 European countries have introduced coding into their schools’ curriculums with many other countries in the process of doing so. However, more could be done to support informal coding activities as well as in schools from both governments and European institutions.

October saw the end of another successful Europe Code Week, during which thousands of CoderDojo volunteers, parents, and ninjas took part in events around Europe.

The initiative which began three years ago, by Neelie Kroes of Young Advisors, aims to expose individuals, both young and old, from all across Europe to develop a greater understanding of coding and its importance in today’s digitally connected world.

All new Champions who get in touch about starting a Dojo are asked, how did you hear about CoderDojo? For a month or two following Code Week a number from not just in Europe cite Code Week as their reason for wanting to join the community!

CoderDojo continues to grow massively throughout Europe. From the beginning of this year to October 2015 over 160 Dojos have been verified in Europe, with many more people registering their interest in setting up Dojos in their communities as well.

Coding at school: How do EU Countries Perform?

A great achievement this past year has been the creation of the European Coding Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group whose aim is to promote coding and computational thinking throughout Europe, both inside and outside of the classroom.

A number of organisations and CoderDojo partners such as European Schoolnet, Liberty Global and Microsoft are all involved in making sure this initiative strives to empower young people and promote the importance of learning to code.

To date, 15 European countries have introduced coding into their curriculums with many other countries in the process of doing so.

National governments are beginning to realise that the introduction of coding into schools not only helps children develop computer literacy skills but also equips youth with many other valuable skills in areas such as logical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork.

Exposing youth to coding through the formal education system and outside through informal clubs like CoderDojo will also assist with closing the digital skills gap that is being experienced across Europe.

Not all children who learn coding will become software engineers and this is certainly not the aim of CoderDojo!

However, it is estimated that 90% of all jobs require candidates to have basic computer skills and CoderDojo is enabling youth to be successful, competent adults regardless of their chosen career direction.

Best Practice Project: Erasmus +

This year we were delighted to become involved in an Erasmus+ project. In conjunction with partners CIT, The Nerve Centre, WiMi and IBE, it aims to create toolkits which will be utilised by new and existing members of the CoderDojo Community.

By surveying the existing CoderDojo Community, our partners are in the process of developing a CoderDojo International Toolkit which will be a detailed set of recommendations, methodologies and guidelines covering all aspects of establishing and operating a CoderDojo Chapter.

While continued support from European programmes such as the Erasmus+ project is vital, we believe more could be done to support informal coding activities as well as in schools from [CM1] both governments and European institutions.

Introducing coding into school curriculums is a huge step in the right direction, so is making ICT training compulsory for incoming teachers.

But this is not enough. Supporting programs like CoderDojo, held outside of formal education system, give European institutions a viable avenue for ensuring more youth are exposed to coding in a meaningful and creative way.

CoderDojo provides an opportunity for children to maintain and further develop an interest in coding whether it was gained from taking part in Code Week, or from a computational thinking class in school.

Throughout our four years of existence, we at CoderDojo has learned that having Dojos outside of a classroom setting helps to encourage young people’s creativity and allows for self-led learning.

Dojos are largely unstructured and young people are given the opportunity to work on projects of their choosing which makes learning to code seem less like another subject and more like a hobby.

In order for CoderDojo to grow and reach more young people, European institutions need to:

  1. Make the development of coding skills for youth a top priority.
  2. Recognise its place not only in the formal education system but also in informal learning environment.
  3. Promote coding at a local level within their communities.
  4. Continue to highlight initiatives like CoderDojo and Europe Code week and encourage all stakeholders to get involved.
 

This article was written by Giustina Mizzoni, Global Development Lead at the CoderDojo Foundation. Read the original article here.

 

Farmers as stewards of the environment: a new trend in conservation practice?

Ireland’s landscape has been shaped for millennia by human activity, most notably farming. This has yielded some wonderful legacies – from the national network of hedgerows and stone walls, to biodiversity-rich pastures sustained by grazing livestock. 

Recent decades have seen this legacy tarnished, however, as many farmers adopted modern technologies – including heavy machinery and agrochemicals – in an understandable effort to produce food more efficiently and to improve their income. 

Back in the late 1990s farmers in the Burren – possibly Ireland’s richest landscape for wildlife and culture – began to realise that though they could only produce limited quantities of food, they were also in effect producing a huge array of public goods and ‘ecosystem services’ – such as biodiversity (habitats, pollinators), clean water and carbon sequestration - for which there should be a reward. While national agri-environment programmes such as Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) sought to address this, they simply didn’t ‘fit’ the Burren and were considered very restrictive by farmers.

A limestone boulder perched atop the Burren's unique landscape.

A limestone boulder perched atop the Burren's unique landscape.

After several years of applied research, led by teams of academics and visionary local farm leaders, a new model for farming in the Burren was crafted through which Burren farmers could in effect be rewarded annually for their agricultural and environmental performance. 

The ‘Burren Life’ model of farming for conservation can best be described as a locally-targeted, farmer-led and results-based approach to enhancing the Burren’s farmed environment.  At its heart is a simple field-based system through which the environmental health of the land (soil, water, habitats etc) is estimated annually on a 1-10 scale, which in turn translates into an income for the farmer. High scores (9, 10) yield bonus payments to reward the exceptional management involved, while scores below 5 – equating to poor performance - yield no payment. 

Farmers must use their own experience, ingenuity and hard work if they want to deliver higher scores and payments but they tend to relish the freedom and incentive inherent in tackling this challenge. As farmers co-fund much of the work involved to generate higher scores, and as payment only issues on ‘delivery’ of environmental goods Burren Life can guarantee optimal ‘Value for Money’ for the taxpayer who funds the programme (through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the National Parks and Wildlife Service who sponsor Burren Life).

After 6 years of operation, Burren Life is proud to boast a measurable improvement in the environmental health of 50% of the protected land of the Burren for every one of those six years. It is now set to be extended across the entire Burren with an annual budget of €3-4m, a huge social and economic dividend to a peripheral rural area.

Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford gives HRH Prince Charles a tour of the Burren.

Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford gives HRH Prince Charles a tour of the Burren.

One of the many spin-off benefits of the project has been the number of farmers and conservationists – including HRH Prince Charles – who have visited the region to learn more about the Burren Life model. The impact of the Burren model has also led to the introduction of a new €70m measure in Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (2016-2020) to support locally led, results based programmes elsewhere in Ireland and has also fed into new research projects in the EU. The simple model has the capacity to be easily adapted to work on any field on any farm anywhere in the world.

The main lesson from the Burren Life story has been the appetite and ability of farmers to act as effective and impactful environmental stewards of their own land if they are given the trust, freedom, support and incentive to do so. Burren Life is a simple model which does just this.

 

This blogpost was written by Ashoka Fellow Dr. Brendan Dunford. Check out www.burrenlife.com for more information on Burren Life's conservation programmes.