Teaching a Man to Fish Isn't Enough

Ashoka Israel invests in individual entrepreneurs to help them affect profound social change.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Dr. Nir Tsuk is a venture capitalist, but he is not trying to find the next Internet giant, nor is he interested in investing in advanced medical technology. “Do you know the saying, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’? Well, we don’t only want to teach people to fish, we want to change the entire fishery branch,” he says, referring to the goals of Ashoka Israel, of which he is the CEO.

Ashoka Israel, a branch of the global Ashoka organization, is a pioneering effort in social entrepreneurship. It invests in interesting social-oriented projects, and finds groups and individuals who can help the projects get off the ground, in ways that help solve social problems.

“Today everything is considered social entrepreneurship,” Tsuk says. “Any person who gives two shekels to charity is called a social entrepreneur. But Ashoka coined the term, and it really refers to finding new solutions to existing social problems socioeconomic change on a broad, systematic level. “Our goal is to connect the business community to social entrepreneurship, based on the understanding that these two communities can learn from one another,” he continues. “We want to improve the current situation, in which social entrepreneurs go around knocking on doors, looking for funds from business investors. The business community and social entrepreneurs use similar methods, and they should be connected in the right way, a way that leads to optimal, mutual benefit.”

Google’s support

Ashoka Innovators for the Public is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 by Bill Drayton, who is known as the godfather of social entrepreneurship. The organization’s goal is to assist innovators looking for ways of solving social problems by using risk capital funds. Today, Ashoka operates in 72 states in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East and it supports a network of 3,000 entrepreneurs, who are termed Ashoka fellows. The organization has annual revenue of some $40 million.

Ashoka Israel supports five entrepreneurs, and three more entrepreneurs are waiting to have their status as fellows ratified by the global organization. Winning designation as an Ashoka fellow is a relatively long process involving a year of scrupulous review. The prize, Tsuk says, has three aspects: “The first is financial support, of course. We reached the conclusion that in order to exert influence and promote social change, you have to invest in the entrepreneur himself, and not in the project or in organizations. The second component is the social network, who you come to meet and know. There are Israeli entrepreneurs who have become connected to the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or to governments. Such connections help them raise awareness and recruit capital and resources from international sources. This creates a community of entrepreneurs who help one another. The third benefit is recognition [of the fellow’s work and potential]. This is crucial psychologically, because people are often afraid that they are abandoning their families and driving themselves crazy, for no purpose.”

Each fellow who wins Ashoka support, Tsuk says, receives an annual salary of $100,000 for three years. “Most of the money comes from donations contributed by companies such as Google firms that were established by innovators who understand that Ashoka is continuing what they themselves did in business. The only difference is that an Ashoka fellow’s entrepreneurship applies to social issues.
At an Ashoka event staged at Google headquarters a few years ago, Google cofounder Sergey Brin said: “I am here because I feel as though I am one of your community, and as an individual entrepreneur I know how isolated your work can feel. For this reason, Google is supporting Ashoka, which supports you.”

Companies, Tsuk explains, have good reason to invest in Ashoka because talented workers can be identified through social entrepreneurship work. “Workers today are looking for jobs that offer more than good money and benefits,” Tsuk says. “They want the added value of becoming linked to communities. Google, for instance, pays workers to become involved in social-oriented work. This approach helps new companies attract talent, in an era where the struggle to recruit capable employees is becoming fierce. Good workers are looking for more than massages and high wages. They want jobs that have meaning.”

Critical consumers

Tsuk was born in Ramat Gan. His parents, former kibbutzniks, worked in education and the health sector. During his B.A. studies in political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Tsuk addressed issues of education and educational development at the Rabin Center and Yad Vashem. He also worked as a teaching assistant and researcher for the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health committee. He later attended the University of Cambridge, pursuing a doctorate in political science and sociology. During this period he developed an interest in social entrepreneurship: At Cambridge, he worked for the Community Development Foundation a British philanthropic organization that assists social entrepreneurs who work in community development.

In 2005, after completing his doctorate, Tsuk discovered Ashoka. Enthusiastic, he left academia and joined the organization. He returned to Israel three years ago with the goal of establishing a local branch. “We want Israel to be recognized as a start-up nation, not only in high-tech fields but also in social ones,” he says. “When I worked with Ashoka I headed the Fellowship program, and I persuaded the organization to invest in Israel.”

Tsuk acknowledges that the “issue of corporate responsibility has reached Israel after it penetrated other countries of the world countries in which people talk about a double bottom line of financial dividends and social dividends, or a triple bottom line of financial, social and also environmental dividends. People around the world have come to understand that such a triple bottom line help is good for business. Consumers in the 21st century not only protest against bad companies they also reward good firms.”

Ashoka Israel works with partners such as Microsoft, the Hebrew University, the Tel Aviv municipality, the law firm S. Horowitz & Co., and the Israeli Branch of UBS. In addition to supporting individual fellows, the organization also sets up “social entrepreneurship incubators,” as Tsuk calls them. These are groups and workshops that give young people tools they can use to bring about social change in their communities. “A Bedouin resident of the Negev has a better idea than I can possibly have with regard to what’s good for his community, and how to correct problems. He needs someone to tell him, ‘yes, you can,’ and to explain to him that setting priorities and calling the mayor isn’t so difficult. We try to sow the seeds of social entrepreneurship” among incubator participants.

Social entrepreneurship, Tsuk says, helps companies promote innovation and avoid stagnation. “At Ashoka we believe in the concept of ‘changemakers,’” he explains. “Every company needs a changemaker the kind of person who is suited for social entrepreneurship. The difference between Detroit and San Jose is that the former has remained stalled with the auto industry whereas San Jose prospers thanks to high tech, and because it had a higher proportion of changemakers.”

According to Tsuk, social activity is what separates companies that belong to the dying old school and firms that belong to the new, 21st-century, world. “Nokia, for instance, still bandies the slogan of ‘connecting people,’ but its business goals are to maximize the profits of shareholders. Social purpose remains with [Nokia] a public relations issue. It hasn’t really penetrated the heart of the country. In contrast, a company such as TOMS Shoes follows a different approach for every pair of shoes it sells it donates a pair to disadvantaged people; here, social innovation has entered the company’s DNA.

“Companies such as TOMS Shoes show where the world is headed,” Tsuk concludes. “Consumers are more discerning and critical, as is the media, so companies have an interest in employing social entrepreneurs people who are sensitive and attuned to the topic of social change. Without such employees, a company will become petrified, and die.”

Nir Tsuk.