Schulich grad links goals to market forces
Armed with a BA in psychology and youthful idealism, Elisha Muskat (Schulich MBA ’09) set out for New York to change the world, wrote TheRecord.com on Wednesday, July 18.
She thought she’d found the perfect job as a youth development worker. But she soon discovered that hundreds of cash-starved charities were competing fiercely for the same health and education grants. She didn’t have the skills or the contacts to survive in this cutthroat world.
So she headed home and enrolled in [the Schulich School of Business at] York University’s MBA program fornonprofit management and leadership to learn about market dynamics and value chains and systemic change.
Today, at 29, Muskat is the executive director of Ashoka Canada, part of a global network of changemakers dedicated to transforming their societies with the power of their ideas. She is as optimistic as ever, but more focused and strategic.
Canada is a relative newcomer to the network. Ashoka opened its Toronto office in 2002, 22 years after the organization was founded by Bill Drayton, a Manhattan lawyer with a passion for social justice. It had already established offices in 17 countries — six in Asia, five in South America, four in Europe and two in North America — when Canada joined.
Ashoka is making a difference. Each year, it identifies a handful of citizens with transformative ideas and invests in them. So far it has named 44 Canadian “fellows” — out of a global total of 3,000. These individuals receive a three-year stipend to work full-time on their proposal. The amount can range from $30,000 to $75,000 depending on a candidate’s needs and circumstances. Ashoka also connects them to its growing list of corporate and philanthropic partners.
“Old institutions and systems aren’t serving today’s world,” Muskat says. “We need to find people with new solutions to poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation”
Some of Ashoka’s Canadian fellows have become global leaders in their fields. Others have built social enterprises in their communities that governments can’t shut down or starve.
Here are few examples: Mary Gordon, whose anti-bullying program, Roots of Empathy, is used in schools around the world; Geoff Cape, whose urban nature preserve, Evergreen Brickworks, has become a model for cities that want to carve out green space in the urban landscape; John Mighton, whose math program JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) has proven that any kid can become a numbers whiz; Stanley Zlotkin, whose invention “sparkles” — a blend of micronutrients that can be sprinkled on any food — has dramatically cut the death rate of children in poor countries; and Tonya Surman, whose Centre for Social Innovation is incubating hundreds of environmental, cultural, educational and community-building businesses.
Becoming an Ashoka fellow is not easy. Anyone can be nominated or apply directly. The first hurdle is a 20-page application form. Then comes a two-to-three hour interview with Ashoka Canada’s staff, followed by an interview with a global selection team. Then comes a grilling by business leaders to assess the financial viability of an individual’s proposal.
“These are very in-depth interviews,” says Claudia De Simone, who leads the search and selection process. “We want to understand their ethical fibre.”
By the end, the stack of applications (normally about 100 a year) shrinks to about six. (Last year, only three made the cut.)
Running this program and supporting the fellows is expensive. “We have to raise $1.5 million annually,” Muskat says. “I spend a lot of my time fundraising. Everyone here is a fundraiser.”
For a relatively new non-profit agency, Ashoka has lined up an impressive list of corporate supporters.
“Three or four years ago, people would scratch their heads when we talked about investing in social innovation,” Muskat says. “Now they’re starting to get excited about the possibilities.”
She never imagined herself as a fundraiser or venture capital manager or a link in a global chain of social innovators. But in an era of austerity, activists have to find new ways to solve old problems.