by Stewart Deck

How Ashoka Is Changing the World by Attempting to Bridge the Digital Divide

Aug 15, 20013 mins
IT Leadership

Sunil Abraham has not only helped wire 6,700 volunteer organizations in India by getting them Internet access, but he’s also teaching them how to use the Internet for networking and fund raising. In the city of Bangalore alone, Abraham’s consulting and technology services organization, called Mahiti, has brought 570 groups online.

Rodrigo Baggio has opened more than 200 financially self-sufficient computer schools in some of Brazil’s most destitute communities. Baggio’s group, the Committee to Democratize Information Technology, has trained more than 65,000 students to use computers, and his training schools are spreading to Chile, Colombia, Japan, Mexico and Uruguay.

Both Abraham and Baggio are Ashoka Fellows, their work built on seed money from the nonprofit group Ashoka, based in Arlington, Va., a CIO-100 honoree that is quietly changing the world. These two so-called social entrepreneurs and more than 1,100 people like them are on the verge of bringing about extraordinary global changes, says William Drayton, Ashoka’s CEO and founder. “Ashoka’s core idea is that the world is in the midst of a profound historic change, catalyzed by social entrepreneurs,” he says. Ashoka, like a venture capitalist, bestows fellowships on people whose ideas can change social systems and bring replicable services and ideas to underdeveloped and deprived areas worldwide, Drayton explains.

Through a rigorous selection process, Ashoka finds individuals who are social catalysts and provides them with a three-year fellowship and a connection to a network of similar thinkers around the world. Giving the money to individuals instead of programs launches irresistible forces that bring about profound societal changes, says Drayton, a former MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient. “We want to cut in at the life-cycle moment of the idea when a small investment of money and colleagueship can have a huge impact,” he says.

Last year Ashoka awarded its first 10 Ashoka Fellowships to people in the United States, including Paul Rice, who founded TransFair U.S.A. to assist family coffee farmers with fair pricing, and D.J. Powers, whose Austin, Texas-based Center for Economic Justice brings basic economic services to low-income and minority Americans.

Drayton says the best is yet to come. “In four or five years Ashoka’s impact will be many multiples of what it is today as many of these new programs take hold,” he says. “There is nothing more powerful than a new, pattern-changing idea if it’s in the hands of a continental-scale social entrepreneur.”

For more information on Ashoka, visit