Innovative Ideas That Change the World

by Darryl Egnal

Dr. Nir Tsuk has realized his dream. While living and working in the US for Ashoka, the international association of social entrepreneurs and ‘changemakers’, his primary goal was to learn as much about social entrepreneurship as he could – and then bring the organization to Israel. Two years ago, he returned and set up an office in Tel Aviv and his journey began. Within a year, he had implemented a support system for social entrepreneurs, found his first Ashoka Fellows and sourced his first partners. Recently, Ashoka Israel was officially launched to the public.

What happens when you put three different items – a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean – in three different pots of water, and then bring each pot to the boil? The results – a carrot gets soft and an egg gets hard, but a coffee bean changes the appearance, taste and smell of the water. In this context, a Social Entrepreneur is the coffee bean. He or she changes the entire system and causes a major shift in society.

Advocate Abbass Abbass exemplifies the change made by these coffee beans. Chosen as one of Ashoka Israel’s first three Fellows, the licensed attorney started Al-Manarah (‘Lighthouse’ in Arabic) in 2005 to improve the lives and status of Arab persons with disabilities in Israel. These people – a minority within a minority – face a lack of essential public resources and services, and suffer widespread social exclusion and discrimination.

Under the leadership of Abbass, who is himself a person with a visual impairment, Al-Manarah provides hope and guidance, a sense of community, and a path for personal and social change. Each year, thousands of people with disabilities (and even non-disabled people) from Arab communities throughout Israel benefit from Al-Manarah’s services, training and activities.

“Our aim is to improve the situation of all Arab Palestinians in Israel who have disabilities by providing them with the means to improve their situation and to empower them and the wider community to bring about change through bottom-up action,” said Abbass. “We want to empower them and help them to become their own strongest advocates in order to change attitudes towards people with disabilities in the Arab society.

“Al-Manarah sees a future when the Arab Palestinian disabled community will be perceived as equal members of society, where discrimination and misconceptions at the levels of the family, the community, society and state will cease,” he said.

The Ashoka story

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs – men and women with system changing solutions for the world’s most urgent social problems. Since 1980, Ashoka has elected around 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs as Ashoka Fellows, providing them with living stipends, professional support, and access to a global network of peers in 72 countries. Its global office is situated in Washington DC, where it is registered as a not-for-profit organization with no religious or political affiliations.

Named for an Indian Emperor who turned his back on violence and dedicated his life to social service, Ashoka carefully selects candidates upon which it can bestow the sought-after title of “Fellow”. A ‘social entrepreneur’ is an individual who creates positive change in society through innovative ideas in a blend of social activism and social enterprise. They are individuals who give something back to their communities and to those around them – unselfishly, remarkably and successfully – and they’re proving that anything is possible with the right amount of determination and hard work.

Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder, is believed to have coined the term social entrepreneur, which means a person who has the same qualities as a business entrepreneur, but who combines his or her talents and unique ideas to the benefit of society – a Richard-Branson-meets-Mother-Theresa-type person. Such a person solves social problems through innovative solutions; in other words, different, creative, but viable solutions that have not been used before.

Drayton often describes Ashoka Fellows as individuals who won’t give a man a fish or teach a man how to fish; they won’t rest until they revolutionize the fishing industry. Ashoka Fellows around the world are making systemic change, which has put the world on a new trajectory in solving social and developmental problems.

Coming to Israel

After working with Ashoka at its Washington DC head office for three years and leading the organization’s Fellowship Program, Tsuk, who is Ashoka Israel’s managing director, decided it was time to come home – and to bring Ashoka with him.

At the official launch of Ashoka Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum recently, Tsuk looked around at the guests and said that the idea of Ashoka could be seen in the audience in its entirety – industry and entrepreneurs, business and society, family and community, farmers and professors, government and
nonprofit organizations, those who knew of Ashoka before this evening and those who did not, fellow Ashoka members and participants of the Ashoka youth program, Ashoka Start.

“We are all united by social change, as well as a love for the place [Israel], the society, and the people – occupation, faith, interest, even desire,” he said. “In all its years of existence, Israel has proven that its ability to shatter paradigms is unmatched. Israel is, in itself, the shattering of a paradigm – carrying water over hundreds of kilometers, a well-timed transition from agriculture to hi-tech, and a strong emphasis on education and welfare (at least in its first 30 years).

“Foundations of entrepreneurship, community, innovation and mutualism – it’s all here,” he said. “It is not without reason that Israel is referred to as a Start-Up Nation. Ashoka Israel’s vision is to guarantee Israel remains a Start-Up Nation, not only in hi-tech, clean-tech and biotech, but also in the equally important social field,” Tsuk said.

Minister of Environmental Protection, MK Gilad Erdan, announced Ashoka’s first “Do More With a Little” competition. He spoke about the importance of preserving energy and resources and seemed pleased with the responses to the competition – the first social entrepreneurship competition in Israel.

He mentioned that registration for the competition had officially been opened, and that this competition was the meeting point for those who engage in, promote, or are interested in projects and initiatives with social and environmental value.

According to Erdan, an organization is needed to help young entrepreneurs take their ideas and turn them into something that benefits Israel and decreases the ever-growing social gaps. Erdan also believes in the importance of a strong relationship between government, business and social entrepreneurs.

“I think Ashoka was ahead of its time years ago, but I feel that following the recent economic crisis, we’ve all learned a lesson, and companies and corporations now know that it is not only the government’s responsibility, but also that of society and business corporations to encourage social and environmental responsibility.”

In the short period of its existence, Ashoka Israel has managed to partner with some of the most prestigious companies in Israel and beyond. Supported by the likes of S Horowitz & Co (a successful law firm), Microsoft’s Research and Development Center in Israel and UBS (an investment bank), Ashoka Israel is well on the road to increasing its small contingent of Fellows, which includes Abbass, Adina Bar-Shalom of Haredi College in Jerusalem and Shai Reshef, who created the University of the People.

Ultra Orthodox options

Adina Bar-Shalom has set out to change the situation of the ultra-Orthodox community. Her innovation was to offer ‘academization’, as she calls it, to ultra-Orthodox women (and now men) in Israel, while fully respecting their traditions and the range of other demands on them. She observes that Israeli society as a whole is becoming increasingly academized, and those without academic degrees miss out on employment opportunities.

The women who enter Haredi College, which she founded in 2001, are often the main or sole support for their families, which are often large. The men are often restricted to a life of religious study that does not include paid employment. For both, the opportunity to study academic subjects (education, economics, computer programming or laboratory sciences, for example) and to acquire professional skills (law and medicine) provide personal dignity, much needed remuneration, and access to the wider society on the basis of mutual respect.

Bar-Shalom understood that in order to improve the socio-economic condition of the ultra-Orthodox population, as well as to raise its status and image in Israeli society in general, much better employment solutions had to be developed. Since non-religious higher education, or indeed, any sort of academic training, was considered unacceptable in this community prior to her innovations, Bar-Shalom used her pedigree and connections – as the daughter of an eminent Mizrahi (Jews who immigrated from Muslim lands) rabbi – in order to launch her quiet revolution, trying to remove these obstacles to higher education slowly and respectfully from within.

She established Haredi College, which meets the highest academic standards, but at the same time caters for the special needs of the ultra-Orthodox community. She has achieved this with the blessings (literally) of the most prominent and respected leaders of her own community, and the College provides its services at minimal cost to the students. This has greatly relieved the widespread unemployment of women in the community, and thus raised the general economic level. “We also need doctors, psychologists, nurses, so that we have our own people who are familiar with OUR problems,” said Bar-Shalom.

Supporting social entrepreneurship

S Horowitz & Co, one of the sponsors of Ashoka Israel’s launch event and a strong supporter of social entrepreneurship for many years, provides Ashoka with legal assistance in its work around the world, which is how its connection to Ashoka Israel was formed.

“It is not by chance that leading entrepreneurs in Israeli hi-tech have been involved, for some years now, in social entrepreneurship,” Adv Alex Hertman, a partner at the law firm, said at the launch. “True visionaries know that we will only thrive as a society when we succeed in connecting business and social entrepreneurship. They know that the individual holds the power not only to influence their own personal financial situation, but also to create processes that can change the entire world. We at S Horowitz & Co. are proud to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the promotion of such an important project and are committed to continue assisting Ashoka in its activities in Israel,” he said.

Other Ashoka partners and speakers at the event included Mathias Tarhagen, director of the UBS Philanthropy Department, and Orni Petroshka, a successful hi-tech entrepreneur and founder of Igul Letova. A panel discussion took place with international guests, Mary Gordon, educator and Ashoka fellow from Canada, and American, Jerry White, Ashoka fellow and founder of a Nobel Peace Prize- winning social organization coalition. Avi Naor, businessman and founder of the Or Yarok (Green Light) Organization was also part of the panel, which was hosted by journalist Nadav Eyal. Members of the panel spoke about the challenges and hardships of social entrepreneurship, giving advice from personal experience to Ashoka’s new entrepreneurs – work with you mind and your heart, never take no for an answer, be kind to yourself and know that you are surrounded by good people.

Taking education to the masses

Shai Reshef is the founder and president of the University of the People (UoPeople), the first tuition-free online university specifically created to serve poor and remote populations. Reshef used many innovations – including Internet technology, peer-to-peer teaching methods and a diverse network of students and faculty – to transform higher education from a privilege of the few to a right of the many.

Dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education, the high-quality low-cost global educational model embraces the worldwide presence of the Internet and dropping technology costs to bring university-level studies within reach of millions of people across the world. With the support of respected academics, humanitarians and other visionaries, the UoPeople student body represents a new wave in global education.

“With 20 years of experience in the international education arena, I have witnessed first-hand the powerful impact technology has on academia,” Reshef said. “Drawing on the principles of e-Learning and social networking, coupled with open-source technology and courseware, UoPeople embraces a unique educational model that is high-quality, low-cost and global.

“UoPeople has received an outpouring of support – from prospective students, academics, organizations and the media alike – and we eagerly look forward to what lies ahead,” he said.


Ashoka Fellows inspire others to adopt and spread their innovations – demonstrating to all citizens that they too have the potential to be powerful changemakers.

“Ashoka strives to create a world in which people become increasingly involved in change, understanding it and leading it, and there is no better place to speak of this than the social project, the energetic and ever-flexible land of immigrants, called Israel,” said Tsuk.

“The time when only a small elite could effect change is long gone. Everyone can be a changemaker. Nothing is more powerful than that. So, on top of the fellows and fellow networks, we launched new initiatives to enable everyone to be a changemaker.”

Ashoka now includes financial services, so a citizen with an idea can launch a new venture; business partnerships, so businesses can harness their own power for social impact; online competitions to source and refine solutions from everyone, such as the current “Do more than a little” competition; and youth development so young people don’t have to wait to make change.

“For over 30 years, Ashoka has been identifying, nurturing and connecting entrepreneurs in the fields of education, health, environmental protection and human rights, among others,” he said. “In that time, Ashoka Fellows have won numerous awards and accolades, including three Nobel prizes. Ashoka promotes systemic social change, while seeking new solutions to old problems, and pushing for collaboration between government, business and the social sector.”

Visit Ashoka Israel to learn more –