Musings on Rats and Entrepreneurship by Bahar Ostadan

by tuftsigl
Jul 22

“This is a conversation, not a lecture.” The Canadian diplomat and Ashoka Fellow scanned the room of 20 year-old interns and pulled a chair into the circle.


Ashoka is the world’s first and largest social entrepreneurship organization. It operates as a venture capital firm for the social sector, accelerating their work in addressing the most critical issues of our time. Ashoka has 3,000 Fellows in 85 countries, 2 of which have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Explaining social entrepreneurship is almost always confusing. Chances are the term non-profit evokes images of Christian volunteer groups from Minnesota who wear matching mustard colored shirts and play football with kids in Nicaragua. So rather than toy with vocabulary I will describe the six Ashoka Fellows I’ve met — pioneers and wizards in their fields - epitomes of social entrepreneurship.


Bart Weetjens, founder of Apopo, trained rats to detect landmines without setting them off. Where a human can cover 50 square meters in 1 day, Apopo’s “HeroRATS” cover 200 square meters in 20 minutes. Apopo has released over 22,000,000 square meters for local communities, freeing almost 1 million people from the threat of explosives. HeroRATS have destroyed over 55,000 landlmines and UXO. Apopo is also the first research and training center to use rats as tools for diagnoses in human health. HeroRATS have screened over 300,000 samples for TB, detecting over 8,000 TB cases, and halting 31,170 potential TB infections. The organization is now operating in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam with offices in Geneva, Belgium, and the U.S.


Will Muir, founder of Equal Community Foundation, tackles violence and discrimination against women in India not through women’s empowerment, but by giving men the opportunity to discuss and debate the value of women with role models who they respect. Muir defines the actors he works with as bystanders - not necessarily those directly perpetrating violence, but men and boys who have the capacity to influence the behaviors of their peers. 


Andras Vamos-Goldman, founder of Justice Rapid Response, controls the rapid deployment of criminal justice professionals to areas with human rights violations using a stand-by roster. Generally speaking, we are more accepting of mass atrocities in other people's countries than we are of petty domestic robberies in our own. In fact, the world has only spent $6.5 billion on international criminal justice institutions in the last 22 years (compared to $44 billion on the London Summer Olympics or $20 billion in Wall Street annual bonuses). JRR consists of 500 investigators from over 90 countries representing every legal system. These professionals specialize in "criminal investigations, prosecutions, forensic sciences, military expertise, and sexual and gender based violence investigations.”


Christian de Boisredon, founder of Spark News, was tired of journalism’s overwhelming “when it bleeds it leads” doctrine. He works with the world’s broadest circulating media to cover entrepreneurial solutions to social issues.


Cindy Kaplan, founder of Spoon Foundation, organizes a scaled effort to improve the nutrition and feeding of international adoptees and foster children. Kaplan estimates that 75-90% of children in orphanages suffer from preventable malnutrition. Global efforts to end institutionalization have diverted funds from improving orphanage conditions so that millions of children still living in these institutions - ironically - are less likely to get out. Spoon works in the U.S., Haiti, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India, China, and Vietnam designing early detection screening systems, optimizing diets, and training cooks and caregivers. 


Taddy Blecher, founder of the Maharishi Institute, created a South African educational body for disadvantaged students to finance their own educations while cultivating professional and personal development. Maharishi students can cover school fees with non-collateral based student loans, which they can pay off interest-free after graduating. Maharishi students are essentially guaranteed high paying jobs after graduating, allowing them to finance the Maharishi educations of their family or friends.


These six fellows represent just a few twigs in the Ashoka ecosystem. Yet their “conversations” motivate me through even the most menial 9-hour tasks.


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