Rodrigo, you are crazy. Poor people can never use computers." That is what friends and business associates in Rio de Janiero said to Rodrigo Baggio five years ago when he told them about his dream to bring technology into the city's sprawling slums, called favelas. He didn't listen. Now Baggio, 30, operates 117 computer schools in the slums of 13 Brazilian states through his Committee for the Democratization of Information Technology (CDI). Most of the 32,000 young people who have completed classes either have jobs or are starting their own businesses. Without Baggio's inspired idea, most of them would have faced a bleak life. On the heels of his enormous success, Baggio is aiming to start something of a digital nation. This year he plans to connect all his computer schools on the Internet. "Many times a youth in one favela never visits another one even in the same state," he says. "The Internet is the digital bridge."
Baggio is making a huge difference to Brazil's future, one kid at a time. It would not have been possible without a jump start by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a nonprofit international venture-capital foundation based in Arlington, Va. Ashoka has provided financial and professional backing for more than 1,000 social entrepreneurs in 34 countries who, like Baggio, are using business techniques and expertise to help people help themselves. A three-year stipend from Ashoka and its global fellowship of executives, mentors and consultants enabled Baggio to enlarge CDI beyond Rio. He hopes someday to enlarge it beyond Brazil. Says Baggio: "We believe we can adapt it to other poor countries."
"The job of the entrepreneur," explains Ashoka's founder and chairman William Drayton, a Yale Law School graduate, "is to see where society is stuck and to find a new way around it." In Drayton's view, there is no difference between those who use their skills in business and those who use them in the pursuit of social goals. More and more people agree. As economic, social and political pressures blur the boundaries between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, a new breed of do-gooder is emerging, one that uses techniques and tools honed in the workplace to tackle social problems. In most cases, they start small. But taken together, they are changing the way nonprofit enterprises are conceived and run and bringing a new dynamism and drive to the business of doing good.
Their efforts are being recognized by left-of-center politicians who realize that government coffers are not bottomless and tax-and-spend policies are taboo. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has declared that his government embraces the idea of social entrepreneurs, describing them as "people who bring to social problems the same enterprise and imagination business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation."
Blair's enthusiasm is shared by altruist Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington, 84. He opened the School for Social Entrepreneurs in London two years ago and claims it is "for the high-minded and hardheaded." The school requires no academic background, and students' ages range from the 20s to the 70s with the majority of the 40 men and women graduates it has turned out so far in their 40s. It offers eight weeks of seminars to build skills in fund raising, marketing and accounting; students gain practical experience and test their ideas by working on a real project.