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Elisha Muskat, Director of Ashoka Canada, at her office in Toronto on April 11, 2012. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Elisha Muskat, Director of Ashoka Canada, at her office in Toronto on April 11, 2012. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Using competition to fuel social innovations Add to ...

Elisha Muskat, executive director, Ashoka Canada, canada.ashoka.org

You see it in sports, in the workplace and in relationships, so it is not hard to imagine how competition can be a part of a sector where people are funded to improve the world through social innovations.

Elisha Muskat, 29, holds the reins of power for Ashoka Canada, a global association of individuals who have system-changing ideas to solve some of the world’s most urgent social problems.

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Worldwide, there are 2,000 Ashoka Fellows, of which 44 are Canadians. Ms. Muskat is so enthusiastic about the organization that she'll soon have you believe environmental degradation, poverty, bullying, illiteracy and effective use of solar power can all be solved by Ashoka Fellows.

Motivating factor

“In 2008, I was completing my MBA at the Schulich School of Business and was required to do a case study on navigating complex environments. I chose Ashoka, based on what I had been hearing about their impact. It was the combination of the team led by Celia Cruz and the stories of Ashoka Fellows that hooked me: for example, Donna Morton, who runs First Power with first nations communities to create and own their own solar power. They use this power to create local goods.”

First step

“I dangerously rushed onto a train as it was leaving the subway station because I saw Celia, and despite our many attempts, we couldn’t make the timing work for a meeting. So, I thought to myself, ‘I have to get on that train.’ Celia and I talked from Downsview to Spadina station and by the time we parted I had signed on as a volunteer for Ashoka Canada.”

Aha moment

“I was in Miami last November for an Ashoka event with celebrity speakers including Lance Armstrong, David Axelrod and Jane Goodall. The 33 Ashoka Fellows each had seven minutes to describe their plans and ideas to improve social conditions in the Americas. Three Fellows would receive a cash award of $100,000. I kept looking at my watch, waiting for the keynotes to end so I could hear from the Fellows. I realized then that the Fellows were the stars.”

Hero

“I have 44 heroes! I know I have to choose one, so John Mighton, founder of JUMP [Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies] A mathematician, playwright and social entrepreneur, John assumes that every person is a math genius waiting to be discovered. His teaching methods make math feel like a video game, where it’s fun to get to the next level. JUMP is in Ontario schools and he’s now also working in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.”

Success

“When Ashoka Fellows achieve some level of systems change, that is success. A great example is Nicole Rycroft, founder of Canopy [an environmental not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s forests, species and climate] got the Harry Potter books published on recycled paper by working with J.K. Rowling.”

Donations

“Every dollar invested in Ashoka helps us select and support the next up-and-coming social entrepreneurs and provide them with three-year living stipends to allow them to work full-time on their ventures.”

What discourages you?

“When the world focuses on what’s wrong – on the negative stories. It’s not that we don’t need to talk about the problems, because we do. But we also need to focus more on the incredible work that’s being done.”

What have you sacrificed?

“The ability to have a dog. There’s just no way I could find the time to walk one every day.”

What’s next?

“We will be developing stronger local chapters in B.C., Quebec and Ontario, with Alberta to follow soon. We’re working with universities to make campuses hubs of change-making.”

Celebrity sponsor

“Arlene Dickinson [chief executive officer of Venture Communications and one of the panelists on TV’s Dragons’ Den]– we need more women investing in innovative social change. Arlene has just committed to increasing her impact-investing portfolio.”



This interview has been condensed and edited



Farah Mohamed is president and chief executive officer of the G(irls)20 Summit.



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