Three Lessons Global CEOs Can Learn From Grassroots Activists

Three lessons global CEOs can learn from grassroots activists

A transcript of my 2011 TEDx talk. An update of my 2009 TEDIndia talk.

Here’s the video of the talk:

Here’s the slide deck from the talk:

Here’s a shorter video introduction to the talk:

Why am I talking about this topic?

Over the last five years, everything I have done — as marketer, academic, activist, entrepreneur and a consultant to global brands — has had an underlying theme: how to inspire, organize and energize people around a shared purpose.

This theme has been the driving force behind I wide variety of powerful projects I have helped create. In 2009, I helped create a collaborative mapping platform for Indian voters to crowdsource election monitoring during the Lok Sabha elections. In 2010, I helped a leading technology MNC create an ideation platform for Indian design students to share ideas on redesigning, reusing and reclycing gadgets to make them go green. In 2011, I helped a leading confectionery MNC create a grassroots movement to inspire Chinese youth to engage in small, everyday acts of kindness.

This theme has also preoccupied me as a writer and speaker. In 2008-09, I taught a course on how governments, businesses and civil society can collaborate with online communities to co-create innovative solutions, or start grassroots movements, as the Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University. In 2009, at TEDIndia, I talked about three lessons marketers and entrepreneurs can learn from activists. Now, I am writing a near future science fiction novel about minimalism, mythology and movements, which builds upon the same theme.

This talk is an updated version of my 2009 TEDIndia talk, with one important exception. In 2009, marketers and entrepreneurs were listening to and learning from grassroots activists. In 2011, I am beginning to see CEOs of Fortune Global 100 corporations use these lessons to design purpose-inspired platforms and programs to inspire, organize and energize their stakeholders and drive strategic change.

Three interesting examples of what grassroots activists are doing

Let’s start by looking at three interesting examples of what grassroots activists are doing: Kiva, Ushahidi and Urgent Evoke.

Case Study: Kiva

Kiva ( is a micro-lending platform that connects individuals with microfinance institutions to help create opportunity around the world with $25 micro-loans.

In 2003, Jennifer Jackley listened to Mohammed Yunus talk about how microfinance can create opportunities and encourage entrepreneurship with small loans. Fascinated, she started spending time in Africa, working with local microfinance organizations, and experiencing firsthand how small loans could change lives.

In 2005, she realized that the entire model would become even more powerful if she could create a platform for microfinance organizations to connect twenty people who wanted to loan $25 with an entrepreneur who wanted a $500 loan to start a small business. On Kiva, microfinance organizations across more than 200 countries share stories about small entrepreneurs who need loans. Individuals give $25 loans to these entrepreneurs, track their progress on the platform, and use the money to give another loan, when they get it back.

In a few years, Kiva has connected more than one million community members with more than 650,000 entrepreneurs, facilitated more than $260 million in microloans, and became a powerful force for social change. Now, Jennifer continues to serve on the board of Kiva, but focuses on Profounder (, a collection of free tools for entrepreneurs to fund and run their business with the help of their community.

Case Study: Ushahidi

Ushahidi’s ( collaborative mapping platform has been used globally for monitoring elections, coordinating disaster relief and tracking conflict.

In 2008, popular Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh was trying to track incidents of post election ethnic violence in Kenya on her blog. As people started sending her tips, she proposed the idea of a platform that would collect, classify and map these tips. Over a weekend, half a dozen volunteers hacked together the first version of the Ushahidi’s collaborative mapping platform. People shared anonymous tips by SMS, email or the web and the platform classified them into categories, plotted them on a map, and created a timeline of incidents.

The Ushahidi team realized that they had created a powerful tool and invited activists from all over the world to use it, improve it and customize it for different use cases. Over time, they worked with the Ushahidi community to create a mobile version, a hosted ready-to-use version called Crowdmap, and even a tool called SwiftRiver to crowdsource the validation and classification of tips.

Over the last few years, the Ushahidi community has grown into a global network of volunteers, the Ushahidi platform has been used in dozens of instances and thousands of participants have contributed to these collaborative mapping projects. For instance, in 2009, I created Ushahidi’s first election monitoring project Vote Report India.

Case Study: Urgent Evoke

In 2010, International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) partnered with game designer Jane McGonigal to create a social innovation game called Urgent Evoke ( in which African students collaborated with a global community of more than 4500 members to use African innovation to co-create solutions for the world’s biggest problems.

The objective of the game was to subvert the popular narrative that Africa is the dark continent plagued by problems and the solutions need to come from the West. The Ning-based game ( connected African students with a global community of contributors to solve the world’s biggest problems, with the help of ancient African wisdom and grassroots African innovation.

With a series of graphic novels, McGonigal created visions of crisis scenarios all over the developed world, including floods, communicable diseases and financial market collapse. Community members did background research, completed challenges and received point for helping others.

Since then, McGonigal has written a book called “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” and created a community called Gameful (, which I helped fund on Kickstarter (, to bring together game designers who are building games that can change the world.

Three lessons global CEOs can learn from grassroots activists

Platforms like Kiva, Ushahidi and Urgent Evoke have become powerful agents of social change, but they are also important case studies in how to inspire, organize and energize people around a shared purpose.

Today, people don’t trust institutions, people have new power, and people are demanding that corporations not only rediscover their social purpose but also put it at the core of how they conduct their business and engage with their stakeholders.

To stay relevant in this “new normal”, global CEOs need to learn how to inspire, organize and energize stakeholders, including employees, to co-create innovative solutions, or catalyze grassroots movements.

To stay relevant global CEOs need to learn three lessons from grassroots activists: always start with why, give more than you take, and know that you will need help.

Lesson 1: Always start with why

The first thing you should notice about Jennifer, Ory and Jane is that they all started with “why”. They asked themselves: what is my purpose, what is meaningful to me, what inspires me? Jennifer wanted to help entrepreneurs fund their businesses with the support of their community. Ory wanted to help local communities bring attention to incidents of ethnic violence. Jane wanted to use the power of games to solve the world’s biggest problems. All three of them were clear about the “why”, their “purpose”, the unique reason for being for their projects, and, perhaps, even for themselves.

So, here’s the first lesson global CEOs can learn from grassroots activists: learn how to always start with “why” or “purpose”. Ask yourself: what is the reason why your corporation exists, beyond maximizing profits or shareholder value. Know that a corporation’s purpose is often rooted in its history and the personal values of the founders, so looking forward sometimes starts with looking back.

Lesson 2: Give more than you take

The second thing you should notice about Jennifer, Ory and Jane is that, at the beginning, none of them were clear about the “what”: what precisely was the value they were trying to create, or how exactly they would define “performance” or measure success. This is not uncommon for the most successful activists, or the most successful entrepreneurs, for that matter. They start a project as a labor of love, then watch it grow bigger than their biggest dreams, and change the world.

So, here’s the second lesson global CEOs can learn from grassroots activists: give more than you take. Ask yourself: what is the total value created by the corporation, including its economic, societal and environmental impact: Profits, People and the Planet? Work to maximize this value, but know that only a part of this value will be captured by your corporation, and that is precisely how it ought to be.

Lesson 3: Know that you will need help

The third thing you should notice about Jennifer, Ory and Jane is that, even though they were not clear about the “what”, they were all clear about the “how”, or the process through which they would create value, and it was the same in all three cases: “participation”. All three of them wanted to engage with communities of people to realize their purpose, and all three of them created an online platform to host their community.

So, here’s the third lesson global CEOs can learn from grassroots activists: know that you will need help from your community, to co-create innovative solutions, or to start grassroots movements around your purpose. Know that whatever your purpose is, there’s a global community of people who are passionate about it, who are willing, even waiting, to help you realize it. You just need to catalyze this Purpose Ecosystem by inspiring, organizing and energizing people around your shared purpose.

Three interesting examples of what global CEOs are doing

Now, let’s look at three examples of how global corporations are using these three lessons to create powerful purpose-inspired platforms and programs to inspire, organize and energize their stakeholders: Nike, GE and Mahindra Group.

Case study: Nike

Nike’s believes that “everyone who has a body is an athlete”, so Nike’s purpose is to help each one of us find the athlete within us.

Running is a solitary pursuit and the long distance runner is indeed rather lonely, so many people start running, but find it difficult to persist. At the same time, running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, and Nike would like everyone on earth to be a runner.

In 2005, Nike created the Nike+ community ( to transform running into a social activity. The Nike+ iPhone app tracks running data using a sensor and syncs it with the Nike+ online community. Nike+ members can track their own progress against their goals, share their running statistics and running tracks with friends, and even participate in challenges against other people and teams. So far, Nike+ members have run 37 million miles.

In a different context, Nike believes in the vision of sustainable “considered design”, with zero lifecycle waste. Nike had created a design platform with a considered design index to help its designers build in sustainability into the design of the products itself. Nike had also made serious investments in designing sustainable materials and processes.

When it realized that several other corporations were also investing in similar initiatives, it decided to collaborate with them. Nike created the GreenXchange ( as an open platform for corporations and people to share green intellectual property, processes and ideas. Many corporations like Best Buy have also partnered with Nike and contributed their green intellectual property to the GreenXchange. Hundreds of individuals have also joined the community and contributed their green ideas. Nike is also working with other large corporations to create a shared standard for sustainable design, using its considered design index as an input.

Case Study: GE

GE’s purpose is to reimagine how technology can help solve the world’s biggest problems in the areas of environment and health, and then build and scale these solutions using GE’s global clout and resources. GE has created the Ecomagination platform around its commitment to “imagine and build innovative solutions to environment challenges” and the Healthymagination platform around its commitment to “create better health for more people together”.

What’s special is that GE sees Ecomagination and Healthymagination through a collaborative social innovation lens. So, even as it leverages its considerable scale and resources to create innovative solutions to these problems, it has also decided to tap into the global purpose ecosystems around environment and health by creating crowdsourcing-driven challenges backed by GE’s scale and some serious venture capital.

GE has partnered with four large venture capitalists to create a $200 million challenge called the GE Ecomagination Challenge ( to fund ideas that can reimagine how we power the electrical grid, or consume electricity in our homes. GE has also created a $100 million challenge called the GE Healthymagination Challenge to fund ideas that can accelerate innovations to fight breast cancer. GE has received thousands of innovative solutions in these challenges and funded dozens of innovations.

As part of its Healthymagination initiative, GE has also created a suite of applications to visualize its research data, or help users do a quick diagnosis and get tips, or help users tap into their communities to become more healthy. Specially noteworthy is the Fit Friendzy Challenge application (, which lets users set themselves exercise challenges, track their workouts, share their workouts with friends, and encourage each other via social networks.

Case Study: Mahindra Rise

The Mahindra Group is one of the largest and most respected diversified business groups in India. To revitalize its corporate brand, Mahindra Group has redefined its purpose as enabling its stakeholders to “rise” ( and embrace “the optimism, determination, and grit to take responsibility for a better future”. To redefine its purpose, it delved into its history and culture and spent over 18 months understanding how its employees, customers, and communities saw it, using one-to-one interviews and workshops.

To engage its employees in Rise, Mahindra Group has created an ESOP (employee social options) program to connect Mahindra employees with communities which need help. More than 15000 Mahindra employees have volunteered under the ESOP program for dozens of one-time and ongoing initiatives.

Mahindra Group has also created the Spark the Rise challenge (http:// to ask for ideas that can propel innovation, entrepreneurship, and positive change in India. Changemarkers submit ideas in the areas of technology, energy, infrastructure, agriculture and social entrepreneurship; the community volunteers time, equipment, expertise and even funding, and supports them by voting. The winners are selected by a combination of voting and scores from an expert panel. Mahindra Group is supporting almost 50 projects with grants of almost Rs. 2 crores over six months. So far, more than 100,000 community members have supported more than 1100 approved projects.

In Summary

In summary, these simple but powerful principles — always start with why, give more than you take, and know that you will need help – work as well for global corporations and their CEOs as they do for social entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. We have seen how Nike, GE and Mahindra used the same principles to inspire, organize and energize its communities that Kiva, Ushahidi and Evoke. Now, it’s time for you to apply these principles used to catalyze your self-sustaining purpose ecosystems.

Start with why and work together with your stakeholders to find a shared purpose or Social Heartbeat that inspires all of you. Then, create a long-term online-offline platform to organize your stakeholders. Finally, create a series of short-term programs to energize your stakeholders. Remember to win and keep the trust of your community because you will need their help, and remember to give back more than you take.