Jeroo Billimoria’s lessons for systems change
A conversation with the serial social entrepreneur on her changemaking career
Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria is known as scaling wizard — she’s founded and grown international organizations that impact millions of young people (including Child and Youth Finance International, Aflatoun International, and ChildHelpline International.)
She’s also a well-known champion of systems change, an approach that mobilizes different groups to collectively imagine and create long-term, sustainable answers to social problems.
On April 28, Jeroo spoke with Ashoka Turkey’s Country Director Zeynep Meydanoğlu in a virtual room of social entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. Here’s what she had to say — on personal purpose, changing systems, and the bold new movement she’s co-leading with social entrepreneurs worldwide.
ZM: What have you learned since starting out?
Jeroo: One major learning is that you have to learn your strengths, do that, and let go of the rest. That’s why I started things. I knew I could run things, but it didn’t give me energy. Starting gave me more energy. Everyone gets energy from different sources.
Another learning: not putting the self as the center, but putting others, the issue, the impact — all of that at the center. One of my favorite sayings is “If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, take your ego, flush it down the toilet and start.”
The third: If you’re running a network, always try to play the role of an honest broker — which is putting others before self and trying to ensure we include many people and skills.
Why is systems change important to you?
Again, I’ll start with what gives you energy. For some, that’s having a residential institution and working in the community. That work is very important. Because if you have everyone doing systems change, it won’t work. You need the whole continuum.
What gives me energy is systems change and the strategy behind scaling. How do you take a complex issue and break it down so we’re able to scale it? But the main reason why I’m passionate about systems change is the impact it can achieve. Ultimately why are we in this world? We want to help as many people as we can.
Systems change can be defined multiple ways. One way: you work with government to change systems. You have to build resilient systems — not focusing on top-level politicians but the implementation and infrastructure. You can also work with corporations and your fellow entrepreneurs.
Systems change is looking at your issue, asking “who are the best people to make the most impact on that issue?” and taking it forward. That’s all.
You’re building coalitions to bring other organizations in. How can you tell if you’re moving the needle?
You have to have metrics. We worked with McKinsey for Child and Youth Finance International to create a ten-step diagnostic and measured how countries were progressing. We also created a correlation framework to check whether our inputs were having impact. You need a clear impact framework.
What is your advice to those who want to support transformative change?
First, believe in the issue that the social entrepreneur wants to change. Second, systems change work is messy and complex. So please be patient and don’t expect miracles. Third, stop providing program funding and calling it systems change. Provide a core grant. Leave lots of money for networking, facilitation, connecting.
These aren’t the standard things — like “I will help 500 children” or “I will help 50,000 children.” I’m talking about key components of the work, not programmatic components. Everyone who wants to fund systems change needs to think differently.
I always say that a river starts at the head of a mountain and it knows it has to reach the sea. But it goes this way and that, turning until it reaches its destination. That’s what systems change is about. You go slowly and negotiate your way through.
Funders want to fund the projects where they can touch and feel the impact — but the network part is neglected.
If there was no Bill Drayton or Ashoka, there would be no field of social entrepreneurship. And Ashoka’s main role is helping and nurturing the entrepreneur community and creating the ecosystem for social entrepreneurs.
Tell us what you’re doing today with Catalyst 2030.
Catalyst 2030 is not me. It’s the 200 entrepreneurs, intermediaries, and academics who are part of the movement. It came together as a WhatsApp group.
It is a practitioner-initiated, practitioner-led movement aimed at achieving the SDGs, the sustainable development goals. Pre-COVID-19, we would have reached the SDGs at the current rate by 2094. Post-COVID it’s after the turn of the century. To achieve them by 2030, then we need to think and work differently.
Practitioners have the solutions — for education, health, agriculture, you-name-it. Why aren’t they being adopted? Often corporations and governments want to reinvent the wheel. Foundations need to stop funding pilots — what I call “death by pilots” — and start funding solutions that can be scaled. Let’s say: Ok this works, let’s scale it.
Second, let’s try to institutionalize that solution. It can be the municipality or the local city. It doesn’t have to all be national; you start where you’re working from. It’s easier if you partner with the government to achieve scale. Corporations, instead of having their own programs, can partner with social entrepreneurs. Academics play a major role in documenting.
Catalyst 2030 is saying: “Here we are. We have the solutions. Why don’t you work with us and together we can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview here.
About Social Entrepreneurship Day
This conversation took place at Ashoka Turkey’s Social Entrepreneurship Day, an annual event that has brought together 100+ changemakers, business world and ecosystem leaders across Turkey for the last 3 years to get inspired, develop new skills, meet potential partners, and discuss innovation. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the event transformed to a two-day online experience.