Turning Berlin Into the Silicon Valley of Social Impact

Ashoka Leadership Team Member, Matthias Scheffelmeier, shares his vision for socent in Germany.

von Nicole Winchell, May 11, 2017

Originally published May 13th, 2016

When it comes to social entrepreneurship, Ashoka is a trailblazer. As the largest global network for social entrepreneurs worldwide, Ashoka’s motto is “everyone a changemaker”. Through their activities, they seek to shape a world where anyone can apply the skills of changemaking to solve complex social problems.

According to Ashoka Leadership Team Member, Matthias Scheffelmeier, collaboration between people and stakeholders is key.

Matthias was responsible for building up Ashoka Turkey and recently joined the leadership team at Ashoka Germany and Ashoka Europe. And we were lucky enough to catch up with him during his first week on the new job! 

In this interview, Matthias looks back at his time in Turkey, talks about how he perceives his purpose and shares insights on upcoming socent trends in Germany and beyond.

Tell us about your new role - what exactly will you be doing at Ashoka? 

I try as much as possible not to think in roles or positions, but in terms of purpose. My purpose is to enable social entrepreneurs to succeed.

Turns out Ashoka is a pretty cool platform for doing that. If along the way I can contribute to making people realize that in today’s times everyone can be a changemaker in their own sense and contribute to building a great world – hey, even better!    

What can Germany learn from Turkey in terms of social entrepreneurship?

Turkish social entrepreneurs are survival artists. They often work in very difficult circumstances, particularly in the east of the country, and yet still manage to reach incredible scale and impact. I could easily name 10 social innovators in Turkey with nationwide reach and sometimes millions of beneficiaries, often getting there in a matter of a few years – the patterns and secrets of such rapid growth and scale is definitely something to look into and learn from. They’re very creative, agile, adaptable, used to continuous change and incredibly committed to making their country fair and just for all.

What was your proudest achievement at Ashoka Turkey?

When we started Ashoka’s Turkey program we had no office, no local supporters, barely enough funds to make it through the first year and were expected to establish a local entity and be self-funded as soon as possible… tough times. 

It might not look like it from the outside, but in a way Ashoka itself is an entrepreneurial endeavor – if you don’t make things happen, they won’t. It’s more a platform of intrapreneurs then it is a classic organization really. 



It’s not an exaggeration that we went to nearly 600 meetings to make a name for ourselves and knocked on countless doors for support in just the first year (the bag of business cards we collected probably weighs 3 kilos). Boosting social entrepreneurship in an almost non-existent eco-system in a fairly challenging socio-political environment was certainly not a piece of cake. 

I’m proud of many things but looking back, the strongest emotion I feel is not pride, it’s love and privilege. I feel very privileged that we had the once in a lifetime opportunity to build one of the greatest teams ever in Istanbul and that we were able to experience what has been a very difficult, but extremely rewarding, entrepreneurial challenge. Whatever happens in the future, in both success and failure, that’s something no one can take away from us. And though it sounds cliché, it’s also my #1 key insight: Whatever you do, it’s always about the team – bring together an amazing group of people and you can achieve anything.

Can you give us any insight in terms of what trends/issues you see Ashoka Europe/Germany focusing on in the coming years?

The first phase of social entrepreneurship in Germany and Europe was characterized by many individual efforts, fairly isolated initiatives and lone wolf entrepreneurs spread across the continent. Many of them didn’t even self-identify as social entrepreneurs and there was little to no support available. What followed was a continuing period of eco-system building. The first Ashoka office in Europe was launched in 1995 in Poland, followed by Germany, Spain and France in 2005 (the first Ashoka Fellow in Western Europe was Andreas Heinecke, founder of Dialogue in the Dark). Alongside that came the first grant programs for social innovation, social investment funds, co-working spaces, accelerator programs, university degree programs, publications, awards and competitions and networks to connect the scattered sector and scene.

I believe what’s next is intensified strategic collaborations – we often refer to it as “collaborative entrepreneurship". Social entrepreneurs from the same field will join forces (as they did for example via the “Hello Festival” in Berlin around migration in March ‘16). Foundations, stakeholders from civil society, welfare organizations, policy makers and entrepreneurs will gather, form alliances, create synergies and empower one another. I believe Ashoka, with its ability to tap into countless proven solutions from its network of 3,200 social entrepreneurs worldwide in basically any field, has a lot to contribute here.

You once said that Berlin is the new “impact valley” - what do you think needs to happen for social business in Germany to really scale up and take hold.

I think we’re at a point in Germany where we just need to ‘make it happen’ to make it happen. It’s pretty much all there:

  • the ideas
  • the social ventures
  • the people
  • the networks
  • global connections
  • the spaces
  • the money (sure, it could always be more, but we honestly can’t really complain about a lack of funding in Germany),
  • the interest from policy makers
  • and a good deal of public awareness.

Let us all work together as collaborators, the rest will follow!

"We’re at a point where we just need to ‘make it happen’ to make it happen."

And in regard to Berlin: How about we make this city – where all of the above come together like nowhere else – the Silicon Valley of social impact! Seriously, who really needs the next one-billion-dollar unicorn - how about we build startups in Berlin that improve the lives of a billion people!

What do you see as your biggest upcoming challenge?

We became parents recently and I want to be the best father I can possibly be – nothing related to work has ever been close as challenging as wanting to do a good job raising our child and trying to balance family and work.

But, as I said above, I want to work with you all to turn Berlin into the world capital of social innovation. That’s probably not going to be easy either. :-)

What are you most looking forward about your new position? 

Easy! Working with yet another rockstar team – the people at Ashoka Germany and all over Europe are scarily good at what they do and I can’t wait to tap into the incredible network of colleagues, partners and, above all, the entrepreneurs we support.

A pretty close second is seeing the ChangemakerXchange community we kicked off in 2012 grow so quickly – it now connects over 200 young startup social entrepreneurs across 50 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In 2016 alone, we’ll host summits in Marrakech, Hiroshima, Berlin, Istanbul and more. We honestly didn’t expect it to be that successful - it sometimes feels a bit like we created a global network by accident.

What advice would you give all the active social entrepreneurs out there? 

It’s key to be very clear about the value you create for your respective stakeholders – what exactly is it that you improve in people’s lives, what is the impact you create, why should someone give you money or support, why should people engage, volunteer or work with you? 

Everyone has different reasons for being involved in your cause – the better you know what your value is, the further you’ll get.

Thank you for the interview, Matthias and welcome to the Impact Valley!