Fotocredit: Christian Klant Fotografie
Dennis Hoenig-Ohnsorg is a self-proclaimed "preneurship-enthusiast". With his role at Ashoka, the world's largest network of social entrepreneurs with over 3,000 Fellows in 80 countries, he's a trainer and advisor to 300+ startups. His ultimate passion is trying to create new paths for changemaker careers. Join Dennis for a "Day in the Life" as he talks about early mornings, the Ashoka selection process, what Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has to do with it, and why you should stop asking yourself if what you do is good or bad for your CV.
Tell us about yourself.
I studied International Economics and Business Administration at ICADE University (Madrid) and the European School of Business (Reutlingen) specializing in CSR and Social Entrepreneurship. During my studies I founded a NGO and a foundation working with street kids in Bolivia, where I lived and worked for two years. I am a preneurship-enthusiast (SocialEntrepreneurship, IntraPreneurship, CoPreneurship, etc.), trainer and advisor to 300+ startups. I am passionate for process design and the development of ecosystems that promote social change.
Besides my job with Ashoka, I organize the Imagine Conference, a safe and fun place for people at turning points in their careers and lives. My new hobby is to plan the restoration of our new home – a 130 year-old farm in Brandenburg (1 hour outside of Berlin) that we want to get back into shape to create a co-working/co-living retreat for social entrepreneurs – working title: excubator.
Since 2008, I have been responsible for the development, management and spread of numerous programs for young social entrepreneurs and talent with Ashoka. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with over 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 80 countries putting their system-changing ideas into practice on a global scale. In addition to piloting and growing different programs in Germany, I initiated a European network of Changemakers and a support program for 400+ young social entrepreneurs in Germany (Programm Engagement mit Perspektive – PEP). Since 2012, I’ve been trying to find ways to turn social entrepreneurship into a magnet for top talent and learning how to enable each individual to have a positive impact on society in their private, but also professional, life – let’s say I am trying to build new paths for Changemaker-Careers.
So what does a normal day look like for you?
Seriously? A “normal day”? If there was such a thing like a normal day at Ashoka I would probably have left the organization 5 years ago. But let’s give it a try: the following pictures will help me describe Wednesday, the 3rd of September – not a normal day but it definitely was a long day, full of inspiring Ashoka stuff.
Normal: Leaving Boxhagener Platz – home sweet home. Today I will spend most of my day in my second home: The ICE. Whenever possible we try not to fly, so I am a Black Label DB-traveler!
Special: Getting up at 5am. I usually try to get 8 hours of sleep and let‘s say I am not toooo much of a morning person. It feels strange to leave home before sunrise. Berlin is different in the early morning…
Normal: Starting the day by opening my laptop.
Special: Taking time for breakfast.
Normal: Working my way trough Excel lists with dozens of applicants. Only this year we had to manage about 200 PEP applications for our stipends, the IT4Change accelerator we started with SAP, the “Wirkungsschmiede” we kick off in December with our new partner Malteser Werke and the #JoinOurCore competition we run with Ben&Jerry’s. If you add our roughly 300 Fellow nominations, you end up with an amazing pipeline of inspiring Changemakers. To be honest, I am not a huge Excel fan though and still prefer meeting them in real life.
Special: Today in the train I am not managing applications for Ashoka but for my little hobby, the Imagine Conference. About 80 people answered our call for a weekend in Eschwege - a safe space for sharing and learning about ways to combine our personal values, professional aspirations and the wish to contribute to social change. Even though Imagine is not an Ashoka task, it's very normal that I can integrate my personal activities in my professional life. Ashoka doesn’t have specific job descriptions. It’s rather a platform for entrepreneurs that jointly want to tackle inspiring challenges. Part of that deal is also an outstanding level of entrepreneurial flexibility for myself and my colleagues.
Normal: At the very heart of Ashoka is the search and selection process of new Fellows - which we call the “venture process”. At Ashoka, we have a “everyone is part of the venture-team policy”: finding the world’s most promising and inspiring social entrepreneurs is the one process everyone contributes to by finding candidates (if you know any amazing candidates, please let me know) or conducting interviews with the candidates.
Special – but great: The selection process! A great example of the power of this process is the Indian social entrepreneur, Kailash Satyarthi. If you check his Wikipedia profile, you will find a long list of recognitions and awards. At the top - since only just last week - the Nobel peace prize and at the bottom of the chronological list, you'll find the earliest recognition of his work on child rights – in 1993 we elected him as an Ashoka Fellow.
Kailash is a great example of why people also often refer to Ashoka as the early detection radar for social innovation. Becoming an Ashoka Fellow is not a prize or award - most of all it is NOT a recognition of what those social entrepreneurs have done so far, but rather a bet on their future potential to change the world on a large scale, using their system-changing ideas and solutions. And it’s for forever. Once an Ashoka Fellow, always an Ashoka Fellow and this applies not only to the ones that win the Nobel prize, but all of our Fellows - just like Arnoud Raskin, who designed the mobile school to empower street kids so that they could then teach top-managers about change management and leadership, or Jimmy Welsh, who revolutionized the way we think about access to knowledge today by founding Wikipedia. In other words: given my position, I think about some of the world's most pressing problems every single day. But the beauty of my job is that every day I also get to directly interact with the amazing people that have found, or are finding, a solution to at least one of those challenges. #notnormal
Normal: A long day is about to end. Tonight I am staying with the whole team at my colleagues place in Munich. After the Venture panel, we continued with discussions about the candidates and did some brainstorming as to our next steps as a team. This kept us up until after midnight.
Special: As a team we always try to reduce cost. Staying at our friends or colleagues’ places is normal for us, we hardly ever use hotels. Over the years, this no-budget culture has helped us to operate on a pretty low level of overhead. But for us, it is not only about reducing costs, it’s also a lot about leveraging the money that we actually spend. At Ashoka Germany we generate about 10€ in additional investment for each Euro we invest in Fellow stipends and we facilitate about 20€ in pro-bono support for our Fellows for each Euro we invest in our staff costs.
What are some key learnings or advice that you would have for people wanting to pursue a similar career path?
- Look for challenges - not for job profiles.
- Choose an inspiring and challenging team over everything - there is no better way to grow as a person and as a professional.
- Your dream job does not exist – you must create it. Keep on asking yourself: "What could I do instead / differently?" - both inside and outside of your organization.
- Stop asking yourself if what you do is good or bad for your CV and start creating your life path with passion, reflection and authenticity.
- Keeping it real is a full-time job! In a niche, people call you an expert quickly and it's charming to write, design and teach what you are passionate about but don’t stop getting your hands dirty! Working “on the ground” with a variety of different target groups prevents you from getting stuck in your own filter-bubble.
This article was originally published in 2015.