« Breaking down the walls between sectors can generate significant value » – Interview of Stéphanie Schmidt, Managing Director of Ashoka


The Danone Ecosystem Fund works side by side with Ashoka on several projects in Indonesia, Egypt or Mexico. This is where Danone Ecosystem interviewed Stéphanie Schmidt, Managing Director at Ashoka’s Full Economic Citizenship initiative, who emphasizes the need for “NGOs to be seen as genuine partners, not service providers or subcontractors”.


On a global scale, Ashoka is the most important network of social entrepreneurship. Ashoka identifies innovative concepts that tackle social problems in an early state of their development. By financial support, advice and the worldwide network, Ashoka enables the people behind those concepts to concentrate on scaling up their ideas.

- Stephanie Schmidt, Director, Ashoka Full Economic Citizenship -


How has your fieldwork experience helped to co-define the best project both for communities and beneficiaries?


My first deep dive into development work was in Rwanda and quickly taught me that what can become the best social impact accelerator – or the worse bottleneck – is mindset change at the level of the beneficiaries.

Developing participatory approaches with the communities leads to greater empowerment and is definitely a worthwhile time investment.

Later, working with social entrepreneurs I learned to try and minimize risks by identifying from the start which players may lose power from the system-change that is being introduced and therefore become troublesome. As a team, we took these two factors into account to define the Pepenadores project. We chose not to start the project in the most adverse environment but picked a pilot location where waste pickers had the “healthier” possible leadership and where intermediaries were aligned with the project vision.  


According to you, which role can NGOs play in new dynamics of shared-value creation between a company and its territories ?  


Citizen Sector Organizations* (CSOs) can become your biggest allies in a hybrid business-social project. For this to happen, it is key to consider them as true partners, not as service providers nor subcontractors.

Breaking down the walls between sectors and becoming comfortable with different visions, working styles and organizational cultures may take time but can also generate significant value.

In Semilla, Carlos Cruz – ex-gang member and Ashoka Fellow -at first refused to enter the Danone corporate building. After several sessions focusing on creating a common vision he became the strong contributor and trusted social advisor of Semilla that he is still to date, bringing expertise in mobilizing marginalized groups, his social engineering skills and sharp eye to detect and solve people issues.


In your opinion, what can partnership between NGOs & companies encourage ? eg. boost innovation, encourage the development of responsible products, change the relationship between global companies & their consumers? 


In my mind the first thing that CSO-company partnerships can encourage is integrating social/ environmental impact as a core ingredient of the business model, i.e. not as a secondary effect.

It is about finding a balance between profitability and impact when defining the business model or making key decisions.

Constructively challenging standard business processes can definitely boost innovation and many CSOs can bring key insights into the beneficiary’s needs and behaviors. Of course all CSOs are not equal… Depending on their profile, they may help think of new products, alternative distribution channels or more education for final clients.


*Ashoka and a growing number of organizations are using this term to avoid the “non” words 

Find more accounts from the partners of Danone Ecosystem in the Ecosystem Newsletter n°6.