Written Articles


Working to Overcome Our Unconscious Biases

It was early in my career, working in international trade and investment in Washington, DC, when I first became aware of widespread confirmation bias. I was typically the youngest and almost always the only woman in any meeting. Time and again, I’d make a recommendation, only to be dismissed or ignored by the room. Then, five minutes later, when a man would make the same suggestion, the response was, “Great idea, Bob!”

Confirmation bias is our tendency to support evidence that confirms already-held beliefs. I’m not suggesting that all of these men were intentionally sexist or ageist. But deeply ingrained biases informed their thinking: good ideas came from men with decades of experience, and the upstart woman in the room couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. I don’t think they even heard what I’d said.

As defined all over the internet, “unconscious biases are social stereotypes that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. These biases stem from our tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.” In part, this is how we attempt to make sense of the world. But the dangers of leaving unconscious biases unchecked are myriad — from poor decision-making to harmful, even illegal, discriminatory practices, and worse.

Since our work at Miller Center pairs social entrepreneurs from around the world with more seasoned professionals, we’re especially attuned to the potential for imbalanced power dynamics. Our mentors are amazing, and they understand that establishing credibility and trust is essential for effective mentoring relationships. We all fully intend to support social entrepreneurs in ways that are respectful, authentic, and empowering. But sometimes, our conversations and interactions don’t go how we intend. Sometimes communications falter or break down.

Four years ago, a small group of mentors, staff, and experts formed our Unconscious Bias Working Group under the leadership of Miller Center’s Mentor Network Director Lynne Anderson. This group, which includes mentors Lisa Braden-Harder, Cynthia Lang, Jitendra Mudhal, and Ed Vargas and San Jose State professor Heidi Eisips, has been looking at ways to better understand where communications break down and mitigate unintentional harm. And their outstanding work is informing our thinking and actions across the center.

Last year, the working group developed a toolkit for mentors based on the work of social scientists, who have identified over 200 biases, and Kahneman et al., who narrowed the list to 12 biases that are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs (Harvard Business Review, 2013). The group aims to explore and address unconscious bias and how it may arise in the mentoring relationship.

Adapted from the Cognitive Bias Codex conceived and categorized by Buster Benson

The good news is that these unconscious biases are malleable, and we can take steps to minimize their impact (Dasgupta, 2013). We owe it to ourselves and others to become aware of our biases and work to overcome them. We can also be upstanders when we witness someone else encountering bias. Challenging our preconceptions and leading by example will have positive effects throughout our work and personal lives as we create spaces where everyone can be their authentic selves and be respected and heard.


Note: If you have a story encountering bias, please share it with our team at mc-mentors@scu.edu, along with responses to that bias that promoted change. These stories provide valuable insights and learning opportunities.


Social Entrepreneurship Provides Beacon of Hope for Women Worldwide

Celebrating International Women’s Day earlier this month reminded me of a blog that I wrote almost exactly two years ago today. Now that we’re (mostly) on the other side of the pandemic, it seems like an apt time to think about what’s changed for women in these two years and what hasn’t.

Last summer, the World Economic Forum published its Global Gender Gap Report 2022, which benchmarks 146 countries in a robust analysis of women’s workforce outcomes. As Managing Director Saadia Zahidi summarizes, “In 2022, amid multi-layered and compounding crises including the rising cost of living, the ongoing pandemic, the climate emergency and large-scale conflict and displacement, the progress towards gender parity is stalling.”

Based on current data, the report predicts that closing the global gender parity gap will take another 132 years as compared with pre-pandemic estimates of less than 100 years. That difference represents an entire generation of women.

Yet social entrepreneurship continues to shine a beacon of hope for women around the world. A separate article by the World Economic Forum states that “The social entrepreneurship sector has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders in its field, and of changing the lives and welfare of all women.”

I truly believe this! There’s remarkable power in the social enterprise movement to disrupt the status quo and contribute to the economic empowerment of women around the world.

Here’s my original blog, published in our March 23, 2021 newsletter with links to a series of articles I wrote for Times of Entrepreneurship about how social entrepreneurs are creating models for success for women in the communities they serve.


As the month of International Women’s Day on the 8th and Women’s History Month in the US, March is a time to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments, strength, and resilience of women. It is an opportunity to honor the women who are our heroes, mentors, and role models, both the famous and the personal. For me, some of those notable women include the “notorious” Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rosa Parks, and my mom, Val Ellis.

But while we commemorate how far we’ve come, it’s impossible to ignore how far we still have to go. Data compiled by UN Women shows that women are paid less than men globally, are more likely to be unemployed, and are disproportionately responsible for unpaid work, spending approximately “2.5 times more time on unpaid care and domestic work than men.” And we’re witnessing how COVID is only widening these gaps. A January article in Fortune dropped this bombshell: “Women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs shed by the U.S. economy in December”, with the pandemic largely to blame.

Even though the social enterprise movement is at the forefront of innovation and sustainable change on so many levels, women entrepreneurs still must overcome far greater hurdles for recognition and investment compared to their male counterparts. My February Op-Ed in Times of Entrepreneurship: The Real Reason Women Entrepreneurs Struggle to Raise Funding highlights that women-led enterprises are drastically underfunded despite the fact that their businesses, on average, significantly outperform those founded by men. A Santa Clara University study led by Professor Maya Ackerman and cited in Forbes found that gender is the primary determining factor in funding, with women “65% less likely to get funded at early stages…and 35% less likely to be funded at later stages.”

Yet social entrepreneurship still offers some of the most compelling hope for women’s economic empowerment — as founders and leaders, customers, employees, and value chain contributors. Two additional Op-Eds published in Times of Entrepreneurship, Good Jobs For Women Are In Reach Through Social Enterprises and These 10 Social Enterprises Help Women Navigate The Grey Economy, focus on the ways social enterprises are providing both formal and semi-formal work opportunities for women. And my final Op-Ed in the series, Companies Can Learn to Tap the World’s Biggest Market highlights how social enterprises are at the forefront in recognizing the global consumer market of women.

We know that raising women’s economic status works! According to a Boston Consulting Group analysis, if women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP would rise by approximately 3% to 6%, adding $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion to the global economy. And as women earn money, they are significantly more likely to invest in their children’s education and their communities than men.

Miller Center is working tirelessly to be part of the solution in changing the narrative for women, especially those living in poverty. One way we’re doing this is through our recently launched Women’s Economic Empowerment Accelerator for enterprises taking a robust and holistic approach to elevating women in all aspects of their businesses.

Our mission is to accelerate social entrepreneurship to eliminate global poverty for the next generation. To deliver on this ambitious goal, the evidence is clear — we must move the needle on women’s economic empowerment.


Photo Credits:

  1. Polly & Other Stories
  2. Gravity Water
  3. Tierra & Lava
Gratitude + AR Blog 20221128

With Gratitude for the Journey

Over the Thanksgiving weekend on the California coast, I took time to reflect on my gratitude for Miller Center as we near the end of our 25th anniversary year — from our prescient founders to the incredible social entrepreneurs, mentors, students, faculty members, colleagues, and ecosystem partners I have the pleasure to work with. And for our vision for the future.

This has been an exciting and busy year for Miller Center. A few highlights include

  • Hosting two In-Residence programs — bringing social entrepreneurs to Santa Clara for the first time since before the pandemic. Over 50 entrepreneurs representing 35 enterprises from countries around the world joined our staff and executive mentors for multi-day learning sessions and mock-investor panels in April and October.
  • Launching our Miller Center Invest Innovation Fund with $1 million of our $4 million goal already committed and beginning due diligence on our first potential deals.
  • Holding a standing-room-only session at SOCAP on Bridging the Funding Gap for Impact Zebras — those social entrepreneurs with potential for scale but who struggle to access the billions of dollars purported to be dedicated to impact investing.
  • Celebrating our 14 outstanding Miller Center Lewis Family Fellows at Action Research with a Mission, a culminating event to showcase their 9-month action research projects with social entrepreneurs in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the US. This marks the 10th anniversary of our award-winning fellowship and brings our total number of fellows to 175.

For more on our exciting history and our future direction, I’m resharing the letter I wrote for our 2022 Annual Report below. We are deeply committed to helping end global poverty and will continue to fight the good fight for the next 25 years and beyond. Thank you for being part of our journey!

Where We Started

(Originally published in our 2022 Annual Report following our fiscal year end in June.)

As we celebrate Miller Center’s 25th anniversary, it’s remarkable to reflect on our history since 1997. I’m continually struck by how visionary the founders were — applying the innovation and entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley through the social justice lens of Santa Clara University to solve global problems.

In 2000, the Center cofounded the Tech Awards to showcase how technology can address the newly established UN Millenium Development Goals. And when Miller Center launched its first accelerator in 2003, focused on social entrepreneurship, it predated Y Combinator by two years and SOCAP by five. The founders really were onto something very early.

In parallel, microfinance was gaining traction. Alongside other pioneers, Mohammad Yunus launched affordable microloans in 1983 as a means of breaking the cycle of poverty in Bangladesh. Over the next couple of decades, the model spread around the world.

Around the time Miller Center was founded, I started working in microfinance at CGAP (housed at the World Bank), and we were just beginning to appreciate the power of commercial microfinance globally — the idea that poor and low-income excluded people could be engaged as customers rather than beneficiaries to become architects of their own destiny.

This shift in mindset directly fed into the social enterprise movement, with companies simultaneously pursuing sustainable growth strategies while alleviating poverty.

Where We’ve Been

Over the next decade, social entrepreneurship and impact investing gained momentum. Acumen was founded in 2001, Duke University established its Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) in 2002, and both Village Capital and Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) were founded in 2009.

In his groundbreaking 2004 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, author C. K. Prahalad wrote that “the typical pictures of poverty mask the fact that the very poor represent resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers” and argued for businesses to collaborate with the world’s 4 billion poorest people to create sustainable win-win solutions.

Throughout this period, Miller Center continued to be a hub of innovation in the broader social enterprise movement — experimenting across sectors, geographies, and themes, and prototyping multiple programs. At the core of the work was a focus on developing a deep understanding of social entrepreneurs and how best to support them. Further, our fellowship program, launched in 2012, provided Santa Clara University students with opportunities to learn and work with social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of poverty eradication and sustainable development around the world.

By 2015, when Jeff and Karen Miller gave their transformative $25 million gift, the Center had grown from supporting between 15–30 social enterprises annually in the accelerator’s first decade to well over 100 per year. That was also the year the UN adopted its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Millers, who had been active with the Center since 2001, committed to a bold vision for the newly named Miller Center to help lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through social entrepreneurship.

Where We’re Headed

In 2018, Larry Fink, founder and CEO of BlackRock, told business leaders that “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society,” in what the New York Times described as “a watershed moment on Wall Street.”

In early 2020, the world changed. Miller Center quickly adapted to roll out a 3-week Crisis Business Planning program for alumni social entrepreneurs to help them retool in response to COVID. By May, in partnership with Beneficial Returns, we launched the Truss Fund, an emergency loan fund to help our alumni weather the pandemic and catalyze additional investment.

When I joined Miller Center in June 2020, it was truly an honor to take the reins of this well-functioning machine. And following a tradition of big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs), we developed a 5-year strategic plan aspiring to achieve the same depth of impact over five years that we had attained over our entire previous history. We honed our focus to support scalable and replicable social enterprises tackling women’s economic empowerment and climate resilience. We are also increasingly leveraging capital, partnerships, technology, and university resources to multiply and amplify our impact.

During this past year, we have made tremendous strides toward achieving our ambitious goals. In impact investing, we worked diligently to close the funding gap that exists for many of the social enterprises we work with. We launched a major partnership with Sopact to embed impact measurement and management into our social enterprise alumni programs. Already, we are close to our 2025 goal of engaging 500 university students per year. And we continued to expand our efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Of course, in 2022, we are all still in the midst of the pandemic, while facing political and economic uncertainty. And despite the promise of the racial reckoning that began in 2020, we are witnessing a conservative backlash to curtail civil liberties.

Our work continues to be vital. And while social entrepreneurship will not solve all that ails us, I truly believe it presents a unique model for harnessing the power of the marketplace to achieve what capitalism currently struggles to do: reduce global poverty, promote widespread human flourishing, and protect the natural world that sustains us all.

With gratitude for your support!




A Summer of Travel and Growth for My 17-Year-Old

As someone who’s been very fortunate to travel extensively — both for work and pleasure — I recognize how much experiencing new cultures, people, and ideas has helped me grow as a person. I know my colleagues at Miller Center share this view. So it’s immensely gratifying for our team that some of our fellows are traveling internationally this summer for the first time since before the pandemic. Two went to Nepal to work on their action research projects with Gham Power, and two more just left for Mexico to work with Someone Somewhere. This immersive, hands-on travel is a huge part of what makes the Miller Center Lewis Family Fellowship so meaningful for our students.

This year, travel is also taking on new layers for me personally. With summer winding down, I’m sitting on a beach in Hawaii, preparing to say goodbye to my 17-year-old daughter Paloma. She’s been traveling and living around the world her entire life, so she really wanted to spend her final two years of high school studying overseas (in this case, almost halfway across the Pacific). As I write this, she’s about to start her junior year at the Asia Pacific International School on Oahu. The school’s experiential, project-based learning environment plays to Paloma’s strengths, and she’s excited about its focus on global citizenship and sustainability.

And this isn’t Paloma’s first independent adventure away from home this summer. In July, she spent 3 weeks in Guatemala studying Spanish and living with a host family. We adopted Paloma from Guatemala when she was 5 months old, and it was important to her to connect with her language and cultural heritage in a meaningful way. It was also a chance for her to improve her Spanish, which had generally taken a backseat to a combination of English and local words and phrases in the places we lived — Indonesia, Paris, Mozambique, and Cambodia.

There’s magic in living in another place, even for a short time. For Paloma, Guatemala became a part of her, and the people who hosted her became her second family. It was incredible to watch how quickly she adopted the place of her birth — the energy, the art, the people, the colors, the markets, everything. This trip was a wonderful opportunity for authentic cultural connections for her.

From rediscovering Paloma’s roots, we’re now discovering for the first time, the place she’ll spend the next couple of years. And the Hawaiian culture is remarkable and rich, from its myths and stories to Hawaiians’ deep relationship with the earth and the natural wonder of the islands.

It’s exciting to share these experiences with my daughter — hiking across a suspension bridge over Lake Atitlan, walking along the beaches of Waikiki, and trekking in the foothills of volcanoes across both locations — each offering opportunities for us to learn something new together. Interestingly, volcanoes are prominent and culturally significant in both Guatemala and Hawaii, providing another connection for Paloma.

It’s truly been a summer of major milestones for our family. Our daughter is maturing into a young woman navigating new places on her own. And her parents are getting used to the idea of not having her close to home. Even when that home was on the other side of the globe, we were together as a family. If anyone left, it was usually me for a business trip. Certainly not Paloma. But she’s ready. And I’m so proud of the woman she’s becoming.

It’s fascinating to watch this all through her eyes, first as I dropped her off and picked her up in Guatemala and now in Hawaii. These opportunities for discovery and self-discovery are causing me to reflect, here on this magnificent island. Travel allows us to discover the beauty in the world and to recognize that diverse cultures and practices enhance that beauty. At the same time, it’s a sense of our shared humanity that helps us appreciate our differences and bridge divides. And it is the remarkable beauty in both our diversity and our similarities that fills me with hope.

Kosovo PM Visit 1

Esteemed Visitors Envision Social Enterprise Solutions

What do the head of one of the world’s largest NGOs, Chevron executives, and the prime minister of Kosovo have in common? Believe it or not, they all came to visit us at Miller Center over the course of about 5 days earlier this month.

As Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh, Asif Saleh runs the biggest among the BRAC family of organizations. Founded in 1972 in Bangladesh, BRAC is the largest southern-based non-profit in the world, reaching over 100 million people across Asia and Africa. In my view, BRAC is the OG social enterprise, having designed proven, scalable, multifaceted solutions that equip people with the support, skills, and confidence they need to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve their potential. As the only organization of its size both from and headquartered in the Southern hemisphere, BRAC is a singular leader in locally-led development and adaptation — working hand-in-hand with communities as co-creators of its programs, centering women and girls at the heart of its work; prioritizing high-quality research, monitoring, and evaluation; and designing, piloting, and scaling integrated poverty alleviation programming — all with unparalleled business acumen. During Asif’s visit, we discussed the amazing complementarity of what Miller Center can offer to the “missing middle” — those entrepreneurs whose capacity and aspirations reach beyond the microenterprise or early stage growth yet are much smaller than the gigantic social enterprises run by BRAC in Bangladesh and beyond.

That was on a Friday. The following Monday, we had the esteemed pleasure of hosting Prime Minister Albin Kurti of the Republic of Kosovo. As part of his official visit to the United State to meet with state officials, business and nonprofit leaders, and members of the Albanian-American community, the prime minister spent time at Santa Clara University and Miller Center. Miller Center’s relationship with Kosovo began in 2020, when we launched an accelerator for 20 Kosovan women-led enterprises in partnership with the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. Drawn by the university’s social justice mission and Miller Center’s work, Prime Minister Kurti sees the potential of social entrepreneurship to stimulate innovation and growth while fostering social good. With Kosovo’s young workforce and a high degree of training in information and communications technology (ICT), the country is investing heavily in innovation and entrepreneurship while also caring deeply about development and social impact. The prime minister also noted the considerable interest among Kosovo’s diaspora, which contributes significantly to the country’s GDP, to invest in innovative solutions to pressing problems. I was incredibly impressed by the prime minister’s progressive vision for how to balance growth and equity in his country.

Then the very next day, on Tuesday, Kurt Glaubitz, Chevron’s General Manager of Corporate Affairs, Asia Pacific, Dee Bourbon, Senior Advisor of Global Social Investment, and Jennifer Liebeler Michael, Manager of Social Investment, visited to announce our 3-year partnership to advance climate resilience through climate-smart agriculture, access to safe water, and reliable, low-carbon energy among vulnerable Asia Pacific communities. As Kurt shared, “The Miller Center – Chevron climate resilience initiative strives to help reduce poverty, drive economic and social opportunity, and develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Asia Pacific region.” By investing in Miller Center, Chevron is demonstrating not only its commitment to social entrepreneurship as a solution, but the benefits of working with an accelerator to aggregate and amplify its impact through a trusted intermediary. Corporations and philanthropic organizations can benefit from Miller Center’s experience in selecting the most promising social enterprises and helping them scale, enabling funders to take a portfolio approach. Kurt, Dee, and Jennifer  reinforced their commitment to exploring the potential of social entrepreneurship and partnership with Miller Center as a way to drive toward a more sustainable future.

Meeting with these extraordinary people — representing the world’s largest NGO, #16 of the Fortune 500, and a European nation — over several days in May was a bit of a whirlwind, but also exhilarating. I truly believe that social entrepreneurship presents a unique model for harnessing the power of the marketplace to achieve what capitalism currently struggles to do: reduce global poverty, promote widespread human flourishing, and protect the natural world that sustains us all. It’s incredibly inspiring and empowering to meet global leaders pursuing this path.


Photos by Eli Latimerlo, Sr. Director of Development

Cover photo: Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo

Photo: Prime Minister Kurti with Elaine Scott, Dean of Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering

Photo: Dee Bourbon and Kurt Glaubitz of Chevron

Photo: Jennifer Liebeler Michael, Dee, and Kurt of Chevron met Lisa Kloppenberg, Acting President of Santa Clara University


Reveling in the Magic

Following our April 2022 In-Residence, we received an email from Bret Waters, one of our long-time and most active mentors. He really captured how special this program was, ending with, “Thank you for reminding me that the magic of Miller Center is still alive.” (Bret has given us permission to share his email here.) Having joined in the summer of 2020, just months into the pandemic, this was my first in-person international event with Miller Center, and I was blown away. Here are some reflections on just a few highlights that were truly magical for me.

The 24 entrepreneurs representing 16 social enterprises who came to Santa Clara University for this program are truly inspiring, brilliant, passionate, and genuinely nice people. It was a joyous week! Please read Karen Runde’s blog for more information on these stellar women and men.

On Saturday evening, at the end of our first day, we celebrated Miller Center’s 25th anniversary and awarded our first Impact Excellence Awards to six social enterprises that have scaled dramatically since their first participation in a Miller Center program and have been active partners since. Pictured from left to right: Antonio Nuño of Someone Somewhere next to me, then Alicia Wallace of All Across Africa, Manoj Sinha of Husk Power Systems, Katherine Lucey of Solar Sister, Laura Stachel and Hal Aronson of We Care Solar, Lieselotte Heederik of Nazava, and our benefactor and Advisory Board chair, Jeff Miller.

After four straight days of intensive workshops, bespoke mentoring, and shared food and wine, we dedicated most of Wednesday to free time. Entrepreneurs fanned out to explore, shop, or take a driving tour of local tech giants Google, Facebook, and Apple. I was thrilled to lead a group up and down my favorite trails at nearby Almaden Quicksilver Park.

After a morning hike and afternoon prep for the next day’s Social Enterprise Showcase, I don’t know how I dragged myself out on the town, but the music of the Wailers with these incredible diehards from Mexico, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, and India made it all worthwhile.

A Miller Center In-Residence is an all-hands-on-deck event for our entire team and every single staff member participated in multiple ways, both large and small. While I won’t recognize everyone here, I hope I’ve shared with them both individually and collectively how much I appreciate their efforts. That said, there’s a team that deserves special recognition for attending to every detail, troubleshooting emergencies along the way, and generally ensuring that over 100 people had a wonderful, rewarding, and highly educational experience. Pictured from left to right: Sharon Bunyard, Lydia Hultquist, Karen Runde, Thao Nguyen, Samantha Savage, Avery Rissling, and Anthony Sampson.

I imagine I speak for our entire team when I say that we ended the week exhilarated, exhausted, and excited for next time.


A Year-End Reflection on Our Connectedness

The holidays are one of my favorite times of the year. Yet, as my work has taken our family all over the world, we’ve had to come up with some less traditional family traditions. For example, we always head to the beach for Thanksgiving, whether in Indonesia, Seattle, Mozambique, Washington, D.C., or this year, California.

For me, the holiday season also brings a time of both connection and reflection. As I look back on the year — another weird and difficult one, to be sure — I’m reflecting most on our remarkable interconnectedness. COVID has certainly highlighted our global connectedness as the pandemic continues to jump oceans and timezones. But it’s also apparent in our shared humanity. I’ve traveled extensively throughout six continents (all except Antarctica) and I’m continually struck by how much more alike we are than different, even when it doesn’t always feel that way. And I’ve seen my own deep-seated desire to connect with people reflected in the faces of those I’ve met throughout my journeys and back here at my alma mater, Santa Clara University.

It’s our shared humanity that gives me hope for the future and inspires my work at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Here are some of my favorite highlights of connecting through Miller Center in 2021.

Empowering Women to Connect Communities

We know that empowering women has ripple effects extending beyond their immediate families — lifting entire communities’ living standards and well-being. So this year at Miller Center, we deepened our commitment to helping lift women out of poverty around the world, launching our first Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Accelerator. The program takes a multidimensional view, focusing on empowering women as leaders, employees, customers, and value chain contributors. Twenty-five social entrepreneurs graduated from our inaugural cohort, reporting greater confidence in their leadership and better preparedness to scale their businesses and raise investment. Our next WEE Accelerator launches in January.

We also published our white paper, How Social Entrepreneurship Can Advance Women’s Economic Empowerment: Toward a More Inclusive and Equitable Economic System.

Integrating the Voice of Our Customers

At Miller Center, we envision a world where all people are architects of their own futures. Yet, we acknowledge a need for more diverse and representative voices in our decision-making. So, in the spring, we introduced a Social Enterprise Advisory Council to elevate the voices of local leaders in frontier and emerging markets to provide input on Miller Center’s governance, programs, and services. Our inaugural cohort’s eight steller social entrepreneurs hail from Cameroon, India, Kenya, Mexico, and Uganda, with their reach also extending to Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Tanzania, and Nigeria. All are working to alleviate poverty among the communities they serve through sustainable solutions: Ayzh, Banka Bioloo, Extensio-Acceso, Food4Education, Grassland Cameroon, Husk Power, NUCAFE, and Someone Somewhere. And in August, five of these leaders traveled to the U.S. to spend two days sharing their perspectives and wisdom with our Advisory Board, mentors, and staff.

Elevating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As a social impact organization working globally, Miller Center has long sought to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into our work and lives. But last year’s horrific murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Abrey, Breonna Taylor, and too many others and the rise of hate-driven violence against members of Asian American, Latinx, Muslim, and LGBTQ+ communities caused us to examine our own reality and opportunities for improvement and allyship. Earlier this year, I wrote an article on How the Impact Space is Meeting the Moment and Embracing Anti-Racism. And we are deeply committed to putting our words into action. Some examples from the year include:

    • Continuing support for our DEI working group and monthly social justice forums
    • Developing internal marketing guidelines for using anti-racist, anti-colonial, and inclusive language and photos in our materials
    • Sharing our photo guidelines through the blog, Are Your Images Telling the Right Story?
    • Implementing new diversity hiring practices
    • Facilitating unconscious bias training among our staff and mentor network
    • Participating in Center-wide training to designate Miller Center an LGBTQ+ Safe Space at Santa Clara University (SCU)
    • Scheduling certification in 2022 for the UndocuAlly training to support SCU’s undocumented community members
    • Fostering an inclusive environment for staff through multicultural celebrations

Above all, in service to our mission of accelerating social entrepreneurship to end global poverty, we aim to create equitable access to resources and an inclusive community of belonging for all of our stakeholders.

Connecting in the Office

In September, Miller Center moved into its new home in the stunning new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation at SCU. More importantly, we came together again as a team — collaborating in person, celebrating holidays and milestones together, brainstorming in the hallways, and chatting about our weekends. And we fully expect our 3:00pm 60-second plank exercise break to become the stuff of legend in our building. Of course, returning to campus is not without its challenges as we navigate COVID scares, hybrid meetings, long commutes, and more.

Check out my blog, Ruminations on Returning to the Office, about the excitement and complexities for Miller Center after a year and a half of working remotely. My colleagues Keith Warner and Eli Latimerlo captured Miller Center staff engaging with members of our campus community in their recent Photo Essay: Welcoming Santa Clara Friends to Our New Home.

Connecting Across Campus

In 2020, the Miller Center team crafted a plan to weave social entrepreneurship into the DNA of Santa Clara University. Our goal is to reach 500 students per year through direct engagement opportunities and by leveraging the influence of our faculty to reach more students. In 2021, we hit the ground running by

    • Fully funding our Miller Center Lewis Family Fellowship (formerly Global Social Benefit Fellowship) to support our award-winning, immersive undergraduate program in perpetuity
    • Providing remote opportunities for 47 students to intern with social enterprises around the world through our new internship program
    • Delivering a 4-day faculty development workshop for 20 faculty across 12 academic departments to introduce social entrepreneurship, share resources for curriculum development, and co-create meaningful research projects
    • Awarding Miller Center’s first three Faculty Fellowships to support new research in our field
    • Partnering with the Leavey School of Business MBA and Executive MBA programs to engage 51 graduate students in consultancy projects

There’s an exciting buzz in the air as our team strategizes with faculty and staff across campus to create new learning and research opportunities. Stay tuned for more exciting developments in 2022.

To Quote Melinda Gates…

“Deep human connection is…the purpose and the result of a meaningful life — and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity.”

As we close out 2021, I wish you all meaningful connections with the people in your lives and with those less fortunate whose lives you may touch through your most amazing acts. Happy holidays!


Miller Center’s Approach to Impact Investing: Clearing the Runway for Takeoff

Several years ago, waiting for our 4-seater prop plane to take off from the Bolivian Amazon, I watched in fascination as a small team of men cleared the runway with machetes. We couldn’t see the end of the runway and it was littered with potholes, no doubt making it challenging to gain the speed needed to take off. Once in the air, the small plane bounced around in turbulence. All in all, a bumpy ride — not for the faint of heart.

The same can be said for the journeys of our social enterprise partners. The pathway to scale is overgrown with obstacles, and entrepreneurs often can’t see more than a few feet ahead of them at any given time. Gaping holes between funding inflows make it difficult to gain momentum. And the large amounts of funding purportedly available in the impact space are often not the right flavor of capital.

To continue the analogy just a little further, at Miller Center, we see our role as clearing that runway, laying down tarmac, and stocking the right kind of fuel so that the best social enterprises that are ready to take off can focus on flying the plane and not on wielding machetes.

Tugende, a tech-enabled asset finance company in East Africa and one of Miller Center’s leading social enterprise partners, recently closed a second Series A tranche of $3.6 million in equity financing to help meet intense demand for income-generating assets. Speaking to the CEO, I asked how he planned to spend his time now that he’s finished fundraising. He laughed and said, “That would be amazing, but we are never finished. In fact, we are working hard to close more debt to support our working capital requirements and getting ready to launch the Series B.”

Another recent success story among our social enterprise alumni is Ugandan fintech startup Numida, which supports semiformal micro and small businesses with digital working capital loans. The company recently closed a $2.3 million seed round, but the founder describes a similarly bumpy story of extensive time fundraising, a disjointed approach by impact investors, and long periods of due diligence even for very small sums.

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

Sadly, these stories are best case scenarios for social entrepreneurs all over the world — because the money closed. An informal survey of Miller Center alumni indicates that founders generally spend over half of their time fundraising, and only about half of our program participants are successful in meeting or exceeding their “justifiable asks”. Even when they achieve success like Tugende and Numida, they typically have very short cash runways and are quickly back on the fundraising hamster wheel. The same survey indicated that the average maximum runway these companies ever have is 6–9 months.

Some in the social enterprise space will say that this is just the way business is done, and that the job of a social entrepreneur is to constantly fundraise. And that life on the conference circuit and jumping from accelerator to accelerator searching for the next investor are acceptable tactics to secure the funding future of your social enterprise. But at what cost? As we look to social entrepreneurs to solve some of society’s most pressing problems, how can we expect them to spend so much of their time and psychic energy fundraising rather than running their businesses and creating impact?

Miller Center believes that this model creates an unjust and suboptimal equilibrium that prevents social entrepreneurs from scaling, and perpetuates a neo-colonial power dynamic in the impact investing ecosystem. Why do we say this?

At first glance it would appear that there is plenty of capital to fuel the growth of social enterprises like Numida. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) says there is more than $700 billion in assets under management dedicated to impact investing. The problem is that the focus, amounts, terms, and instruments on offer doesn’t always work for many of the social entrepreneurs we support.

  • Focus. The vast majority of this capital is focused on the global north — the US, Canada, and Europe.
  • Amounts. According to the GIIN report, the average ticket size for direct impact investments is greater than $5 million. The vast majority of our social enterprise partners initially seek between $50,000 and $2 million in investment.
  • Terms. The GIIN data also suggest that most of this capital expects market rate returns. While some impact investments can and should generate market rate returns, many of our social enterprise partners address issues where there are clear market failures and they generate many positive externalities that are not priced by traditional markets. Here, blended capital solutions and venture philanthropy are needed to support the growth of these innovative solutions, thus requiring us to accept below market rate financial returns.
  • Instruments. The lion’s share of this capital is deployed as either traditional risk-averse debt (fully collateralized, etc.) or in funds that attempt to replicate the Silicon Valley venture capital approach to equity investing. Our experience shows that these traditional financial instruments are often misaligned with many impactful and scalable social enterprises in our network. While there is much buzz around innovative finance such as program related loans (PRIs) and soft loans with below-market interest rates, and revenue royalty structures, the actual prevalence of these instruments in the impact space is rare.

Beyond this intrinsic mismatch between supply and demand in impact investing, there are also ecosystem challenges to overcome, including a lack of transparency, fragmentation, and systemic bias.

  • Lack of Transparency. While a few aligned funders have an interest and ability to serve this segment of the social enterprise market, entrepreneurs often find it challenging to find and connect with them. Investors’ thematic interests (investment theses) and funding criteria are often opaque and require insider information to truly understand. Consequently, social enterprises spend far too much time chasing the wrong funders.
  • Fragmentation. Most funders in the space have very narrow stage mandates. Whereas it is typical in venture capital for a single fund to invest in a seed, series A, and series B round, it is rare for an impact investor to join in multiple rounds throughout an enterprise’s lifecycle. What’s more, there is little coordination to prepare and hand off portfolio companies to the next stage of investor. This lack of sequential connectivity forces enterprises like Tugende or Numida to get right back on that fundraising hamster wheel immediately after raising a major round.
  • Systemic Bias. Finally, the impact investing ecosystem suffers from systemic bias against local leaders and women-led enterprises. My OpEd The Real Reason Women Entrepreneurs Struggle to Raise Funding in “Times of Entrepreneurship” details many of the hurdles women face. Local leaders — here we refer to those leaders with a deep connection to the communities they’re working in, an intimate understanding of the problems they face, and profound insight into viable solutions to those problems — also face enormous challenges. Our initial research suggests that local leaders raise 7 times less than their expatriate counterparts. Lack of access to networks presents difficult barriers, and one we can help address with our accelerator model. But the role of racism and white saviorism in the development and impact spaces cannot be overlooked.

Our evolving approach

Miller Center aspires to become the go-to partner on the demand side of capital in the impact investing space — connecting our social enterprise partners to suitable funding and working dynamically to ensure our most scalable and replicable enterprise partners have a path, not just to their next fundraising round, but to the full range of capital they will need to achieve their visions.

We have accelerated more than 1,200 social enterprises over the years, fusing our unique blend of global changemakers, deep executive mentorship, and Santa Clara University’s resources and values. We understand that access to appropriate and timely finance can make the difference between scale and, well, survival.

Our new approach entails forging strategic partnerships with a range of funders and investors to connect our social enterprise partners to the right capital at the right time in their growth trajectory. In short, to clear that runway. We aim to span the spectrum of funding — from the more philanthropic through to the more commercial. We want to catalyze grants, reimbursable grants, low-interest loans, revenue sharing, convertible capital, guarantees, commercial debt, and equity. We plan to accompany our partner social enterprises on this journey by supporting their efforts to develop their justifiable ask for their immediate funding needs, AND to imagine the trajectory of future funding as they scale.

Watch for upcoming articles on how we plan to achieve this vision. We invite you, our community, to provide input along our journey. We believe social entrepreneurship is a critical lever in ending poverty and protecting the planet. But it requires capital investment and we must find better, more accessible ways to fund the remarkable entrepreneurs creating innovative and sustainable solutions to the world’s challenges.

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