Sailing the Tailwinds of Change


“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

—John F. Kennedy

We envision an end to poverty for the next generation. Unfortunately, from our vantage point in 2020, the headwinds seem daunting — the world will add 150 million people to the ranks of extreme poverty in the next year alone, and hundreds of millions more will become poor, defined more broadly. Globally and at home here in the US, the pandemic and corresponding economic crisis have exacerbated and shined a spotlight on long standing social, economic, and environmental disparities. These injustices are unacceptable.

On the other hand, significant tailwinds offer hope, especially when it comes to harnessing markets to eliminate poverty. Just last year the Business Roundtable, a group of 180 top CEOs, publicly declared their commitment to stakeholder capitalism, shifting the long-held primacy of shareholders toward the idea that business serves the greater good. In September 2020, Eric Ries, founder of the most “Silicon Valley” of notions — the Lean Startup — launched the Long-Term Stock Exchange, a public market option for companies and investors focused on long-term value creation. Again, business for the long-haul and for social good. Combine this with the tens of trillions of dollars in the pockets and coffers of new investors, mainly millennials but also corporates seeking more than short-term returns, and it seems the path to reinventing capitalism as we know it is here to stay.

Social enterprise — at its most basic level, “business for good” — provides opportunities to reinvent capitalism for social impact. While many social enterprises took a huge hit this year due to COVID, entrepreneurs are a resilient and innovative bunch. You can read stories of resilience in our 2020 Annual Report, and there are countless more as they innovate new solutions, not only to survive, but to tackle the world’s most challenging problems.

We believe that social entrepreneurship represents the pointy edge of the wedge that will propel us to end poverty. According to Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and Nobel Peace Prize winner, “Poverty is an artificial, external impostion on a human being; it is not innate… And since it is external, it can be removed. It is just a question of doing it.” The way Yunus proposes to do it is through social business that enables the poor to architect their own futures. And Miller Center alum Alicia Wallace of All Across Africa notes, “Entrepreneurship can be harnessed to fuel positive, sustainable global impact much faster than any other form of social good.”

Miller Center is at the forefront of the social entrepreneurship movement, with a robust track record of accelerating social enterprises during our 17 years history. Our proven model unites the talents and expertise of our executive mentors with our world-class curriculum, steeped in Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship and Santa Clara University’s Jesuit values of serving the poor and marginalized. Our work with social entrepreneurs is creating proof points for the case that business can be a driving force for positive change.

And we are uniquely positioned to continue our leadership in this arena. We are nearing the end of a strategic planning process to guide us for the next five years, with the help and input of nearly 100 stakeholders. Our history of experimenting with a wide range of activities and programs allowed us to create impact where we saw need, and enabled us to learn what works and where we can add the most value in eradicating poverty.

Now we are poised to take our knowledge and past success to move from opportunistic experimentation to strategic alignment, focusing on areas with the greatest potential to move the needle. To this end, we have selected two key focus areas — women’s economic empowerment and climate resilience — for their disproportionate impact on eliminating poverty. According to the Clinton Global Initiative, “By focusing on girls and women, innovative businesses and organizations can spur economic progress, expand markets, and improve health and education outcomes for everyone.” And while climate change perpetuates the cycle of poverty, climate resiliency can dramatically alter that course for vulnerable populations. Watch for the rollout of our entire strategy in early 2021.

In addition to building on our success and focusing our resources for the greatest impact, we are also carefully examining how we can improve as an organization to better reflect our core values. We want to weave certain principles and behaviors across all of our work — increasing our own diversity, equity, and inclusion, becoming more rigorous and intentional in impact measurement and management, and optimizing our continuous learning. These have long been key values of Miller Center, but we plan to be more deliberate in their implementation.

Reflecting on 2020, I am proud of how the Miller Center team — including our staff, executive mentors, partners, and donors — met this challenging year head on. We launched a rapid-response series of crisis management tools and programs to help our social entrepreneurs weather the onslaught of the pandemic, co-created the Truss Fund to provide emergency bridge loans, and developed our BounceBack program to aid in recovery. Meanwhile, our team continued to accompany over 100 entrepreneurs across multiple programs, pivoted to host not one, but two, virtual in-residences for new program graduates this fall, and launched our first-ever Women’s Economic Empowerment accelerator.

As I look forward to 2021, it is with a sense of hope and purpose, along with a strategy to take Miller Center to the next level. Our scaling strategy will double the depth of our impact over the next five years relative to what we’ve achieved over the past 17 — transforming lives to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world. Please join us on the next stage of this remarkable journey!

Wishing you and your loved ones a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season and new year!