What Riding a Vespa Can Teach Us About Making an Impact


Since moving to California, my bright red Vespa — a gift from my husband for a milestone birthday — has sat waiting for me in my garage. Unlike Washington, DC, my new home state requires an M1 motorcycle license to ride a Vespa. So this summer, I completed the California Highway Patrol’s Motorcyclist Safety Program. This 15-hour course includes 5 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours of actual riding, which allowed me to bypass the Department of Motor Vehicles road test.

Look Where You Want to Go

Executive Director Brigit Helms sits on her red Vespa.A key lesson from this course is to always look deliberately at where you want to go! Motorcyclists, Vespa riders, and really, anyone on two wheels get into trouble when they fixate on the rock, pothole, or other target they do NOT want to hit, only to drive right into it. So it’s crucial to focus on where you’re headed and not the obstacles in the way.

This is also true in life. And in our work. At Miller Center, we’ve invested significant time, thought, and resources into our 5-year strategic plan — where we want to go.

Another truth when riding my Vespa is that it requires laser focus, unlike so many things in today’s multi-tasking world. No listening to a podcast or drinking from my water bottle. I am fully tuned into the road and the journey ahead. At Miller Center, to reach our goals and stay laser-focused on our mission, we’ve honed in on three top-level Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to steer our team and our work in the right direction.

We know where we want to be in five years and have set KPIs that measure our progress and heighten our focus, while authentically honoring the social entrepreneurs we work with. Of course, we understand there will be potholes, rocks, oily patches, and more popping up along our route. But with our strong team of staff, executive mentors, the Santa Clara University (SCU) campus community, and our ever-resilient social enterprise partners, we also know that if we keep our focus down the road, we will instinctively course-correct to reach our destination. And now, almost a year in, we’re making real progress and excited about our momentum.

KPI 1: Investment Raised by Social Entrepreneurs

By 2025, we want to see the social entrepreneurs we work with raise double the investment they currently do. After a great deal of data scrubbing, we set our baseline for this KPI at $500,000 on average per social enterprise and our 2025 target at $1 million — both within their first three years post-program, when our additionality is at its greatest. Cumulatively, our target is for these organizations to raise a total of $500 million. Given how complex and fragmented the impact investing world is, this is no small feat. But, we know that it’s catalytic for the enterprises we work with because they come to us at a time in their journeys when they seek rapid growth.

To stay on this course, we’re setting an alumni support path that prioritizes investment readiness and focuses on enterprises ready to scale. We’re still early on this route, but we’re building out our impact investing team, developing new investment readiness programs, and have launched Truss Fund 2.0, our emergency loan fund in partnership with Beneficial Returns. And we’re proud of our first-year results. Alumni of our 2018 programs, just reaching their three-year mark, raised an average of $750,000 by our fiscal year-end in June 2021.

KPI 2: Percentage of Santa Clara University Students Engaged in Social Entrepreneurship

Our 5-year destination will see 10% of Santa Clara University graduates engaging in social entrepreneurship. To meet this goal, we plan to connect with 500 students per year across all academic units. That engagement could be informational through coursework, formational through a hands-on internship with a social enterprise, or transformational by participating in our award-winning Miller Center Fellowship program that combines two academic courses with a summer conducting an action research project with a social enterprise.

Starting down this path while the SCU campus was still entirely remote due to the pandemic certainly put a lot of debris in the way. But that didn’t slow us down. We found ways to reach 169 students this past academic year, including a mix of virtual internships, course projects, and our signature fellowship program. Moreover, we’re not waiting for things to get back to “normal” to build for medium-term success. We held our first faculty development workshop for 20 faculty members and have an open call for research proposals from faculty, which will create exciting research opportunities for Santa Clara students.

KPI 3: Number of Lives Improved by Social Entrepreneurs

The social entrepreneurs we work with are all on their own journeys to create meaningful change in the communities and issue areas they care about. Our objective with this KPI is to gauge our indirect contribution by measuring the lives impacted by our social enterprise alumni within their first three years post-program. We’ve set an ambitious target that they will double their impact by 2025 to collectively improve the lives of 150 million people living in poverty.

These entrepreneurs are each navigating their own roads, and we should point out that their roads have far more obstacles to avoid than ours. But, as Miller Center builds on our nearly two decades of experience, we are laser-focused on our journey to support our social impact partners on theirs. We are overhauling our accelerator program curriculum and elevating our ongoing, customized support to help enterprises increase velocity and find their best path forward. We are also partnering with Sopact to help entrepreneurs better track their impact and enable us to showcase their collective impact to the Miller Center family. From our 2020 baseline of 75 million lives improved, already that number has grown to 100 million.

It’s More than the Journey

A common refrain among two-wheeled enthusiasts is that “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” And when I’m riding my Vespa, I get that! But at Miller Center, reaching our KPIs is our intended destination by 2025. Looking further down the road, we aim to be part of the solution to end global poverty and protect the planet. So while it’s absolutely about the journey, it’s also most definitely about the destination. And we’re all on this ride together!

For more on this topic, check out my article with Isabel Miranda, our Program Manager for Efficiency and Learning: Impact Measurement and Management — 3 Questions Ecosystems Intermediaries Need to Ask Themselves.