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!