The Pope, the Climate Crisis, and Social Entrepreneurship


An Invitation to Speak at Climate & Environmental Justice Conference

Last month, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship was proud to be a sponsor of the Climate & Environmental Justice Conference, held at Santa Clara University. Organized by the Environmental Justice and the Common Good Initiative in affiliation with the Association of the Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the conference’s goal centered around advancing community-university partnerships to promote climate and environmental justice.

I was invited to join a discussion panel alongside experts and academics in theology, sustainability, environmental science, climate policy, and communications from Santa Clara University as well as from Seattle University, USF, Stanford University, Loyola University Chicago and Catholic Charities — to sit down and address a very Jesuit-specific question:

“How can ‘We’ Implement Laudato Si’ Action Planning Across Universities?” 

As a representative of Miller Center, my goal was to share how our Center’s partnership with social entrepreneurs can help implement Pope Francis’ encyclical.

Oh the Irony

Full disclosure – when I was first invited to join this panel, my initial reaction was, well isn’t this ironic? Growing up in more of a spiritual than religion-based environment, I held some skepticism about Catholicism’s relevance in addressing today’s problems.

And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering: a) What the heck is an encyclical? and b) What is Laudato Si’ and what is its connection to social entrepreneurship?

An encyclical is a public letter from the Pope with the aim of developing Catholic teaching on a topic in relation to current events. Pope Francis’s 2nd encyclical ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home’ is a universal letter addressed to “every person living on this planet.” In this, Pope Francis emphasizes the need to care for the natural environment and all people and addresses the broader relationship between God, humans, and Earth. Hmm…This sounds more relevant than I’d expected.

Sitting down with Laudato Si’

Since Miller Center is a Center of Distinction within Santa Clara University, staff were all given a hard copy of Laudato Si’ at one point in time or another. My copy, admittedly, had gone missing after having lived in my desk drawer for some time. Fortunately, a trusty colleague still had his and lent it to me. So, in preparation for this panel, I finally sat down and read Pope Francis’ 160-page encyclical over the course of a few evenings and was impressed with the strong linkages he makes between global poverty and the role that social entrepreneurship can play in alleviating it.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis acknowledges that those living in poverty are the ones most affected by climate change. He calls for all of us — individuals, communities, businesses, and governments — to address the issue of climate change and the economic challenges our planet is facing. His action plans are rooted both in the Church’s teaching on the environment and ecology, and in significant climate protocols. Pope Francis emphasizes the interconnectedness of all living things, which is at the essence of what integral ecology is all about. Global challenges are inherently linked to human activities, behaviors, and relationships.

Coming from a sustainability science background myself, I also appreciated that the Pope referenced the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first major convenings to demand global collaboration in addressing climate change and was, for its time, unprecedented in stating that “human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development.” The 1992 Rio Earth Summit laid the groundwork for other international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement and for establishing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS).

Connecting Laudato Si’ to Miller Center: Putting the Practice into Real life

To take a step back, it is important to discuss the underpinning of social entrepreneurship and why Miller Center believes that business can be a driving force for positive impact. In other words, how do we arrive at social entrepreneurship as a solution to end global poverty?

The social enterprises that come to Miller Center and participate in our accelerator programs develop innovative and sustainable solutions that tackle some of our planet’s most critical environmental and social issues. Since 2003, we have worked with over 1,300 entrepreneurs whose primary mission is social justice and whose secondary priority is establishing an earned revenue model that enables economic self-sustainability. Miller Center is also intentional about supporting enterprises with a focus on climate resilience, women’s economic power, or the intersection of both. Specifically, within climate resilience, we accelerate enterprises who are addressing the needs of those living in poverty who suffer disproportionately from climate change. Their focus areas fall within the categories of safe water and sanitation, clean energy, and climate-smart agriculture.

These social enterprises not only promote climate justice, but do so in a way that elevates the dignity of the people they serve, enabling entire populations to become architects of their own future. And coming back to the notion of integral ecology, the social enterprises that Miller Center accompanies are quite literally disrupting the structures that allow poverty to exist and the earth to be degraded. These enterprises are creating solutions and new ecosystems that are decentralized, can scale at a pace that meets global demands, and shift the locus of power into the hands of the most vulnerable by creating economic opportunities.

Miller Center Social Enterprises

Recently, I traveled to Mexico and visited three social enterprises that are graduates of Miller Center programs. These enterprises are the embodiment of “business for good” as they have figured out a balanced way to pursue profits while also achieving social and environmental justice in the communities in which they operate. transforms animal waste into valuable resources by converting manure into biogas and biofertilizer. The biogas is used as an alternative energy source to charcoal and wood burning, and the biofertilizer is an organic alternative to traditional chemical fertilizers.

Someone Somewhere works with rural and indigenous artisans in the poorest states in Mexico. They bring local artisans’ products into the global marketplace. In 2022, Someone Somewhere became the first manufacturing company in Mexico to become Climate Neutral Certified.

Iluméxico is one of Mexico’s most innovative social enterprises. The company assembles, programs, and distributes solar solutions to last-mile communities — areas with the poorest of the poor, where people, places, and small enterprises are underserved and excluded, where the development needs are greatest, and where the resources are most scarce.

A Destination University for Implementing Laudato Si’

One of the great things about being housed on a Jesuit campus like Santa Clara University is that there are ample opportunities to learn about relevant and pressing issues like climate justice. But what sets Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship apart is that the social enterprises we accelerate are implementing game-changing solutions in marginalized communities around the world.

It is in this role that Miller Center provides a pathway for university students and faculty to engage directly with that work. The Miller Center Lewis Family Fellowship provides transformational opportunities for students to learn and work with social entrepreneurs on the front lines of poverty eradication globally. This summer, we are sending 16 students to work with 7 of our enterprise alumni whose collective impact spans 6 countries. Additionally, each fall Miller Center offers a call for research proposals to faculty interested in fellowship and grant funding as a way to contribute to social enterprise education at SCU. We are also excited to host our third Faculty Curriculum Development Workshop this June in which we hope to further introduce the field of social entrepreneurship, share resources for curriculum development, and lay the foundation for co-creating meaningful research projects across the university.

Combining our physical location in Silicon Valley, the most innovative and entrepreneurial place on earth, with the Jesuit heritage of social justice, community engagement, and global impact, makes Santa Clara University, through Miller Center, a destination university for implementing Laudato Si’ action plans to advance integral ecology and environmental justice. We believe that together — Miller Center, students, faculty, and social entrepreneurs — we can accelerate hope for a future without poverty. In the words of Pope Francis, “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”