The Jesuit business network fighting poverty in Africa and beyond

Something clicked when Anya Cherneff arrived in Nepal.

A graduate of the University of Denver and Columbia University, with a passion for human rights, Ms. Cherneff went to the Himalayas to learn about a successful microfinance initiative. On a deeper level, she was looking to fuse the causes that most animated her: helping women around the world achieve economic freedom and fighting human trafficking and prostitution. Through her husband’s work in clean energy, she had a sense that access to jobs in the renewable energy sector might offer a solution on both fronts. In a country characterized by 18-hour electricity blackouts and rampant human trafficking and sex industries, Nepal was an ideal place to test this theory.

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Sita Adhikari, the Nepalese woman who ran the microfinance program, immediately impressed her guest.

“This woman is really incredible,” says Ms. Cherneff. “She would be a high-powered executive if she was back in the States.”

The Miller Center at Santa Clara is just one institution in a broader Jesuit network looking to make a positive social impact.

Like Ms. Cherneff, Ms. Adhikari had grander ambitions.

“She said, ‘Yes, I’ve created this big microfinance program, and it’s very successful,’” Ms. Cherneff remembers. “‘But my real dream is to start my own company. I want to employ at least a hundred women.’ I was like, ‘Funny you say that, because I want to do that, too. Let’s figure it out together.’”

The result was Empower Generation, a nonprofit that trains Nepalese women to create businesses selling solar lanterns and other clean energy products in the plains region of their country. The hope is that these jobs will make women less vulnerable to trafficking and work in the sex industries. According to Empower Generation, the organization has helped found 20 women-led businesses, including Ms. Adhikari’s 300-employee enterprise, and has distributed more than 56,000 solar lamps and other clean energy products to more than 280,000 people.

Groups like Empower Generation must compete with other nongovernmental organizations for funding, seeking money in a field with finite resources. Success requires a firm grasp of the business skills Ms. Adhikari and Ms. Cherneff strive to instill in women throughout Nepal.

Aware of this difficult environment, one of Empower Generation’s board members encouraged Ms. Cherneff to apply for fellowships that would help her increase her impact. It was thus that she discovered the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurship involves “applying entrepreneurial and business principles to serve the poor and protect the planet.”

Located on the campus of Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, Miller Center was founded in 1997 as the Center for Science, Technology, and Society by Paul Locatelli, S.J., the Jesuit university’s late former president. The words at the heart of the center’s updated name—social entrepreneurship—might sound like another buzz term, coming from the always buzzing Silicon Valley. But if the jargon is unclear, the idea is simple. Social entrepreneurship involves “applying entrepreneurial and business principles to serve the poor and protect the planet,” says Thane Kreiner, who has served as the center’s director since 2010.

An emphasis on ethical business practices is increasingly common in boardrooms, with 64 percent of chief executives in a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers saying corporate social responsibility is core to their business. Social entrepreneurship takes this instinct a step further. To earn their stripes as social entrepreneurs, business people must work with—not just for—poor communities. As Miller Center’s website explains, while charity is giving someone a fish to feed them for a day and education is teaching them to fish to feed them for a lifetime, social entrepreneurship means empowering someone to run a fishing business and permanently feed their village.

Though the concepts behind it are not novel, the moniker “social entrepreneurship” is still a relatively recent development, with contemporary leaders in business and politics touting the field’s merits. Enthusiasts see its tenets in the work of Bill and Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg and Elon Musk. Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance at Grameen Bank, is seen by some as a godfather of social entrepreneurship. The former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a social entrepreneurship competition in 2014, and in his final year in office, President Barack Obama hosted a Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University.

Laxmi Neupane, CEO of Manakamana Saurya Urjah, gives a cooking demonstration with a clean cookstove, a new product women in Empower Generation’s distribution network are selling. (Courtesy of Empower Generation)
Laxmi Neupane, CEO of Manakamana Saurya Urjah, gives a cooking demonstration with a clean cookstove, a new product women in Empower Generation’s distribution network are selling. (Courtesy of Empower Generation)

Given their reputation for finding God in even the most temporal settings, it is not surprising that the Jesuits would carve out their own niche in the world of business and social entrepreneurship. Miller Center is just one institution in a broader network of 25 Jesuit business schools and other establishments that work with both nonprofits and for-profit organizations looking to make a positive social impact. Alex Counts, who studied under Mr. Yunus and founded and served as president and chief executive of the Grameen Foundation, says this network’s efforts are a valuable contribution to the field.

“It is impressive,” says Mr. Counts, “as an excellent example of social entrepreneurship and micro-franchise as an economic empowerment strategy.”

Nathan Schneider, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder whose research interests include cooperatives and philanthropy, says Catholics can leave their mark on social entrepreneurship by prioritizing who is in charge of the social enterprises they support.

“Catholic social teaching has the potential to sharpen and hone the tremendous vagueness that is the contemporary discourse on social enterprise,” he says. “We have been doing it a lot longer than the present vogue. As Catholics participate, we should do so not by merely imitating what others are doing but by drawing on our long and remarkable tradition of instigating businesses that serve the marginalized by putting the marginalized in control.”

In Mr. Kreiner’s view, social entrepreneurship is intrinsic to the Jesuit charism.

“When you think about the establishment of a free system of higher education in Europe back in the 16th century, we would call that social entrepreneurship today,” he says. “In some ways, we’re coming back to the roots of the Jesuit order by working with social entrepreneurs.”

Phil Cooke, S.J., visits social enterprises in the Philippines, where he led GSBI Boosts with Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. (Courtesy of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship)
Phil Cooke, S.J., visits social enterprises in the Philippines, where he led GSBI Boosts with Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. (Courtesy of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship)

Not everyone sees the Jesuits’ involvement in social entrepreneurship in a positive light. Both Phil Cooke, S.J., who runs the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Detroit Mercy, and Nicky Santos, S.J., who co-directs Marquette University’s Social Innovation Initiative, say they have faced skepticism from Catholics who worry that social entrepreneurship’s focus on profit, financial viability and best business practices masks a pursuit of unfettered capitalism. Having taken vows of poverty and sharing the Catholic Church’s complex view of capitalism, Fathers Cooke and Santos are sensitive to these critiques.

“I am not a proponent of unbridled capitalism,” says Father Cooke. “I used to shoot it down, too. But social entrepreneurship really is about sharing. I want poor people to have capital so they can have choices.”

“Social entrepreneurship is really a democratization of capitalism,” says Father Santos. “It’s having local people take agency. It’s much more in line with recognizing human dignity. We want to be critical of business, but we want to reap the benefits of business.”

Other critics take issue with the name of the field itself, seeing “social entrepreneurship” as little more than a fashionable identification that, like “thought leader” or “synergy,” does not actually mean much of anything.

Miller Center points to its 20-year track record of delivering results as proof that their work is more than a passing fad.

Miller Center points to its 20-year track record of delivering results as proof that their work is more than a passing fad. The organization has provided business training to 570 enterprises in 65 countries, mostly through its Global Social Benefit Institute, which runs programs from three-day trainings to a 10-month curriculum.

All of their programs connect aspiring entrepreneurs with Silicon Valley-based executive mentors. These mentors help their trainees develop business plans, identify key performance indicators and complete other necessary tasks. They also fill a function Mr. Counts sees as critical to social entrepreneurship: presenting a model for operating a thriving business.

“I think about the G.S.B.I. curriculum as kind of the ‘Spiritual Exercises of Silicon Valley,’” says Mr. Kreiner. “The mentors meet with the social entrepreneur to review progress and help answer questions. Just like Jesuit spiritual directors, the work is really personalized and tailored to the need of the particular entrepreneur.”

This mentor-mentee relationship is used at other sites in the Jesuit network. David Silver is a young entrepreneur who found guidance through U.D.M.’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Growing up in New York City’s suburbs, Mr. Silver spent his youth as a competitive horseback rider. For him, riding was more than a sport; the countless hours he spent caring for horses laid the groundwork for the person he would become.

“Confidence, perseverance, empathy, self-control ... [are] traits that research says are important for success in school and in life,” he explains. “And reflecting on my own formative years and how I developed those traits, horses were consistently the answer.”

After graduating from Dartmouth University, Mr. Silver moved to Detroit in 2012 to work at an elementary and middle school with Teach for America. He saw in his fourth- and fifth-grade students a hunger for the social and emotional depth horseback riding had given him. When he finished teaching in 2014, he founded Detroit Horse Power, a nonprofit that teaches students the same horse care and riding skills Mr. Silver learned as an adolescent.

David Silver (far right), with Detroit Horse Power campers (Courtesy of Detroit Horse Power)
David Silver (far right), with Detroit Horse Power campers (Courtesy of Detroit Horse Power)

The camp, located roughly 40 minutes northwest of Detroit, provides lessons, transportation and meals. In its first year, Detroit Horse Power provided two weeks of camp for 18 children. The following year, the organization grew to six weeks of camp for more than 80 students. By 2017, eight community partners—including the school where Mr. Silver once taught—each supported a week of camp that collectively served more than 100 students.

Mr. Silver’s initial vision quickly met the realities of building and funding a new organization. Like Ms. Cherneff, he addressed these challenges by seeking business coaching. At a meeting with an entrepreneurial support organization called the Build Institute, he had a chance encounter with Father Cooke, who had recently moved to Detroit to open U.D.M.’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. That led to an invitation to take part in an intensive class at the center.

“We got a lot out of that, from the materials presented, the mentorship, advice, tailored resources, counsel that aligned to the needs we were facing and network of peer organizations going through their own challenges,” he says.

Because Mr. Silver’s long-term goals are to open an urban equestrian center on repurposed vacant land and offer year-round programs for students, he was paired with a mentor who specialized in real estate development.

“We engaged in market research and analysis on potential customers for horse boarding services,” says Mr. Silver. “Those opportunities to really take a deep dive into the business planning, financials and customer discovery were very helpful.”

Attending a business crash course may have been uncharted terrain for Mr. Silver, but running one was just as unusual for Father Cooke. The Jesuit priest’s vocation was shaped working with the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and marginalized populations in Guatemala and Chicago. He initially encountered Miller Center in 2014 while studying theology in Berkeley. Given his background and own misgivings about capitalism, he initially found the notion of working in business “crazy.” Nonetheless, he saw in Miller Center the potential to further the cause of social justice. So Father Cooke arranged a meeting with Mr. Kreiner to see how they might work together.

“Here was a Jesuit who had worked on Indian reservations in South Dakota, coming to talk with me about entrepreneurship, but he had no entrepreneurial background at all,” Mr. Kreiner remembers. “What happened in our first conversation...it was kind of serendipitous. Coming from such different perspectives—I’m trained as a scientist and business leader; Phil is a Jesuit—we converged on these really common ideas and visions about how social entrepreneurship could manifest Jesuit ideals.”

“What I love about social entrepreneurship,” says Father Cooke, “[is that] we don’t get the best out of the poor; we get them to get the best out of themselves.”

Father Cooke became Miller Center’s first Jesuit in-residence, wrote his thesis based on the methodologies he was learning in Silicon Valley and ran programs for Miller Center in the Philippines and Guatemala before opening the center at U.D.M.. He welcomed his fourth cohort of entrepreneurs in November and in the summer of 2016 joined representatives from six other Jesuit universities at Marquette for the Midwest Jesuit Collaborative on Social Innovation. (Since then, he has moved on to parish ministry in Detroit, though he continues to work with the Miller Center.) At Marquette, Father Cooke and his peers shared the ways they were fashioning social entrepreneurship methodologies in each of their settings.

“We thought that this is better than charity-based models,” says Father Santos. “In terms of dignity, it’s empowering these people.”

Father Santos, a marketing professor with a more traditional business background than Father Cooke’s, was also at the 2016 gathering. Several years ago, he and another marketing professor, Gene Laczniak, created what they call the integrative justice model, a Magna Carta of sorts that gives social entrepreneurs a framework for working with low-income populations. Concentrating on some of the themes Mr. Schneider highlighted, the integrative justice model calls for non-exploitative collaboration that emphasizes long-term sustainability and respect for the environment and all involved parties. “We thought that this is better than charity-based models,” says Father Santos. “In terms of dignity, it’s empowering these people.”

Though Father Santos takes a more academic approach to social entrepreneurship, he and Kelsey Otero, the Social Innovation Initiative’s associate director, have also run on-the-ground entrepreneurial support initiatives. These include the Good Money Challenge, which provides seed funding for entrepreneurs addressing social and environmental issues.

Melissa Tashjian participated in both programs with Compost Crusader, a three-person company that offers corporate and individual waste collection services and diverts that waste to become compost. When Ms. Tashjian founded Compost Crusader in 2014, she faced hurdles like those Ms. Cherneff and Mr. Silver confronted. That year, she won $7,000 through the Good Money Challenge, which began a relationship with Marquette University that helped her put together a business plan and organize her company’s financial documents.

In 2015, she participated in a program sponsored by Miller Center and later worked with Marquette’s Volunteer Legal Clinic, a pro bono legal consultation service run by Marquette law students and volunteer attorneys. Partnering with the legal clinic and the Social Innovation Initiative helped Ms. Tashjian to obtain a copyright for her business’s name and draft contracts to service 30 Harley Davidson facilities and the City of Milwaukee in a compost pilot program for 500 residents. Since then, Compost Crusader has been hired to service Marquette’s dining halls and the U.S. Open, in addition to consulting at Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival.

“I didn’t create the business to become rich,” she says. “I legitimately felt that I could help satisfy this need within the community.” 

Ms. Tashjian sees Compost Crusader’s pursuit of financial sustainability and long-term profit management less in terms of making money for its own sake and more as a means to creating a thriving organization that serves others on an ongoing basis.

“I didn’t create the business to become rich,” she says. “I legitimately felt that I could help satisfy this need within the community. I was sick of being part of the problem and wanted to be more part of the solution.”

In recent years, Miller Center’s initiatives have homed in on climate change and, through a partnership with General Electric’s Healthymagination program, global health care for women and children. Meanwhile, Ms. Cherneff is bringing Empower Generation to Myanmar, and Mr. Silver still hopes to open a year-round urban equestrian center. Ms. Tashjian wants to one day sell Compost Crusader to an individual or organization who shares her company’s values.

When she speaks about her work, Ms. Cherneff often thinks of one woman in particular—a Nepalese widow named Runa.

In Nepal, widows are viewed with suspicion that they might steal other women’s husbands. As a result, the death of Runa’s husband made her an outcast, reducing her to earning less than a dollar a day making handicrafts. With Empower Generation’s assistance, she built a solar lantern business that gave her enough money to support her three children.

“She puts it in the simplest way,” says Ms. Cherneff, citing a quote from Runa: “‘Women in Nepal are like shadows in the night, just flickering around the corners, and nobody can ever really see them. This job has allowed me to not only turn the lights on for my customers but to shine the light on me as a person in my community. I’m not a shadow anymore. People see me. They respect me. They say hello to me. They acknowledge my presence.’”

The Jesuits’ social entrepreneurship network and the businesspeople they train hope to shine this light on more people and in more places, evangelizing others to social entrepreneurship’s power to bring the poor out of the shadows.

“A misconception is you have to be an entrepreneur or a businessperson,” says Father Cooke. “You don’t. Really, all you need is desire. It’s a methodology. That’s it. It’s not an answer or an end in and of itself. But I believe it can get you to furthering the Kingdom.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

Here's a thought -- work to "bend the branch" in social organization -- if the Jesuiticaly oriented volunteers can instill the respect for other's possessions, and a respect for a system of laws (daresay modeled on the UK) business and wealth will flourish. Nigerians consume about 2,000 calories per day in what could be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

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