High tech and faith in Silicon Valley are coming together to help eradicate poverty and improve the lives of millions.
The palm-fringed campus at Santa Clara University features buildings with red-tiled roofs, reminiscent of the mission that was founded there in 1777. Santa Clara is the oldest college in California, but that doesn’t mean it’s dated.
SCU, which has about 5,000 undergrads and 3,000 grad students, boasts an El Camino Real address, a Silicon Valley corridor that, a few miles north, is also home to Facebook, biotech giants, and high-tech venture capitalists. The intersection of old and new may explain why this Catholic university was years ahead in incubating high-tech businesses that have a social-justice mission to improve the lives of the poor around the world.
Before trendy incubators like Unreasonable Institute started fostering entrepreneurs with a social-good mission, Santa Clara’s Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Accelerator program was quietly incubating startups that provide affordable clean water in rural India or low-cost diabetes care to patients in Mexico where affordable options were scarce.
The program calls on alumni and neighbors as mentors—like Jeff Miller, former executive at Documentum, or Andy Paul, chief executive of Corsair, and execs from Netflix and Cisco. Thane Kreiner, executive director of SCU's Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS), credits the program’s early success to a unique blend of high-tech innovation, a tradition of “Ignation self-awareness” and a sense of one’s role in improving the world.
“We have two things going on,” says Kreiner. “A Silicon Valley ethos of taking ideas and getting them to scale, and Jesuit tradition of serving the poor.”
Tradition of social good
From the beginning, the Jesuit tradition within the Catholic Church has had an emphasis on serving the poor. Due to a strong belief that human dignity is inherent in every person, Jesuits have historically been champions of freedom for the enslaved, exploited, and those who suffer social injustice. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope.
Jesuits are also known for freethinking and education—Georgetown, Loyola, and Boston College are all Jesuit schools. Keith Warner O.F.M. is a Franciscan friar and director of research and education at CSTS. He says that Jesuit education “has a strong emphasis on ethics and trying to help people internalize ethics in their personal lives.”
The focus on using one’s talents well and a responsibility toward others is a natural fit for social entrepreneurship, says Warner: “It’s Jesuit ethics combined with Silicon Valley acumen to address the needs of the global poor,” he said.
Kathryn Hackett ’15, a senior majoring in political science, spent seven weeks last summer in India with Anudip, a GSBI company that trains young workers, mostly between the ages of 18 and 24, in entry-level tech jobs, primarily data entry.
They target smaller communities where job opportunities are scarce compared to big cities, including a number of conservative Muslim women for whom they have all-women call centers that allow them to have sustainable work without interfering with religious statutes.
Hackett was drawn to social enterprise in particular because some humanitarian opportunities feel hollow or even do more harm than good. She did two weekend trips to orphanages in Mexico, for example, that left her wondering if her involvement was taking jobs from locals, and she had a nagging sense that having foreigners drop in for a weekend wasn’t meaningful help: “That’s not really what orphanages need,” she says.
By contrast, her work with Anudip educated people with valuable skills, found them jobs, and helped them advance into the middle class. Hackett says that her interest in this kind of work has also been informed by her faith.
GSBI was founded in 2003 on a notion that nonprofits and charities are good at meeting needs, but often not on a scale that generates significant impact. Would it be possible to apply the Silicon Valley DNA of building businesses toward serving the poor?
Since its inception 11 years ago, GSBI has worked with over 300 entrepreneurs and 90 percent are still in business. The program has raised $96 million in impact funding—much of it from Silicon Valley venture connections—and has impacted an estimated 107 million lives.
Set to scale
The GSBI Accelerator is a 10-month program that pairs social enterprises with savvy executives to help them grow and reach more people. After months of online work with GSBI staff and mentors, the cohort comes to the Santa Clara campus for nine days of intensive training and an “Investor Showcase” in which they present their ideas to impact investors and social good heavies like the Skoll Foundation—started by former eBay President Jeff Skoll—which has raised millions for social entrepreneurship.
This past year’s class includes a Peruvian company that trains unskilled workers in data services, a renewable solar energy company in China, and a mobile platform for farmers in Ghana. Unlike other incubators that focus on leadership potential and ideas, GSBI focuses on enterprises that are past the ideation phase and ready to be groomed for significant investment.
“We are business-model centric,” says Kreiner, who spent 17 years as an entrepreneur and started and ran several biotech companies in Silicon Valley. “Most of us come from the business world and started and ran companies, so we know what we’re talking about.”
At the end of the program, startups have to be ready to give a 10-minute pitch and have documentation and financial statements to convince savvy Silicon Valley investors that they’ve done their due diligence.
Social enterprises need all the help they can get, says Kreiner, because being a social entrepreneur is even harder than regular startup work because they’re dealing with broken systems and, often, in developing countries, lack of infrastructure.
The undergrad experience
The other thing that sets apart the GSBI Accelerator is that it gives undergrads the opportunity to be involved in the form of fellowships, in which undergraduate students are chosen through a selective process to travel abroad and work with GSBI social enterprises.
Catherine Rose Grimes ’15, a senior at SCU majoring in sociology and minoring in religious studies, spent seven weeks in the Philippines working with Rags2Riches, a GSBI fellow enterprise in Manila that makes fashion bags and accessories out of upcycled discarded materials and helps raise Filipino artisans out of poverty.
As part of her work with Rags2Riches, Grimes put together surveys about how artisan women were using the money they earned making bags for R2R and helped create a mobile app to capture and store that information.
Women were using the money to buy clean drinking water pumps or water lines for their families, get electricity for their homes, or expand their homes or cover dirt floors. “It was satisfying to see lives change,” she says, “not just for themselves, but for their families.”
She credits her Catholic upbringing with her interest in social enterprise.
“It’s affecting the employees of the company and caring about their human dignity and worth,” she says. “Finding ways to promote and sustain those values is important to me.”
The word vocation is used a lot in Jesuit Catholic education, says Brother Keith Warner, not just to describe a job or knowledge acquisition, but also finding one’s calling and “exerting a moral claim to one’s life activities.” The GSBI mission dovetails nicely with that philosophy. Hackett says she was also influenced by her faith.
“I was raised by social-justice-minded Catholic parents and was always told that God is in all people and we must be aware of what’s going on with people on the other side of the world,” she says.
“I was taught that I was not a citizen of a nation but of a human population, and there is an ethical responsibility for all of us to work toward equality.”
Grimes plans to apply to social entrepreneurship grad programs in the spring and Hackett would like to work in sustainable development work, perhaps working with something like the Peace Corps. Although neither has plans to work in high-tech Silicon Valley, neither sees a conflict of interest with Silicon Valley culture and their own social justice goals.
On the contrary, they see continued opportunities for overlap between the worlds of high-tech innovation and development work. Unlike Wall Street, which is known for seeking the bottom line, Silicon Valley can be much more socially minded, says Grimes.
Even the late Steve Jobs, who could be a ruthless businessman and entrepreneur, wasn’t just interested in lucrative transactions; he was interested in ideas and devices that would change people’s lives.
“Innovation and problem solving have always been part of Silicon Valley culture,” she says. “How else are you going to change the world?”