Center stage

Introducing the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship—fueled by a $25 million gift by Jeff Miller ’73, MBA ’76 and Karen Miller.

Center stage
Photo of Village Energy by Victoria Yundt, a 2013 Global Social Benefit Fellow

Introducing the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship—fueled by a $25 million gift by Jeff Miller ’73, MBA ’76 and Karen Miller.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jeff Miller ’73, MBA ’76—together with his philanthropic partner and wife, Karen—have witnessed first-hand how social entrepreneurship uniquely addresses the needs of the global poor. With ideas and imagination, fueled by hard work and steered by a solid plan, something simple—like a device that provides clean water—can create transformative change. The Millers are firm believers in what Santa Clara has accomplished in this territory. Which is why they have given $25 million to advance SCU’s efforts in social entrepreneurship around the world. It’s a landmark donation that names the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. It also supports Santa Clara’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics initiative, helping to fund a future, state-of-the-art STEM complex that will house the Miller Center.

The big news was announced on April 30 at the annual Magis dinner in the Mission Gardens. The donation builds on nearly two decades of work by one of SCU’s Centers of Distinction, the Center for Science, Technology, and Society. This gift will boost the newly-named Miller Center’s work toward the audacious goal of positively affecting the lives of 1 billion people by 2020—helping to lift them out of poverty and creating opportunities in the global marketplace.

The Miller Center focuses on three main areas: training and mentoring global social entrepreneurs; creating new ways to unlock funding for social entrepreneurs (“impact investing”); and engaging faculty and student fellows who provide value-added research to social entrepreneurs worldwide.

SCU’s Assistant Director of Media Relations Deborah Lohse recently talked with Jeff Miller. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Lohse: You’ve been connected with SCU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS), now the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, for some time. How did you reach the decision to make your gift?

Miller: The aha moment was recognizing that the university has a strategy and a plan to dramatically expand its focus on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, as well as business, and the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is right in the middle of that, which is perfect because that’s right where it should be. And to some extent, it represents the culmination of work that’s been going on since CSTS was founded.

Having seen how CSTS operates now for a dozen years or so, and being intimately involved in terms of running it and being on the advisory board, I know how it works from a budgeting standpoint. So I know the money will be used efficiently and effectively. The stated mission of CSTS was the business of CSTS and guided their actions—they’re all in alignment.

And I’ve seen the impact CSTS has had, both statistically and on the ground. I mean literally—I’ve been there and seen people that have benefited from the entrepreneurs CSTS trained.

Lohse: This is a foundational gift. Why do you think other people are going to want to invest in the same way?

Jeff and Karen Miller. Photo courtesy Miller Center
Miller: The goal we have of impacting a billion people by 2020 is a little controversial because, well, what does impacting them really mean? And social impact is very hard to measure.

Having said that, we know we’ve already positively impacted probably over a hundred million people, so we’re on the way to reaching that. To me, that is the kind of inspirational and aspirational goal that people can get behind. And when they hear what we’re able to do for female entrepreneurs, like Solar Sisters in Uganda, or helping cure tuberculosis in villages, or removing mines so farmland can be returned to farmers who can make a living off the land, there is a realization of how much can be done to change people’s lives. That’s the way you make progress in society.

Lohse: Can you give me a specific example?

Miller: We were on a pioneering trip to Cambodia, checking out the area and meeting with social entrepreneurs who had been trained by SCU’s Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI). A couple had been through the residence program but most of them had been through the online program, which is a newer offering the Miller Center has.

So we chatted with them and asked what they liked about the program. One of the guys, who was a really unique individual, was producing rain storage units—there is a very specific rainy season and dry season so he makes spheres with a simple but effective sand filtration system that stores and purifies rain water.

And he said, “I had no business background at all.”

So through the online program, he was able to learn Business 101, and he said some things were above his head but he was able to go back, work with his mentor, and learn them and get a grasp of the fundamentals of business—how to do an income statement, how to manage expenses, and all that. He had no experience, so this was the first bit of formal training he’d received and it really made a difference for his business.

Lohse: What would you say is the value proposition of the Miller Center?

Miller: We are arguably the best training facility for social entrepreneurs, I’d like to think, in the world. What makes us the best are our mentors. The secret sauce of the program, what makes us unique, is the quality of mentors we have here in Silicon Valley.

It’s frankly challenging. It is difficult for others to replicate, but it makes it challenging for us when we try to implement it in other parts of the world. We’re doing some work with a Jesuit university in the Philippines, but there’s no environment like Silicon Valley. So we have to figure out how to leverage what we have, and I think we’ve done a great job. In the beginning we had a dozen mentors—I think we’re now up to 70 or 80.

Lohse: How would you assess the impact the Miller Center has had?

Miller: It’s a soft science, admittedly. This is not measuring, you know, shooting percentages in the NBA. This is a lot softer, but a combination of hard statistics and stories from the entrepreneurs, many of which are captured on our website or in publications, show us that we’ve made a huge difference.

Some of our alumni have completely changed their business plan, and that’s hard to do. Some of them were originally nonprofits—profit was literally a dirty word. We started talking more about surplus than profit, to help them get to a point where they could reinvest in their business and grow it. That’s the only way to becoming self-sustainable.

That concept, simple as it seems, was new to many of them, and it opened their minds and changed their thinking and many of them have done a really great job at it.

We’ve kind of let the entrepreneurs come to us and let the markets be a result, not a driver. We have found several product markets. Clean energy is a huge one, clean water as well, and especially programs that directly and indirectly impact women. Some are for educating women, some are aimed at female entrepreneurs, some of them are aimed at easing the burden of women as consumers, like clean cookstoves.

Lohse: So the initial impact continues to grow.

Miller: Exactly. I see a lot of entrepreneurs thinking too wide, they’re not focused enough. I’d say we help them focus on really understanding their main business. Where can you make the biggest impact? Where are you most fundable? What makes you a better business? If I had to pick one thing that might be the biggest change we can make in our entrepreneurs, it is focusing them in on their own key aspects so they can see how to sustain their business before trying to grow it. It’s the same challenges a Silicon Valley company has—get really good at what you do, and then expand.

Lohse: How do the Jesuit underpinnings of the program, through the University, fit in?

Miller: That’s an interesting question. I have a hard time separating the Center from the Jesuit aspect of Santa Clara because they’re part and parcel.

If you look at SCU’s three centers, they were originally created by Fr. Locatelli to help develop a more interdisciplinary way of working and to help develop a more outward-looking approach—to not just serve the Santa Clara community on campus, but to take the Jesuit aspect of Santa Clara externally and serve other parts of the world.

The Miller Center was founded out of the School of Business, it works with Law, and it clearly works with Engineering. It’s worked with Philosophy. It’s worked with a lot of different disciplines and that has been great. And our primary areas are located globally, the areas where we make an impact.

So what makes us unique? Our location in Silicon Valley and our cornerstones of innovation and entrepreneurship, coupled with the Jesuit values of creating a more just, humane, and sustainable world. Those two things, put together like this, couldn’t exist anywhere else. It’s part of our DNA and you can’t fake DNA.

So I literally can’t imagine the Miller Center operating and being what it is anywhere else than at Santa Clara University, which is also why we have a responsibility and an obligation to take advantage of that. It would be shameful to miss an opportunity to have a major impact on the world.

More than anything, Karen and I are hoping our gift will make people stand up and notice and say, “Why did he do this? Why is this important?” And then get interested. I think this is a really efficient and effective way to give back.

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