Little did I anticipate when my trusted colleague and dear friend Pamela Roussos authored a blog last month about Miller Center’s strategic partnership with Innovation Works that Baltimore would become front-page news. 

Sadly, as is too often the case these days, the news was not about the good work of social enterprises solving problems in their neighborhoods. Instead, the news was about racist comments from the highest office in the land, left uncontested by other leaders whose states and districts suffer from dire poverty. By numbers alone, the number of poor white people in Kentucky is approximately the same as the entire population of Baltimore. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 million Americans lived in poverty in 2017, more than the entire population of Canada, Afghanistan, or Ghana. Kentucky has one of the highest poverty rates at 17.2%, exceeded by West Virginia at 19.1% and Mississippi at 19.8%. 

The racial and gender disparities in race are profound – 12.4% for whites, 23.4% for Hispanics, 26.2% for Blacks, and 27.6% for Native Americans.  While these rates vary state-to-state, the systemic differences are the same: there is injustice in our social structures nationally and locally. As my long-time friend Dennis often says, “Facts are stubborn things,” even in an era while lying and name-calling are routine. 

Words are easy, though. As St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus said, “Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than words.” That’s why Miller Center partnered with Catholic Charities USA, with its mission “to provide service to people in need, to advocate for justice in social structures, and to call the entire church and other people of good will to do the same.” 

For 16 years, Miller Center has accelerated social enterprises that serve the poor and protect the planet in over 100 countries in the developing world; these social enterprises have collectively improved, transformed, or saved the lives of over 400 million people living in poverty – greater than the entire population of the U.S.

Our Pathways out of Poverty US accelerator program in collaboration with Catholic Charities is designed to help social enterprises that serve the poor and other vulnerable populations increase their impact and transform lives. Like all of our GSBI® Accelerator programs, it features accompaniment through a structured curriculum by Silicon Valley executive mentors who serve as trusted advisors and who help tailor the 6-month experience to the specific needs of each enterprise. 

In their landmark book Getting Beyond Better, Sally Osberg and Roger Martin differentiate social entrepreneurship from social activism and social services. Social entrepreneurship disrupts unjust social equilibria, often creating systemic change while directly engaging those who suffer injustices. In contrast, social services organizations work to alleviate suffering, but operate within existing systems, however unjust; and social activism seeks to create systemic change but does so indirectly through advocacy.

A prerequisite of authentic human development is agency, the notion that individuals and communities can be architects of their own futures. In our partnerships with Catholic Charities and with congregations of religious women in East and Central Africa, we’re discovering whether traditional nonprofit social services organizations can embrace entrepreneurial principles to become more sustainable, scale their impact, and authentically engage those afflicted by injustices. Early results are encouraging, and offer hope in a time of harsh words and incivility.  

Rather than a war of words, it’s time for action to catalyze social justice in the United States. If you are a leader of an operational social enterprise that provides products or services to poor, underserved, or other vulnerable communities in the US or know someone who is, applications are open until August 30 for our Pathways Out of Poverty Program. 


About the Author

Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Howard & Alida Charney University Professor at Santa Clara University.

Before joining Miller Center in 2010, Thane was Founder, President, and CEO of Second Genome and Presage Biosciences, Inc. and President and CEO of iPierian. Thane spent 14 years at Affymetrix, Inc., the DNA chip industry pioneer. Thane earned his PhD in Neurosciences and his MBA from Stanford University.

His memoir on science and spirituality Composition of Life was recently published. Thane is an avid SCUBA diver, swimmer, yoga practitioner, and gardener.