04/09/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Jesuit Social Entrepreneurship

To the extent that I was raised, it was pretty much without religion in the institutional sense. So one might accurately call it a leap of faith when I came to Santa Clara University to lead the Center for Science, Technology, and Society in late 2010. The Center's signature Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), now in its 10th year, helps field-based social entrepreneurs build sustainable, scalable businesses that serve the poor. Santa Clara University is a Jesuit university in the heart of Silicon Valley; I like to say that Santa Clara is the heart of Silicon Valley, literally and metaphorically.

This season affords a timely opportunity to note that the Jesuits represent an early generation of social entrepreneurs, who are indeed field-based. Loaded on my Kindle during the Center's recent Social Benefit Immersion trip to India was Chris Lowney's Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World. Lowney articulates four unique values of the Jesuits that created what he calls "leadership substance": self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. In my estimation, his elaboration of heroism as "heroic ambition" seems more apt of the Jesuits I've met. And Lowney reminds us that the priority of Jesuits is "fully engaged fieldwork" to "help souls."

Heroic ambition is essentially the unreasonableness Elkington and Hartigan describe as a core characteristic of many wonderful social entrepreneurs they portray in The Power of Unreasonable People, one (of many; apologies to my students for the heavy work load, but trust me: It's great stuff) texts for the Global Social Benefit Fellows introductory course. It's the belief that one not only can -- but must -- change the world for the better, however unreasonable that vision might seem to others.

Ingenuity reflects the innovative nature of social entrepreneurs, and of course of Silicon Valley. Ingenuity, as Lowney relates, enabled the Jesuits to open thirty colleges around the world in the sixteenth century -- the world's first network of institutions of higher learning -- with no prior experience. Education is currently one of the hottest areas in social entrepreneurship: education that pays for itself, women's education, universal childhood education, adult education.

Self-awareness is necessary to learn from the many failures any entrepreneur must endure to learn the way forward. And social entrepreneurs often face more failures than other entrepreneurs. The bulk of the world's poor live in communities where limited infrastructure, markets, and governance increase the complexity and risks of delivering goods and services. Self-awareness embodies the intense self-motivation of social entrepreneurs -- and Jesuits.

So we are left with love. "Love ought to manifest itself more by deeds than by words," said St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, in 1540. In the Spring, 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review Roger Martin and Sally Osberg define entrepreneurs by their direct action, in addition to attributes such as courage, fortitude, and creativity. Social entrepreneurs are distinguished by the "primacy of social benefit," or the value proposition: large-scale, transformational change. The social entrepreneur "releases trapped potential or alleviates the suffering" of fellow humans.

Our mission at the Center is to help more social entrepreneurs help more people. Last year, we launched a GSBI Network among the network of Jesuit institutions of higher learning around the world -- all with a common mission to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world.

At the Skoll World Forum, Hans Rosling eloquently explained how the global population inevitably will grow to 10 billion with a constant 2 billion children on the planet. With most of the growth taking place in currently poor regions, the world clearly needs quamplurimi et quam aptissimi (as many as possible of the very best) social entrepreneurs.