Social Entrepreneurship

Not Just Business as Usual
By Brian Harper 

Father Phil Cooke, SJ, never imagined he would run the University of Detroit Mercy’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

“Had you told me I would work in technology and business,” he says, “I would have thought you were crazy.”

Yet social entrepreneurship, a bold new frontier that uses business practices to address social issues, is the avenue through which Fr. Cooke is responding to a question that has burned within him most of his life: How do we best work with, not simply for, the poor?


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Fr. Phil Cooke, SJ
Courtesy of Bill Scull and Miller Center

This question led Fr. Cooke to accompany marginalized populations in Guatemala and Chicago, as well as the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. These experiences brought him into contact with both material and “psychological poverty.”

“It’s a poverty of deprivation,” he says. “It denies people their dignity.”

Still reflecting on how to break cycles of dependency and help the poor “get the best out of themselves,” Fr. Cooke went to Berkeley, Calif., in 2012 to pursue a Licentiate of Sacred Theology. In California, he discovered Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship and, in 2014, moved to Silicon Valley to begin a fellowship with the organization.

Located on Santa Clara University’s campus, Miller Center was founded in 1998. The organization has a range of initiatives, including the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Boost. GSBI Boosts train entrepreneurs in the “blueprint stage” of developing an idea to serve the greater social good, says Pat Haines, Miller Center’s senior director of marketing.

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“For three intense days, we go on location and help social entrepreneurs understand marketing, financing, business models, and impact models, and how they can take that idea and move it forward,” says Haines.

Through Miller Center, Fr. Cooke met Raul Diaz, a Central American entrepreneur living amidst tobacco factories in Estelí, Nicaragua. Determined to teach youth to sustain themselves with healthy products, Diaz and Fr. Cooke led 12 social ventures through a GSBI Boost in Nicaragua.

Haines saw how Fr. Cooke was affected by this GSBI Boost and another on Culion, a Philippine island where leprosy was eradicated only 10 years ago.

“I think it was a profound experience for him,” she says. “Social entrepreneurship really was the vehicle that allowed him to put the Jesuit philosophy of serving the poor in action.”

Another Jesuit involved in social entrepreneurship is Fr. Nicky Santos, SJ, a marketing professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. A native of Pune, India, Fr. Santos co-directs Marquette’s social innovation initiative with Dr. Jeanne Hossenlopp, vice president for research and innovation. He teamed with Dr. Gene Laczniak, the Sanders Emeritus Professor of Marketing at Marquette, to develop the Integrative Justice Model (IJM), a normative ethical framework that presents five ethical guidelines for engagement with low-income populations.

“We thought it would be timely to develop an ethical framework that could give guidance to companies that wanted to engage low-income markets in a way that was fair, ethical, and a win-win for both,” says Fr. Santos.

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Fr. Nicky Santos, SJ, presides at Marquette University’s Tuesday night Mass each week at Saint Joan of Arc Chapel. (Courtesy of Marquette University) 


“Many people think capitalism is bad, business is bad, because it equals greed,” he explains. “That’s just not the case. We want to reap the benefits of business. Social entrepreneurship is really a democratization of capitalism. It’s having local people take agency.”

“Social entrepreneurship is really about sharing,” adds Fr. Cooke. “I want poor people to have capital so they can have choices.”

Father Santos has already seen examples of companies adopting social entrepreneurship practices, including the Dannon yogurt company and Grameen Group’s efforts to fill nutritional deficits in Bangladeshi children, as well as Fr. Cooke’s work to get Jesuit and Catholic social justice organizations to think in terms of social entrepreneurship.

Fathers Cooke and Santos and Miller Center continue to find new ways to spread social entrepreneurship’s mission. Miller Center is hosting two new social entrepreneurs in-residence: Fr. Constant M.K. Bossou, SJ, from Benin Republic in West Africa, and Fr. Zhiyuan (PJ) Wang, SJ, from China. Like Fr. Cooke before them, both will pursue graduate studies, while contributing to GSBI and organizing training events in China and Africa.

Father Santos hopes to develop an IJM assessment tool for organizations. He also worked with Kelsey Otero, Marquette’s social innovation coordinator, and a Miller Center team for a GSBI Boost in Milwaukee last November. Father Cooke and Miller Center will run a GSBI Boost in Detroit April 20 to 22, and the two Jesuits will collaborate with Miller Center and other Midwest Jesuit universities at a Marquette social entrepreneurship conference June 8 to 10.

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Fr. Phil Cooke, SJ, visits social enterprises on Culion, an island in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Bill Scull and Miller Center

“We’re drawing everybody interested in doing this kind of work and implementing it within their universities to address poverty within their regions,” says Fr. Cooke. “You have to partner with people. It’s within the DNA of social entrepreneurship. We can build our capacity together, instead of working in silos”

Partnerships like these include laypeople with business acumen, who Fr. Cooke sees as ideal mentors to new social entrepreneurs, future GSBI Boost facilitators, and investors. Though years of experience in business and with the poor brought these Jesuits to social entrepreneurship, anyone can get involved.

“You don’t have to be an entrepreneur or businessperson,” says Fr. Cooke. “All you need is desire.”


Learn more about Miller Center and social entrepreneurship at www.scu-social-entrepreneurship.org. To get involved with UDM’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, e-mail philcookesj@gmail.com. To learn about social entrepreneurship opportunities in Milwaukee, e-mail nicholas.santos@marquette.edu.   

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