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Spring 2016 stories

Climate Resilience, Social Entrepreneurship, and Silicon Valley

Response to Cardinal Turkson’s Keynote Address, “Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference, Santa Clara University1
By Dr. Thane Kreiner


By Thane Kreiner
Executive Director, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, 
Howard and Alida Charney University Professor,
Santa Clara University

As a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur for 17 years before coming to Santa Clara University to lead its Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, I find Cardinal Turkson’s comments on technology deeply resonant. Specifically, Silicon Valley needs to think about how technology can help repay the “ecological debt” accrued by the global north and due to the global south.

Entrepreneurship and innovation in service to the planet’s poor can both eradicate poverty and generate climate resilience in developing communities. Climate resilience is the capacity for these communities to absorb the stresses already wrought by climate change, and to adapt and evolve more sustainable social and ecological systems. Indeed, this is the strategic vision of our work.

To date, the Miller Center has worked with more than 570 social enterprises in 66 countries. Over half of these enterprises promote climate resilience through clean energy, safe drinking water, sustainable agriculture, and other solutions. We have developed a mentor pool of over 110 Silicon Valley executives, many of them former CEOs, who work with these social entrepreneurs to apply the entrepreneurial principles of Silicon Valley to scale their ventures. While we are proud of the collective impact on more than 150 million people living in poverty, Cardinal Turkson’s exhortation that “everyone must act” resounds clearly. 

Naandi Community Water Services, one of the social enterprise partners of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, works to bring safe water to India's villages by dispersing 100,000 liters of water every day through its community water centers. Photo courtesy of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

Expanding engagement of Silicon Valley executives as mentors who help social enterprises serving the poor and protecting the planet is one way we can respond to Cardinal Turkson and Pope Francis. However, our response must be broader and deeper.

As the Jesuit institution of higher education in the heart of Silicon Valley, the world’s most entrepreneurial ecosystem, Santa Clara University has a special obligation—“a differentiated responsibility” in the words of Pope Francis— to educate future leaders who adopt a holistic approach to innovation and entrepreneurship. As Cardinal Turkson asked, “How will Silicon Valley spearhead the right cultural, technological, and economic environment for a carbon-free civilization?”1

At the Miller Center, in addition to applying technologies to reduce carbon emissions, we believe Silicon Valley can act truthfully and embrace an “integral ecology”—the interrelationship of our environment, economy, and society—by advancing the lenses of social entrepreneurship and impact investing within Silicon Valley’s innovative ecosystem. Cardinal Turkson describes the stakes as “justice between people and generations, the dignity of those who inhabit the planet now and those who will inhabit the planet in the future, and the very possibility of human life on earth itself.”2 In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis notes, “Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies” (§26). 

Tesla’s investment in a “gigafactory” is a massive step in the right direction, but mechanisms to enable poor communities’ access to such technological advances are essential. Indeed, this is the distinction Cardinal Turkson made between technological thinking and thinking about technology. Our recent study, Universal Energy Access, reveals the need for 7,000 to 20,000 financially sustainable, community-based clean energy enterprises to meet the needs of the 1.5 billion poor living “off the grid.” I imagine that a conversation among Pope Francis, Elon Musk, and Melinda Gates could stimulate more Silicon Valley leadership, and we would be honored to host that convening here. Together, we can focus Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial acumen and innovative technologies on service to the poor and the planet.


Thane Kreiner is executive director of Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Miller Center’s mission is to accelerate global, innovationbased entrepreneurship in service to the poor and the planet. Its flagship Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) program, as of January 2016, has graduated more than 570 social enterprises and collectively impacted the lives of more than 151 million people worldwide. Kreiner was previously founder, president, and CEO of PhyloTech, Inc. (now Second Genome) as well as founder, president, and CEO of Presage Biosciences, Inc. Kreiner was the start-up president and CEO for iZumi Bio, Inc. (now iPierian). Kreiner earned his Ph.D. in neurosciences and his MBA from Stanford University.


  1. Cardinal Peter Turkson, “Laudato Si’ from Silicon Valley to Paris,” keynote address, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 3 November 2015, Santa Clara University.
  2. Ibid.
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