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To Reach Its Growth Goals, Miller Center Doubles Down On High-Potential Alumni

In 2020, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship formed a five-year strategic plan aimed at “doubling the depth of Miller Center’s impact,” according to Brigit Helms, executive director. But Helms and her colleagues realized that achieving their goal required, among other steps, doubling down on their work with graduates of their accelerator programs.

To that end, last year, they launched a focus on “active alumni”, defined as the around 370 entrepreneurs who graduated in the last three fiscal years, with an emphasis on those with the most growth potential. “Our programs for alumni were more of a one size fits all,” says Karen Sumie Runde, director of alumni programs. Instead, Miller Center would offer high-potential alumns everything from webinars to one-on-one coaching.

Over the past 18 years or so, about 1,300 alumni have been through Miller Center, which is based at Santa Clara University, with most participating in the last 10 years.

Webinars and Bespoke Mentoring

It all started after Miller Center realized that their most successful alumns had typically participated in multiple programs. The logical conclusion was to step up programs aimed at meeting what high-potential graduates needed to grow their businesses. Last summer, they started developing their plan, rolling out a series of initiatives, including webinars on specific topics, programs in impact measurement and management tools and bespoke individual mentoring homing in on a challenge faced by a particular entrepreneur, among other activities.

Programs include:

Investment readiness. Launched last fall with six entrepreneurs, the program helps graduates assess how to make their businesses more attractive to investors. Participants also take part in an in-residence program in the spring for selected alumni with mock investor panel sessions, capped off with a presentation to real investors.

Help from MBA students. In November, after a pilot in the spring, Miller Center introduced a program through which executive MBA students at Santa Clara University’s Leavey Business School are paired with alumni to work on marketing plans. Plus, students taking a course in grant-writing assistance will team up with alumni to help them produce grants.

One-on-one mentoring. When they found that several alumni who applied to the investment readiness program weren’t quite ready for prime time, the Miller Center team decided to offer one-on-one sessions with some of their 360 mentors to focus on a particular challenge.

Social Enterprise Advisory Council. Formed last year, the Council includes eight alumni focused on women’s economic empowerment and/or climate resilience with enterprises in such areas as sustainable farming, women’s health and water and sanitation. Members, who meet every other month, provide input into everything from the wording of new marketing material to curriculum improvements. “If you’re running a business, you should listen to customers, and we’re in the business of supporting social entrepreneurs,” says Helms.

Leadership Circles. Miller also launched Africa and Asia Leadership Circles, a nine-month peer-to-peer forum through which entrepreneurs share challenges and act as each others’ informal advisory board.

Impact measurement. A course aimed at helping alumni refine their impact model and metrics.

Another reason for the new programs: Miller Center wanted to gather more data about alumni and they figured their new activities would encourage alumns to help out.  “We’re aligning incentives so everybody wins,” says Runde.

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