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Garcia-Contreras Meets Pope Francis on Investing for the Poor

Rogelio Garcia-Contreras and Pope Francis

It’s no surprise that Pope Francis has affection for the poor. On a recent visit to Rome, Italy, for a conference on impact investment and development, Dr. Rogelio Garcia-Contreras, advisor to the Social Entrepreneurship Program, heard the pontiff’s views on investing in the poor personally when he met the Pope at the Vatican on June 16.

Garcia-Contreras, who is associate professor of international studies, was invited to the private papal audience along with the roughly one hundred attendees of the first Conference for Impact Investment in Rome, Italy, on June 16-18.

The invitation-only conference, titled "Investing for the Poor," featured world leaders in the field of development, impact investment, and microfinance, with the participation of world leaders, foundations, and non-profit and government organizations.

“Once-in-a-Lifetime” Meeting with the Pope

During his meeting with the Pope, who waved off ceremonial reverences in favor of face-to-face conversations, Garcia-Contreras passed him a letter from a Mexico City woman he visited with on his way to an SEP project in the Yucatan this summer. The woman has two children with a genetic degenerative illness. She asked if he would mind giving the letter to someone at the Vatican so it could reach the pope. 

“I took it with me just in case,” he said. “It turns out each one of us went in front of him to greet him. I told him very briefly the story of this woman and how she wrote a letter to him. He said he will read it and reply.”

Garcia-Contreras called the Pope Francis “inspiring, humble and very accessible.”

“He listens, and he’s very cordial, very humble,” he said. “I got the feeling that everybody in the room was more concerned about the protocol than he was.”

Conference Calls for Transforming Businesses for Social Good

Pope Francis and Conference for Impact Investment The Conference was organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Catholic Relief Services and the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. The UST Office of the President sponsored his trip, with financial support from the Faculty Development Committee and the Social Entrepreneurship Program.

Garcia-Contreras said the conference included the best and most influential people in the field of development, human rights and impact investment. The Pope pronounced a discourse on the official position of the Church on impact investment.

“His discourse builds on a discourse prepared for the World Economic Forum at Davos, delivered by Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson, where the Holy Father stated the importance of investing for the poor, and emphasized the importance of procuring a more ethical, solidarian and humane approach in the world of business.”

Garcia-Contreras said he learned many things that SEP can apply to its work.

“There is a whole new understanding of what social entrepreneurship means,” he said. “It’s an attempt to create new standards for the business world, a new business culture that takes into consideration the social and environmental impact that every business has on the world.”

He said there is a range of funding opportunities, from angel investors, government funds and financial institution portfolios that want to provide financial assistance specifically to this kind of business. The caveat is that they expect these companies to perform successfully under the parameters of any other kind of business operations.

Growing a Sustainable Salsa Business in the Yucatan

Now that the salsa processing plant is up and running in the Yucatan, and the field partner is selling salsa in restaurants and hotels in Cancun and Merida, Mexico, SEP is interested in scaling the business with resources from private investors. 

“We can make the company grow and pay the investors the return they need, without compromising the social aspect of our business, which is to help local indigenous women attain economic sustainability for them and their families,” he said. 

Students have participated at all levels of this project, from fundraising for a revolving microlending fund, to making assessments on field partners in the Yucatan, to developing a marketing campaign and designing a label for salsa bottles.

“Perhaps the most distinctive contribution of the program, however, is its capacity to create life-changing experiences for our students, while providing opportunities to serve, grow and generate mutual understanding and human value,” he said.

Garcia-Contreras said meeting the Pope was one event in his life and the life of the Social Entrepreneurship Program that will forever impact his work.

“Meeting the Pope was a blessing in every sense of the word,” Garcia-Contreras said. “Among other things, I asked Pope Francis to pray for our program and for the work we are trying to do. He said he will.”