HAIL MARY

The Pope inspired a venture capitalist to launch a startup accelerator at the Vatican

The great contradiction at the heart of the Silicon Valley’s self-image is that it helps the world while becoming fabulously rich. The record, to say the least, is mixed.

Facebook, Google, and Apple undoubtedly benefit millions of peoples’ lives while generating enormous, unprecedented wealth (for some). Yet the human toll—lost jobs, exploited contractors, massive concentration of wealth at the expense of the lower and middle class, and shuttered newspapers and small companies—are just as real. This doesn’t touch on more unsavory practices such as a wage fixing cartel by Apple, Google and others that depressed workers’ incomes, as well as outright deception by companies such as Theranos.

Can companies that aim for huge profits while doing good deliver on the latter? A venture capitalist, inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, is starting an accelerator in Rome to try. Stephen Forte, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Fresco Capital , announced on Medium on May 4 that he is starting the Laudato Si’ challenge to “invest in companies that are aiming for huge profits while also caring about doing good in the world.” These companies will specifically focus on climate change.

For the challenge, Forte says founders will start out in a virtual program advised by mentors to hone their business models and accelerate growth. The in-person program runs from July through early September in Rome and culminates in a Demo Day at the Vatican in December (Forte does not say whether the program has an official relationship with the Vatican, and did not respond to inquires at the time of publishing). The program offers an optional $100,000 equity investment for 6%-8% equity stake in the company. Companies are expected to have a prototype and some sales or customer adoption, although not raised a large venture capital round. Climate change is the unifying theme but the “mission-driven, for-profit startups” can work in energy, food, water, conservation, finance and other fields.

Forte argues companies who want to put social missions at the center of their business cannot find enough funding. To fix this, the accelerator will back “for-profit mission driven companies that focus on the challenge and values of the Laudato Si,’” citing Pope Francis’s On Care for our Common Home encyclical as the “perfect opportunity…to act.”

Pope Francis’ 80-page edict seeks to enshrine environmental stewardship of humans’ common home at the heart of Catholic theology. Caring for the Earth, he argues, is inextricable from caring for each other. “How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion,” the Pope said in a 2017 TED talk on the topic. “Only by educating people to a true solidarity will we be able to overcome the ‘culture of waste,’ which doesn’t concern only food and goods but, first and foremost, the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people.”

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