One of history’s great startup success stories, the nearly 500-year-old Catholic religious order built a global network and helped create higher education as we know it.

Founded in 1540 by the former soldier St. Ignatius Loyola—and starting with little more than a mission to help souls and do it heroically—the Jesuits quickly established themselves around the world and became known as the finest educators of their day. Today there are more than 180 Jesuit institutions of higher learning—including Fordham—on six continents.

How did the Jesuits succeed? For one thing, they believed in the ultimate importance of their mission, which “breeds a level of resilience and determination and creativity,” said Chris Lowney, FCRH ’81, GSAS ’81, a former Jesuit, former managing director at J.P. Morgan, and author of the 2003 book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World. In interviews, Lowney and other Fordham alumni spoke to the parallels between the Jesuits’ mindset and the entrepreneur’s approach to startup success.

Lesson #1: They didn’t carry the mental baggage that can hinder entrepreneurs.

The Jesuits made a virtue of detachment—that is, detachment from things like status, possessions, and settled ways of doing things, which enabled risk-taking. Asked by Ignatius to depart for India, Francis Xavier readily responded “good enough, I’m ready”—and took it on himself to establish Jesuit outposts not only in India but across Asia, Lowney writes in Heroic Leadership. Offering a present-day interpretation, he noted that attachments like greed or pride can hamper entrepreneurs by breeding a fear of failure and a reluctance to try new things.

Lesson #2: They led with love.

Unlike Niccolò Machiavelli, one of his contemporaries, Ignatius counseled Jesuits to lead with “greater love than fear,” tapping the energizing power of mutual affection, Lowney writes. Traveling in Asia, Francis Xavier carried papers bearing his fellow Jesuits’ signatures as an inspiring reminder of their love for him. For modern-day entrepreneurs, this might mean wanting one’s team members to flourish and reach their potential—which could mean challenging them when necessary, Lowney said.

Lesson #3: They adapted to new environments.

The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci made inroads in China, after so many Europeans had failed, through enculturation: He learned Chinese, adopted Chinese dress, and shared his knowledge of geometry and astronomy, Lowney writes. Ricci’s predecessor in Asia, Francis Xavier, also “showed a remarkable respect for the cultures he was meeting” when he traveled to Japan, Lowney said. “He was way, way ahead of his time.”

Lesson #4: They reflected deeply on their purpose.

Former Jesuit Sal Giambanco, GSAS ’90, sees parallels between the entrepreneurial mindset and the self-knowledge fostered by the Spiritual Exercises, the four-week system of meditation and prayer created by Ignatius. “It’s about seeing things and patterns that haven’t existed before,” said Giambanco, an early employee and senior executive at four startups, including PayPal, where he was the first head of human capital, administration, facilities, and security. “You go into the silence, [and] you embrace that silence, such that you can then bring those insights into having effective change in the world. And if you think about it, that really is the mindset of the entrepreneur.”

Lesson #5: They sought input and brought out the best in others.

Contrary to the idea of the solo creative genius driving an enterprise, the best leaders foster collaboration—and innovation—by stepping back and “leaving the room” after posing a tough question to their teams, said Angelo Santinelli, GABELLI ’84, an entrepreneur and business educator who co-chairs the advisory board for the Fordham Foundry, the University’s entrepreneurship hub.

He often saw the Jesuits take that approach in the classroom when he was a student at Fordham, he said. In a collaborative workspace where everyone feels valued, “you’re constantly pushing the envelope and getting something better,” he said.


Chris Gosier is a senior editor in the marketing and communications department and associate editor of FORDHAM magazine. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or