By Pablo Sánchez Chillón.
Neither Glovo, nor Cabify, eDreams, or Idealista.
Perhaps you may not know it, but 500 years before the adoption, just a few days ago, of the Start-up Law in Spain, our country launched its first and successful innovative company of the Brand Spain to the world, an emerging start-up with a global and innovative vision, born in a garage in the city of Loyola, which soon scaled up, expanded, and became universal, although our lawmakers, so fond of resonant metaphors in such solemn cases as the one at hand, have forgotten to evoke this example of audacity and global presence, made in Spain, with five centuries of existence, in the florid Preface of the legal text of the Spanish Entrepreneurship Law.
What am I talking about? A universal adventure launched into the market half a millennium before our Congressmen unanimously embraced (things you will see, Sancho) that Law on Fostering the Emerging Company Ecosystem, which defines a startup as one that is not more than 5 years old, does not trade on the stock exchange or distribute dividends, whose registered office or domicile is in national territory, which has 60 percent of its staff hired in Spain, and last but not least, proves its innovative vision and portfolio.
This first and genuine ‘Marca España’ project was incubated in 1540, cooked in the mind of a limping ex-militiaman from Azpeitia, who, without LinkedIn, elevator pitches, titled mentors, or a hint of that arrogant epic air that is currently learned in entrepreneurship accelerators, conceived and launched the Societas Iesu, the Society of Jesus – a.k.a. the Jesuits – one of the oldest and most successful Spanish global corporations among those that surround us.
500 years of existence of a sober innovative company, functionally, hierarchically, and territorially organized, with a mission and vision articulated around the founding principle of «the salvation and perfection of others» (1540), and that exhibits a heterogeneous social object, contained in that constitution document (the Formula of the Institute) granted by the founding members (Loyola, Laínez, Salmerón, Francisco Javier…).
A society with thousands of social shares and owners distributed throughout the world and which, without losing sight of its corporate social responsibility, has been successfully pivoting for centuries among various sectors such as education, social justice, leadership, missions, or intellectual production.
A go-to-market idea born from the drive of a late, self-taught and unclassifiable entrepreneur, this Ignacio de Loyola gifted with the intelligence, pride, and boldness of a visionary, bearer of a firm belief in an exportable and global business model woven – pure resilience they call it now – among the humors of the convalescence from the serious injuries suffered in the siege of Pamplona in 1521, a project that he was able to perfect over time, adapting to the different ecosystems in which he landed (Manresa, Holy Land, Alcalá, Paris, Rome) until the final launch of his MVP, his minimum viable product, a religious platform that, making Renaissance innovation its main motto, burst into a regulated market breaking the model of the precedent monopolistic operators (Dominicans, Carmelites, or Franciscans), to end up becoming, years later, the first dazzling trajectory Spanish unicorn.
A company with branches in dozens of countries along the world, organized around a board – the General Congregation ruled by a lifelong CEO called the Superior General, although neither this presidential character nor the attribute of perpetuity have been a real obstacle for some of its most distinguished leaders – the luminous Pedro Arrupe, among all of them – who have exercised that leadership with exemplary humility and left it, without fuss or resistance, before the legal expiration of their term.
A society with 14,439 indefinite employees (a census of priests, brothers, students, and novices as of January 1, 2022) and which also has at the top of its governance structure a very special President, residing in Rome, San Pedro Square, nr 1, to whom the Jesuits – in a ritual comparable to that of formal Japanese corporations – swear obedience and perpetual fidelity.
The Jesuits, a company grown and shaped in the adversity of the market, with an excellent and versatile product whose intangible assets (intellectual property, reputation, brand) constitute a substantial portion of its enormous market value. A society that invented, centuries before we became habituated to the arrogant smirk exhibited today by so many digital entrepreneurs, a viable product with which the first Jesuits set out to conquer the world and accompanied, back in the sixteenth century, with generous doses of corporate storytelling – ad maiorem Dei gloriam – that led them to become the most influential actors in the global centers of power and decision-making.
A society, in short, with leading teams who are masters in the management of influence and adaptation to their environment (as evidenced by the life trajectories of Francisco Javier, Agustín de Pantoja, or Pedro Arrupe, among many others), well-versed in advising rulers, representing interests, and Public Affairs strategies. However, many times this innate quality of their elites to frequent and conduct themselves brilliantly, decisively, and with their own criteria among the circles of earthly power has ended up becoming an uncomfortable attribute for the order and perhaps the main cause of their onerous neglect in different periods, systems, and principalities.
The Jesuits, that pioneering company in a pre-internet gig economy that remains focused, like few others, on the user experience focus, the ongoing validation of their business model, and the projection of their values and corporate culture in service of an impactful, globally-minded enterprise, whose vitality and pulse they regularly test through the cathartic method of Ignatian exercises, which looks like the so called lean management but focused and conducted from the depths of the human soul.
A corporation that is, above all and since its founding, a real society, the Societas Iesu, the Society of Jesus.
Playing around in Loyola’s garage.
Perhaps it’s not very mainstream – maybe a little less than a TED talk or a tutorial on YouTube – but in this era of quick wins and ephemeral successes, it’s worth discussing some topics about the idea and expression of leadership within the Company; perhaps to linger on the history and cursus honorum of the Jesuit order and the legion of people who, infected by the drive, values, and audacity of the Basque Ignatius of Loyola, helped made that imultinational religious order great and relevant, the first startup of the Brand Spain that opened its doors in our country in the mid-sixteenth century, with its lights and its shadows.
The timing is appropriate: in 2022, Ignatius 500 was concluded, the Ignatian Year that the Jesuits have been celebrating to commemorate the fifth centenary of a profound experience that transformed the life of Íñigo in Pamplona forever, the memory of a personal change that, in view of the impact of his legacy, marked a before and after in the spiritual history of the West. It is, in short, the anniversary of a well-known story, the remembrance of an episode of radical transformation of Loyola’s worldly warrior into a being of deep spirituality and tenacious determination, capable of giving rise to one of the most important and long-lived human institutions in our history, and which places us squarely in the Pamplona of 1521.
That year, the French army invaded Navarra and the knight Íñigo de Loyola rushed to the defense of the capital, intending to fight for it to the death if necessary. On May 20th, a bullet – like those that today continue to whistle on the edges of this weak Europe – shattered his right leg, also injuring his left; transported to the family house-tower, he underwent surgery several times and was on the verge of death, but the doctors who treated him, with more skill and luck than instruments or technology, managed to save his life. His long convalescence, – laugh at the confinement of 2020 – he devoted to reading many books that he found in the library of the house – lives of saints and exemplary life episodes for the 16th-century canon -, making good on what Edmundo de Amicis reminded us centuries later about how «the fate of many men depended on having or not a library in their paternal home».
The rest of the story is well known, specially by the young pupils and students of the Company, as they are learn it along with the commitment to discretion, freedom of discernment, and a desire to pursue their own excellence based on the theoretical basis that all leadership begins with knowing how to direct oneself, a way of self-driving through life.
Grow (scale-up) and multiply.
As a bright counterpoint to the obsolescence that surrounds us, let us return to the path of Loyola and his Ignatian startup.
The interest in exploring it further drove us on a serendipitous wandering from the dozens of Ignatian websites published in multiple languages to the shelves of secondhand bookstores, where some titles have served as helpful aids in this somewhat opportunistic research process on the culture of Ignatian entrepreneurship and its projection to our days.
Among others, I quote the reading of Ignatius’ autobiography, «The Pilgrim’s Story,» the little work entitled «Heroic Leadership. Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company that changed the World,» by an ex-Jesuit and successful Wall Street executive named Chris Lowney, as well as (several) biographies of the founder, Pedro Arrupe, or those of Agustín de Pantoja, Ignacio Ellacuría, Jorge Bergoglio (The Pope), and even those of the Spanish filmmaker Luis García Berlanga, ex-banker Mario Conde, or the exuberant local politician from La Mancha, José Bono, to name some of the most well-known, close, and heterodox alumni of the company, whose profiles can help us understand and explain, in the eyes of 21st-century leadership, what is taught and learned among the Jesuits and how much of it ends up being incorporated into one’s own life and way of understanding and dealing with a complex world, or how much of it ends up in the waste bin of one’s own existence.
Jesuit entrepreneurship. The immovable engine of an influential company founded and grown almost five centuries ago on what today business schools call intangible assets and relational capital, was, in Loyola’s 16th-century, the stubborn vision, warrior spirit, or bold and audacious vocation to transcend the ordinary from Ignacio. The Societas Iesu, a corporation that from its market launch, and in the time that measures the existence of a generation, without paid-up social capital, without prestigious MBAs on its board, and without an empirically proven strategic or business plan, became the most influential religious order in the world, a powerful actor in a society in transformation, a driver of many changes and profound transitions that, also, over the centuries and like so many human works, knew imperfection, stain, public ridicule, and its preterition as a public enemy of a status quo little willing to change.
This Company, long before American multinationals showed us the way to globalization and the conquest of new markets and cultures, trained its first employees in the vocation of customer service and global projection, demanding from them extraordinary levels of loyalty and obedience (the third vow of the Jesuits) to the Pope and the defense of his power and work in a Europe where the ideas defended by Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque warrior who later became a saint, were beginning to clash with the birth of Nation-States and the consolidation of secular power.
A new, disciplined, and cohesive order, formed by impetuous members charged with admirable energy, unparalleled personal confidence, and an unlimited determination to promote their vision, that five hundred years ago laid the foundations of the worldview and narrative that so many entrepreneurs around us would be embracing today.
If it helps to give context about the wandering and adventurous impetus of this young ecclesiastical order of early entrepreneurs and stubborn and literate papal militiamen, perhaps, the most surprising thing about that startup that soon overcame its death valley relies on discovering how it was able to create 30 universities in the course of ten years since its founding, or how that audacious Marca España/Europe Brand, led its members to become counselors to the Emperor of Ming China or the Japanese Shogun, to cross the Himalayas and reach Tibet, paddle up the headwaters of the Blue Nile or chart the course of the Upper Mississippi while translating the Gospels into Chinese, Tagalog, or Urdu.
Last but not least, the intense network of knowledge channels established by the Jesuits during those magical years of expanding their presence and influence to the far corners of the globe, sought dynamic and fruitful exchanges between Europeans, Americans, and Asians, in diverse fields such as mathematics and astronomy, geography (Louis XV of France received the first comprehensive Atlas of China created by priests of the order at the request of the Chinese emperor), natural history, anthropology, or the use and application of substances and medicines such as quinine (the so-called «Jesuit’s bark») to alleviate and mitigate the effects of fevers.
During those brilliant years, the Jesuits fought tirelessly with issues such as organizing multinational teams and harmonizing their work and needs. They struggled with key issues to their own existence, such as the exemplary motivation of those teams or the maintenance of a corporate culture in global environments prepared for rapid action, change, and strategic adaptation. Their birth as an organization coincides, as it does today, with the emergence of numerous changes (technological and cultural), with the arrival of the printing press, with the opening of a global discussion on prevailing and hegemonic worldviews (the Protestant Reformation, today perhaps the Metaverse), and with the era of discovery travels and new markets and cultures.
Ignacio de Loyola and his collaborators founded and grew the Company in a complex world that had already changed as much in just fifty years since 1540 as in the thousand years that preceded them, projecting interesting comparisons with this moment in humanity, full of novelties, agit-prop, and unparalleled systemic shocks.
Not in vain, after almost five centuries of existence, and despite the strict Darwinian laws that govern the destinies of large companies and which, to cite an example, have allowed only 16 of the great American companies existing in 1900 to survive to this day, the Society of Jesus remains alive and influential among us, for causes and reasons that are worth analyzing and that project a reliability and resilient adaptability to change worthy of being taught in any entrepreneurship promotion program, despite historically having such relevant and dangerous intimate enemies as Mr. Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal.
The Marquis of Pombal, the first anti-Jesuit troll.
Like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk do, the Jesuits had – and have – their intimate detractors.
Let’s make it clear from the beginning: the longevity of the Society of Jesus does not in any way equate to the defense of total perfection or a flawless cursus honorum for the order, and the reputational cost of the existence and contingent management of execrable episodes such as cases of pedophilia within its ranks still needs to be discounted.
With this premise of imperfection (so typical of a human institution governed and nurtured by people) assumed, the balance sheet of the Society of Jesus’ accomplishments is positive, and its achievements in the field of education are simply excellent.
Anyway, the Jesuits’ missteps have been as spectacular as their historical ability to win admirers, antagonists, and enemies, perhaps due to Ignatius of Loyola’s risky bet that encouraged his disciples from an early age to «seek to maintain the friendship and goodwill of those in power and win people of authority over with humility, modesty, and good works.»
When it comes to pioneering character, the disruptive pattern generated by this Ignatian startup was such that it had the merit of being the recipient of the first global modern propaganda campaign with state subsidy, cooked up in the 18th century at the Portuguese court of José I of Portugal and led by Sebastiao José de Carvalho e Melo, the all-powerful Marquis of Pombal.
Pombal, the first nemesis of the Jesuits, managed to launch and feed, from his office as the newly appointed Secretary of State for King José I of Portugal, a global wave of rejection towards the Jesuits that reached many of the European chancelleries of the time. This rejection was based on reasons of pure restriction of competition and maintenance of a monopoly, with its protectionist outcomes, and had a profound impact on the balance sheet of the Jesuit order.
Pombal’s systematic and persistent work against the Society of Jesus, based on a defamatory network strategy (a precursor to others that are verified in this era of digital nodes), and founded on the spread of rumors, fake news, nefarious theories, and plots and conspiracies, was a diplomatic success, essentially aimed at a religious order that was as independent as it was powerful and that hindered the colonial plans of the Portuguese government and undermined the Marquis’s expectation of obtaining substantial profits from the Brazil and Paraguay reductions governed with audacity and growing independence by the missionaries of the Society. The episode have been brilliantly documented by historian Christine Vogel in her interesting volume «War Against the Jesuits» (2017), and universally ended up being portrayed by Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, with unforgettable music by Ennio Morricone.
Pombal’s strategy, which centuries later inspired the concerted action of trolls on our social networks, culminated in the first expulsion of the order from Portugal and its overseas territories, and with the verification of a contagion effect in Europe that materialized over the centuries in successive expulsions, expropriations, and cancellations of the Company’s registry in Elizabethan England, Louis XIV’s France, Enlightenment Spain, or Bismarck’s Germany, until the dangerous and bloody Jesuit assassination of Jesuits in El Salvador in the 1980.
This Pombalian fine work of erosion of the Jesuit Society’s reputational capital culminated in the expulsion of the order with the publication in 1773 of the papal bull that suppressed the Company worldwide (it took them 45 years to come back). In that dark time, John Adams, second President of the United States, told Thomas Jefferson, on occasion of the rising demands for shelter from Jesuits in his country, that «if there is any congregation of men that deserves damnation here on earth or in hell, it is the Society of Loyola, but our regime of religious freedom has to give them asylum».
The Societas Iesu remained a corporation subject to an unvarying cycle of systemic fluctuations and upheavals, at the mercy of government intervention and interference, hampered by the most severe regulatory issues, and which has been technically bankrupt and dissolved many times throughout its history. But despite the ominous fate along the years, the Compañía was strong enough to ultimately been reborn and to rediscover its market niche, with its actions, narrative, and social and relational capital remaining attractive to investors and stakeholders in this unsettling 21st century.
Sure, you couldn’t find them in the Preface of our Spanish brand-new Startup Law, but the lessons that our first global startup born in the 16th-century Loyola offers us, the universal social impact of that idea with almost 500 years of life, on issues such as universal commitment to excellence, equal opportunities, the logic of service versus the logic of merit, the vocation for public service, and the co-responsibility with the society in which the Jesuit leader works and performs, could rightfully be included in the syllabus of any entrepreneurship promotion and support program funded with public or private money.
Do not forget it. The Society of Jesus; the first start-up of the Brand Spain.