We examine cross‐national variation in the global growth of commercial microfinance from 1998 to 2009 as a natural experiment to analyze the role of national institutions in shaping the ability of commercial enterprises to reach the global poor. Our results demonstrate that a country’s level of state fragility represents an important institutional context of poverty that explains significant cross‐national variation in the commercial microfinance industry’s ability to grow its client base, control costs, and attract commercial capital. Moreover, we find that commercial microfinance lenders have experienced greater difficulty than nonprofit lenders in growing their client base in more fragile state settings. Our results support the proposition that the state shapes both institutional hazards and opportunities for business‐led efforts to combat global poverty . Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.