Passionate, Stubborn and Lucky: The Rise of the Social Intrapreneur

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This article is produced and published by Devex Impact, a global initiative of Devex and USAID, that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

When Alexa Clay and a team of researchers from SustainAbility, an advisory firm, contacted companies to discuss ways large multinationals could ally with social entrepreneurs, they discovered that companies didn’t want to talk about social entrepreneurship. “They wanted to share stories of people with that same DNA” inside their own companies, said Clay.

Clay and her co-authors refocused their research on these “social intrapreneurs” and produced “A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers,”  a joint publication of Allianz, IDEO, the Skoll Foundation and SustainAbility. The report defined a social intrapreneur as “someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures” and profiled changemakers like Bob Annibale, who launched Citigroup’s microfinance initiative, and Luis Sota, who convinced building materials-maker CEMEX to build low-income housing in Mexico.

Since the Field Guide was published four years ago, awareness of social intrapreneurship has only accelerated, said Clay and experts in the field. A new competition sponsored by Accenture and Ashoka  aims to build on this growing recognition and bring a key group of practitioners together to form what they hope will be the nucleus of a meaningful movement.

“More and more people inside big companies are identifying with the label, and now there are companies who want to roll out internal strategy programs to cultivate it,” said Clay, who is now Ashoka’s Director of Social Intrapreneurship.

Beyond Social Entrepreneurship

According to Robert Tomasko, who directs American University’s Social Enterprise Program, the shift in focus from social entrepreneurship to intrapreneurship is much needed.

“Starting a new venture or being a solo entrepreneur is great, but when you go into an existing organization and change it from inside, you can have a much bigger impact,” said Tomasko, who previously consulted for large multinationals. “If everyone goes out and start something new, we end up with a plethora of under-capitalized ventures overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they are trying to solve.”

One of the best-known examples of successful social intrapreneurship is Vodafone’s M-Pesa program , originally dreamt-up by two employees, which now serves millions of Kenyans with financial services via mobile phone and acts as a model for other mobile phone-based development initiatives.

Tomasko said American University’s social enterprise masters’ program aims to launch as many of two-thirds of its graduates into jobs either in existing companies or government and multilateral agencies, where innovation is also needed.

Gib Bulloch, the executive director of Accenture Development Partnerships who is widely recognized as a pioneering social intrapreneur, said that the explosion of interest in social entrepreneurship in the past decade has given way to a realization of its limits. “Scale is the Achilles heel for social entrepreneurs,” he said. “What they have done, however, is provide us with blue-prints for different business models, with double or triple bottom-lines” that can be leveraged inside larger corporations.

In the early 2000s, Bulloch was working at Accenture when he had a vision of bringing his company’s high-quality consulting services to non-profits and development organizations. Recruiting others to the cause, he helped build a new business unit, Accenture Development Partnerships, which operates today on a not-for-profit basis; the group has already served more than 120 international development organizations and completed 700 projects.

Yet while enthusiasm for social intrapreneurship grows, it’s important to remember the unique qualities that separate the intrapreneur from the entrepreneur, according to Phil Auerswald, a public-policy professor at George Mason University. “They both need to define their ideas, build networks and organize to disrupt business-as-usual, but the associated risks are very different,” said Auerswald, author most recently of a book about the promise of global entrepreneurship. “When it’s just you, maxing out your credit limits, with nothing to back you up, that’s not the same thing as making change while taking home a corporate paycheck.”

The Business Case

At first blush, it might be hard to imagine why large companies would encourage employees to challenge existing structures and fight for unconventional ideas. But when intrapreneurship is framed in terms of fostering innovation and retaining top talent, the concept becomes more appealing.

At Standard Chartered Bank, for example, which primarily serves customers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, management “is always looking for new opportunities” to engage with their customers and and markets, according to Sydney Lai, a Shanghai-based sustainability manager for Standard Chartered. “Our employees share this spirit, and some of our most innovative sustainability projects come from employee initiatives that we have supported.”

Lai described how a member of an India-based technical team came up with idea to take low-skill, data-related tasks and outsource these to individuals in needy communities. “We’ve been able to provide job opportunities in rural villages and to people with disabilities who might otherwise have a hard time leaving their homes to find work,” she said. The system, known as “e-ops,” has been in place for a year-and-a-half and has resulted in cost-savings and efficiency improvements for the bank. “It creates benefits for us as a company and for the disadvantaged people who now have work,” she said.

Encouraging socially minded, employee-driven ideas — and bringing them to life with corporate resources — has other important business benefits, said Clay. “If you don’t have an entrepreneurial culture, you won’t be able to recruit and retain talented individuals,” she said.

Similarly, companies that don’t have competitive strategies for reaching emerging markets with the type of bottom-of-the-pyramid value propositions that social intrapreneurs champion, companies will lose market share and potential revenue. “When we talk with companies about social intrapreneurship, they tend to find those arguments very compelling,” said Clay.

High Risk, High Reward

Encouraging social intrapreneurship –- or selling your company as a place that encourages social intrapreneruship — it not a risk-free endeavor for companies.

“The lifespan of an intrapreneur can be pretty short,” said Clay, noting that of the 20 intrapreneurs profiled in the 2008 “Field Guide,” only 10 still work at the same company. “If you’re committed to driving social impact, and you don’t feel you’re getting the support and resources you need, you’re going to jump ship.”

The stakes are high for the intrapreneurs themselves.

“For the term to really mean anything, a social intrapreneur has to be more than a water-cooler politician,” said Auerswald. “Making incremental change or doing good through bureaucratic actions can be positive, but a true intrapreneur disrupts the status quo and creates new ways of doing business.”

That kind of organizational heavy lifting can’t be done alone, said American University’s Tomasko. “We teach our students that one person is easy to marginalize, so you’ve got to build a network of supporters in your organization,” he said. “And at some point, you need a sponsor with more formal power who, if nothing else, can keep you from getting fired until you’ve had a chance to do something that demonstrates value.”

Bulloch, of Accenture Development Partnerships, agreed social intraprenuers must constantly work to build support for their ideas. The work of coalition-building may seem exhausting or distracting to a more individually minded entrepreneur, but Bulloch said the ultimate reward for the intrapreneur comes in the scale of the impact.

“I’ve always been driven by the question of achieving maximum impact. Within Accenture, we benefit from a powerful brand and a huge pool of trained, talented and motivated people,” said Bulloch. “The idea of having a bigger canvas to play on – that’s what kept me in the business.”

Calling All Intrapreneurs

For every social intrapreneur who is successful in bringing an idea to life, said Bulloch, there are many others that have remained dormant or withered on the vine. “The early weeks and months in the life of an idea are very fragile and important. You’ve got to be passionate, stubborn and lucky.”

To get more luck on the side of the intrapreneur and his or her idea, Ashoka teamed up with Accenture to create the League of Social Intrapreneurs Competition, which seeks to identify individuals in large companies that are “pioneering new projects that have the capacity to transform business and society.” Competitors can submit their ideas through January 15, after which a panel of experts will choose the winning ideas. The top 15 entrants will receive consulting services from Accenture Development Partnerships and media coverage in Fast Company’s co-EXIST blog.

“The competition is the first milestone on the road to something bigger, which is to create the League of Intrapreneurs,” said Lionel Bodin, a senior manager at Accenture Development Partnerships. “We hope that as more and more people join this movement, we will be able to remove some of the barriers to intrapreneurship so prevalent in big organizations.”

Ashoka will work with the first 15 league members to develop a tool-kit to guide other social intrapreneurs. “We want to find out two things from them,” said Bodin. “First, what triggered this search to do something different within their company? And second, what makes them stay?”

According to Clay, the competition aims to foster a sense of identity among changemakers who may feel they are “battling the Goliath all alone,” she said. “Some have told me this competition will be their ‘coming out’ moment.”

But Tomasko noted that social intrapreneurs may be hard to coax out of the woodwork. “Most of these people operate quietly, in the margins,” he said. “The last thing many of them want is to be identified publicly, because that puts a target on their back.”

According to Lai at Standard Chartered, however, the competition will encourage employees to bring innovative ideas to life. “You need to recruit people across regions to make new ideas work, and that takes everyone’s time. The competition offers a great incentive to make that extra effort on top of your day job,” she said. Standard Chartered is a co-sponsor of the competition, along with Glaxo-Smith Kline, Imaginals, Inter-American Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation.

The cross-fertilization that will result when social intrapreneurs from different backgrounds meet through the League may open up new horizons in development, said Bulloch. “If social intrapreneurs are able to link up with like-minded people in other companies, even other industries, the scope for making change because that much greater.”

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About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.

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