The last decade saw the rise of the social entrepreneur. Will the next decade see the rise of the social intrapreneur?
Last fall, Ashoka Changemakers partnered with Accenture to launch the League of Intrapreneurs competition to seek out the people, ideas, and projects within traditional for-profit enterprises committed to positive societal change. We’re talking about the Walmarts, the BPs, and the Toyotas. And the conversation, as you may imagine, has come a long way.
What is a social intrapreneur?
Interesting as they are, the greatest agents of change are unlikely to be social entrepreneurs, but rather those working for large companies who have the ability to see avenues for new markets and to leverage resources to create better products, according to The Economist.
Paul Polak, social entrepreneur and founder of International Development Enterprises, a company that produces low-cost solutions for small-acreage farmers, explained at Social Capital Markets 2012 that big business is the key to scaling solutions to problems such as poverty.
Those driving change within these corporations are the social intrapreneurs or “corporate social entrepreneurs”.
Social intrapreneurs are capable of making a positive impact to their business and for the world, and wish to align societal needs and business value. They possess characteristics similar to social entrepreneurs, yet they are able to navigate massively complex systems to get things done with scale and impact. And they are surrounded by the resources to do so. Together, they make for an army ready to attack – social and environmental problems that is.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
While social entrepreneurship has deeper roots, the first mention of social intrapreneurship or corporate social entrepreneurship came in the early 2000s and was more of an observation of the role an employee – intrinsically-driven by personal values – can play to drive CSR.
Today, social intrapreneurship is the result of global market failures, increased expectations of businesses’ role in society, and a shift in personal values and motivation to build more sustainable business structures.
In 2008, SustainAbility produced a report which interviewed twenty social intrapreneurs from a diverse set of multinational corporations, and was the first in-depth study on social intrapreneurship.
What’s in it for the corporation?
The report revealed that social intrapreneurs believe there are numerous opportunities for the corporation when it comes to projects that align societal needs and business value: creating new revenue streams, expanding core capabilities into new areas, fueling innovation, enhancing brand equity, retaining talent, or achieving competitive advantage in new markets.
“The profit is not obvious right away, but it’s important to have a presence in these markets,” says Orlando Ayala, who led Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential initiative to promote accessible, affordable technology to lower income populations and is now Senior Vice President of Emerging Markets at the company.
Other examples of social intrapreneurs are Vijay Sharma, who led project Shakti for Hindustan Unilever to train and finance female entrepreneurs in India, Sue Mecklenburg, who pioneered opportunities for livelihood enhancement within the supply chain at Starbucks, and Dan Vermeer, who worked on Coca-Cola’s Global Water Initiative to develop solutions to water scarcity, with water being Coca-Cola’s single biggest input.
Social intrapreneurship on the rise?
While these individuals have the drive to make great changes, their journey is filled with challenges. Social intrapreneurs typically work as the lone wolf and play the role of social intrapreneur in addition to their day-to-day tasks. Though the light has switched on for them and some of their colleagues, many describe their companies as slow-moving and simply aren’t “getting it”.
The first reaction they face to any new idea is a straight out “no”. Their colleagues would counter their proposals by saying “This is a distraction”, “Poor people have no money”, or “We’re not in that business”. In turn, they face the risk of losing out on promotions and salary increases, and even losing their jobs.
The numbers don’t lie – they show that social intrapreneurship can be short-lived. Four years after SustainAbility’s report launched, just under half of social intrapreneurs interviewed remain at their companies.
Still, those who have gone through a light bulb moment tend to remain committed to the idea of aligning social and business values, and have moved on to other roles. For example, Sharma now works at GlaxoSmithKline to improve health standards of rural communities and Vermeer directs Duke University’s Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment to accelerate progress towards a sustainable energy system.
As for Ashoka Changemakers’ League of Intrapreneurs, approximately 100 applicants have entered the competition so far.
The time has come for these social intrapreneurs to rise.
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