Just when I felt I was beginning to understand the confines within which the term social entrepreneur or social enterprise can be applied, this new term emerges: the social intrapreneur. Luckily, from what I understand of it now, it is a bit more straightforward in terms of its practical application, but still the term serves to further blur the lines between entities that are often viewed as distinct and separate. Last week, Ashoka Changemakers broadcasted, via YouTube, a Google Hangout that brought industry insiders face to face with the two early-round prizewinning teams of Ashoka’s League of Intrapreneurs, a competition that rewards prominent intrapreneurs with media coverage and consulting support from Accenture Development Partnerships. As a media correspondant, I was given the opportunity to interact with the group and to explore the topic at hand.
The term social intrapreneur is used to identify an individual within a company or corporation that utilizes the business’s existing networks and infrastructure to impact society. Like the social entrepreneur, the intrapreneur designs vehicles for impact that are revenue generators and self-sustainable. Unlike the social entrepreneur, however, the intrapreneur has both the benefits and challenges of working within a larger corporate structure.
It is easy to imagine what sort of challenges one might be confronted with in trying to initiate a social project within a large organization that has a very clear bottom line. “The types of initiatives we’re working on here are outside our typical remit in our day jobs,” explained Michelle Wobker. She and Dwight Walker are two early round winners from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) working to provide low cost medical diagnostic tools to underserved communities in Africa.
According to Wobker, the question becomes, “How do you carve out time for these important pieces of work that don’t necessarily meet the bottom line of your own business unit?” For both teams involved in the Google Hangout (check out the full session below), the answer lies in earning and maintaining support for the project from the higher levels of the organization.
“Some of the greatest challenges we’ve faced have been, internally, how do you create a compelling business case, how do you demonstrate and describe the different kind of business value that you can bring to different functions?” explained Amy Chen, an early round winner from PepsiCo. “I think a lot of it has been creativity on our team’s part in terms of understanding how to describe what we’re doing and how to keep the organization motivated and inspired, and to continue supporting the efforts that we’re working on.”
While the intrapreneur must overcome certain internal barriers that an entrepreneur would not necessarily encounter, the rewards that the intrapreneur gains from earning the support of one’s organization place him or her, at the outset, miles ahead of the bootstrapping social entrepreneur. Having gained the support of their organization, for example, Chen and fellow PepsiCo intrapreneur Matt Smith have been able to utilize PepsiCo’s immense distribution and supply chain networks to provide healthy meals to children otherwise without access. After only four years, they have delivered over one million meals across the country.
Further, Smith explained, “What has been absolutely critical for us is how do we become good at, when we run into a road block internally, saying, ‘I’m sure there’s someone in this company who knows how to do this. We don’t have to try to solve this ourselves, there’s an expert somewhere. How do we find that person?’” The access to this sort of intellectual capital is an invaluable asset unique to the social intrapreneur. Walker noted that for his project with Wobker, they have “been able to leverage both GSK’s internal scientific knowledge and [its] external manufacturing partners.”
The idea of a corporation using its networks and infrastructure to produce some sort of social good sounds a lot like CSR. Initially, it seemed to me that the term social intrapreneur was just another way of describing the same sort of activity; the relevance of the term did not seem to extend beyond convoluting a broad concept that I previously understood as any step a corporation took toward having a positive social impact. CSR was distinct from the two other broad impact sectors: not-for-profits, and social enterprises.
The mental framework that holds these three sectors as distinct and independent of one another has developed in the social space as a heuristic approach for labeling and organizing different ways people work toward a social cause. While it is a compact and convenient way of viewing the space, it does hold the potential to isolate the three sectors, to ignore areas where they overlap and disregard opportunities for collaboration and convergence. As a result, the three areas sometimes seem to work in opposition despite having the same or similar goals.
From this standpoint, the introduction of the social intrapreneur can be viewed instead as a movement toward a more cohesive impact structure that combines the three aforementioned entities onto a single continuous spectrum. On this spectrum we have corporate philanthropy connecting CSR arms with nonprofits and NGOs, the hybrid model connecting NGOs with social enterprise, and, now, social intrapreneurs connecting CSR with social enterprise.
In this sense, the term adds a certain value. According to Chen, “There have always been people that I would call changemakers or social intrapreneurs within organizations, but sometimes it’s helpful to give it a name, and for us to start creating a network of intraprenuers… of people who are facing common challenges, who have similar aspirations, who believe that business can be more than it is, and are fighting every day on the inside to try to make that happen. My long-term vision is that the term should go away… that some day we won’t even need the term, because all business will be about doing good and doing well, and about finding those ways that business can help contribute to a more meaningful and sustainable community.”
The movement Chen is describing is essentially a movement towards social enterprise as business as usual. If intrapreneurs form the bridge that transcends the gap between corporations and social enterprise, then it is a contracting bridge. As more intrapreneurs emerge from corporations and begin to affect change from within, they pull the sides of the gap together until it is completely diminished; social enterprise and corporations become one, and there in no longer the need for a bridge at all.
I want to close by addressing a question, posed during the Google Hangout but that I misunderstood at the time, because I believe it is an important one to consider. The question was, ‘what can the social entrepreneurship sector do to be more supportive of social intrapreneurship?’
The reason the question is interesting is that the two are not really all that different. Both the intrapreneur and the entrepreneur are attempting to build sustainable business structures that have a social impact. The difference, as noted before, is that while the entrepreneur is so often forced to rely on his own resources to build his business, the intrapreneur has the support of a multimillion-dollar corporation. They are two players in the same market, but clearly the field is not level.
My instinct tells me that the question asked is the wrong one, that we should instead be asking how corporate social intrapreneurs could be more supportive of social entrepreneurs who lack the same infrastructure support. That answer is simple. Both the PepsiCo and GSK teams expressed the importance of partnering with existing organizations, mentioning, specifically, NGOs and corporate partnerships. But with only these two possibilities in mind, it is easy to forget that there exists another point on our spectrum where business minded individuals are already working to create sustainable business for social impact. Given that intrapreneurs seem intrinsically concerned with revenue generation and sustainability, it would seem that partnering with existing social enterprises to promote a sustainable social enterprise ecosystem would make even more sense than a partnership with an NGO or nonprofit.
The takeaway from the Google Hangout hosted by Ashoka Changemakers is that social intrapreneurship occupies an important space on the impact continuum. Taking place within corporations from the bottom up, the emergence of projects that generate revenue while maintaining positive social impact represents an important step in moving business as usual toward business for social good. In order for this change to manifest, however, it is important that we continue to look for ways that the impact sectors can work together, and exist in symbiosis with one another. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in our previous dilemma, where likeminded organizations are competing rather than collaborating in order to maximize both impact and revenue.
Visit Ashoka Changemakers to find out more about the League Of Intrapreneurs and/or check out recent posts about the competition on the Ashoka Content Partner on NextBillion.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in YourStoryin.