Katharine Bierce

Impact Career Paths: Making your own luck

“What did you do to align to business strategy?”

I recently spoke at a Net Impact conference in Baltimore about my experience leading the global employee volunteering team where I work, a 700+ person global data analytics solutions firm. At the end of the panel, that question threw me for a loop.

I had talked to various business units about their interests in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and found a few supportive principals, but aligning to business strategy is currently an ongoing process and not something I can immediately share in a neat PowerPoint.

From my experience, an intrapreneur is someone who improves existing systems by advocating for CSR, sustainability, shared value, or engaging with the community. These are internal innovators who “disrupt for a purpose,” shaking things up strategically – but not necessarily with a strategy in mind.

To quote intrapreneur Ronjon Bose, who works at a financial services firm with $2.2 trillion of assets under management, intrapreneurship is:

“Peer support, management support, and principal-level sponsorship. Internal innovation and ‘being the change’ within large corporations doesn’t get an intrapreneur far. Change within corporate America tends not to be dependent on one individual’s persistence – much more so on their ability to convince their colleagues (for peer support), managers (for allowing one to spend time outside of their role), and senior leadership (to gain ‘teeth’ behind their proposals).”

Much of the talk around intrapreneurship has centered on aligning to strategy: the triple bottom line, metrics, KPIs, cause marketing, business drivers and social value, and so on. The importance of this conversation is undeniable. But the debate goes deeper than large-scale projects when the question becomes “how can you we encourage a culture where every employee is a changemaker?”

When I graduated college, I didn’t find a lot of jobs that combined business and social impact. So I created one for myself, becoming a full-time consultant while running volunteering events on evenings and weekends. Some highlights:

  • 7 employees have consulted with over 20 New Jersey entrepreneurs from low-income areas

  • New Delhi employees raised over $3,000 to support AID-Noida – Prayas, an organization that runs a school in the Naya Bans slum

  • Shanghai employees have raised over $10,000 to support education for 50+ financially stressed students in the rural Anhui and Ningxia provinces of China

And while it all happened without a clearly articulated strategy, it didn’t have a process.

The first step is simple: Learn as many of your colleagues’ names as you can and build your personal brand. The more people with whom you discuss your idea, the larger your support base will be. When the conversation over lunch or a conference call or email turns to “what do you do I outside of work,” I discuss volunteering projects. This way, I eventually found several dozen like-minded people who also lead projects in offices around the world.

Finding a like-minded network beyond your own company is a great next step. Today, there are three main networks of social intrapreneurs: Net Impact, StartingBloc, and Ashoka. Net Impact is largely focused on inspiring, empowering, and connecting people in the business world, often in MBA programs, to redefine and shape their careers toward creating triple bottom line value (for “people, planet, and profit”). StartingBloc is a much smaller organization, where anyone can join by paying a membership fee. It requires a larger commitment of time and money ($1,000 for 5 full days, plus some preparation work before the Institute for Social Innovation). That makes StartingBloc feel like a “tribe” or extended family rather than a professional network.

Finally, Ashoka has spent the last 30+ years mostly focused on social entrepreneurship, but is now bringing that same network and commitment to social innovation to the intrapreneur space with the League of Intrapreneurs competition. As the oldest organization in the space, people at Ashoka have spent a lot of time figuring out what makes social innovators tick and how to help everyone be a changemaker. The www.changemakers.org website is a great network, similar to the Acumen Fund online community but more open to people talking about their individual projects rather than only about the organization.

My advice from digging into all this? Don’t get discouraged if you’re not driving top-line revenues or finding perfect metrics. The important thing to know about being an intrapreneur is that even if you work in corporate America, you can still walk in Gandhi’s footsteps and “be the change you want to see in the world.”

And my conclusion is that there is no one formula for driving social impact. At the end of the day, it becomes as simple as pursuing the type of career you desire. So even if you get told “no” to the budget you asked for, or if you can’t find any metrics to measure your impact, or all you have to show is a bunch of happy people in photos with attendance numbers, don’t give up. The hardest part is getting started.