Josh Cleveland

The Role of Intrapreneurs in Building Base of the Pyramid Markets

To date, the track record of strategic, sustainable and successful engagement in BoP markets from corporations is extremely weak. Although companies such as SC Johnson, Dupont/Solae, and Danone have penetrated BoP markets with products and services that arguably make the poor better off, the list of successful corporate BoP projects remains quite short. In 2010, NextBillion readers will be looking for more companies with major product development and R&D budgets, proven marketing abilities, and pools of enterprise-savvy talent to lead social and economic development at the BoP.

Certainly, some successes in this area will originate in the top tiers of management, but one of the most powerful forces for progress and innovation in corporate BoP engagement may come from further down the corporate ladder. Those who will lead much of this change are “social intrapreneurs“, employees who develop and implement solutions that both benefit their companies and create positive social and environmental impact. They challenge the status quo and apply the principles of social entrepreneurship inside their organizations.

The first wave of social intrapreneurs I supported in my role at Net Impact focused on improving the social and environmental sustainability of their organization’s direct operations. Like Shoshannah Lenski at BCG and Betsy Hansen at Sun Microsystems, they concentrated efforts on reducing costs and improving efficiency while improving sustainability. (Last year, Net Impact chronicled the methods and achievements of a dozen such social intrapreneurs in Making Your Impact at Work: A Practical Guide to Changing the World from Inside Any Company.)

A second generation of social intrapreneurs is integrating sustainability and development into traditional corporate roles in a deeper way that goes beyond joining green teams and increasing recycling rates. Their focus on creating change and serving BoP markets is leading to the development of new departments (Henry Gonzalez at Morgan Stanley), new products (Roberto Bocca at BP), and new strategies (Kevin Thompson of IBM). Their efforts are bringing about the successful corporate engagement that Francisco mentioned in his first post of 2010. In summary, we’re seeing definite signs that the next generation of social intrapreneurs will shift corporations in ways that will have large-scale impacts on the BoP landscape as we know it. Here are the reasons for some optimism on this front:

Social intrapreneurship is gaining steam. NextBillion readers, Net Impact members, and MBA students with valuable business skills have decided to take change into their own hands. They’re not waiting for full-time roles in international development and sustainability as evidenced by the increasing popularity of green and social impact teams and the positive organizational outcomes they produce.

Many companies are starting to ’get it.’ Organizations that have more engaged employees prosper. Hands down, no questions asked. Competition for talent and a desire to increase innovation across the board leads many companies to cater to individuals like social intrapreneurs who want to think outside the box. Through initiatives to change company culture as well as specific programs like Accenture’s Development Partnerships and Volans Talent Share, companies are providing employees with opportunities to develop their professional skills while working on with organizations and social entrepreneurs involved development work.

Best practices and communities of practice are rapidly emerging. Organizations including Net Impact, home to the Impact at Work Program, and the Aspen Institute, home of the First Movers Fellowship, have developed programs to support employees interested in integrating their social and environmental passions into their jobs. Meanwhile, recent reports here and here, elucidate the ’how-to’ of becoming a social intrapreneur. As we see from Ashoka’s work in social entrepreneurship, this kind of infrastructure can catapult a sector forward.

The potential is massive – but still only a “potential”. While bottoms-up approaches from organizations like D.Light, Samasource, and BlueEnergy can produce game-changing innovations and successful models, those organizations lack the support of a global corporate infrastructure to dramatically scale their ideas. Large companies simply have a greater amount of capital to leverage in support of BoP ideas. Yet in order to facilitate successful BoP engagement, a serious transformation in their approach is necessary. This genuine “transformation” is still more of an aspiration rather than a reality. Such a shift will require the invention of new business models that can, at scale, integrate the entrepreneurial insights of social intrapreneurs with the global systems of multinational corporations.

So what should aspiring social intrapreneurs do to help realize this potential?

To get the perspective of a social intrapreneur and BoP leader, I asked Peter Eliassen, current VP of Sales and Operations at VisionSpring and former social intrapreneur at Unilever and Capital One for his advice to NextBillion readers. He had the following thoughts to offer nascent social intrapreneurs hoping to help their company engage in BoP markets: “Don’t shout from the rooftops, but do make sure that all of your peers know what you are proposing.” By making colleagues aware of your intentions, you’ll identify others in the organization who are interested in the same issues and be referred to others in the organization who can advise and guide you. And if no one has thought of engaging in the BoP yet? “Educating your peers can be critical to success. Never assume that everyone is sufficiently aware of the business/development opportunity in BoP markets.”

In addition to connecting with likeminded colleagues and focusing on building awareness around BoP opportunities, Peter highlighted the need to present a sound business case for the BoP engagement. “Whether it is the already-established market growth coming from these markets or the unexpected purchasing power of individuals at the BoP, the business case for your idea needs to be solid,” he said. Social intrapreneurs should always recognize that short-term profitability may not initially be part of a BoP strategy and openly address that within their organization. To build their case and move an initiative forward, they should focus on the benefits from brand-building, product design insights, and the potential to source products in the near future from these markets.

We need to take advantage of this potentially powerful force within corporations that has the ability to identify and implement new strategies to serve BoP markets. So if you’re one of the attendees who packed the standing room only “Careers Paths at the BoP” panel Francisco Noguera recently led, don’t wait: it’s your time to shine.