Aug. 15, 2016 12:56 pm

Social intrapreneurs are changing business from the inside out

Here's how to foster innovative thinking within your existing social impact organization — and why it matters.

Maggie de Pree's TED Talk on intrapreneurship.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

Editor’s note: Jen Singley, who was interviewed for this article, is a friend of the Generocity editorial team. Editor's note: Some language in this article has been updated to clarify how governments view potential failure. Edit 8/15 @ 1:45 p.m.
Say what you will about the portmanteau injustice of “intrapreneurship.” But more established organizations are aiming to think smarter about their processes — ones with mission as well as profit goals.

Now, it’s possible that intrapreneurship is just another corporate buzzword — à la “pivot,” “pioneer,” “digital storytelling” — that sounds innovative but is ultimately meaningless. Or maybe it’s an organizational line of thinking that could have some serious effect on the social sector for the better.

League of Intrapreneurs cofounder Maggie de Pree calls intrapreneurs “somebody inside an existing institution applying the assets of that company to advance the good” in her TED Talk on the topic. (Yup, there’s even a League of Intrapreneurs.)

Intrapreneurship can be applicable to both for-profit and nonprofit entities, to government and academia. It only requires that the employee be willing to think creatively to solve a problem within their organization.

Here’s an example: Alyssa Thomas is just one employee within a huge, bustling bureaucracy — the City of Philadelphia — but because of the nature of her work, she’s been afforded considerable freedom to test her ideas.

Thomas joined the Office of Business Services two years ago to launch and develop a Philadelphia branch of Kiva Zip, a crowdfunding org that allows individuals to lend money interest-free to local entrepreneurs. She came on with no blueprint, except for a previous Kiva fellowship, and little guidance. No one in city government had launched such a program before, and she was the only person in charge of Kiva Zip. 

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An intrapreneur is 'somebody inside an existing institution applying the assets of that company to advance the good.'

“Probably 90 percent is me just figuring it out,” she said. “Crowdfunding was a unique thing anyway for [government], so people didn’t understand what the platform was.”

It’s important to acknowledge that in more traditional government or nonprofit settings, employees are often given less opportunity to take initiative and try new things — partially because potential failure is discouraged. But when you’re working alone on something that’s never been done before, all you do is try new things, Thomas said — “You learn what doesn’t work.” 

Last December, for instance, she launched a pop-up shop at Dilworth Park of existing Kiva Zip entrepreneurs’ wares. It was a lot of work for a one-person team, and she realized she’d need a partner to do it again. Even so, the freedom to do what she thinks will work has been good for the Kiva Zip program, she said.

“I think this program has been so successful because it hasn’t been stringently contained,” she said. “We can be a little more lax, more creative.”

Fox School of Business professor and innovation expert Dr. Robert McNamee believes that at the heart of intrapreneurship is “the idea that entrepreneurial thinking can happen within any organization.”

“If you want to enable people to be intrapreneurs, you need to help them understand the goals of the organization and allow them leeway to innovate within the organization,” he said.

But it’s not just about total freedom for employees, McNamee said. Three things need to happen to encourage intrapreneurship:

  1. Consciously design the org to allow them innovative thinking — “You get the culture you design,” he said. Information sharing and best practices sharing must be inherent.
  2. Hire people who want to create new value — “Critical thinking” and “problem solving” skills aren’t usually noted in job descriptions, but they should be if a company is hoping to attract intrapreneurs.
  3. Give them the appropriate freedom to do so — This might be a monthly meeting with both customer-facing employees and C-levels or something less formal, but those with ideas need the outlet to share them.

It’s about motivating via longer-term goals and objectives, as opposed to the day-to-day, McNamee said — “How are we moving toward XYZ goal?” 

McNamee emphasized that intrapreneurship doesn’t only work in the social impact sector, but that there is a “huge opportunity” here to solve complex problems with intrapreneurship — B Corps and other social enterprises have inherently creative business models would do especially well with such a model.

Old City-based social enterprise United By Blue has at least one intrapreneur on its staff. When we spoke in April, Retail Director Jen Singley was managing one of UBB’s two Philly locations, getting ready to open the seasonal shop in Asbury Park, and had just signed the lease on the new site in Manhattan, which opened in June — all while managing 15 to 20 employees.

“Since I’ve been with the company for three years now, I’m able to make a lot of bigger-picture decisions on my own without going to the owner of the company,” she said. “I definitely do a lot of putting protocols in place because I do oversee the most people in the company. We’re such a new company, so most of the time, we don’t have set rules for things.”

In other words, she sets the rules as she goes.

“We just come across so many things on a day-to-day basis that we don’t have [plans] for,” Singley said — and that’s especially difficult when you’re a mission-minded company. There are more unexpected hurdles. When developing UBB’s shirts’ packaging, the staff realized it couldn’t just add any old plastic baggies to hold extra buttons. That would completely counter the business’s green focus. So, Singley figured out a partnership with TerraCycle, a Trenton-based recycling company.

As League of Intrapreneurs Global Ambassador Brian Kurtz sees it, intrapreneurship has the potential make a huge impact on the world.

“Anybody can be an intrapreneur. Anybody can make change wherever they are,” said Kurtz, who has worked with intrapreneurs in the corporate, government, academic and nonprofit sectors across three continents. “They just have an impulse to evolve. That’s what it is to be an intrapreneur — to evolve not just themselves, but their organization, their community, their country.”

A lofty sentiment for sure. But socially minded organizations need to think creatively to solve the world’s biggest problems. Corporate buzzword or no, intrapreneurship should be one way they do it.


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