Social Intrapreneurship – the New Wave of Change?

Image Credit: Fast Company

When I first came across the term ‘Social Intrapreneurship’, I confess I was little turned off by what seemed like another bit of jargon, for something that wasn’t really new or extraordinary. It didn’t seem too distinct from social entrepreneurship, except that the work happens from within a major company, or that distinct from Corporate Social Responsibility, except that the work is done by an individual. But, as I’ve followed the trend further over the last few months, there seems to be something more to this concept, one that merits further consideration. In particular, one of the most important aspects of this trend is that these intrapreneurs have access to an enormous bank of resources, and therefore can also make a very significant impact.

Fast Company defines Social Intrapreneurs as “employees who identify opportunities for social innovation within their corporation or organization, playing a part in making businesses better from the inside out.” This idea of working from the ‘inside-out’ isn’t something that I had really considered possible, being largely cynical of even CSR efforts, that seemed to me to be corporations paying lip service to the idea of social good, to very superficially counter the harm they were actually inflicting on society. And this opinion of mine wasn’t totally ill-founded. Corporations are not always the most hospitable places for innovation, especially when it deviates from their traditional course of work. Since they’re driven by profit, social good isn’t really an aim, or if it is, it’s usually a marginal goal.

But then I came across some examples of so-called Social Intrapreneurship, where the organization continued to benefit, but so did the social community it impacted. Here are some of those examples, may of which are well known and widely shared, and others less so:

1. Sam McCracken, who started out as a warehouse worker at Nike, and later became Nike’s Native American Business Manager and Chairman of the N7 Fund, stemming from the work he did to build a special business unit to service Native American communities. The N7 Fund, Sam’s initiative, provides product donations and grants to Native American and Aboriginal communities in support of sports and physical activity programs for youth who may not have access to these facilities. Read this interview with McCracken for his story of how the fund came to be.

2. Nick Hughes and Susie Lonie of Vodafone, the creators of M-Pesa, had no idea that this mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service would become the most developed mobile payment system in the world. M-Pesa allows users with a national ID card or passport to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money easily with a mobile device, and has consequently revolutionized small businesses and household transactions across Kenya and Tanzania, where it currently operates. Originally funded in parts by a grant from the UK government, M-Pesa was supposed to be a microfinance loan repayment system. But after running the pilot for about nine months, they began to see from customer behavior that it might be more useful as a person-to-person money transfer system. Given its success in Africa, the service is now also being launched in Afghanistan and India.

3. Regula Schegg from the Hilti Corporation (a company that serves the construction industry) was vice president of finance & business development for the company’s energy and industry division. She was also working with the Hilti Foundation. A couple years ago she began putting these two pieces of the company together and started to ask: How do we combine our product expertise and leading market position in construction with our foundation’s mission “to build a better future”? She is now living in Manila putting her financial and business development acumen to work to develop alternative building materials and modular housing systems for low income groups.

4. James Inglesby is a chemical engineer at Unilever now working in Lagos, Nigeria. His assignment, some years ago, was to look for new business opportunities for toilet cleaning products. Doing research in connection with World Toilet Day, James was stunned to learn that 2.6 billion people around the world lack access to proper sanitation. So he decided to look beyond Unilever’s established markets for new business opportunities. Ghana provided the first piloting opportunity. There, working with local community groups, he built a business for Unilever that offers a branded, affordably-priced, self-contained plastic toilet and a toilet cleaning service run by a local social business which uses Unilever cleaning products.

These are only some of the many examples out there of people who are trying to create a positive change from within the traditional corporation. More excellent examples can be found in this article from the Guardian, this one from Forbes, and in this post from Fast Co.Exist, announcing the winners of the League of Intrapreneurs Challenge. Also check out this excellent article on Micro Social-Intrepreneurs, also from Forbes. Finally, this excellent post from Fast Company on how Social Entrepreneurs and Social Intrapreneurs can learn from each other is definitely worth a read.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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