Intrapreneurs: Why social enterprises need them

By Hamish Forsyth | First published on the Guardian


As a social entrepreneur, you’ve doubtlessly cultivated a support network of social enterprise peers. You’re probably friendly with a crowd of regular entrepreneurs too. I’m assuming you’re linked into the charity and public sectors, sympathetic media types, and you probably have the name, address, private line, full measurements and seasonal gift preferences for anyone even faintly resembling an investor or funder.


So who’s missing? How many intrapreneneurs (aka corporate entrepreneurs) do you know? I’m not talking corporate managers, whose designated role is to interface with partners like you or specifically address social responsibility issues. These people might be intrapreneurs, but they certainly don’t have to be.


Richard Branson defined an intrapreneur as “an employee who is given the freedom and financial support to create new products, services and systems who does not have to follow the company’s usual routines and protocols”.


Intrapreneurs can show up in any part of an organisation. So why should intrapreneurs matter to you as a social entrepreneur?


First, you’re both believers and battlers, so you’re likely to get on. You are both entrepreneurs and you’re challenging the status quo. Social entrepreneurs are battling the idea that impact is difficult to reconcile with financial sustainability. Intrapreneurs are often battling the structures that big business places on entrepreneurial innovation. It can get lonely as an entrepreneur in a large organisation, so there’s a great basis on which to build camaraderie.


Which leads to the second point: as entrepreneurs they’ve got the imagination to see the potential of a big idea, and the attitude to push it through to realisation. If that big idea is your idea, intrapreneurs can be powerful internal advocates – even if they’re not in the “right” department. The fact they’ve been afforded the freedom they have suggests that they’ll be more likely than most to have internal clout.


Third, regardless of whether your work is a great fit for their company, as corporate entrepreneurs, they’ll have contacts like them in other organisations. They’ll also have a keen understanding of how corporates deal with proposals coming from outsiders like you. If your enterprise regularly works with large corporates, an intrapreneur could be a great mentor.


So, how should you connect?


First, look beyond the designated interface points for social entrepreneurs or social impact. Yes, you’re a social entrepreneur building your particular enterprise, but you’re also an entrepreneur more broadly. Go to networking events that attract a broader entrepreneur crowd – including those that specifically include corporates – and join a broader conversation.


Second, get past the “handout cringe” by looking for ways to give. Social entrepreneurs are still sometimes seen as traditional charities wrapped in new garb. People expect you to ask for a grant. Surprise them. You do the giving! Draw on your extended network to invite them to an event where they will meet other entrepreneurs, not just get pitched.


Third, learn more about them and their interests – they’re often undersung, but massively influential. Our new book How to Move Mountains as a Corporate Entrepreneur profiles 10 of the best. They range from social intrapreneurs, like David Meredith, director of strategic partnerships at the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, to Gonzalo Martín-Villa, chief executive of Telefónica’s global incubator Wayra, and other stars from Microsoft to Virgin, to name but a few.


Looking to connect with other like-minded entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs? Join the Ennovent Network - a global community that connects experts, mentors, investors, entrepreneurs to drive their innovations for low-income markets forward. Learn more about the Ennovent Network now.

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