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The Rise Of The Intrapreneurs

Discovering a lost tribe in corporate America: The people trying to make it better from the inside.

Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, surrounded by a liberal progressive zeitgeist, my heroes as a kid were social change revolutionaries like Gandhi, Martha Berry, Black Elk, and Rosa Parks. This hero-worship was only reiterated by my Quaker school education and anthropologist parents, who emphasized more untold heroes or "people without history."

In this way, quietly in youth, I built a reverence for fringe and "others": people who brought change from the outside and disrupted our current system; people who caused us to question the status quo and uphold justice and equality. For me, it was the people from the outside that policed our system and upheld our values.

It never occurred to me that change from within was possible. The inside was full of bureaucrats, corporate cogs, and the corrosive effects of power and money. In short, like many, I was very skeptical of "the man." Having never encountered businessmen in childhood, except through the board game Life in which the "Accountant" always lost out to the "Athlete," "Rock Star," or "Artist," my first exposure to the corporate world was through friends during college. These friends held summer internships at investment banks, or prepped for interviews to attain prestigious consulting jobs at places like Bain or McKinsey.

I remember one summer when a friend of mine called me, crying from the bathroom at Goldman Sachs. I don’t remember exactly what her grievance had been—maybe a trader had made some lewd comment, or she was being forced into a PowerPoint-Excel combination of slave labor—but on the spot I offered the only advice I could really muster: "Be an anthropologist," I said. "Don’t take anything personally. Don’t get too invested. Just watch and learn the culture. You don’t have to identify with it."

This small piece of advice seemed to help my friend cope through her summer internship. And later on, this philosophy helped me enormously as I embarked on my own journey into the corporate trenches. For as my parents sought exotic places for field research and investigation—indigenous livelihood in the Amazon rainforest and UFO abduction in Zambia, being some of their topics of study—I turned my attention to a site of inquiry that seemed, given my upbringing, to be the most exotic and foreign to my sensibilities: the corporate world.

Upon entering the corporate world, one has many questions. The sheer willpower that corporate employees commit to sitting at a desk and in a chair from nine to five, for nearly 365 days year, barring holidays, was astonishing. The height of civilization and technological progress has brought us here, to our own enslavement. Employees agree to this stationary sort of lifestyle in exchange for money, which translates into purchasing power. "Sit still, earn money, buy things," became a shorthand formula for my understanding of the workplace.

But as many good anthropologists know, it is only after years of study—years of living and sharing the lives of others—that you begin to develop an understanding of some of the greater rationales at work within the micro-society you’re investigating. So I persevered in this corporate heart-of-darkness, eager to find some exotic maxims that transcended words like "synergy," "vertical integration," and "win-win." But what I encountered disappointed.

Human communications in corporate America consisted of vague phraseology to mask serious hidden tensions. "Keep me in the loop," came up again and again. This is a request that comes from a deep-seated fear of being marginalized or not privy to what’s going on.

It’s not quite as underhanded as "my two cents," which cloaks underlying egoism in humility. My favorite is perhaps the "let’s think outside the box," because—let’s face it—in corporate America the box outside is, in fact, just another box that passes as less of a box.

As my former poetry teacher, Ben Lerner, explained, language in companies "approaches the absurd, where the shell of a communicative form is used to foreclose communication." That’s it exactly. There could not be a climate less hospitable to language and free expression than the corporation. Impoverished discourse became even worse in companies that have branded little micro-philosophies that become hackneyed with use: Just Do It (Nike), Don’t be Evil (Google), Get More Out of Now (Dell).

The genius about such go-to mottos is they provide a shortcut to decision-making that acts to push away all existential doubt. In uncertainty, "Just Do It" instantly calms and alleviates. "Scenario analysis? Strategy?" One could say, "No, just do it." It’s essentially a "carry on" incentive for what multinational institutions do best: Keep on doing what you’re doing.

Just as I thought my corporate ethnography was going nowhere, I stumbled on a lost tribe. The people I met were not just doing "business-as-usual" (another phrase I picked up), but they were actually trying to shift their company’s corporate course.

The first I encountered was a guy called Sam. He started out as a warehouse worker at Nike, and managed to build an entire business unit to service Native American communities. After Sam, I met someone called Nick who managed to secure external funding at Vodafone to set up something called M-Pesa, now a fairly well known mobile banking service with more than 17 million customers in Kenya alone.

What Sam and Nick held in common was a deep commitment to social change. They had many of the same heroes that I came to appreciate in my youth. But they also managed to move beyond childhood hero worship, and bring their commitment to society into their day jobs.

Rather than checking themselves at the door, they arrived at work fully embodied and committed to infecting their companies with purposefulness. People like Sam and Nick are social intrapreneurs, agents within companies that are committed to aligning business with society.

As companies struggle to think through how to incorporate a triple bottom line agenda into business, or manage one at arm’s length through corporate responsibility or communications departments, social intrapreneurs provide a cure—driving social innovation from core business.

As I came to meet more and more people like Sam and Nick, folks that were pioneering access to energy programs inside Exxon, developing microfinance programs within Morgan Stanley, or developing sustainability-based customer-engagement strategies at places like Unilever, I came to appreciate that companies could be a force for good in the world. And moreover, that while small, this tribe of social intrapreneurs that I discovered was one I desperately wanted to ensure would never go extinct.

Companies are not always the most hospitable places for innovation. They don’t always know how to take care of their intrapreneurs. So how could we nurture and grow this small tribe? How could we find more social intrapreneurs within big business that were fighting courageous battles to shift the culture of their companies? How could we turn this lost tribe into an enduring social movement with companies?

The first step seemed to me that we needed to get some basic demographic information. How big is this tribe of social intrapreneurs? What are they working on? Where are they sitting within business?

To answer some of these questions, we needed a powerful call to action. And that’s what we’re trying to create. Bringing together two unlikely players: Ashoka, a global organization committed to finding the most cutting-edge social change agents, and Accenture, a global management consultancy that helps corporate clients perform.

Together, we’ve partnered to launch The League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business from the Inside Out, an online competition to find employees within multinational corporations that are applying entrepreneurial skill sets within business to create positive social and environmental impact.