Social entrepreneurs have been getting their share of the limelight, especially as new legal entities, such as benefit corporations and L3Cs, have emerged during the last few years. But social intrapreneurs have mostly flown under the radar.
Whether viewed as superheroes in business suits or everyday corporate employees, it has become increasingly evident that—like social entrepreneurs—social intrapreneurs are here to stay. They are employees who identify opportunities for social innovation within their corporation or organization, playing a part in making businesses better from the inside out.
Some may even consider themselves to be individuals who “apply the principles of social entrepreneurship inside a major organization.” As this group of changemakers begins to attract attention, we are learning more about their identity and what they really do.
Initiatives like Ashoka’s League of Intrapreneurs competition are bringing even more attention to the field, and providing useful support and resources to social innovators that are working within companies and existing systems.
But the distinction between social entrepreneurs and social intrapreneurs is not always clear. Both make use of business techniques and strategies to achieve social change. Beyond this, there are five important things to know about these two groups of changemakers:
This is the most obvious characteristic shared by intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs of all kinds. Both see a problem and follow through on a desire to solve it. Whether they are building something on their own, or working within an existing organization, the intense curiosity of both social entrepreneurs and social intrapreneurs differentiates them from their peers. It drives them to identify and exploit opportunities that address societal needs in unique ways.
There is no denying that the risks faced by social intrapreneurs and social entrepreneurs are very different. Entrepreneurship is a high-stakes, high-reward game. Social entrepreneurs invest their time and financial capital to turn their visions into realities. Unless they are fortunate enough to secure investors early, they also experience a loss of income until they can generate a sustaining source of revenue, which can take years.
Social intrapreneurs, on the other hand, are employees that typically take on social innovation initiatives in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities. They are comfortable pushing the boundaries of their role within their organization, effectively navigating bureaucracy and corporate policies that can penalize and discourage their initiatives—sometimes even risking their job in the process.
The success of initiatives championed by both social intrapreneurs and social entrepreneurs depends on solid management and strategy. Both work diligently to execute their visions for social change, ready to leverage any opportunity to take their ideas to the next level.
Beyond this, the success their initiatives largely depends on timing. For entrepreneurs, this may mean launching and growing an organization just when market forces align so that they are responding to market demand. Intrapreneurs, on the other hand, may need to demonstrate the impact and effectiveness of their initiative just as management’s strategic objectives shift in their favor.
Despite the daily frustrations faced by social intrapreneurs, they often have a number of resources at their disposal. Social entrepreneurs may not have the luxury of leveraging a company’s infrastructure, existing partnerships, and a robust employee knowledge base.
But these resources are not handed to social intrapreneurs on a silver platter. They have to be just as resourceful as social entrepreneurs in order to take advantage of them.
Social entrepreneurs often create something from nothing. They work in new, undefined environments, creating markets and products where none existed previously. Similarly, social intrapreneurs, while working within the confines of an organization, are creating something that didn’t previously exist. They too must identify a need that hasn’t been met and develop programs, services, and products that positively impact a community and society at large.
Ultimately, both social entrepreneurs and social intrapreneurs are working toward the same goal: shifting the way businesses operate.