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Social Intrapreneurs Are Just As Important As Entrepreneurs

Working to create change inside a company—or being a "systempreneur" working to change an entire system—can be just as valuable to society and the economy as charting your own course.

Okay, we admit it: We adore mutants—the right sort, anyway. They move easily between different worlds, helping bridge current and future realities. The Breakthrough Capitalism Forum we hosted in May was pulsating with them. Most of those that attended our forum are pursuing the holy grail of breakthrough—that is, they are pursuing systemic solutions to environmental, social, and governance challenges. But their business cards identify them as many things: CEOs, CFOs, chief sustainability officers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, or in rare cases, as intrapreneurs.

The label "intrapreneur," applied to change agents working to develop entrepreneurial solutions from inside the belly of the beast, tracks back to 1978 when Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot first used the term while attending The School for Entrepreneurs in Tarrytown, New York. Thirty years later, in 2008, we coined the term "social intrapreneur" and published The Social Intrapreneur report. Among the companies we investigated were Accenture, Banco Real in Brazil, CEMEX in Mexico, Ford, Hindustan Lever in India, Morgan Stanley, Nike, and Procter and Gamble, all working to nurture and build intrapreneurial talent.

Ask social intrapreneurs for the secrets of their success, and most pause before answering. Clearly, most aren’t following any well-scripted playbook. Indeed, it is striking how often, alongside words like "collaboration," they mention things like "serendipity," "alchemy," and "magic." "You can’t project manage a cultural revolution," one intrapreneur told us.

Another genetic strand we see replicating in the breakthrough space is found in an emerging group of mutants, who we call "systempreneurs." Like their close cousins, the entrepreneur and intrapreneur, systempreneurs focus on mobilizing resources to tackle challenges and search for innovative new solutions. Instead of focusing on challenges of a new enterprise (as entrepreneurs do) or driving change inside big organizations (as intrapreneurs do), they have their sights set on system-level change.

Systempreneurs and intrapreneurs have moved beyond the notion that external stakeholders are to be herded in periodically and squeezed for whatever they can contribute by way of insight. Instead, they view external organizations—and particularly social enterprises—as potential market enablers and strategic partners. At their best, they tirelessly weave together inside-out and outside-in dynamics to create truly out-of-the-box solutions. We spotlight examples from our Breakthrough Capitalism Forum below.

Very few intrapreneurs have the advantage enjoyed by David Stubbs, head of sustainability for the London 2012 Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. His passion for sustainability was central to the London Olympics project, where he had the opportunity to implement a vision for the games from the ground up. More typically, intrapreneurs are working to turn around vast supertankers in the form of incumbent companies with established (if dysfunctional) business models and interests deeply vested in the old order.

Justin Adams, who at the time of the forum was still heading the alternative energy unit at BP (but has since left to develop his own sustainable energy venture), spoke of the trap of dualisms—rejecting the ideas that the world breaks easily down into the forces of good and evil, and that we should separate our personal and business selves.

Our second social intrapreneur, Paul Ellingstad of HP’s Sustainability and Social Innovation team, explained the tangible, action-oriented ways in which the company’s technology is being used to enable health care programs in developing countries in partnership with social enterprises. Such change agents see the early shared value outcomes as field experiments road-testing and refining tomorrow’s solutions.

Breakthrough innovation critically depends on this sort of positive reframing, something we also see in the presentation by David Porter, managing partner at health care venture fund Apposite Capital. As a financial entrepreneur and a systempreneur, he has identified a series of major developing crises in health care systems around the world. Many of these system-level challenges are driven by the aging trend, including the "time–bomb" posed by dementia.

He spotlights a number of ways in which innovation and entrepreneurial approaches can help us get on top of key challenges, including coping with the oncoming silver tsunami of elderly people.

Rather than just looking for ways to patch an existing, dysfunctional system, systempreneurs aim to do what the Occupy movement and others have called for: changing the system itself. Their early successes suggest that, with the right combination of political will, business acumen, and entrepreneurial spirit, capitalism can be rebooted to make it fit for future purpose.