The rise of the social intrapreneur: 5 ways to foster corporate purpose post-COVID-19

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Social intrapreneurs create a momentum for change within companies, but they can't do it alone. It takes courage and intent to support these pioneers. Image: Unsplash

Daniel Nowack
Head, Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • We must redesign our economy for an authentic purpose after the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Social intrapreneurship is a catalytic tool for this corporate purpose and transformation, but it must be nurtured within companies.
  • The Unusual Pioneers program from Yunus Social Business, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Porticus is a platform to bring together these corporate social intrapreneurs to learn from each other.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that life cannot go on as it was before. COVID-19 dealt a devastating blow to the global economy. We must redesign it. Companies are already committing to putting stakeholder value at the core of their business, with ambitions to develop products that truly serve a societal purpose, radically cut carbon emissions and create a fair, inclusive and resilient value chain. Now we need the roadmap to get there.

One way of facilitating this transition is through social intrapreneurs – employees who create innovative business solutions to social or environmental problems, using the assets and resources of their own companies. They become entrepreneurs from within and, through their pioneering role, create a momentum for change that inspires others to take action. But they cannot do it alone. It is not enough to send hordes of employees to design thinking workshops and have middle managers sip cappuccinos with start-up founders. It needs courage, intent and leadership to develop ecosystems for these pioneers.

Looking to the Business As Unusual research series published earlier this year by Yunus Social Business, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Porticus, we have distilled the top five recommendations for growing a culture of social intrapreneurship in your company:

1. Create a consistent narrative that highlights how innovation for the planet and society is linked to your corporate purpose

Employees need to understand how their company, their products and ultimately their own work is relevant to the world. But how do you achieve that? Start by formulating a clear purpose that outlines how your company meaningfully contributes to relevant societal or environmental problems. Once you’ve done that, make it tangible for everyone: highlight how solving these problems links to your business objectives, corporate strategy and long-term value creation. Use some of the existing case studies of social intrapreneurship to showcase concrete examples. And, most importantly, talk about the journey behind them – the struggles, the challenges, the doubts, as well as the successes. An authentic narrative will inspire people to experiment.

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2. Link social intrapreneurship to your core mission and strategy

A clear link to core strategy is key for the success of social intrapreneurs. It ensures that they get access to the resources they need to make progress and that they create value for everyone in the organization.

Understand how the underlying societal trends and issues social intrapreneurs are addressing also impact your long-term value creation. For example, AXA’s Emerging Customers, led by the Schwab Foundation Corporate Intrapreneur Awardee Garance Wattez-Richard, innovates insurance products to shield vulnerable people in developing countries from devastating risks. Through these insights, Garance and her team are innovating insurance products and creating insights into AXA’s future markets among the rising middle class.

By shifting social intrapreneurship from the “nice-to-have” fringes of the business directly into its core operations, you create value for the entire organization – and ensure that transformation can happen throughout the company.


3. Adapt incentive systems and internal policies to support social intrapreneurship

A bold corporate purpose is bound to fail if it is not accompanied by changes in policy. It is like running the latest iPhone on an old operating system.

Integrate social and sustainability metrics into your objective setting and incentive systems. That way, you create a breeding ground for innovation and social intrapreneurship, as well as the mandate for employees to act entrepreneurially.

Allow employees to spend time at work on their own projects (e.g. Google’s “20% time” policy) and make sure that taking on a social intrapreneurship project can actually boost an employee’s career (e.g. Louise James became a managing director at Accenture in parts for her work on Accenture Development Partnerships).

4. Create the pathways for social intrapreneurship with long-term budgets

Create the infrastructure for social intrapreneurs to succeed such as bootcamps, innovation teams, new product fast-tracks or even business units for social innovation. Danone Communities, led by Schwab Awardee, Corinne Bazina, is a separate business unit that supports 12 social businesses developing sustainable business models to address challenges such as malnutrition, access to water and poverty reduction, across 15 countries. The unit is directly reaching six million people every day.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Secondly, secure long-term financial support beyond the usual budgeting cycles through societal innovation funds. Some intrapreneurs simulate this by creating a multi-year roadmap early on. These roadmaps include concrete milestones as success markers to trigger the disbursement of funds and resources.

5. Connect to a community of social intrapreneurs

Community, both internally and externally, is an important element of innovation at all levels.

We found exactly these connections to be a key success factor in our research. It led us at Yunus Social Business and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, to work with Porticus and a range of organizations in the social intrapreneurship sector to launch the Unusual Pioneers program.

The program brings together social intrapreneurs from companies around the world in a nine-month support program. Seasoned social intrapreneurs will share their knowledge with early-stage intrapreneurs, while world-class coaches support the scale of their initiatives and high-level speakers outline the role of social intrapreneurship for the stakeholder economy. An exclusive executive circle offers an exchange for C-level leaders to drive purpose-transformation based on the inspiring examples of their social intrapreneurs.

Building a new economy does not happen by chance, it takes brave, remarkable individuals to go beyond what is expected of them. These individuals – both executives and intrapreneurs – need a lively ecosystem, resources and global visibility to create impactful change.

Find out more about the Schwab Foundation’s Corporate Social Intrapreneur Awards and our new programme with the Yunus Social Business Unusual Pioneers.

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