Social Innovation

Why change-making intrapreneurs are a key source of renewable energy for businesses

A worker stands as he looks at a wind turbine used to generate electricity, at a wind farm in Guazhou, 950km (590 miles) northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province September 15, 2013. China is pumping investment into wind power, which is more cost-competitive than solar energy and partly able to compete with coal and gas. China is the world's biggest producer of CO2 emissions, but is also the world's leading generator of renewable electricity. Environmental issues will be under the spotlight during a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which will meet in Stockholm from September 23-26. Picture taken September 15, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria  (CHINA - Tags: ENERGY BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT) - GM1E99M14RE01

A cultural change is needed to realize the potential. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Gib Bulloch
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Craigberoch Business Decelerator
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
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Social Innovation

  • Intrapreneurial talent is a critical resource for corporate innovation as business increasingly pivots towards sustainability and purpose.
  • These creative spirits are being dampened by long hours, burn out, or disillusionment with corporate systems.
  • A culture change is needed at corporations if they are to fully access this precious internal source of renewable energy.

As the world visibly slowed down to cope with the grip of the global pandemic, people who didn’t consider themselves part of the green agenda began to recognise the benefits of fresh air and smog-free cities. It’s a timely reminder for the discussions taking place later this year as the United Kingdom hosts the CoP 26 Climate Conference in November in Glasgow when the climate crisis will top both the political and boardroom agendas.

Corporations are well placed to address the climate crisis and inter-related global challenges by drawing on the latent innovation potential of their people. For example, in response to the crisis, Maya Mehta, fellow of The League of Intrapreneurs, developed a sustainable finance product for BNP Paribas from her role in their legal department. Changing food systems and persistent malnutrition presented an opportunity for Royal DSM intrapreneur, Amar Ali, to help create a partnership called Africa Improved Foods with the Rwandan government and IFC, earning him a Schwab Foundation Corporate Social Intrapreneur Award. By fuelling such “intrapreneurs”, these organisations can tap into new sources of renewable energy for the benefit of all.

We’ve already seen innovation at work in response to the pandemic. Employees across many businesses, large and small, demonstrated their innate creativity and entrepreneurial flair towards helping others in need during 2020. For a brief moment, the relentless pressure of short-term earnings was not the main focus, giving workforces permission to offer up ideas that would have been considered unpalatable in normal circumstances.

Seemingly overnight, perfume manufacturers switched to making hand sanitisers, car manufactures made ventilators, and fashion brands made face masks. These new ways to approach traditional practices are certainly grounds for optimism in tackling the even greater challenge of the climate crisis and the energy transition within the global economy.

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Climate and culture change

Seeking new sources of renewable energy isn’t simply an issue for the oil majors. Nor is it related purely to the environment. Many corporates are finding that their human resources are depleting, too. Scarce intrapreneurial talent is becoming even more rare as creative spirits are being dampened by long hours, burn out, or disillusionment with corporate systems.

Leaders know that they cannot afford to ignore attrition within this crucial demographic. The opportunity cost of losing existing or potential intrapreneurs is enormous and has implications for the long term. Organisations need to re-engage their workforces, inspire them to make the best of their innate potential for creativity and keep a fresh flow of talent to build greater resilience within the business.

So what should savvy companies do if they want to tap into new sources of renewable energy in their people?

1. Find new ways to engage the workforce

Levels of engagement worldwide remain stubbornly low—as few as 15% of employees are actively engaged globally according to a Gallup workplace report. Meanwhile, employers are finding that the traditional levers of employee motivation, such as higher pay, are increasingly ineffectual. More progressive ideas, such free yoga classes, gym memberships and healthier food offerings in the corporate cafeteria have limited impact, especially when employees are predominantly working from home.

It may be that these are sticking plaster solutions on wounds to employee morale that have deepened over many years. Until businesses seriously reflect on what they do and how they do it, they will struggle to engage a workforce that is seeking a greater purpose and the highest standards of ethical behavior from their employers.

2. Inspire the changemakers within

If engagement is secure, the challenge then becomes how to inspire and awaken the dormant changemakers within. Organisations need to promote a corporate culture where intrapreneurs and their ideas can flourish. For innovative ideas to bubble from the bottom up, the right tone has to be set from the top down.

For example, Unusual Pioneers, a collaborative programme between Yunus Social Business, Porticus and the Schwab Foundation, is adopting an innovative approach to inspiring such talent by connecting companies, intrapreneurial employees and a curated community of peers. In this way, social intrapreneurs can develop new skills, test, iterate, and grow their ideas into business solutions.


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3. Retain and rejuvenate

Identifying and inspiring an organization’s internal Elon Musks is not enough—holding onto them is every bit as important. One of the areas affecting retention is mental health, with issues in the workplace at an all-time time high. Corporates need to shift from a singular focus on the mental health of individuals, to looking at the mental health of the system in which they are operating. Breakdown, burnout, and disengagement are perfectly normal human responses to a system whose pace and expectation has escalated beyond all reasonable limits.

In the world of motor racing, driving fast is not difficult. But winning races requires more than speed—it needs a skilful and well-timed use of the brake. In business today, we have certainly mastered the accelerator pedal—we’ve had a proverbial foot planted firmly on it for the past few decades with the accent on growth and shareholder value. And in doing so we’ve forgotten the brake even exists. Perhaps this is another area where the pandemic has taught us the power of the braking behaviours—and the importance of taking a break to reflect and realign direction.

People as renewable energy

Aside from experiencing the full impact of a health and humanitarian crisis on our personal and professional lives, we now have the challenge of economic recovery and active reminders of the importance of culture and climate change. Igniting the spark of innovation requires dedication and purpose. And if we are to benefit from those inputs, we need to protect our people and help them to apply the brake before they burn out or give up. Business has an opportunity to change its role in society—and tapping into the renewable energy of talent is a good place to start.

Find out more about the Schwab Foundation’s Corporate Social Intrapreneur Awards and our new programme for corporate social intrapreneurs with Yunus Social Business Unusual Pioneers, For more on the concept of business “deceleration” visit

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Social InnovationForum InstitutionalStakeholder CapitalismWellbeing and Mental Health
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May 29, 2024

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