Social Innovation

How social 'intrapreneurs' can help businesses achieve ESG targets

Social intrapreneurs are talented and ambitious employees

Social intrapreneurs are talented and ambitious employees who want to use their firm’s resources to create positive social and environmental impact. Image: Akil Mazumder for Pexels

Steve Krouskos
Global Managing Partner, Business Enablement, EY
François Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Head of Social Innovation, World Economic Forum
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  • An 'intrapreneur' is someone who behaves like an entrepreneur, while working within a large organisation.
  • Social intrapreneurs are talented and ambitious employees who want to use their firm's resources to create positive social and environmental impact.
  • Companies can encourage social intrapreneurship by creating a culture of innovation, promoting collaboration and measuring social, environmental and governance impact.

An 'intrapreneur' is someone who behaves like an entrepreneur, while working within a large organisation. Social intrapreneurs are talented and ambitious employees who want to use their firm’s resources to create positive social and environmental impact. At a time when the worlds of business and sustainable development are coming closer together, social intrapreneurs are moving into leading roles.

For companies that want to put stakeholder value at the core of their businesses and implement environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies, these “entrepreneurs within” are critical contributors. Finding ways to support and amplify their work is emerging as a key strategy to increasing competitive advantages, especially as businesses seek to reorientate themselves after the COVID-19 pandemic to be more inclusive and responsive.

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There is no shortage of intrapreneurs within organizations — and they are increasingly gaining recognition for driving the development of new products, initiatives, services and business models. Many of them are, however, working in isolation. This means that their impact can be ad hoc, or can get lost amid day-to-day business. Businesses need to systematize and scale up their reach and impact. And at this year’s World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact (SDI) Summit, leading companies shared how they are working to achieve this. Three common themes emerged.

1. Creating a broader culture of innovation

This is an important first step toward motivating intrapreneurs. Panelists agreed that one-off interventions don’t shift organizational culture and that this really must start from the top – it needs to be a clear company strategy, with ESG goals integrated into business objectives across the organization.

The reality is that ESG reporting is often a rhetorical exercise, and unless it is linked to the core business and strategy, it will never go beyond that, said one of the panellists, Harald Nusser, head of Global Patient Solutions at Gilead and corporate social intrapreneur at the Schwab Foundation. “For me, social intrapreneurship is nothing less than pioneering an intentional process originating in a corporation designed to fundamentally change the components and structures that prevent the creation of positive societal outcomes.”

To achieve this, Nusser recommends starting with outcomes over outputs, which allows companies to go beyond a risk-driven ESG perspective, seeing ESG instead as a business imperative and an opportunity to create value, make a positive impact and gain competitive advantage.

2. Promoting collaboration across company boundaries

Social intrapreneurs are natural collaborators, making connections on the inside and outside of their companies, and they need to be supported and encouraged to do this more. This kind of collaboration can create significant impact. For example, the 100+ Accelerator Programme, a collaboration between Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Colgate-Palmolive Company and Unilever, seeks to pilot and scale up innovative solutions, and funds sustainable innovation in supply chains. In two years, it raised US$200 million to find better ways of doing business, particularly around water usage, agricultural practices and climate change.

Another example is TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive - a collaborative platform that aims to inspire, support and connect impact enterprises whose futures are threatened by COVID-19 developed by Unilever, the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the EY organization — through its EY Ripples program.

Africa Improved Foods (AIF) is an example of a public private partnership built by an intrapreneur at Royal DSM, together with the Government of Rwanda and a consortium of backers. Amar Ali, President of the Africa Region for Royal DSM and the founding-CEO of AIF, has impacted the lives of more than 1.5m people through the World Food Programme - establishing the largest anti-stunting programme in the region, generating $50m revenue for the company and making it a market leader in Rwanda and Kenya.

3. Ensure social intrapreneurship can lead to measurable progress

While most companies have ESG targets and policies in place, many find it challenging to bring these to life. A global ESG survey reveals that 46 percent of companies find the social aspect the most challenging to embed at their organizations.

The ability to measure progress is a critical accelerant that can help turn ESG policy into impact and shareholder value. Metrics create a level of transparency and hold organizations accountable for supporting their social intrapreneurs. They can also identify gaps and areas that need improvement and motivate social intrapreneurs to collaborate and work toward further progress.


What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

In an important step toward making it easier for corporations to measure ESG, last year, the World Economic Forum International Business Council launched a set of universal metrics to measure stakeholder capitalism. The metrics build on existing standards and frameworks and were developed over a year of unprecedented collaboration between the EY organization, Bank of America, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC with the support of over 100 organizations, investors and corporates. They are intended to apply to all industries and regions, and to align with the sustainable development goals, so companies can track these consistently.

Of course, metrics alone do not automatically translate into improved ESG outcomes — like any other business priority, stakeholder capitalism is a matter of execution. Making our organizations and markets more resilient and sustainable is the change management process of a lifetime. We have to infuse sustainability and ESG into every single service that we offer, and into the services that our clients offer. This will require corporate transformation and breakthrough collaboration as well as a commitment to supporting social intrapreneurs and ESG champions.

We have the opportunity of a generation, maybe the obligation of a generation, to really harness the power of companies and our ecosystems, to work together to redefine the role of corporations as net positive organizations in our collective future. Social intrapreneurs, encouraged through an organization’s culture and focus, can be critical change agents — not only generating innovative ideas to address internal needs, but also delivering value to all stakeholders.

Find out more about the Schwab Foundation’s Corporate Social Intrapreneur Awards and our programme for corporate social intrapreneurs with Yunus Social Business, Unusual Pioneers. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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