In the last decade, a new breed of entrepreneurs began to appear, armed only with ideas and a big heart; they attacked the world’s toughest development problems. Dubbed social entrepreneurs, they cropped everywhere. Brazil, India, South Korea, US, UK and even places like Pakistan have seen the rise of social entrepreneurs. They have done a stellar job so far, combating problems related to energy, livelihoods, health and sanitation, healthcare and poverty. The governments of the world have joined in, lending a helping hand by introducing new policies, regulations and innovative financial instruments like social bonds. However, global developmental problems cannot be eliminated by just social entrepreneurs and supportive governments, they are going to need the support of large corporations because of the sheer money power that they wield.
According to Forbes, the largest 2000 corporations in the world accounted for $36 trillion in revenues and $149 trillion in assets in 2012. Other than their corporate social responsibility activities, private enterprises have largely been missing from the social entrepreneurship revolution.
Say hello to the social intrapreneur. They have the same motivations as social entrepreneurs- to affect social and environmental change- but they do it within organizations. A 2008 report on social intrapreneurs by Echoing Green described them as “someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures.” While they may not have been called social intrapreneurs, they have been around for a long time. However, their role in the past five or six years has been formalized. Their motivation is not monetary gain, but to execute a vision, and have social and environmental impact.
The world is beginning to take notice. A new competition last year, organized by Ashoka and Accenture called League of Social Intrapreneurs Competition, was floated in 2012 to support and recognize this growing movement tried to lure these employees out of their cubicles and into the open. “More and more people inside big companies are identifying with the label, and now there are companies who want to roll out internal strategy programs to cultivate it,” says Alexa Clay, Ashoka’s director of social intrapreneurship.
Social intrapreneurs leveraging the nearly infinite corporate resources at their disposal can affect massive impact. Eventually, due to sheer size, intrapreneurs can have a more marked impact than social entrepreneurs. In an article in Devex, Robert Tomasko, who directs American University’s Social Enterprise Program, echoes this fact. “Starting a new venture or being a solo entrepreneur is great, but when you go into an existing organization and change it from inside, you can have a much bigger impact,” said Tomasko.
S. Sivakumar may not have known that he was displaying social intrapreneurial instincts when he approached Yogesh Chander Deveshwar, chairman, ITC in 2000 for an investment of Rs 50 lakh to test an idea in his agri-business unit. Deveshwar gave Sivakumar 20 times as much and sanctioned Rs 10 crore to test the idea of directly procuring farm produce from soya farmers in Madhya Pradesh, thereby eliminating middle-men and helping farmers make a better profit. Deveshwar granted him Rs 10 crore. Today e-Choupal’ services today reach out to over 4 million farmers growing a range of crops – soyabean, coffee, wheat, rice, pulses, shrimp – in over 40,000 villages through 6500 internet kiosks across 10 states. Sivakumar’s idea solves the problem of non-existent supply chains and also reduces the role of intermediaries.
Considering that India has been a hotbed for social entrepreneurs, and the fact that private enterprises in India have a bigger corporate social responsibility (CSR) role because of India’s inequality, the role of the social intrapreneur becomes all the more important. Vijay Sharma was celebrated as one of the social intrapreneurs driving change within his organization in EchoingGreen’s 2008 report on social intrapreneurs. The initiative that he headed up then (he has since moved on and is currently at GSK) is Hindustan Unillever’s Project Shakti, which spawns women entrepreneurs in villages. Shakti started in 2000, with 17 women in two states. Currently it touches the lives of 45,000 women in 15 Indian states across 100,000 villages and impacts over 3 million households every month.
Intuit’s Fasal is a superb example of how the vision of a single woman created an entire business that currently reaches out to a million farmers. Created by Deepa Fasal in 2009, Fasal is a free SMS-based service for farmers that passes on precious agriculture-related information. According the Intuit, Fasal registered users make an additional Rs 15,000 to Rs 30,000 a year.
Sydney Lai, sustainability manager at Standard Chartered recalls how an Indian employee came up with idea outsource low-skill, data-related tasks to disadvantaged communities. “We’ve been able to provide job opportunities in rural villages and to people with disabilities who might otherwise have a hard time leaving their homes to find work. It creates benefits for us as a company,” Lai said. ‘e-Ops,’ as the initiative is known has been in place for a year-and-a-half and has resulted in cost-savings and efficiency improvements for the bank.
Globally the last decade is witnessing a strong momentum in social intrapreneurship. Vodafone’s M-Pesa program, now a much celebrated case study was the idea of two employees, The project is revolutionary in its attempt to solve the problem of a lack of financial services in Africa, at present it serves millions of Kenyans with financial services via mobile phone and acts as a model for other mobile phone-based development initiatives. Gates called on corporations to “dedicate a percentage of their top innovators’ time to issues that could help people left out of the global economy. This kind of contribution is even more powerful than giving cash or offering employees time off to volunteer.”
Accenture, which supports Ashoka in its competition to recognize social intrapreneurs has long been a big supporter of individuals inspired to drive positive change from the inside. Gib Bulloch, in the early part of the 2000s cobbled up a plan to bring the company’s high-quality consulting services to non-profits and development organizations. Dubbed Accenture Development Partnerships, it has helped more than 120 international development organizations and completed 700 projects.
There are many such examples. Graham Simpson, from GSK, had an idea of developing cheap, yet commercial, diagnostics kits that could be used by often untrained health workers in rural villages. These kits are currently being developed with the help of John Hopkins University.Sacha Carina van Ginhoven, from TNT Express is using mobile phone technology to solve the problem of having no addresses for the poor. Her project is being tested in a slum in India.
Going forward it could be social intrapreneurship could be a great tool for corporations to position themselves as being more responsible, retain quality talent, impress customers and please the rest of their stakeholders.
“If you don’t have an entrepreneurial culture, you won’t be able to recruit and retain talented individuals,” said Clay. Since most of the growth is currently in emerging markets like India, Brazil and Africa promoting social intrapreneurship could be good for the bottom-line as well. What started at the periphery, due the vision and drive of a few employees, could soon become front and center of corporate business strategy globally.
Note: This blog was first published on http://india.ashoka.org/