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When saving the world is your day job

By Terry Slavin, Ethical Corporation |

Terry Slavin of Ethical Corporation introduces a series of interviews, in partnership with Net-Works and The League of Intrapreneurs, on employees who are driving inclusive social change from within their organisations. Here, we look at how firms can nurture an intrapraneur culture and attract purpose-driven millennials.

When Sam McCracken, a young Sioux Indian working in a Nike warehouse in Oregon, had the idea of organising fun runs in his community to honour his mother, who had died from type 2 diabetes, he had no idea that it would lead to him one day becoming general manager of a new line of footwear for the sportswear giant.

McCracken’s passionate belief that sport can help combat the epidemic of diabetes in Native American communities led to him working with the company’s shoe designers to create the Nike Air N7 shoe, designed with a larger fit for the distinct foot shape of American Indians. In its sustainability credentials N7 also embodies the Native American Principles of sustainability – thinking of seven generations ahead and seven behind. And it set in motion positive changes that have brought wide benefits for both himself personally, Native American communities across North America, who get proceeds from the sale of N7, and the Nike brand.

When Maggie De Pree, founder of the League of Intrapreneurs, is asked to explain what an intrapreneur is, McCracken is one of them: people she describes as “perpetual problem solvers”, driven to work on developing new business models, products and services to address real-world problems as part of their day jobs, no matter where they are in the company.

De Pree estimates that 10% of people in companies could be intrapreneurs if they had an enabling environment, though her organisation is looking to build up more robust data. She launched the League of Intrapreneurs in 2013 with a global competition to find out who the leading changemakers in companies are. The competition attracted 200 entries from 52 countries and more than 30 industries.

Maggie De Pree, founder of the League of Intrapraneurs

“This is a phenomenon that is global. It’s not just about M&S, and Unilever and Interface,” De Pree says. And the main wellspring of the movement is millennials. “Young people today are hungry to find purpose and meaning in the workplace. The intrapreneurs movement fits squarely with that. For most of them it’s quite refreshing to find out there is a language for what they are doing. They think: “I’m not a misfit. I’ve got a role to play.”

Miriam Turner, director of disruptive innovation at Friends of the Earth and formerly associate vice president of co-innovation at Interface, is another intrapreneur featured on the League of Intrapreneurs website, and is one of the league’s advisors. She drove through the Net-Works partnership with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to develop a supply chain for Interface’s carpets using discarded fishing nets.

Sam McCracken

The partnership tackles poverty-alleviation in fishing communities in the Philippines and Cameroon as well as a pressing environmental problem, as old fishing nets and gear are responsible for around 10% of the debris in oceans. Turner acknowledges that a company with sterling sustainability credentials like Interface can provide fertile ground for intrapraneurs to grow, but it is not a given.

“It helps if you are in a company where it’s understood that the purpose of the company is to make the world a better place as well as good financial performance, but there needs to be permission and space for people to act on that, rather than it just be a tagline,” Turner says. “And even in a purpose-driven company, the intrapreneur has to show how the initiative creates value for the company, as well as the wider world.”

One of the critical factors for success is for intrapreneurs to have a senior-level person to give them air cover, though this can also pose risks if that ally then moves elsewhere. The other risk is that companies will change governance and strategies, as happened with the clean-energy intrapraneurs at BP and Shell, who left when the companies abandoned their beyond petroleum strategies. A change of leadership clearly presents a real risk for an intrapreneur.

Companies also need to have patience at the pace of change. “Things aren’t going to happen quickly if you are out to change the world,” Turner says, so that the normal hurdle rates and parameters may not apply, at least at first. They should also be willing to work with “unusual suspects” outside the company.

De Pree says: “It’s about solving problems, not just creating a product or service. And while it has business value, it may not fit in the four walls of your organisation, and that may require different governance structures and spin-outs.”

Nike's Air N7 trainers are built for Native North American feet

Turner adds: “That‘s exactly what is happening now with Net-Works, which is looking to bring other corporate partners on board, alongside Interface, and exploring potential new structures that will increase its impact and reach.”

Though she now works at Friends of the Earth, Turner says: “I still self-identify as an intrapraneur even though I work for an NGO. Intrapreneurship is not just confined to corporations. One trend we are seeing is that people in companies who have been corporate intrapreneurs are taking those skills to different sectors …. They recognise that some of the levers for larger-scale change may be government or civil society, often still working in partnership with business.”

De Pree points out that the skillsets possessed by intrapraneurs are precisely those required as companies look to collaborate with other companies, government agencies and NGOs in multistakeholder partnerships.

“One of the things we’ve heard is how important it is to find the people who have the skillsets to make these collaborations work. People have approached us asking ‘can we have a ‘League of Coffee’ or climate intrapreneurs please’. It’s shorthand for people who collaborate and aren’t afraid to try things out and then bring it back to business [and demonstrate] the value of it.”

For De Pree, the value to business of a more inclusive, collaborative approach to doing business is crystal-clear: “From supply-chain resilience to innovation, to expanding into new markets, inclusive business is about business that operates as an integral part of society. Intrapreneurs are often at the core of this, because many are exploring what it looks like if we bring our values to work every day and truly live them.”

In a series of interviews, Karen Deignan of Net-Works interviews the intrapreneurs, asking them the challenges they faced along the way and what they learned. We start the series looking at how Miriam Turner and Dr Nick Hill of the Zoological Society of London collaborated to create Net-Works. Read the next article here.

This blog was originally published in Ethical Corporation, an independent magazine and website that provides in-depth analysis of global sustainable business issues.

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