“Those who see opportunity in the face of great challenge”: supporting intrapreneurs


A new word has made its way into the vocabulary of social innovation: intrapreneurship. This new kind of innovator intends to rock the business world by infusing the “classic” companies they belong to with their ideas and recipes for innovation. But they do need help to get the job done – help from their companies, mostly.


Every time the subject of social innovation comes up, social entrepreneurs are inevitable – because they invent new business models, because they are adaptable, flexible and often enjoy a close relationship with their immediate surroundings, which makes them all the more pertinent and efficient. Yet social innovation is not necessarily a synonym for social entrepreneurship. There are many ways to innovate, and many different environments in which good ideas can blossom and develop – including big corporate companies. That very idea has led to the invention of a new word: “intrapreneur”. As explained in this video made by Ashoka

The League of Intrapreneurs from Imaginals on Vimeo.

intrapreneurs demonstrate their creativity and innovative capacity inside their companies, and have the ability to see beyond the way the organisation traditionally works:

Intrapreneurs are developing innovative and scalable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, ranging from health and education to the environment. But in contrast to social entrepreneurs, they are innovating from within some of the world’s largest companies.

So much for the definition. As one of the “world’s largest companies”, Danone is aware of the existence of such innovators within the organisation, and strives to identify and support them. This is the philosophy of the Dan Awards, which we previously focused on here and here, but it is not the only action of the group in this field.


Addressing the strengths and issues of intrapreneurship


Last November, a pilot project called “Ecosystem co-creation project management training” brought a dozen people together in Ukraine. During three days, eleven trainees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East (representing four countries and five business units) worked together on how they could improve their management of social innovation projects. Half of them were Danone employees, the other half were NGO members: hence the “co-creation” part of the title. The idea of bringing these people together was to professionalise project management and develop working communities around the six Ecosystem projects concerned. The tools: fostering co-creation between the NGOs and Danone, identifying the strengths and needs of each project and pinpointing what they could contribute to each other. This new kind of training session effectively exemplifies how intrapreneurs can be supported by and within their company: with appropriate training, pertinent interlocutors and a great deal of co-creation. Each of these intrapreneurs now has extra tools to face their own project  issues and, maybe, spread the spirit of initiative around them. For it is true that social intrapreneurs often have to face a string of obstacles, such as time constraints in their “regular” jobs, lack of funding or lack of a network – the latter is why Ashoka, a partner of Danone, has recently launched a contest called

The league of intrapreneurs competition: building better business from the inside out,

with the aim of “finding social intrapreneurs that rival our network of social entrepreneurs at Ashoka – individuals that demonstrate visionary leadership and have a profound commitment to societal change.” Once these people are identified, a global network can be built to connect them and help them share their views, their challenges and their successes. And indeed, they often have successes to vaunt. Social intrapreneurs need help, but they are also very much needed by big corporations: they combine a lot of field and bottom-of-the-pyramid experience with the instinctive reactions learned from being part of a big company that creates business for a living. In other words, they are very much aware of both elements of social business: the social part and the economic part. Which makes their projects excellent laboratories to try out new ideas and new models, which can later be upscaled and permeate an ever-growing part of the company’s activities. Eventually, these new processes and approaches help the companies adapt to a tougher world, where solutions need to be found for the future of their businesses and, more widely, for the future of mankind and its environment. As Ashoka says, valuing intrapreneurs has the virtue of showing that

business can help solve some of the world’s toughest problems.

This is why Danone, with the Dan Awards and Ecosystem Management Training, and with a series of daily habits, does its share to support those who “see opportunity in the face of great challenge.”