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The Rise of the Social Intrepreneur

By Travis Noland

In an age where public distrust of big business is at an all-time high, corporations worldwide are seeking to improve brand image by ramping up their efforts in CSR, sustainability and even supporting the nascent social enterprise space. However, far too many companies seem to be missing out on their most promising (and intrinsic) potential for creating positive impact: unleashing the entrepreneurial power of their own labor force.

Meanwhile, scores of ambitious but exasperated employees are leaving their companies to pursue innovative visions seeking to make the world a better place. Yet they face many formidable hurdles related to funding, exposure and economies of scale - areas where large companies have the advantage.

This story is so common that it has captured the curiosity of researchers and investigative journalists at TriplePundit and elsewhere. 

TriplePundit’s own office, The HUB San Francisco, is home to countless former corporate employees turned social entrepreneurs. Take Jason Rosado, who left a successful 13-year banking career with two major Wall Street banks to launch Givkwik, which develops web-based tools and services that make it easy for both businesses and the average Jane to give to nonprofits they believe in with the click of a button. While Givkwik is gaining significant traction as a startup venture in San Francisco, imagine if Jason's venture had been developed through the banks with whom he worked.

Now consider how his former employers might have benefitted from harnessing Jason’s entrepreneurial initiative. “I remember coordinating brown bag lunches four years ago talking about mobile devices would change the banking industry and identifying ways that we could creatively enter the market,” Jason recounted. “Even though the business cases were clear as day, I had to spend time negotiating egos, territories and tradition. They claimed to like the ideas but I was told that it just did not fit into their priorities for risk tolerance and capital planning." Now, smaller mobile technology companies are eating up market share that these banks could have owned. One can’t help but wonder where these banks would be today had they provided more support for Jason’s concepts. “It was like trying to move a cruise liner rather than a small boat." The result: Jason jumped ship and is now well on his way to changing how the world gives to good causes.

Jason’s experience serves to illustrate the central reasons that corporations often miss the opportunities to capitalize on their most promising means of creating positive impact in the world. They are slow to move and do not often exhibit the entrepreneur’s hefty appetite for risk. As Jason explains, "It requires a politician to rally the support of champions in leadership positions across the company in order to create any significant headway."

As TriplePundit learned at Sustainable Brands London, there is a movement underway to repair the disconnect between large companies and their most entrepreneurial and altruistic talent. Presenting the closing plenary for the conference, the League of Intrepreneurs is a new initiative developed by Ashoka and Accenture to help drive change within large companies by building a community where intrepreneurs can share their stories and collaborate to form best practices. Recently, the League released its Cubicle Warriors Toolkit which features stories and tips from seasoned intrapreneurs to help the aspiring navigate their companies from the back office to the boardroom.

Here are a few that were highlighted during the panel discussion:

  • Tell a story outside the office, but leave the data at home. “Getting people outside of the office may encourage their receptivity to your ideas because they will be in a more relaxed and open frame of mind.” Also keep in mind that “no matter how seemingly rational an argument you make for your idea, the person who is doing the deciding will be using gut instinct and hunch 95 percent of the time.” - Cubicle Warriors Toolkit

  • Find a godparent. “A godparent is a senior-level team member who believes in you, and will afford you a higher degree of flexibility and autonomy.” – Myriam Turner, Assistant VP of Co-innovation, Interface

  • Be resilient when pursuing the impossible. “The best feedback is when everybody says ‘Oh that won’t work’ because those are the ideas worth acting on.” Maggie De Pree, Founder of The Human Agency

If you're a corporate employee seeking to drive change at your company, or an entrepreneur-at-heart contemplating a detachment from the corporate world, you are no longer alone. The League of Intrepreneurs exists so that success stories of corporate change-makers can proliferate and employees are equipped with the tools to navigate their tumultuous corporate waters. Maybe then, big businesses can fully realize the value of their most entrepreneurial talent and bolster their public reputations by helping to create the next social intrapreneur who will change our world for the better.

Image Credit: TriplePundit conference coverage -- Sustainable Brands London 2013

Travis heads up strategic partnerships here at TriplePundit.com. Previously, he has worked with several social enterprises including Calvert Foundation, SOCAP and Karisimbi Business Partners, a socially motivated management consulting start-up in Rwanda. He has also served in Guatemala as a Social Entrepreneur Corps Fellow and continues to support Wild River Organics, his family’s organic fruit farm. Travis received his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He can be reached at travis@triplepundit.com and followed on his responsible travel blog at <a href="http://www.brightspotstravel.com//">brightspotstravel.com</a&gt;

Read more stories by Travis Noland