How to Become a Social Intrapreneur

Editor's Note: This article kicks off a planned seven-week series by Nathan Springer that will chronicle in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur -- someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.

The fabled triple-bottom-line business is the epic quest of our profession. In the hallways of conferences, sustainability professionals gather around the coffee tables to tell legends of companies like Interface, Nike, and Walmart and the many others that have set out on this journey.

Many have heard the tale of Ray Anderson, who discovered Paul Hawkins' manuscript The Ecology of Commerce and carried his entire company toward the summit of Mt. Sustainability guided by sages Hunter Lovins, Amory Lovins, and Hawkins himself.

When the euphoria fades, most people return to the reality of Monday morning full of doubts and questions about whether they could take their company to the heroic heights of sustainable business.

Now, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan has invited me to follow a class on Social Intrapreneurship that aims to arm MBA students with the tools to do just that.

Management and Organizations Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White conceived of the class when they heard a cry from students and alumni for lessons to create social benefit in traditional roles. "We wanted to give practical tools and skills to students who wanted to make that difference from within a mainstream corporate job," says Davis.

The class features visits by intrapreneurs from IBM, Ford, SC Johnson, Target and other companies and draws from research on social movements to build a map for budding social intrapreneurs.

"The network analysis tools allow students to understand network structures in a way that would constitute a PhD thesis 15 years ago," Davis says. Students learn to see opportunities, map power networks within companies, and design strategy while applying their lessons to the immediate challenges faced by social intrapreneurs who visit the class.

The class was so popular in its first year that it is spreading to other business schools around the world. Davis and White are now working on a book.

While we can't all have a personal sustainability prophet or take the helm of a company, there is a growing field of internal social change experts. In 2004, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article by Debra E. Meyerson called "The Tempered Radicals: How employees push their companies -- little by little -- to be more socially responsible".

After 10 years researching and writing a book on the subject, Meyerson identified lessons from tempered radicals who push a social agenda within an established organization. The social intrapreneurship class teaches elements of Meyerson's suite of strategies that begin with building relationships, seizing opportunity, and defining an agenda.