Why we need social intrapreneurs more than ever during COVID-19

Why we need social intrapreneurs more than ever during COVID-19

April 6, 2020

Originally published on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda

François Bonnici, Head of Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum.

Saskia Bruysten, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Yunus Social Business.

  • The COVID-19 crisis illustrates the need for innovation from within companies by "social intrapreneurs."
  • A new report from the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Yunus Social Business and Porticus presents best practices from these employees who are working to address environmental or social problems.
  • Beyond providing societal benefits, corporate social intrapreneurship motivates employees, increases innovation and incites corporate transformation.

Our economic system is at a crossroads. We are not only dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the single most impactful event of a generation but also the increasing effects of climate change and social inequality are not going away.

The 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum earlier this year focussed on stakeholder capitalism, the concept that businesses should serve the interests of all society rather than simply their shareholders. This is more important now than ever. But for businesses to fully embody this, they need to mobilize their core capabilities and resources. We believe that one concrete way to bring stakeholder capitalism into reality is through corporate social intrapreneurship.

Social intrapreneurs are a breed of entrepreneurs who work as employees within companies to develop business solutions for social or environmental problems. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Yunus Social Business and Porticus decided to shed more light on the nascent phenomenon of corporate social intrapreneurship in the new report "Business as Unusual: How Social Intrapreneurs Can Turn Companies into a Force for Good."

The report, which surveyed more than 50 social intrapreneurs across the world, documents and analyses their experience in building social businesses and corporate initiatives to support them. It maps the hurdles that social intrapreneurs face and outlines the steps necessary for others to follow, particularly as business leaders feel compelled to respond constructively and sustainably to the current crisis.


Social intrapreneurs can play an important role in aiding and future-proofing communities.

For example, launched by the industrial gases company, Air Liquide, Access Oxygen is an inclusive business that provides medical oxygen to healthcare centres in Senegal, by creating "Oxygen Houses," initiatives that are run by local micro-entrepreneurs and offer the products, maintenance, training and digital tools.

Or take Novartis' Arogya Parivar, who sells affordable medicines to rural communities in India through local sales staff. The initiative has affected 40 million people through health education sessions, provides incomes to over 500 community workers, and has treated and diagnosed over 3 million people.

Another example is AXA’s Emerging Customers, led by Schwab Awardee Garance Wattez-Richard, which tests and implements new insurance schemes for low-income populations, who are often accessing insurance for the first time. The innovative program focusses on underserved customer segments such as women, farmers or migrant workers.


The journey of a corporate social intrapreneur has six stages, according to the report.

Inception: Successful social intrapreneurs start with intrinsic motivation, a firm belief in their ability to make a difference. Whether it’s quickly adapting their value chains to start producing hand sanitizer or masks, or providing online consultations or teaching services, it starts with a need to make a change.

Strategic Intent: Of the social intrapreneurs who had c-level buy-in at any stage, 76% described it as a key success driver for their initiative.

Ideation: Thirty percent of social intrapreneurs found it a challenge to develop a good understanding of their target groups when these are new to them. Techniques like beneficiary discovery, field research, or partnerships with social entrepreneurs or NGOs that have local knowledge can help overcome this hurdle.

Testing: Piloting and iteration is a key success factor, with a lean approach working best, according to 32% of respondents.

Implementation: More than half, 55%, of intrapreneurs struggled with internal support beyond board level and resource mobilization. At the same time, 45% had success ring-fencing their initiatives from business as usual (eg. budgeting cycles and short-term financial metrics), setting up separate business units or even legal entities.

Scale: Scalability is vitally important for social businesses with lower margins. Measuring and evaluating the impact generated is vital to fully assess the benefits to the company and society.


The benefits of social intrapreneurship not only benefit society as a whole and create a display of corporate commitment to social good. These five essential findings demonstrate the value of social intrapreneurship:

  • Improves employee engagement, job satisfaction, employee skills, or talent attraction (77%)
  • Leads to mindset shifts, culture change, or even kicks off corporate transformation (61%)
  • Spurs business innovation (50%)
  • Reaches new markets or new customers (39%)
  • Improves corporate brand equity (32%)

One of our most surprising findings was that the largest obstacles facing a social initiative are the internal hurdles, with 84% of interviewees reporting internal obstacles were more challenging than external ones. One study participant summed it up as the "corporate immune system that attacks anything that doesn’t look like profit maximization." That means, for example, that social intrapreneurs might have a tougher time getting internal buy-in and necessary resources than they would in other tasks such as delivering medication or clean drinking water to rural Africa.

CEOs who don’t take advantage of social intrapreneurship are leaving massive opportunities on the table. We found that social intrapreneurship has the power to radically change the DNA of the company, with 24% saying they see their initiative as a catalyst toward company transformation.

While we struggle with the immediate logistical and medical impact of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a wider question about the purpose of business before us. The path to change won’t be easy, but we have an opportunity to demonstrate how large companies can work for the societies they serve. Only the most future-looking companies that are willing to innovate and adapt will survive. Looking internally at the power of social intrapreneurs can aid this rapid transformation.

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