How to Become an Intrapreneur at Your Company

Some employers establish a culture that encourages employees to pursue their ideas

24 November 2017

Intrapreneurs exhibit the same traits as entrepreneurs: They’re problem-solvers, creative, and risk-takers. But their focus is to develop products and services that will benefit their employer.

That’s why some who have an entrepreneurial bent are turning to intrapreneurship, using the built-in support of financial resources and staff from their company, without the risks of going it alone.

Some employers have established a company culture in which employees are encouraged to innovate beyond their job description during the workday. Other employers require employees to step up and pitch their ideas to upper management to get support. Here are two approaches to pursuing intrapreneurship.

INTRAPRENEURIAL COMPANIES

Facebook, Google, SAP, 3M, and other businesses are implementing a culture that encourages employees to pursue their ideas. Some of the companies offer workers 20 percent of each day to focus on side projects, while others fund and incubate ventures.

Barbara Marder, a senior partner at Mercer, says she believes the key ingredient in a company’s success is a culture of innovation. 

“It can be an uphill battle for employees to realize their ideas if their company is not open to them,” Marder says. The company presented its model on intrapreneurship at the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference.

At Mercer, “innovation is everyone’s responsibility,” Marder says. She runs the human resources consulting company’s three innovation hubs, where employees focus on developing new products and services, many of which involve technological applications. All of Mercer’s 22,000 employees operating in 130 countries are encouraged to participate and pitch their ideas, she says. The company helps clients with tasks such as hiring talent, retaining employees, and improving internal processes.

“While we can’t have everyone innovating and not doing their day jobs, we try to take risk off the table for those who want to try out an idea that would help the company,” she says.

There are three stages in developing a new product or service, she says: ideation, product development, and commercialization. “It’s hard to find people equally good at all three stages,” she says. “A startup founder would be responsible for all three. But at Mercer, we form teams of people with various specialties who can work together.”

Not many people can thrive in an unstructured environment like a Mercer innovation hub, she says, even with the support of the company.

“Intrapreneurs must be self-motivated, determined, and fearless,” she says. “They wake up every day unsure what the day will look like—and that’s not for everybody.”

One product launched last year from an innovation hub is Mercer Match, powered by the startup Pymetrics. Job seekers play 12 neuroscience games that uncover their social and emotional traits. Their profile, based on those traits, is matched with appropriate job opportunities.

Another product, launched from Mercer’s EuroPac innovation hub this year, is Adaptive Working, a digital system that allows companies to determine their return on investment when changing their employee structure, such as allowing for more telecommuting or more scheduling flexibility.

TAKING INITIATIVE

Some companies do not have an intrapreneurship program. But that doesn’t stop some employees from taking it upon themselves to innovate. IEEE Member Shraddha Chaplot worked for nine years as a systems engineer at a well-known technology company in Silicon Valley. She spoke about being an intrapreneur at the WIE International Leadership Conference and at IEEE N3XT, a forum for engineers who are budding entrepreneurs.

Chaplot defines intrapreneurship as employees contributing to a company beyond title, team, or budget. “I made things happen by seeking and creating my own opportunities, building them out in my spare time, and convincing those I needed to support me for help, all in addition to my regular job,” she says.

While on the accessibility team at her company, she saw the potential and took it upon herself to advocate for a university to receive a US $100,000 research grant offered by her company. With that grant, the university tested a videoconferencing system for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. After that success, her manager allotted time for her to build out another system for the university to do further testing.

Chaplot brought in two deaf interns, whom she recruited through the partnering university by hosting the company’s first virtual career fair via the videoconferencing system.

She partnered with the community relations department at her company to form mentorship opportunities for preuniversity students, including a one-day event in which they could visit and learn about tech projects the company is working on. And she persuaded her company to support a startup focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education by donating $250,000. It helped put the company on the map as a STEAM education supporter.

One reason intrapreneurship appealed to her is the network of employees at her former company who could help her accomplish her goals. “I would go through our employee directory to find the right people who could help make my idea happen,” she says, adding the structure and expertise of an established company is a huge advantage. Knowing that you won’t know how to do everything is key to succeeding as an intrapreneur, she says, as is knowing where to turn for help.

Intrapreneurs spot ways to make a company’s products or services better and act on their ideas, she adds. “There is always something more that you can do,” she says. “Think big. No boundaries, just possibilities.”

But to be an intrapreneur, you have to be in a supportive environment, she says. “Unless a new role is created for you, most companies are not going to let you wander off and experiment with something new. They need measurable results,” she says.

Chaplot fully embraced being an individual contributor and created her own titles to define her true roles. At different times, she called herself a greengineer and a machinegineer to define the work she was doing beyond her role. Her company and industry began addressing her as such.

Although many people nurtured her ideas, others stifled them or just plain stole them, she says. She recommends that those with an intrapreneurial spirit spend at most two years at a company. If they find their ideas are being ignored or stolen, they should find another employer. Chaplot eventually moved to a startup where she finds it easier to pursue her ideas.

“Everyone has the capability to help,” she says. She advises companies to create a culture in which employees do not feel they have to be competitive with one another—in that if one wins, someone has to lose—but to create an environment where everyone can win.

“There are so many big problems to solve. Everyone is needed,” she says. “Your title doesn’t define you. How you help and lift others up does.”

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