Breaking Silos: How can social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs build great partnerships?

Social entrepreneurs are innovating to create opportunities for low-income people. Meanwhile, corporate employees – social intrapreneurs – are pioneering business innovations with social impact. This discussion will deep-dive into exciting ways in which both are working together to drive greater innovation and impact.

To coincide with a session that Business Fights Poverty is hosting at the Skoll World Forum, with The League of Intrapreneurs, Ashoka and the Intrapreneur Lab, we would like to get your thoughts and ideas on building partnerships between social entrepreneurs and corporate Intrapreneurs.

  • What are the potential benefits of building partnerships between social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs? Can you share any specific examples?
  • What are some of the key challenges, and how can these be overcome?
  • What are the lessons for making such partnerships work for both partners?

Please share your thoughts below!

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Looking forward to this online debate having enjoyed some of the great discussions on social intrapreneurship at The Skoll World Forum, One thing that came up was the asymmetrical relationship between big business and social entrepreneurs/intrapreneurs when it comes to partnerships. It's of course true, but I see this as more of an opportunity than a threat. We need to adopt the tactics of a Judo Black Belt and harness our "opponent's" size, strength and scale to our own advantage as social intrapreneurs seeking to maximise our impact. What do others think?

Welcome to this written, online discussion, live from the Skoll World Forum 2014 in Oxford! We'd really like to hear your views and examples around how social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs can build great partnerships.

We're joined by three people - from Ashoka, the Leauge of Intrapreneurs and The Intrapreneur Lab - who are working at the forefront of corporate intrapreneurship - and who have been thinking deeply about how to build better connections with social entrepreneurs.

Let's kick off with our first question.

What are the potential benefits of building partnerships between social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs? Can you share any specific examples?

Hi Zahid and others -

We’re here typing live from the Skoll World Forum in Oxford. It’s interesting to look back on how this space has evolved since we launched the idea of social intrapreneurship here six years ago. Back then the idea of partnerships was a promising one and we had nearly 150 participants in our workshops exploring the topic. But, there were still few examples of working partnerships between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Today, the scene is quite different. We heard from a number of intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs about their work together – some more successful than others.

A few examples we heard today include:

Kickstarter and Citi. Kickstarter is a social enterprise that makes low-cost irrigation equipment has partnered with numerous organizations like Citi, which provides a line of credit to help Kickstarter survive the lumpiness of donor cash infusion. They also have partnered with autodesk – a software design firm.

Embrace and GE. Embrace makes low-cost incubators for premature infants that operate without electricity. They partnered with GE originally to scale up the distribution of their product and give their work more ‘credibility’ in the marketplace.

Root Capital and Starbucks. Root Capital is working with Starbucks to provide financing and capacity support to coffee farmers to help strengthen Starbucks supply chain. They also are working as part of a global consortium of coffee companies and development agencies to address the leaf rust epidemic hitting coffee farmers in Latin America.

Entrepreneurs can be an amazing source of innovation and incubation while companies can support scale and business acumen.

If you think about Fair Trade - that movement started on the fringes and now has been taken up by the mainstream. Social entrepreneurs are beacons, indicators about where the future of business is headed.

One other benefit that was noted by autodesk is that by exposing their company and employees to a social entrepreneur/enterprise, people became inspired. This partnership has catalyzed a community of internal change agents. Social entrepreneurship is infectious!!

Dorje Mundle of Novartis spoke about outsourcing risk. Social entrepreneurs can experiment in ways that big business often can't. But big business can be engines for scale.

There are multiple benefits of building partnership between social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs like they can do the better and cost effective innovation that suite for a local situation (markets) like what is happening renewable energy sectors especially on the solar energy innovations, mobile payment system and so many other local innovations. Social entrepreneurs are capable to do local innovation; test the innovation locally, if it is proven the corporates will certainly benefit out of this partnership. In my opinion the corporate should invest their CRS for such kind of partnership in future

Interesting to hear some of the challenges faced in some of these partnerships. Even where there is ideological alignment, I was struck by how many of the challenges that some of our panel were very practical - changes in staff at the corporate, lack of clear incentives for 'on the ground' salespeople within the corporate and sometimes just plain lack of regular communication.

And the flip side of this was that often the best partnership found the root of their success in the fact they were partnerships between 'people' more than 'companies'.

1) provide greater scaling opportunities for social entrepreneurs. Their ideas are flying quicker if they tap into the network of companies.

2) be a movement for change - breaking the walls between social and business to create bigger impact

3) transforming business towards a more social and responsible market forces

That's a great analogy, Gib. In the past, you have talked about the corporate immune system kicking in to block corporate intrapreneurs. Is there a way that the intrapreneur can harness the social entrepreneur in this internal struggle?

And Mandar Apte (from Shell)'s point that an entrepreneur's barrier to pilot is low...but potential to scale is limited...whereas an intrapreneur's barrier to pilot is enormously high but if they get it right, the apparatus for scale already exists.

Let's move on to the second question:

What are some of the key challenges, and how can these be overcome?

In our network (, people from each sector are able to connect and conduct business in a member-to-member environment that reduces the barriers that usually exist between corporate and nonprofit interests.

Our premise is that nonprofits ARE businesses, and have many of the same needs for service and products as other businesses; but they do not typically pursue or invite business relationships as part of their ongoing mission work.

On the other side of the coin, businesses are often frustrated with failed efforts at marketing to a sector that often refuses to behave like a market. It's a missed opportunity on both sides. Our solution is a shared network with unique incentives to pursue mutual benefit for each partner.

We have grown to more than 13,000 members now and gain more than 100 new profiles a month.

Examples would be Colour ADD working to find solutions for colour blind people. Instead of building a social enterprise project that would exist as a separate entity, Color ADD teamed up with an intrapreneur at a pencil company to embed its social project in the business's products. Great impact now moving towards the clothing industry, tube stations, etc

Particularly interesting to hear Bob Annibale who launched Citi's micro finance division within the bank answering a question on how he initially convinced senior leadership to proceed with the initiative - he said 'they were my peers...we understood each other and the environment within which we both operated'.

Matt that sounds like a great platform.

One issue that people that identified in our face-to-face session earlier today at Skoll was the difficulty that some social entrepreneurs and NGOs have in finding the right people inside companies. One bit of advice was to clearly identify and build relationships with champions, decision makers and implementers. These are almost certainly going to be different people in a large organisaiton. The reverse is also true if a corporate intrapreneur is looking to engage with a large NGO.

A key challenge for us was/is essentially cultural bias: the assumptions by nonprofits about business interests and tactics are often negative, and we've heard a common suite of similarly negative assumptions about charities as potential business partners from the corporate side. Breaking down those biases through communication and demonstration of mutual benefit has been a chief goal of our network.

Some of the challenges are trust, fear of mutual benefits and some time it will be a issues of patent rights.. in some cases it happens due to other external factors like serious structural problems or other policy related factors in getting their businesses off the ground and in establishing their products in the target markets.

Due to lack of long-term commitments from the both end, many innovations die before it mature. To overcome these challenges the corporate and social entrepreneurs should have long term MOU from the innovation-to-innovation roll out stage