Intrapreneurs: Entrepreneurial Employees Who Drive Innovation and Growth


April 2017 | By: By Babson Executive Education

Estimated reading time: Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Key Takeaways

  1. A recent study, Europe’s Hidden Entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurial Employee Activity and Competitiveness in Europe, finds that what Europe lacks in early-stage entrepreneurship, it makes up for in corporate entrepreneurship—intrapreneurship.
  2. Large companies can foster intrapreneurship to drive innovation and growth by learning to attract individuals with entrepreneurial affinity and ambition and by developing cultural attributes and organizational policies and practices that enable intrapreneurs to flourish.
  3. To pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in large companies, employees can overcome barriers by following three key practices: establish credibility; articulate value; and demonstrate proof of concept.
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Although use of the term entrepreneur has been expanding, it remains associated predominantly with new venture creation—aka start-ups. Thus, even as many established companies focus on the imperative to innovate, they continue to think of entrepreneurship as not being relevant to their corporate strategy, practices, mindsets, and skillsets. However, a recent study, Europe’s Hidden Entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurial Employee Activity and Competitiveness in Europe highlights the value of internal entrepreneurs. The report, recently released by World Economic Forum and Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and co-authored by Babson College Professors Donna Kelley and Abdul Ali, explains the apparent economic paradox of Europe: low levels of entrepreneurship, yet high overall levels of economic competitiveness.

The key findings: what Europe lacks in early-stage entrepreneurship, it makes up for in intrapreneurship. “Hidden” entrepreneurs, choosing to work within larger corporations creating innovative products and services, make up for Europe’s low startup rate, contributing to strong economic performance in “vibrant, cutting-edge economies such as Denmark and Sweden.” Europe has a higher proportion of entrepreneurship expressed as “entrepreneurial employees” than any other region in the world. From the standpoint of economic development, internal entrepreneurs “tend to create more jobs than those who start their own business,” and the report data demonstrates “a correlation between intrapreneurship rates and economic competitiveness (as measured by the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness data).

The message for large companies everywhere: fostering internal entrepreneurship (intrapreneurship or corporate entrepreneurship) is vitally important as a tool to drive innovation and growth. In developed economies with healthy social and economic conditions, such as the United States and many in Europe, people who might otherwise start a stand-alone business may be attracted to good jobs as employees. Thus companies need to learn how to attract individuals with entrepreneurial affinity and ambition, and they need to develop the cultural attributes and organizational policies and practices that will enable the intrapreneurs to flourish as they pursue their “startup dreams” within the context of a large business. Such internal entrepreneurial efforts can add top-line growth, creating jobs, innovations, and corporate and social value. Companies can learn how to be entrepreneurial, developing processes and managerial practices that foster the ideas and initiative of their employees, allowing them to continually innovate and create the next new product, service, or business unit that will launch their future competitiveness and enhance the job satisfaction of their most valued employees.

For entrepreneurial employees at large companies, it is important to be aware that the size, structure, and culture of mature corporate environments often can pose challenges, even when leadership is attempting to foster internal entrepreneurship. To navigate those challenges, intrapreneurs can follow three key practices to promote an entrepreneurial opportunity in their companies.

Intrapreneurs’ Keys to Promoting a New Opportunity

Intrapreneurs’ Keys to Promoting a New Opportunity
  • Establish your credibility –This can be based on past projects/accomplishments, or position in the organization. If you don’t have a strong track record, attract people to your team who do, as well as those who can vouch for you. Building credibility ahead of time will be invaluable (for example, getting on teams developing innovative projects, training or education to expand your technical or business skills, fostering connections with higher-level managers).
  • Articulate Value – Be clear about the value the project creates for whom and why this is a worthwhile market for the company. Connect with the company in some way: Why is this not only attractive, but makes sense for the organization? Are there skills, assets that can be leveraged and enhanced? In particular, appeal to your audience and what is important to them.
  • Demonstrate evidence that this will work. – This can include notes from customers, prototypes, or data from early-stage market studies. Remember that traditional marketing techniques such as surveys are typically not useful for innovative solutions that are not familiar to customers. Qualitative methods such as observations and discussions with customers are more valuable.

At Babson, entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership are part of our DNA. We help companies large and small develop the skills and capabilities that foster the efforts of their entrepreneurial employees, allowing them to thrive with meaningful work and helping their businesses innovate and grow.