The New Kind of Millennial Social Entrepreneurship

millennial social intrapreneurship

A recent article in the Atlantic debunked the “myth of the millennial entrepreneur”. Today, 24.7% of Americans ages 20-34 are entrepreneurs. In 1996, that number was 34.3%. 

These findings are admittedly hard to figure. We consider the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and think, “Nobody his age was doing that in 1960.” And this may be true. Though the sheer number of young entrepreneurs has decreased, their impact has probably increased.

Even so, social entrepreneurship advocates like me want to see more young people starting socially conscious businesses—even if their scale is modest.

I’m currently the Executive Director of Denver Works, and I’ve spent most of my twenties helping Coloradoans find jobs. The reality of millennials in the real world looks a little different than we see on the front page of Business Insider or Forbes.

Many my age are scraping by. The average student loan debt for millennials is $28,000. This, coupled with the fact that many of us entered the workforce during a recession, makes us understandably risk-adverse. Our mentality is, “Start a business? Ha! Let’s start with a job.”

Meanwhile, millennials repeatedly report that purpose is chief among their professional goals. We link our personal values and passions more closely to our work than any other generation. We choose brands based on social mission. And, finally, we prefer active engagement in cause campaigns, such as volunteering and participating in fundraising events.

Thus, millennials don’t want to stand on the sidelines, but many of us aren’t economically secure or experienced enough to start a business.

The solution, I believe, is social intrapreneurship.

 Social intrapreneurs, also known as corporate entrepreneurs, work inside corporations to develop and promote practical solutions to social and/or environmental challenges. While social entrepreneurs launch startups driven by social mission, social intrapreneurs help commercialize socially conscious visions within an established organization. They are, as one Forbes article noted, the “intersection of innovation, social good, and entrepreneurship.”

If entrepreneurs are the “engines of economic growth”, as one study put it, we can see social intrapreneurs as the drivers of corporate responsibility.

The world, the economy and corporations need social intrapreneurship.

As simple aesthetic reigns—think the iPhone, white user-interfaces with big buttons, Restoration Hardware home design—our world gets increasingly complicated.

The unprecedented scale of global challenges demands people who forsake tradition and rise to the occasion—alone and within organizations. 

And social intrapreneurs can be highly effective.   

First, social intrapreneurs can be creative. One study explained that social intrapreneurs are likely to have “honed less celebrated, but perhaps more reliable, characteristics of innovation such as political savvy, tact, teamwork and patience.”

Secondly, they have resources. Social intrapreneurship is accompanied by an uncommon safety net. One study explains that if employees feel that they’ll be supported and are given access to resources, they’ll be more likely to pursue social intrapreneurship past the idea stage.

“[A] new whiz-bang innovation programme” as the Guardian calls startups, “is not the same as a corporate culture that welcomes–and resources—new ideas from any corner of the company.” They can take an idea from concept to market without needing to worry about securing funding or going bankrupt.

Finally, social intrapreneurs are afforded more freedom than social entrepreneurs. They “tend to do and then ask for forgiveness later,” wrote Emma Stewart for the Guardian. Entrepreneurs often don’t have this luxury because they’re beholden to investors.

Social intrapreneurship may be uniquely accessible to today’s millennials. 

Adam Grant’s latest book Originals explains how upper management and entry level employees are most innovative, while middle managers are the least creative of any employee contingency. This isn’t because life gets cushier in middle management (though of course it does), but because middle managers have more to lose if their ideas aren’t accepted.

By contrast, entry level employees can leave (or get fired for being uppity) without losing much, and executives are expected to be creative and have enough status built up to get weird. Since many millennials are still in entry level positions, they have less to lose and more chance to impact.

Millennials may not be entrepreneurs, but we think like entrepreneurs. This isn’t me awarding participation trophies. The entrepreneurial mentality is essential for an intrapreneur’s success.

Gifford Pinchot, who coined the term intrapreneur, advised, "Come to work each day willing to be fired–that way you can think clearly and have a good chance of surviving the battle".

A Forbes article entitled “2014’s most valuable employee sums,

Social intrapreneurs are quickly becoming the most valuable employees at many companies because they are good for the bottom line, good for the brand, and good for staff morale.

In short, social intrapreneurship may not have the status or flair that entrepreneurship has gained in recent decades. But it’s an equally important, underutilized mode of addressing the world’s most pressing problems.