What the Heck Is a “Social Intrapreneur?” Or a Systempreneur?


October 23, 2012; Source: Fast Company

Fast Company presents a little gem of an article by John Elkington and Charmian Love that refocuses us on the many ways that advances are made in the world of social progress. Where many who dub themselves as social entrepreneurs are, in their own eyes, outsider hero types, there are many brilliant people working hard to make changes in the course of existing institutions and this work can be both excruciatingly hard and fruitful. These people can be called intrapreneurs.

In a previous article in Fast Company, Alexa Clay recalls a lesson from his former poetry teacher:

Ben Lerner…explained…language in companies ‘approaches the absurd, where the shell of a communicative form is used to foreclose communication.’ That’s it exactly. There could not be a climate less hospitable to language and free expression than the corporation. Impoverished discourse became even worse in companies that have branded little micro-philosophies that become hackneyed with use: Just Do It (Nike), Don’t be Evil (Google), Get More Out of Now (Dell).

The genius about such go-to mottos is they provide a shortcut to decision-making that acts to push away all existential doubt.”

Intrapreneurs must resurface doubt and curiosity even when the culture shuts it down. But now Elkington and Love point out that these intrapreneurs are joined by people who see themselves as “systempreneurs,” people trying to create a breakthrough change in a system. They are, say the authors, looking for outside-in dynamics to act as the driving force in change and for that outside-in participation to be the norm rather than the exception. They point to the work of David Porter, managing partner at health care venture fund Apposite Capital, on identifying a series of impending global health care crises, many of which will be driven by aging and the “time–bomb” of dementia. Porter asserts that innovation and entrepreneurial approaches in the whole approach to the issue can help society cope well with the scale and impact of what has been called the “silver tsunami” of an aging workforce and the elderly.

Of course, none of this is brand new. The authors conclude, “Rather than just looking for ways to patch an existing, dysfunctional system, systempreneurs aim to do what the Occupy movement and others have called for: changing the system itself. Their early successes suggest that, with the right combination of political will, business acumen, and entrepreneurial spirit, capitalism can be rebooted to make it fit for future purpose.”

One might ask, considering the core proposition of the article, if the salvation of capitalism must be part and parcel of all of this since it is itself a system that may need a bit of “preneurism” to shake up the shop. –Ruth McCambridge

  • Leslie Scallet

    The idea of a “systempreneur” requires people who think about the forest as well as the trees. That is a pretty rare commodity in my experience. In the world of mental health (where I worked for many years), I’ve seen two real “breakthrough” changes — the discovery of effective medications and the establishment of legal rights of people with mental conditions. The first has certainly offered entrepreneurial opportunities for its creators. The second also created entrepreneurial opportunities, though generally not for its creators. Between them, the mental health system of today looks vastly different than that of 1970. Arguments still rage over who has benefitted.

  • Jean-Louis Robadey

    Ruth – thank for highlighting and providing insights on this article. Very thought-provoking.

    You ask at the end whether capitalism as a system isn’t the problem. Are we just tinkering by promoting all sorts of preneurisms that don’t really do much to affect the fundamental dynamics that got us here in the first place?

    This is such a rich and fundamental debate. It’s reminiscent of the difference between how the United States and some European countries approach climate change. In the US, many hold the belief that by changing the incentives (for instance: putting a price to carbon), we can change the outcome. Many Europeans would say: this is just tinkering, just get rid of the systemic problem that got us here in the first place, i.e. the fact that we are still promoting unsustainablke energy sources.

    Afetr twenty years as a changemaker, from within and outside the system, I believe that the fundamental difference is practical, rather than theoretical, and that this is why capitalism keeps winning: the beauty of capitalism and the various forms of “preneurism” that it promotes, is that, at its best, it provides practical solutions as well as a process for learning, innovation, refinement, adaptation and change. Its weakness is that these changes can seem narrow, self-serving, tactical aand superficial.

    But given the cost of changing whole systems, and the paralysis that often results from big, bold, hairy, systemic, game-changing approaches, capitalism at its best (i.e. a tamed, non-corrupt, socially-responsible form of capitalism) might be the least imperfect system that enables us to evolve and improve, as people, and as a society.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    what a thoughtful couple of comments! I would love to see more from you two on the topic. And let’s see who else chimes in

  • Laura Henze Russell

    Six months ago I founded a new Social Innivoation Enteprise, Hidden River Cloud Network/One Challenge, aimed at engaging people of all ages, stages and walks of life in crowdshfting and moving markets to bring disruptive change to catalyze new methods, paradigms and systems to health and community and public health. The environmentlal movement launched 42 years ago focuses on problems in our external environment and the role of toxins in poisoning the ecosystem we live in.

    Health and medicine never went through a corresponding paradigm shift to adequately recognize and address the internal environment within the human body and the role of toxins in causing and maintaining chronic disease. The hidden river of toxins in the hidden river of people in the U.S. is harming our health and fueling chronic diseases such as ADHD, allergies, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, behavioral and congniture deficits, memory loss, movement disorders, neurological disease, psychological disorders, sleep problems and a host of other costly, chronic, debilatating diseases across the age spectrum.

    Health is a symphony that results from the interplay and interaction of nature, nurture, diet, exercise, lifestyle, and exposures both toxic and pathogenic. The germ theory of diesease won out long ago, to the benefit of the pharmaceutical industries. We don’t have a helath system or even a health care system, we have a diesease manaegment, health care management, pharmaceutical management, durable medical equipment management, medical and therapeutic management, and medical device management system. Public and private research funds and R&D spending focus on the genome and the biome, not the toxome. We invent expensive new ways to fight disease that requires lifelong, costly prescriptions, monitoring and care.

    Please contact me if you want to join as an intrapreneur, entrepreneur, extrapreneur, systempreneur, or like-minded caring compassionate and creative soul in restoring, raising, reforming and righting the paradigm for health, and bring down costly, chronic, devastating diseases, and health and long term care costs. Together we can do this. Let’s thrive!