Is “Intrapreneurship” Selling Out?

What happens when you bring your entrepreneurial talents to an established company?
March 08, 2012

I recently joined an organization called the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC). Its latest campaign, Fix Young America, focuses on getting positive employment results for today’s teens and 20-somethings. It’s an important goal, because this is a group that’s in dire straits. In 2012, youth employment is at a 60-year low and student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, one of YEC’s recommendations is for aspiring entrepreneurs to consider bringing their talents to an established company. This concept is not new. Others, including myself, have been writing about intrapreneurship for a long time. However, I think it’s terrific that a group like YEC is supporting this strategy as a way for individuals to pursue their entrepreneurial goals and companies to improve their cultures and business results.

Entrepreneurs on the inside

A compelling real-life example of the intersection of young entrepreneurialism and Corporate America is the partnership of Ingrid Vanderveldt and Dell. Ingrid is the CEO of Green Girl Energy and Founding Organizer of the Global Leadership and Sustainable Success (GLASS) Forum. Her goal is to develop programs that advance the economic success of women-owned and green-focused businesses, and she has taken her platform public as the host of CNBC’s primetime series, “American Made.” Ingrid is also the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell.

Why hire an entrepreneur?

The entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) model is typically associated with venture capital firms or investors as a means to nurture a big idea and successful company, and then invest in the new venture at the end of the EIR’s term. But Dell isn’t a VC and EIRs aren’t common in the technology sector, so what’s in it for them?

“In bringing me on as an EIR, Dell is expanding the ways it can connect with, learn from and better understand the needs of growing businesses, so it can bring solutions and services to market that help them succeed. By having me help drive strategy as the company’s first EIR, Dell takes its ability to listen and act on what customers need to the next level,” says Ingrid. 

Cultural benefits of intrapreneurship

We entrepreneurs tend to think of going in house as selling out, but in Ingrid’s situation, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Intrapreneurship can be just as impactful and certainly just as critical as entrepreneurship. That same drive, creativity and passion for growth that entrepreneurs have can be used inside a company to benefit customers and team members,” she says.

And programs like this don’t hurt Dell’s culture either. Alongside Ingrid’s EIR role, the company has created TI (or “Transformation Idol,” inspired by the popular singing competition American Idol). The regular half-day challenge, which is designed to encourage creative thinking among employees, involves teams getting together and presenting their ideas for how to make Dell’s business more effective. The top brass votes on the best concept, which is then developed and supported in the form of company mentorship, resources, technology and capital.

It is always a challenge for older companies to keep their cultures fresh and vibrant. Dell believes it can leverage initiatives like EIR and TI to foster career growth and personal development among today’s young professionals while simultaneously supporting a culture of innovation.

Would you consider working at a company with intrapreneurship programs like Dell’s?  Does this approach assuage your fear of “selling out?”

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian