The truth of the matter is that entrepreneurship is hard. It’s really hard. Venturing out on your own. No steady stream of income. No way to know that your idea will be the one that works, not the one that fails. No stability. No demarcation between life and work. People constantly questioning your progress. You get the picture. It’s not an easy life.
Despite this, entrepreneurship, and particularly social entrepreneurship, is in vogue. Entrepreneurs are fashionable, and entrepreneurship is romanticized by many. In the individualistic world of the West, where everyone has the chance to get ahead, entrepreneurship is the holy grail of individuality, of being your own person, of choosing your own path. Everyone wants a piece of the action. What is cooler than chasing your dreams and having a social impact? No one is ever going to accuse you of selling out to the machine, of being a slave to the man. Instead, you are going to sit with your MacBook, in your Ray-Bans and Birkenstocks, eating organic dried fruit, and bring affordable drip irrigation to 5 million Indian farmers in the next three years. Yep, that is what you are going to accomplish. No sweat.
Yet it is increasingly becoming clear that charting this path on your own is not the only answer. Yes, it’s a great story to tell, but it doesn’t need to be the only story being told, or the only story applauded. Instead, in our newly “flat” world, we should be open to broader definitions of entrepreneurial activity. It doesn’t have to be the preconceived notion – alone in a room with only your mind and computer, toiling day and night to make ends meet, and then making it (and making it big, in a few cases). Often, it is less risky for someone to be an entrepreneur within a company – and intrapreneur. And we should acknowledge the value in that activity. Becoming a leader within an already-formed enterprise structure, within a corporate environment.
India is the perfect case study here, an incredibly entrepreneurial country. Yet Indian entrepreneurs, generally running their family businesses, have rarely had the privileges of higher education. For that matter, most entrepreneurs, except in America over the last generation or two, have not had those privileges. It seems that business schools are often “seminaries for the multi-national corporations” (to use the phrase of a late Harvard economist). None of us are simple beings, aiming for one thing, but the fact is that MBAs often deploy themselves to the corporate world post-graduation. Often bearing the burden of immense student loans, they don’t want to chance the entrepreneurial life of instability. Instead, they want security and to join the most lucrative firms – Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, ICICI Bank. Their families will be happy because they will be professionals, something to brag about back home. No Indian mother wants to say “My son’s an entrepreneur” (or even worse, a social entrepreneur). She wants to say “My son’s a banker/doctor/lawyer/engineer.” This is the reality.
So, how do we resolve these seeming inconsistencies, this problem of instability, without thwarting creativity? With more than half a billion people under the age of 25, India is sitting atop a powerhouse of intellectual and physical energy with the ability to change the world.
As with any hurdle, we must approach it from multiple angles, using multiple lenses. Not everyone has to be an entrepreneur. To my mind, in this situation, intrapreneurship is the answer, becoming a sustainability leader within your company. And it provides a safety net for those who take risks. Better yet, to my excitement, we are seeing this growing movement everywhere, especially in social entrepreneurship. After launching the world’s cheapest car, Tata launched the Swach, one of the world’s most affordable safe drinking water purifiers. And where was it developed? At Tata Chemicals, within the confines of one of the oldest, largest, and most successful Indian family businesses. Or what about Nokia Life Tools, a fast and easy way to get up-to-date local information on agriculture, education, and entertainment. Globalization and intrapreneurship at its finest – an enormous Finnish mobile phone manufacturer developing products for developing markets.
If these examples can be taken as indicators of a wider shift, intrapreneurship is a key element to the future and ongoing sustainability of companies. Innovation is indeed happening inside, and it begs the question: Is intrapreneurship the future of social business? And how do we make it the “new sexy?”