“We are past, ‘Should we?’ The question now is, ‘How?’” At a recent event in New York, New York, Mehmood Kahn, chief scientific officer at Pepsico, framed the challenge on the mind of many company leaders who have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In other words, the ambition is set, but how will companies deliver?
The 17 SDGs with their 169 associated, ambitious targets for 2030—on issues such as inequality, climate change, migration, and resource scarcity—effectively express the global development agenda. And these issues feature prominently on the radar of the business community. Forward-looking companies are approaching the SDGs from the perspective of opportunity. And the opportunity is substantial: Sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth $12 trillion and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.
To unlock this potential, businesses are using circular, de-carbonized, collaborative, and inclusive business models—to name just a few—to connect commercial benefit to societal impact. These models are complex and require new mindsets and competencies, but they offer promising paths forward. And if you look closely, you will find intrapreneurs—people driving change from the inside out—at the heart of these innovations, shaping the future of business.
According to Gifford Pinchot III, who coined the term in 1978, intrapreneurs are “dreamers who do.” They bring much-needed entrepreneurial capacity to large, systematized organizations. Yet there are many barriers to intrapreneurship, including job-related, strategic, and cultural constraints. To help equip intrapreneurs with the tools they need to scale social and sustainable innovation, we are exploring how company leadership can create more enabling environments for enterprising teams to drive transformative innovation from within.
Over a six-month period this year, our organizations—Business Fights Poverty and the League of Intrapreneurs—engaged company leaders, intrapreneurs, and social innovation practitioners in a series of international workshops, online learning events, and in-depth interviews. Our research uncovered increased company investment in social innovation, as well as intrapreneurship incubators, accelerators, and funds. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, we also observed the limits of these approaches without a wider enabling environment. Like social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs need a healthy ecosystem to survive and thrive. Companies that take a holistic approach and invest across four main areas—purpose, people, power and pipeline—are more likely to see social innovation not only spark, but scale.