Be the Change at Work: Become a Social Intrapreneur

In Central Australia's sprawling outback, Mark Glazebrook met a 15-year-old boy straddling a bike -- a typical teen pose but for the gas can strapped to his face. A sniffing epidemic had ensnared local aboriginal youth in the spring of 2002, and Glazebrook traveled from Melbourne to help.

He wasn't with a charity or NGO. In fact, as BP Australia's corporate social responsibility manager, Glazebrook worked for big oil. It might have been his company's fuel the kid was sniffing, so his first thoughts went to product design.

"I thought, 'Why couldn't we turn our technical skills into a technical solution?'" he told us.

Today, people don't just want a job, they want a calling. Millennials hold out for jobs that satisfy personal values (moving back in with mom and dad in the meantime). And mid-career professionals delay retirement in favor of career makeovers with purpose. After years on the clock, who wouldn't want to help change the world at their day job?

At the same time, most workers can't risk a steady income to start a social enterprise or renounce materialism and move to Calcutta to volunteer. Many professionals have mortgages or kids who insist on being fed regularly.

Social intrapreneurs like Glazebrook maintain job security and use the resources of large companies to tackle some of the world's biggest problems. They protest from within, while on the payroll. This is the best of both worlds at work -- with personal, social and economic benefits.

Glazebrook and his team leveraged the core competencies of the business to solve an entrenched social issue. Engineers spent six months grappling with technical issues, and the result was Opal, a fuel low in aromatic hydrocarbons that made it impossible to get high from its vapours. Gas sniffing plummeted by up to 94 per cent in the outback region. And in 2013, the Australian government voted to make the use of Opal fuel mandatory in remote areas across the country. In addition to saving lives, BP cornered the market.

Meanwhile, in rural Kenya, Vodafone executive Nick Hughes noticed that although millions of people didn't have bank accounts, everyone owned a cell phone. Many small business owners simply carried wads of cash to distant suppliers, a dangerous practice.

Vodafone wasn't eager to gamble its R&D budget on an entry into Africa's banking sector, but Hughes pushed past the resistance to create M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer system. Subscribers store or send money via text message, make transfers, and even pay their children's school fees from remote areas. M-Pesa has been hugely profitable, and has even spurred small business growth in rural regions. In 2014, 87 per cent of Kenya's $55 billion GDP flowed through its services.

As social intrapreneurs gain traction, global support networks like the League of Intrapreneurs are popping up to teach you "How to Change the World and Still Pay Your Bills," according to one blog post.

Corporate social change isn't a task reserved for the higher-ups--it can come from the bottom up. If you want to inject social purpose into your job description, try starting with smaller gestures. A volunteer committee that gives back outside the office will improve the well-being of your colleagues. Ideas for energy conservation, recycling or improved efficiencies would be better managed with a dedicated green team, and would save the company money. Taking on leadership positions to tackle social issues will boost your job satisfaction and earn the respect of other leaders.

Become a social intrapreneur and be the change you wish to see at work.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.