The Corporate Idealist

In speaking with many social intrapreneurs for my book, I realized we all have stories that are unique in their details but not in their themes. We all want to make a positive difference in the world, and have chosen business as our way to do it.

I call all of them "Corporate Idealists" -- but not everyone identifies as such. As Ed Potter from The Coca-Cola Company told me, "Because if you're an idealist, you're not going to change your vector to accommodate a business. I view myself as a corporate NGO, the in-house NGO." Elliot Schrage from Facebook announced, "I'm a revolutionary incrementalist!" Dan Bross from Microsoft calls himself a "diplomatic agitator."

With all due respect, I still count them among my Corporate Idealist tribe. I see idealism clearly in their work, as much as they may want to frame it in other terms. Judy Samuelson, founder and head of the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program, once led a group of business leaders through a set of pessimistic scenarios for the future, hoping to scare them into taking sustainability more seriously. It backfired: "Too dark," one of the participants grumbled at her. She told me:

Those of us who end up in nonprofits tend to look at the world in a different way than people who go into business. I love working with business executives in part because they are all about opportunity; their glass truly is half full. You can't make a buck if you are mired in doom and gloom. Many of us who work for nonprofits are motivated by concern for the commons, but often the people motivated by the opportunity are the ones who see a way forward - the ones convinced there must be a solution.

Meg Roggensack, who was an international trade attorney with a major law firm before working for Human Rights First, notes the "can-do" attitude of the companies she has engaged:

Whether it's a law, rule, voluntary goal - companies just want to know what it is, and they can organize to deliver to that. We may have difference about what exactly they can do and how fast they can do it, and that's what we argue about. Where there isn't a clear commitment or standard, it's far more difficult. But business is structured to deliver: that's what they do and they do that well. So where there is shared understanding, we can leverage business's core strengths to achieve our shared goals.

Many social intrapreneurs and Corporate Idealists express that bias toward optimism, opportunity, and action - not just to make a buck, but to make a difference. Jeffrey Hollender, founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation, told me, "I get my optimism from knowing that change is possible and knowing that we have much of the capability and technology we need to deal with the challenges that are facing us."

After I visited a sensitive and controversial project in Indonesia that I was working on for BP, seeing it for my own eyes for the first time, I struggled with how dramatically we would change those communities. But I also accepted that the development was inevitable. Local people wanted the company there for the jobs and infrastructure; the government wanted us for the revenue; and global consumers needed the energy. So I thought of my mission as mitigating the risks and enhancing the benefits to communities as best we could. I also took comfort and pride in the fact that I was there specifically to mitigate those risks and enhance those benefits, whereas another company might not have had anyone doing so.

The social intrapreneur and Corporate Idealist community sees both the challenges and potential of big business. We realize that we can't save the world - we can't even save every finger and toe. We can expound upon but not fully explain the disasters of our companies and industries, which is deeply unsatisfying to those who want simple answers and assurances. But we can nudge our companies towards a vision of a better future, one in which "responsible business" and "fair trade" are redundant, not novelties or oxymorons. And, despite the failings of big business, I find myself still optimistic about its ability to make a positive difference in the world. I cheer small wins and incremental steps, and through crises see opportunities to bring about change.

Adapted with permission from The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil by Christine Bader (Bibliomotion, March 25, 2014).

This post, in support of the Aspen Institute's First Movers Fellowship, is part of a special blog series focused on the growing importance of social intrapreneurs (change-agents within organizations large and small who are fusing business success with positive social and environmental impacts) and the value they are adding to their organizations and society.

Click here to meet the Aspen Institute's newest crop of social intrapreneurs - the 2014 Class of First Mover Fellows. Click here to visit the HuffPost Aspen Institute page and see more posts in the series.