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What Is Intrapreneurship?

Is it possible to work like an entrepreneur in a larger organization? That’s the idea behind intrapreneurship, but does it work?

Fri May 28 2021

BusinessBecause
The idea behind intrapreneurship is a simple one: employees are given resources and time to act as if they’re entrepreneurs, from inside their company. 

Intrapreneurs might be responsible for launching a new product, brand, or department, or simply using existing company resources in different and innovative ways.

Intrapreneurship projects aim to make established organizations perform more like startups, which are typically more agile thanks to less bureaucracy and fewer people making decisions. 

But does the principle of intrapreneurship actually work, and what does it take to be an intrapreneur?


What is an intrapreneur?

The term ‘intrapreneur’ was actually coined in a 1978 white paper. The paper was penned by Gifford Pinchot III, who founded the innovation consulting firm, Pinchot & Company, along with his wife and co-founder, Elizabeth Pinchot.

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Since then, the concept has sparked some noteworthy innovations, from Facebook’s ‘like button,’ which emerged from a coding competition called a hack-a-thon, to Sony’s PlayStation console, which was developed after an engineer came up with a way to make his daughter’s Nintendo console more powerful and user-friendly.

But according to Karin O’Connor (right), clinical assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, intrapreneurship doesn’t have to be as dramatic as launching a new product or department.

“I think coming up with a new idea, leveraging assets and resources in new ways, or opening up new market opportunities, are all examples of intrapreneurship,” she says. An intrapreneur is the person who makes this happen. 

Since the development of lean startup methodology in the 2010s, more intrapreneurs have been emerging, Karin observes. Because the lean startup process is all about launching new projects in a low-cost and experimental way, companies do not need to make large investments to see results.

“You can build a minimal viable product (MVP) cheap and fast, and I think that works really well inside a company,” Karin reflects.


Intrapreneurs vs entrepreneurs

Not every expert thinks that ‘intrapreneurship’ is a useful term.

“An intrapreneur is supposedly someone who works for [themself], but also works for someone else—I don’t see the two concepts being joined, they’re mutually exclusive in my opinion,” comments Tom Åstebro, professor of economics and decision sciences at HEC Paris. 

“What sets entrepreneurs apart is their taste for autonomy and independence. Those preferences are anathema to working in large companies,” he adds.

Alongside his teaching work, Tom (right) co-directs the entrepreneurship track offered by the HEC Paris MBA program, and also acts as academic lead for the Creative Destruction Lab—an accelerator program for tech-based startups—at its Paris location.

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Tom has daily interactions with entrepreneurs and thinks it’s unlikely that larger organizations can convert would-be entrepreneurs into intrapreneurs. Despite efforts by large organizations to offer greater autonomy and independence to employees, the work environment will never come close to mimicking a startup.

“I think these changes have limited effect. A lot of your work will still be about following the organization’s objectives, and you don’t have the autonomy and flexibility that entrepreneurship gives you,” he says. 

Although Karin from Kellogg believes that intrapreneurship is a useful concept, she’s also quick to point out that intrapreneurs do have different characteristics than their entrepreneurial counterparts. 

“I’m not sure it’s the same personality,” she reflects. “I doubt people are choosing to go into a large company thinking they’re going to be an intrapreneur.

“It’s more likely that people who’ve worked there for a while and know the organization have the support to play around with new ideas.”

This insider knowledge of their organization is a must-have for successful intrapreneurs. But they need to move more cautiously than entrepreneurs to maintain strong relationships within their company. This means knowing when to be assertive, and when to be diplomatic, so emotional intelligence is crucial.


Examples of intrapreneurship

Do intrapreneurship initiatives actually get results? Tom from HEC Paris thinks that these projects have fairly limited outcomes.

Even Google’s famous 20% Project—an initiative that allowed employees to work one day a week on their personal projects to inspire innovation—was only leveraged by about 10% of staff by 2015.

According to former Google executive, Marissa Mayer, employees aren’t really given the time they need to work on these projects, and would need to give up their personal time with no compensation.


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Karin has seen more promising examples of intrapreneurship. One program she works with is offered by health and safety tech giant, UL. The organization takes high potential employees on regular retreats, during which they come up with new ideas for the organization. The team is then allocated a budget and some time to work on the idea in their day-to-day job. 

Another example she has seen is an innovation competition at Molexan electronics manufacturer. The firm runs a company-wide intrapreneurship contest that invites anyone to submit an idea. "Entrants were leveraging tech that they already worked with inside the company and figuring out how else it could be used," Karin explains. Competition winners got the chance to work on their idea for a full year. A powerful incentive for employees who crave autonomy.

Karin believes there are two main obstacles to initiatives like these being successful. The first is managing expectations.

“Sometimes companies expect results that are too big and too fast,” Karin explains. “Even the best startups take a long time to get where they are.

The fact that company success is still largely measured in terms of profit and loss is a second important barrier, she adds. Even a potentially groundbreaking idea can be shunned by teams if it isn’t going to be profitable right away.

“Instead, companies need to view these ideas as standalone entities—and as an investment,” Karin says. They don’t have to be resource intensive. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for companies. It’s good for them to see their infrastructure tested and used in new ways—it’s kind of like flexing muscles.”


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Student Reviews

HEC Paris

Student

Verified

7/07/2022

On Campus

Cultural experience

I have met the most competent and diverse batch in this school. These people not only thrive on their own but also makes sure that you are doing it with them. The professors will take your had and walk you through all milestones and make sure you are not left behind. I have found their extracurriculars extremely engaging. There was always a room to have social life after academic life. The only hindrance is the location of the school, it is slightly outside city and living in city is expensive.

Sarah

Verified

18/03/2022

On Campus

Internationality and diversity of opportunities

About my programme I would say it is very international and flexible: we have the opportunity to choose exactly the courses we want. But at the same time, the frame of the campus is crucial in students' life and enable us to create friendships.

Student

Verified

29/10/2021

On Campus

Great selection of people

While HEC's MBA is highly selective, I really enjoy the type of people HEC's selects to make sure everybody gets the best out of their MBA experience and networking opportunities. Not only it's an incredibly diverse pool of people (~60 nationalities) but most importantly they make sure to let in friendly empathic and curious people.

Veronique

Verified

28/10/2021

Blended

Best in France for Grande ecole

A prestigious business school. Languages ​​are important. It is better to have a scientific baccalaureate with excellent grades in high school and good assessments. The courses are well designed as per the latest trends and practicality of learning in stressed upon. Overall, a very good experience.

Ghadi

Verified

11/06/2022

On Campus

Diversity and quality of fellow students

Very international and interesting place to be and opens a lot of opportunities, however the administration is very french and facilities are subpar (gym, classrooms) meaning the academic affairs is pretty much useless and lastly we are graded on a curve which can create a toxic environment because of the competition. With that being said the pros outweighs the cons by far.

Student

Verified

27/03/2022

On Campus

The quality of the teachers, the campus, the clubs

The school is very international indeed, we have courses with international students and share things with them within the extra academic life (in the social clubs especially). We have great career prospects if we prepare ourselves well - however, the global curriculum is still very finance-oriented, which is a pity for other interesting domains of the company world, which does not rely on finance only. The social clubs are good practice for the management and for now, are quite independent.

Lb

Verified

26/03/2022

On Campus

HEC Paris awaits you

HEC Paris is really a nice place to do a master's in business. Many classes are useful and interesting (corporate finance, financial accounting, contract law…), some are less - but the curriculum is to be reviewed in the year to come. Regarding the student life, it is incredible, with about 130 clubs, lots of great parties with even greater people. The Jouy campus offers a lot of opportunities to do sports, and you can breathe fresh air every day. HEC also helps a great deal to find an internship or a job.

Rajarshi

Verified

28/10/2021

Blended

A dream institute

Enrolling in the HEC MBA was by far the best decision I made for myself. The people and faculty are great, with lots of opportunities to meet people and expand your horizons. Very nice campus where I have had some good running sessions. The alumni network is superb and very helpful. It also has a good support system for entrepreneurs. Would definitely recommend it!

Student

Verified

19/10/2021

On Campus

Good choice for a career boost

The classes were extremely practical and relevant to the current challenges that businesses are facing. You have access to a wide range of professionals and good career prospects once you leave the university.

Student

Verified

7/07/2022

On Campus

Cultural experience

I have met the most competent and diverse batch in this school. These people not only thrive on their own but also makes sure that you are doing it with them. The professors will take your had and walk you through all milestones and make sure you are not left behind. I have found their extracurriculars extremely engaging. There was always a room to have social life after academic life. The only hindrance is the location of the school, it is slightly outside city and living in city is expensive.

Sarah

Verified

18/03/2022

On Campus

Internationality and diversity of opportunities

About my programme I would say it is very international and flexible: we have the opportunity to choose exactly the courses we want. But at the same time, the frame of the campus is crucial in students' life and enable us to create friendships.

Student

Verified

29/10/2021

On Campus

Great selection of people

While HEC's MBA is highly selective, I really enjoy the type of people HEC's selects to make sure everybody gets the best out of their MBA experience and networking opportunities. Not only it's an incredibly diverse pool of people (~60 nationalities) but most importantly they make sure to let in friendly empathic and curious people.

Veronique

Verified

28/10/2021

Blended

Best in France for Grande ecole

A prestigious business school. Languages ​​are important. It is better to have a scientific baccalaureate with excellent grades in high school and good assessments. The courses are well designed as per the latest trends and practicality of learning in stressed upon. Overall, a very good experience.

Ghadi

Verified

11/06/2022

On Campus

Diversity and quality of fellow students

Very international and interesting place to be and opens a lot of opportunities, however the administration is very french and facilities are subpar (gym, classrooms) meaning the academic affairs is pretty much useless and lastly we are graded on a curve which can create a toxic environment because of the competition. With that being said the pros outweighs the cons by far.

Student

Verified

27/03/2022

On Campus

The quality of the teachers, the campus, the clubs

The school is very international indeed, we have courses with international students and share things with them within the extra academic life (in the social clubs especially). We have great career prospects if we prepare ourselves well - however, the global curriculum is still very finance-oriented, which is a pity for other interesting domains of the company world, which does not rely on finance only. The social clubs are good practice for the management and for now, are quite independent.

Lb

Verified

26/03/2022

On Campus

HEC Paris awaits you

HEC Paris is really a nice place to do a master's in business. Many classes are useful and interesting (corporate finance, financial accounting, contract law…), some are less - but the curriculum is to be reviewed in the year to come. Regarding the student life, it is incredible, with about 130 clubs, lots of great parties with even greater people. The Jouy campus offers a lot of opportunities to do sports, and you can breathe fresh air every day. HEC also helps a great deal to find an internship or a job.

Rajarshi

Verified

28/10/2021

Blended

A dream institute

Enrolling in the HEC MBA was by far the best decision I made for myself. The people and faculty are great, with lots of opportunities to meet people and expand your horizons. Very nice campus where I have had some good running sessions. The alumni network is superb and very helpful. It also has a good support system for entrepreneurs. Would definitely recommend it!

Student

Verified

19/10/2021

On Campus

Good choice for a career boost

The classes were extremely practical and relevant to the current challenges that businesses are facing. You have access to a wide range of professionals and good career prospects once you leave the university.

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