The Case for Women Intrapreneurs

iStock_000019152998XSmallBy Robin Madell

While we read plenty about women leaving corporate jobs for entrepreneurial ventures, much less discussed is the option of female intrapreneurship. Being an intrapreneur simply means acting like an entrepreneur in terms of risk-taking and innovation while working within a large corporation.

The potential pros of entrepreneurship are often touted and well-known: the opportunity to be your own boss, to work more flexibly on your own schedule, and to have the chance to do meaningful work of your own choosing. A 2013 report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that where personal satisfaction is concerned, those who start their own businesses rank the highest in the world in happiness scores. The report also stated that female entrepreneurs rated themselves even higher in their sense of well-being than male entrepreneurs.

While these stats are compelling, a 2012 report by GEM noted that the relatively small number of women launching new businesses worldwide—and fewer still who are running mature businesses—suggests a conundrum. This may stem from the fact that female entrepreneurs are less likely to receive funding to grow their businesses, which is a problem in itself. But what it also means is that women more often than not are failing to wield powerful resources and reach larger audiences at the entrepreneurial level.

As any basic business textbook confirms, the pros of larger companies generally include financial, labor, and audience advantages over smaller companies, whose main benefits are being nimble and reactive. When women leave the corporate arena, they aren’t just leaving behind their jobs; they are abandoning ample resources that could be used to enact change on the largest level. They just need to know how to access these resources.

Enter intrapreneurs. Unlike with entrepreneurship, intrapreneurs have a built-in corporate support system to help them reach their goals, if they know how to use it. Three companies that have strong intrapreneurial cultures are Google, LinkedIn, and Dreamworks. While intrapreneurship has traditionally been the purview of a limited number of people within a company, the trend is growing to extend this domain throughout entire organizations. Google and other tech companies, for example, have used “20 Percent Time” to give employees an allocated percentage of hours in their daily work schedule to tinker and innovate. This has led to some incredible discoveries, like Gmail and Google Earth, which affect hundreds of millions of users.

Here are some ideas on how to become an intrapreneur no matter which company you work for:

Look for problems to solve. Whether it’s a process that’s broken or you envision a way to build a better mousetrap, keep your finger on the pulse of the marketplace and your customers. Use your unique role as an industry insider to recognize new trends coming down the pike, and grab opportunities early to think outside the usual boundaries.

Remember your strengths. Like successful entrepreneurs who choose an area of focus that allows them to do what they do best, intrapreneurs can also play to their strengths. Use whatever you’re good at as a starting point for your risk-taking. This will help you see things that others may miss, and make your goals more meaningful to you and to others.

Use your network. Intrapreneurs are best served by being well-connected, both internally and out-of-house. If you can get buy-in first from your inner circle for an innovative project, and then gather feedback from outside sources to help you vet your idea, you’ll be giving your intrapreneurial venture the best chance for success.

Think it through. The quality of the first idea you present internally can help set the tone for your future success as a go-to intrapreneur. While you might be excited to announce your vision when you first think of it, do your due diligence to ensure that your proposal is air-tight and workable. Anticipate holes that others might poke in your framework, and address them in advance.

Becoming an intrapreneur through these steps can help fulfill the creative gap many initially drawn toward entrepreneurship feel, while affording the chance to reach the same level of personal well-being that research shows many entrepreneurs gain. Working within the corporate structure can also mitigate the personal risk and challenging lifestyle shifts that entrepreneurship can bring such as lack of stability, loss of company health benefits and employee retirement packages, and increased and unpredictable work hours.

Intrapreneurship can also help you to differentiate yourself in the increasingly competitive workplace environment, an advantage that can improve your visibility as you try to climb the corporate ladder. Career and personal dividends, as well as your scale of impact, are all improved by taking your best ideas and work ethic and applying them within the system to change and advance it.

In short, the vast resources, wider impact, and potential reach women are leaving on the table when they leave Corporate America to start businesses from scratch are substantial, as are often less-than-ideal lifestyle changes associated with entrepreneurship. If you’re feeling a creative itch to get your ideas noticed, you may have a greater chance to succeed in this by staying rather than by going. In many cases, it can be well worth the fight to remain in-house as a risk-taking innovator, and work on breaking the glass ceiling from within.