It took Healey Cypher less than a year to realize his company, eBay, was missing out on a huge business opportunity.
While 75% of all consumer purchases happen within 15 miles of someone's home in physical stores, the company only offered e-commerce services for clients. As chief of staff of global product management, he met a lot of retailers, and he knew they would want products for physical retail as well.
With a slight nod from the CEO, he assembled a team of engineers to come up with ways to use tech to enhance physical stores. In their free time (and in addition to their regular jobs), they created an interactive storefront and convinced Toys "R" Us to install one. Over the next two years they did the same for TOMS, Sony, and Rebecca Minkoff. EBay never asked Cypher to do this, but his success became the centerpiece of the company and a new, formal division. "EBay let us go, it let us run, it gave us the autonomy, it let us feel important," said Cypher. "This company, when they put the might before you, you can make it big."
Cypher, who worked for a startup before joining eBay and has since left to start his own venture, could have taken his passions and ideas outside of his formal line of work. But like a growing number of employees called intrapreneurs, he chose to start something new in his existing company and innovate from within.
Obviously there have always been go-getters in companies who try to move the needle forward and push the status quo. But never before has there been such a push for employees to take ownership of their own corner of a company. This can mean creating a new division or launching a new initiative like an environmental or women’s leadership campaign. Staff are even bringing their hobbies to work, teaching morning yoga classes or painting artwork for the office walls.
Claudia Chan, founder of S.H.E. Globl Media, a women’s media and education company, says employees are now starting to ask themselves: "What do I want to create that is going to fill a white space? What doesn’t exist that needs to exist? There is a hole and they want to fill it. There is a problem, and they want to solve it." This isn’t employees trying to do better at their existing jobs or move up the ladder; this is them wanting to create something new that doesn’t currently exist.
This movement of intrapreneurs has come a long way, says Alexa Clay, a spokesperson for the League of Intrapreneurs, a global organization to support and unite this population. "It started (seven years ago) almost as Alcoholics Anonymous," she said. "We would create these safe spaces for intrapreneurs to come together and share their stories about working in the corporate world because they are going against the grain so often."
Now, companies such as Deloitte, GFK, Accenture, Ashoka, and Barclays have formal programs to encourage their employees to create new projects and roles. There are conferences, webinars, even career coaches to teach them important skills. There is even pride and camaraderie forming among them. "We ask intrapreneurs, ‘Would you have more luck at this if you were an entrepreneur?’" said Clay. "A lot of them say no. They say, ‘I have this amazing ability to drive impact.’"
The rise of the intrapreneur is driven in part by a restless, younger workforce eager to make a real impact with their careers. While many are turning to startups to do so, others, like Cypher, realize they might be better off driving change from their current home, where the funding and infrastructure are already there.
Kathleen Murray, a venture capitalist who writes regularly about this topic, said she expects more millennials to stay put as they learn from their friends and colleagues how hard it is to start something from scratch. "I know people think it’s cool right now to be an entrepreneur," she said. "But 90% of people who want to be entrepreneurs are going to fail."
Older generations, perhaps inspired by their younger colleagues, are thinking more about their legacy and launching new projects in the companies they’ve worked for, sometimes for decades. Lauren Ruotolo, a 38-year-old who created unique roles for herself at TV Guide and Hearst to create promotions with entertainment companies, believes these people are ideal for the role because they have proven themselves and have such insight to act upon.
But not all companies are embracing intrapreneurialism, said Christie Smith, Deloitte’s managing principal for consulting in the west region of the US, who is an intrapreneur and now manages a team of them. "There are so many reasons. One is that there are strong cultures of 'this is the way it’s always been done.' There are also cultures that fear failure . . . or have very real reasons to be cautious. It can be right down to the personality of the leader itself."
It should be noted that not all employees are cut out for intrapreneurship, either. You have to be aggressive and push a company, often set in its ways, to embrace change. You also have to work after hours and forgo full recognition or credit for your work.
But the ones that are, are doing so to survive. The Deloitte Millennial Survey released in January 2014 found that 70% of millennials see themselves working independently at some point rather than being employed within a traditional organizational structure. A big reason for that is that millennials want things companies aren’t currently giving them: autonomy, creativity, and meaning. But if companies give their talent something to focus on, projects to own, they will stay and help their company move forward.
It’s also good for business. So many industries, from law to advertising to media, are in flux, and they need new ideas and new talent to reinvent themselves. "That creates the conditions for intrapreneurs," said Clay. "You have to reprogram these goliath organizations and make their cultures be more future friendly—that’s the role of the intrapreneurs."
Think about what would happen if you include everyone from the assistant to the CEO when addressing a problem or trying to come up with the next big idea, said Chan. "The traditional model calls the management team of all the VPs and directors together to address a challenge, and then it’s always the same people trying to brainstorm. But you have so many more brains within the organization. Tap into the full potential of your organization and talent; you could be sitting on a gold mine of ideas and ideation and talent and not even know it."
Even if companies don’t get this notion intuitively, they are feeling pressure from socially responsible ventures like Eileen Fisher and Whole Foods, along with tech giants like Google and Facebook, who have empowered their employees and shown it can be done. "They’ve really challenged some of the more traditional corporations to do it as well," said Rha Goddess, a career coach in New York City who works with entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike. "You can’t argue, 'We are a $3 billion enterprise so we can’t do it.'"
The future belongs to individuals and companies who embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, whether that is inside or outside a company, said Goddess. "The fundamental question is what is going to have people get motivated and inspired to be in their highest contribution. What is going to get you fired up to do what you came here to do? And I think the more that all of us are asking those questions and engaging in those opportunities, the better we are all going to be."
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that eBay didn't "fully sanction" Cypher's project, however the company did support and invest in the project.
Alyson Krueger is a freelance journalist in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company.