Helping Intrapreneurs Break Free Of The Sustainability “Ghetto”

Too often, innovative thinkers at large companies are written off when their ideas involve making the company cleaner or more efficient. A program from the Aspen Institute is helping empower these intrapreneurs to effect change in their companies.

Helping Intrapreneurs Break Free Of The Sustainability “Ghetto”
D'Arcy Norman

We love stories of entrepreneurs who have defied convention to build new businesses. But change doesn’t just come from the outside. Some of the best ideas are developed by “intrapreneurs” at big, established companies.


Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, says it’s vital that we get behind these insiders if we’re going to “integrate profitability and social and environmental value.” So, three years ago, she helped set up Aspen’s First Movers program to train, recognize, and support individuals doing interesting things.

Co.Exist spoke to three participants–one current, and two from last year’s program–about their experiences. We were particularly interested in how they championed their projects internally (one of the main focuses of the fellowship).

Rahul Raj,

Raj has developed an electronics trade-in program at You can go to the site, say what you’ve got to sell (CD player, video game, or whatever) and Walmart organizes the re-sale, or recycling of the item. You then receive a gift card that you can use at the site.

The idea is to create a secondary market for electronics, put money in people’s pockets, and divert waste from the landfill.

Before he joined Walmart, Raj says the scheme was an “orphan” that “wasn’t reaching its potential.” The trick was to “reframe” the idea when selling it to his colleagues. “It wasn’t so much about stressing the environmental benefits, as explaining the mutual self-interest,” he says.

“There is is an economic upside for us, there is a strengthening of the value proposition for our consumers, and e-waste doesn’t go to landfill. By articulating a benefit for each stakeholder, I was able to make progress.”


It helped to focus on customer experiences, rather than the hard numbers. “There was a customer who said the site helped him feed his gadget addiction, and a woman who was able to buy her children’s Christmas presents. Those stories helped gain support for the idea, where previously I wouldn’t have given them much thought. I would have been more focused on data.”

Raj also recommends piloting projects to build support. Starting small allows others to follow, and for adjustments to be made. He hopes the service, currently available just online, soon will be extended to Walmart’s stores.

Emma Stewart, Autodesk

Stewart manages the development of 3-D-modeling software that helps building owners and tenants to cut the cost of making buildings more sustainable.

She started developing the software while in a corporate role at Autodesk, using the company’s buildings as a “living lab.” But she has since switched to a product and services position, where she has more influence.

To have a real impact, Stewart says sustainability professionals need to get “in the trenches.” “If you have responsibility for revenue or product strategy, you are going to have infinitely more impact than if you sit in the ivory tower separate from these groups.”

Stewart says many sustainability managers feel “ghettoised” in corporate roles, unable to make their case effectively.


“What is common is a sense that they are banging their heads against the wall. They are continually trying to make the business case, often with metrics and intangible benefits that don’t translate easily into financial and accounting methodologies.”

Having said that, she also points to the effectiveness of anecdote and customer experience as a way to win support for new projects.

“Executives are often barraged with facts and figures every day, so stories and anecdotes can be quite powerful. It’s often not the massive number that compels the business decision. It is actually the anecdotal evidence from a critical customer.”

Britta Rendlen, Swiss Re

A 2010-11 fellow, Rendlen oversees environmental, social, and ethical risk management at one of the world’s largest insurance companies. She has been working on an “industry framework” to improve how 30 companies assess risk in business transactions.

Rendlen says that by participating in the fellowship she realized Swiss Re should not only be managing its own non-traditional risks, but that it was also in a good position to advise its clients as well.

She says the most useful part of the program was to hear how other fellows pitched ideas, convinced colleagues, and overcame “system problems,” like non-useful incentive structures. Short-termism is the greatest obstacle to sustainability intrapreneurs, she says.


“We are part of a greater economic system, where in recent times there has been a more short-term perspective which runs counter to the truly sustainable management of a company, an industry, a society or a planet.”

McGaw, at Aspen, says she hopes the fellowship–which takes about 16 people a year–helps intrapreneurs to be “braver.”

“There are a lot of people in business who want to connect their deep personal purpose with their professional endeavors, and they want to do something more than volunteer days,” she says.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.