How Intrapreneurs Are Building Better Businesses From The Inside

How executives at Pepsi and GlaxoSmithKline have spearheaded initiatives to use their companies’ clout for good.

How Intrapreneurs Are Building Better Businesses From The Inside
Arrows via Shutterstock

What’s the secret to creating lasting social change? The answer is simple, really, as urban design specialist Chelina Odbert told me at a social entrepreneurship bootcamp this summer in New York City: All you have to do is show up twice. So who better to deliver social change than corporations with unmatched resources and global distribution networks?


There’s a “lost tribe” of social innovators embedded in corporate America, building better business from the inside out. Ashoka and Accenture have joined together to find them, fund them and change the way the world does business.

Meaningful Partnerships

During the school year, nearly 20 million students nationwide receive subsidized school meals. Unfortunately, this nutritional safety net breaks down during the summer. Transportation issues prevent many youth from reaching traditional food service sites like churches and community centers. Fewer than 10% of eligible kids get access to the meals they need, leaving millions at risk of hunger.

In 2009, Amy Chen, now director of sales at PepsiCo, and a group of her colleagues decided to do something about it. If kids can’t get to food, they thought, why can’t we bring food to kids? That simple insight was the genesis of Food for Good. “I remember one of the first community meetings we had,” Chen said. “We were describing how we wanted to work together on pilot programs, and start a process of experimenting, and learning and exploring.

“One of the community leaders stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘Before we go any further, I want to be really clear. This may be a pilot to you, but this is our lives. We don’t need more people to sweep in and try to save us.

“‘We need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves, fight in the trenches with us, and not be deterred by the fact that these community challenges are deep, and complicated, and messy–and that they’re going to take a long time and a lot of effort and passion to solve.’

“That conversation was incredibly sobering,” she said. “We take the responsibility of being meaningful partners in this process very seriously.”


Today, thanks to partnerships with state and federal governments, local nonprofits, and community organizations on the ground, and the expertise of colleagues within PepsiCo, Food for Good has become the largest summer mobile meal delivery program in the United States. It operates all summer long–rain or shine–and has provided more than a million nutritious breakfasts and lunches to underserved youth in Dallas, Chicago, Austin, and Houston.

Co-Creation With Communities

Graham Simpson, Michelle Wobker, and Dwight Walker are a team of scientists at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with backgrounds in organic chemistry and biomedical engineering who are working together to develop innovative health care solutions for people in developing countries. They’re the second set of winners in the social intrapreneurship competition.

In a collaborative effort driven by students from the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, insights from the reproductive health nonprofit Jhpiego, and contributions from colleagues within GSK, this scientific trio has helped to progress two inexpensive paper-based products that can reliably diagnose diseases in remote and rural areas worldwide.

“The original ideas came from my own experiences in Kenya with GSK’s PULSE Volunteer Partnership, experiencing firsthand the need for diagnoses of very simple infections and diseases in the developing world,” Simpson said, recalling how a child of a close colleague had passed away from a preventable illness en route to a district hospital 20 miles away.

“The standard diagnostics that you have in hospitals don’t apply when you have no electricity and no running water. We saw this as a huge opportunity.”

The first product this team of corporate innovators co-created was an antenatal pen that allows even minimally trained health care workers to detect issues like pre-gestational diabetes and anemia in pregnant women, from the comfort of their own homes. In many cases, however, it’s more than an issue of comfort: Women in developing countries often lack the resources, time, and capital to visit clinics in person.


Health care workers charge a small fee for a blood and urine test and, if positive, refer women to local hospitals for follow-up care from qualified health professionals; workers’ earnings can be used to purchase additional test kits as well as provide for their families.

The second product is a quick, quantitative test for a deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD for short), an enzyme that affects red blood cell metabolism and can lead to toxic side effects from anti-malarial medications.

Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility

Amy Chen has worked for nonprofits, for-profits, and in government, but has always strived to be a changemaker. In her own words: “It wasn’t an intentional decision at a given point in time that I was going to be a corporate intrapreneur–and I don’t think I would have recognized that as a term,” she said with a laugh.

“But I’ve always been looking for ways to make a difference, and to push the boundaries of thinking about how different sectors can have a social impact, wherever I have been, in whatever sector. That’s always been an animating passion of mine.”

This commitment to serve the public was echoed by the trio at GlaxoSmithKline. Graham Simpson reflected on his team members’ second careers as social intrapreneurs: “I don’t think any of us have actually done it consciously. I think all of us are really interested in and passionate about science, and trying to then apply that science to help patients.

“We work across the organization in very different areas, but that’s our common thread that brings us together. We feel very strongly about helping patients who are worse off, or who don’t have access to the medicines and health care systems we have in the developed world.”


The rise of the social intrapreneur begins with individual changemakers inside corporations, from new hires to senior leadership. Chen, Simpson, Wobker, and Walker saw an opportunity to align corporate strategy with sustainable social impact and seized it.

Food for Good distributes PepsiCo products like Quaker grains and Tropicana juices in its meal program, but not exclusively. Fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, and milk are also part of the mix.

Simpson, Wobker, and Walker’s low-cost diagnostics are helping extend the reach of GlaxoSmithKline’s health care services, but they are also fulfilling its corporate mission: improving the quality of life by enabling people to do more, feel better, and live longer.

“We do have an opportunity, a unique one, through business to help change the world,” Chen said. “When we begin to partner with the strengths of the nonprofit sector, community organizations, and government, we’ll start to see innovations and opportunities we haven’t seen before.

“Whoever can figure out how to do good and do well at the same time is going to have a sustainable, competitive advantage–and will help transform the world in the process.”

The corporation as we’ve known it is changing; its commitments to high performance and purpose reaches beyond CSR departments. Corporations are becoming incubators for innovation as well as highly effective distributors of social change. This evolution is precisely what the public wants, after all, and big business is in the unique position to meet those demands.


Ashoka and Accenture are partnering to launch a competition that seeks creative fixes for business and society: “The League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business from the Inside Out.”

The best 15 entrants will form the inaugural League of Intrapreneurs, join an elite network of global innovators, and receive big-time media and press coverage (including a feature in a globally distributed intrapreneur toolkit). The top four winners will be profiled by FastCo.Exist and receive consulting support from Accenture Development Partnerships.

About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs