The entrepreneur archetype is one of an audacious explorer who risks it all to start something new, building a new organization from the ground up, yet this is not always the case, nor should it be. Entrepreneurship is a powerful tool that can be used by practically anyone within an established institution to foster innovation and accelerate promising initiatives. Leading a startup project within an organization is called intrapreneurship. In September, my Colleague Nancy Everson, head of Academic Enrichment at the College of William and Mary, where I work part time, shared with me her story of intrapreneurship, which highlights how anyone can innovate from within.
“The Tribe Tutor Zone Changed My Life”
In the Summer of 2014, a sophomore student, let’s call her Michelle, walked into Nancy’s office to apply for a position as a tutor in the Tribe Tutor Zone, a tutoring center that Nancy created one year ago. Michelle applied to be a tutor for organic chemistry and when asked why, she said that she, “dreamed of being a doctor her entire life,” but was warned that organic chemistry was a gateway class for that career and if she couldn’t succeed in orgo, she probably shouldn’t pursue medical school. During her freshman year, Michelle quickly found herself struggling with organic chemistry, losing her grasp of the material, and underperforming on her first exam. Shaken, Michelle began looking at alternative careers, pondering what she might do if she couldn’t become a doctor. Fortunately, Michelle signed up with a tutor from Nancy’s Tribe Tutor Zone as a last ditch effort. Terry, her tutor, began working with Michelle and made her realize that the way she was approaching the material was the problem. Terry showed her different ways of looking at the content, different ways of studying, and completely transformed her experience. Michelle ended up getting an A in the class and now she is giving back as a tutor while continuing her pursuit of becoming a doctor.
Identifying the Need
The story of Michelle’s interaction with the Tribe Tutor Zone was a “watershed moment” for Nancy, who started the Tutor Zone from scratch one year earlier. According to Nancy, for many years, professors talked about the need for a centralized location for tutoring. There was sometimes a small amount of tutoring available in one academic department or another, but there was no overarching campus infrastructure that ensured all students had access to tutoring. Some students charged a lot of money to independently tutor other students and some volunteered. Ultimately, Nancy said that, “when students came to me asking for a tutor, I often had nowhere to send them.” Just as is often the case with entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs first identify a possible need, which Nancy did through her interactions with students.
Activating a Passion: Social Intrapreneurship
Nancy was extremely frustrated that some students were at a disadvantage because of their inconsistent access to tutoring. That frustration was the impetus for her to start something from the ground up to solve the problem. Intrapreneurship can be driven by the desire to maximize profits for a company and to ascend the career ladder, which are totally acceptable motivations. In other cases such as Nancy’s, social impact and the desire to empower the lives of others is the driver of intrapreneurship.
Naysayers, Testing Demand, and Scaling
It wouldn’t truly be an intrapreneurial or entrepreneurial experience without the occasional person who confidently says your idea will never work. Such was the case with Nancy’s Tribe Tutor Zone. When first developing the program, Nancy remembers a parent who told her, “Sorry to burst your bubble, but this will never work. These are William and Mary students we are talking about. They won’t use tutoring.” One year later, use of the Tutor Zone has increased by 48 percent and tutors can barely keep up with the demand. Furthermore, 58 percent of Tutor Zone participants have over a 3.0 GPA, challenging the notion that high-achieving William and Mary students will not want to use tutoring. Nancy simultaneously proved the demand of the market and began scaling her venture, all while quietly disproving the skeptics.
Financial Sustainability, a Key Component of Intrapreneurship
What makes Nancy’s venture a true case of intrapreneurship is her ability to execute her initiative in a financially sustainable and scalable way. The Tutor Zone charges students $10 an hour for tutoring services and tutors are paid directly from that charge. Voila!, tutor wages increase in direct correlation to the amount of students who use them. Although seemingly simple in concept, many services and supports in the social impact space are fully anchored in the donation model. In such a case, all students would receive the tutoring service for free, but the Tutor Zone’s ability to serve students would be greatly hindered by a dependency on fundraising. In the current model of the Tribe Tutor Zone, donor support allows for the tutoring fee to be waived for students who cannot afford it, which is tremendously beneficial. Yet because the core financial model involves the majority of students paying a low fee for services, Nancy’s venture can scale to much greater heights, providing access to countless more students.
Navigating Organizational Dynamics, a Unique Aspect of Intrapreneurship
In classic entrepreneurship, an individual or team starts an organization from scratch. Doing so, allows the entrepreneurs to set the rules, break things, and try new initiatives at any point in the life of a venture. Intrapreneurs do not have this luxury as they are not always the leaders of the organization in which they are trying to innovate. Thus, successful intrapreneurs must navigate organizational politics, influence the right stakeholders, and pitch ideas to superiors before getting the okay to move forward with something new. I’m not exactly sure how Nancy accomplished this at the College of William and Mary but my understanding is that the leadership is very amenable to innovation and doing things differently when students benefit. That aspect, having an organizational culture that nurtures intrapreneurship, is an incredible value-add that catalyzes the intrapreneurship process.
Entrepreneurship can be applied in so many ways, both within organizations and outside of them. Many people are intrapreneurs and do not even realize it. I strongly encourage people to envision themselves as innovators in whatever context they desire. Doing so can be incredibly exciting, empowering, and impactful. I encourage others to share their stories of intrapreneurship, however small, on Iwitter @edconnective with the hashtag #intrapreneurship.