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No Need To Go Solo To Innovate: Try Intrapreneurship
By Melissa Everett

Maybe it's the economy, and maybe a lot of us are feeling the pressure to perform while we're still at our peak, but lately I've been hearing a lot of people struggling with the dilemma: get a job or start a business? Both can seem soooo compelling. Both can seem sooooo risky. If you're an enterprising soul, but you're wishing for a supportive structure around you, consider a third path: creating something new within an established workplace. Not a new idea, it's been gaining steam and recognition since the publication, 'way back in 1985, of Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot's fascinating book, Intrapreneurship. You can innovate just to help your employer make money, but -- if you take seriously the possibility of a healthy marriage of economic, ecological and social benefits -- why not use intrapreneurship to help your employer recognize a social or environmental value? People are doing it in many a field.

Linda Descano created a fulfilling job for herself as Environmental Officer in the investment banking firm of Salomon Brothers, now merged with Smith Barney. In many finance-related fields, the standard job description for an environmental professional is to make sure the print shop is not spewing anything hazardous, and to deal with recycling, energy efficiency and other office management considerations. But Descano recognized that these things would come to nothing if the company were to run aground of major environmental disaster in one of its investments. She saw her job as a way to bring environmental due diligence into the normal process of analyzing a prospective deal. She explains:

"We've been working to understand how environmental trends shape the competitiveness of the companies we work with, as a research function, so we can improve our capacity to reduce risk as a lender or in underwriting securities, improve the performance of securities and know who's ahead of the curve by understanding the environmental drivers of business performance. As the trend toward sustainable development takes off, shifting the industrial focus from end of pipe to pollution prevention -- which is a question of corporate strategy -- the company that can anticipate and factor these things in will be more competitive. If you think about climate change and the processes that affect it, you see that this issue transcends countries and markets, and can reshape an entire industry."

"There are always environmental actions that will be a cost of doing business. It would be simplistic to say that they can all be business opportunities. But, increasingly, issues of environment -- not to mention racial and gender equality -- are becoming more integral to a company's market share, brand integrity, ability to access new markets, maintain existing market share, and be competitive in terms of operating costs."

A geologist with strong coursework in communications and public policy, Descano has been "used to seeing any issue holistically, across the range of impacts." As an environmental consultant, she had a chance to work with companies that were paying the price for environmental short-sightedness. She knew that banks lend money for real estate and that, under Superfund law, they can incur liability for toxic surprises. The linkages between environment and finance became clear in her mind "over the years, interacting with people from other banks." She began talking with upper management about the value of anticipating issues and providing more diversified services to clients, and gives credit to the company's "visionary management" for listening to her pitches to create something new.

Wall Street is a very challenging crowd, and with all the consolidation underway it will only get more challenging. They're critical. They question everything. "Innovation requires very thick skin and very good data to make a point so that it's attractive to my culture," she explains.

Some "intraprises" succeed in ways that give rise to new levels of opportunity. When Nashville judge Penny Harrington created a special court for environmental matters -- from household hazardous waste issues to the gentleman who couldn't seem to keep his roosters properly caged -- it was so successful that she followed it up by creating a domestic violence court. Naval engineer Richard Paradis and several colleagues launched the Navy's Green Building program after sitting in a meeting grappling with the subject, "Why do we have so many good green regulations and so little follow-through compared to the opportunity?" What started out as a model project at Naval headquarters ended up as a national program, which then became a model for other military services and federal agencies.

Of course, innovation has its risks. As the Pinchots write in Intrapreneuring, the First Law of the Intrapreneur is, "Come to work every day willing to be fired." But we have all lived through enough instability to put this in perspective. Often, when taking a risk doesn't lead all the way to the hoped-for conclusion, it leads somewhere more interesting than previously imagined.

For example, Dan Ruben was a health care administrator with a giant H.M.O., Harvard Pilgrim, for years. In his personal life, he participated in a program to help households reduce resource consumption by forming "Eco-Teams," and he realized the same basic vision and strategy could apply to his company. "We had a lot of opportunities for environmental improvement, and I suspected they would carry significant benefits for the bottom line," he said.

Ruben wrote a proposal to create a job for himself as Environmental Affairs Coordinator for the Harvard Pilgrim system of seventy buildings, with 10,000 employees, serving over a million members. Tying the proposal carefully to the HMO's mission -- improving neighborhood health -- he started with a broad scan of opportunities, from water conservation to beach cleanups to employee environmental projects. The company president ok'd the proposal and directed Ruben to focus on saving paper, the most visible change for most of the work force.

Ruben recommended a company intranet, which was implemented. He redesigned the organization's major publication, its physician directory, reducing an unbelievable 110,000,000 printed pages per year to a mere 69,000,000. He spent 1997 evaluating the company's practices and making recommendations for savings. The process brought him widespread recognition. "It was such a high," he reflects. "About every two weeks, somebody would ask me to give a talk, write an article, join a board. I did it all. It was a joy."

Ruben's efforts saved Harvard Pilgrim hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that was not enough to prevent the organization from going into a tailspin for unrelated reasons. He knew the days of joy were numbered. He explains, "When you're an HMO and laying off doctors, it's hard to hang onto your environmental function, no matter how much money it's saving." He was laid off in 1998, then invited back in 1999, but not in his environmental role. Working as a project manager once again, he soon made a decision: to finish out his contract and then move into the environmental field. "Even if I end up taking a pay cut -- which isn't guaranteed, but it's a possibility -- the experience at Harvard Pilgrim made it abundantly clear where I need to move," he says. "What's more, it provided a bridge."

Originally published on

Melissa Everett is a professional career counselor and author of Making a Living While Making a Difference: Conscious Careers for an Era of Interdependence. She has also written three previous books and many articles. She is the recipient of the Olive Branch Award of the NYU Center on War, Peace and the News Media for her book Breaking Ranks.

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