By Nikita T. Mitchell (Social Innovation Fellow, StartingBloc)
Women are no strangers to social change. The percentage of women in the non-profit sector – up to 74% in some cities – demonstrates the desires of women across the country to build careers committed to the greater good.
The non-profit sector isn’t the only place where you will find women changemakers. Many are boldly making moves as social entrepreneurs, starting companies that focus on doing good, for society, while doing well financially.
Some women are jump-starting careers as social intrapreneurs – individuals that work for social impact from within large companies and organizations. Typically under the radar, these women are working hard to use the power of business to create the kinds of changes they want to see in society.
Their backgrounds are varied, and their personal motivations are even more diverse. They include women like Kavita Prakash-Mani who, due to her upbringing in India, says she was very familiar with poverty and development. Or Jillene Connors Belopolsky and Dymphna van der Lans, whose passions for energy and sustainability led them to work for BP – a choice that perplexed family and friends who wondered about their desire to work for one the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Or Katharine Bierce, whose mother raised her to always think about those who are marginalized by society.
Their varied experiences, unique as they are, give us a peek into what it is like to be a woman working in this space. They are trailblazing career paths that many other women have yet to consider.
Accepting The Good With The Bad
Kavita Prakash-Mani, head of the Food Security Agenda at Syngenta, a leading company committed to sustainable agriculture through innovative research and technology, believes her background has both helped and hindered her. She is conscious of the stereotypes that she has fit into throughout her career, such as Indian, female, do-gooder.
While this has afforded her opportunities within organizations that truly value the diverse perspective she offers, she says “sometimes you know you don’t get listened to as seriously.” You have to believe in your cause, and you can’t quit until you reach your goals, she said.
When asked how she has dealt with doubt, Prakash-Mani said, “You just live with it. You actually don’t think about it that much. You just try harder, and at some point you kind of forget it.”
Career Flexibility Through Social Intrapreneurship
As a mother of two, Jillene Connors Belopolsky’s perspective as a social intrapreneur is shaped by her experience building a career around her many life changes. Like many women balancing their careers and starting families of their own, she has made trade-offs in her life that have limited her options professionally.
“The challenges of just managing your career and staying connected when you’re coming in and out while raising children, or starting a family, might be limiting in terms of the number of hours you can work, how often you can travel, and how far you can go,” she said. “It’s something that predominantly limits women today in some of the choices that they make.”
Interestingly, this is where she says being an intrapreneur has unique benefits for women.
“Personally, I am not in the position to leave and join a startup or NGO. Being an intrapreneur and having the support of an organization allows for flexibility and development of a career path over time.”
The Value Of Female Leadership
Intrapreneurship also offers many women the opportunity to cash in on their strengths. Operating within the confines of an organization means that the initiative has to fit the pace and rhythm of the organization.
“Without being aligned with the culture, your actions won’t resonate with the strategy,” said Katharine Bierce, who leads her company’s global employee volunteering program. This is where storytelling and relationship building – qualities often attributed to successful female leadership (but that apply to everyone) – become critical.
Success for social intrapreneurs does is not driven by lone initiative – it depends on effective collaboration within teams and between individuals whose jobs may be unrelated to the social initiatives they are pursuing.
Reflecting on the keys to her own successes, Prakash-Mani said, “When people ask me what I actually do, I half-flippantly say I make friends and influence people. That’s what you actually spend a lot of time doing – convincing them of the value.”
Dymphna Van der Lans also notes the importance of using soft skills to gain and maintain organizational support. “You need to be able to get people behind your story and be able to win people over,” she said. Her approach to cross-functional leadership was instrumental to the initial success of the sustainable energy business that she started at BP.
These women, while at various stages in their careers, embrace their entrepreneurial spirits for the greater good. Interested in moving beyond government and non-profit solutions to today’s most pressing social issues, they’ve turned to business and pulled off some powerful projects.
Unlike social entrepreneurs, however, they are committed to transforming large businesses from the inside-out, demonstrating the value and large-scale impact they can make in society. By doing so, they’re opening up a world of possibilities for women following them.
Women 2.0 readers: Are you an intrapreneur? Let us know what you’re working on in the comments!
About the guest blogger: Nikita T. Mitchell is a Social Innovation Fellow at StartingBloc. She began her career at Deloitte and recently completed the ProInspire Fellowship, managing initiatives that support infrastructure for microenterprise and microfinance in the United States. Her long-term career interests lie at the intersection of business and social change, as she is passionate about social innovation within the private sector. Follow her on Twitter at @NikitaTMitchell.