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Not Quite an Entrepreneur? Try Innovating Within Your Company

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Gen Y, about a million surveys and commentators tell us, are incredibly keen on entrepreneurship. But let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for starting a business straight out of school, and even those who have the skills and the grit at a young age might not have the resources. So what’s to be done?

One suggestion: become an intrapreneur. Coined way back in the 70s by Gifford Pinchot, the term intrapreneur covers anyone involved in shaking up a stale business culture to bring in innovation and get cool stuff done. And it’s a natural option for young, idealistic, entrepreneur-idolizing young people, according to a recent post by careers author Alexandra Levit on the American Express OPEN Forum blog. But despite the long pedigree of the idea and its obvious advantages, “entrepreneurs tend to think of going in-house as selling out,” concedes Levit.

Finding another outlet

But Levit begs to differ with those that are down on intrapreneurship. She quotes Ingrid Vanderveldt, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell: “Intrapreneurship can be just as impactful and certainly just as critical as entrepreneurship. That same drive, creativity and passion for growth that entrepreneurs have can be used inside a company to benefit customers and team members.”

The Young Entreprenur Council, which is endeavoring to #FixYoungAmerica with a new campaign, agrees with Levit, citing intrapreneurship as a viable option for Millenials. “In the 21st century, entrepreneurial thinking isn’t just for entrepreneurs. Adaptability, creativity and financial literacy are core skills for American employees and so-called intrapreneurs — innovators within larger organizations — as well,” writes Scott Gerber, the organization’s founder, recently in Time magazine.

Beware of the dark side

But don’t be deceived, trying to go the intrapreneuship route has risks, too. Spending too long in large organizations can instill practices and mindsets that are contrary to everything entrepreneurship stands for.

As VC, author, entrepreneur and general man-about-the-startup-scene Guy Kawasaki explained in a post on how to be a good intrapreneur, doing so requires you to:

Reboot your brain. Just about everything you learn and do inside a large company is wrong for intrapreneuring. For example, in a large company, you survey customers, check with the sales force, build consensus, conduct focus groups, test, test, test, ensure backward compatibility, test, test, test, and then ship. When you ship you utilize advertising because advertising is the what’s always been used. Forget these practices. In fact, don’t worry, be crappy and ship as soon as you can. Generally, you should do everything the opposite from the tried and true existing way of large companies.

He also advises, “you need to stay invisible as long as practical. Your initial reaction to an innovative idea may be to seek upper level and peer buy-in… Not a good idea.” Obviously not a ringing endorsement of the sort of collaborative environment you’re likely to find as an intrapreneur.

The obvious implication here is the habits that early career intrapreneurs might become accustomed to in a big company could undermine any later attempts at starting their own venture successfully. But if your passion is for innovation, creation and getting things done, you have as fair a shot of changing these processes as they have of changing you.

Beware the dark side of corporate life, and maybe seeing the issues that plague many big organizations will be the push you need once you’ve acquired the right set of skills (or paid off enough of those student loans) to get out there on your own.

Do you think intrapreneurship is a valid channel for young people’s entrepreneurial ambitions – or a spirit-crushing trap?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com and GigaOM.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.caseypalmer.com/ Casey E. Palmer

    I think that very similar to the argument above that it takes a certain type to try intrapeneurship and come out with your spirit intact. The same people who can start a business straight out of school are those who could come into large organizations and give them a dose of fresh thinking.

    We all feel like we lose our way sometimes when we’re a small cog in a very large machine, but I think that if we dedicate ourselves by acting in ways that that reflect positive change instead of cowering in fear to the status quo, then staying true to ourselves isn’t something that seems as mutually exclusive anymore.

    And for reference, I guess I’ll consider myself a “young person” — under 30, managerial role, bureaucrat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ryan-Paugh/9306339 Ryan Paugh

    Hey Jessica, thanks for shouting out the YEC and #FixYoungAmerica! We appreciate your support.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=722144178 CeeJay Louis

    I like this article, intra is what I’ve been doing, but I was no aware there was a term for it. I’ve been very mindful of not falling into the traps mentioned in this article, so I’m quite pleased to know my foresight is leading me in the right direction!

  • http://profiles.google.com/robert.graham.cook Robert Cook

    It is easier for an entrepreneur to take their culture inside a large stodgy, bureaucratic organization and affect change than it is is for a young employee to become “assimilated” and then try to break out. Wait too long and you can never leave the nest. Break too early and you don’t have the skills to carry an idea to success.

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