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7 Characteristics of an Intrapreneur Who Will Disrupt Your Organization for the Better

Executive Summary

How do you spot an intrapreneur—what qualifications do you look for? That’s the question Simone Bhan Ahuja answers as she attempts to bring a new lens to helping companies find and utilize the intrapreneurs in their midst.

  • Keeping your company relevant so that it’s around in the future will depend on its ability to constantly innovate.
  • In order to utilize what intrapreneurs bring to the table, leadership must understand how to first identify them.
  • Your company’s intrapreneurs are likely its biggest fans, highly invested in the success of its mission. They want to help you find solutions. Support them by creating a culture where they can grow and develop, and where others are encouraged, even recruited, to follow in their shoes.

“This stuff makes my skin look like chalk.”

That was thirteen-year-old Balanda Atis’s immediate reaction when she looked at herself in the mirror. Trying on makeup is a rite of passage for many teenage girls, and that made it all the more disappointing for Atis when she applied liquid foundation for the first time and found the results unimpressive.

Cosmetics companies, it turned out, didn’t make shades that suited her skin tone. Atis and her Haitian American friends in East Orange, New Jersey, found that liquid and powder foundations had an unattractive, ashy-white effect on their darker skin. It was a problem regardless of brand, formula, or product—until Atis set her sights on solving it.

When Atis joined L’Oréal USA as a chemist in 1999, she was formulating mascara, but the foundation issue weighed on her mind. In 2006, when the company launched a new line of foundations intended to address a wider variety of skin tones, Atis saw that they still didn’t measure up. It lit a fire under her. She informed the head of L’Oréal’s makeup division, who challenged her to come up with a solution.

Atis began to work on the problem as a side project. In short order she enlisted two other scientists at L’Oréal to join her cause. Although Atis and her colleagues were not freed from doing their day jobs, L’Oréal gave the trio access to a lab. Fueled by passion and purpose, they produced and tested foundation samples on their own time. Lacking opportunities for data collection, they tagged along on trips to existing conferences and fairs across the country, collecting skin tone measurements from thousands of women of color.

The big breakthrough came when Atis discovered they could work with an existing color compound. Ultramarine blue was seldom used in cosmetics and difficult to work with, but it allowed them to create richer, deeper shades without the muddy finish that was so common in existing darker foundations.

Atis and her tiny team succeeded in satisfying a massive customer need that had existed for generations. Atis is what the business world has come to recognize as an intrapreneur. Gifford Pinchot III coined the term back in the late 1970s when he wrote about the growing number of corporate employees behaving like entrepreneurs. He even envisioned a new kind of commercial enterprise—“something akin to free market entrepreneurship within the corporate organization”— and a new way of doing business that “would be a social invention of considerable importance, both for the individuals in it, and for the productivity and responsivity of the corporation.”

If you could hire a hundred Balandas tomorrow, you would do it, right? What better move could you make to ensure your company’s relevance in the future? We’ve already heard the stats and predictions about how vulnerable today’s largest and most long-standing companies are. And as fund managers like to put it, their past performance is no guarantee of future results. Highfliers routinely end up crashing down to earth. So if you don’t want your business to join the countless others already consigned to the dustbin of history, at some point you’ll have to disrupt it yourself—and your best chance of doing that is to grow, develop, and support your ranks of intrapreneurs.

Unfortunately, you probably couldn’t hire those hundred Balandas if you tried—not because these talented disrupters wouldn’t work for your company but because it’s hard to find them in the labor market. There are no job titles or specific functional areas reserved for people who spot opportunities and jump on them. It’s tough for the HR department, or software tools scanning applications, to zero in on the résumé line that shows whether someone thinks like an entrepreneur. And it can be challenging to spot the intrapreneurs who are already sitting inside your organization. They’re definitely there, some of them making progress on side hustles no one even knows about, and many more of them with valuable ideas they would like to pursue.

Is it possible that there is nothing remarkable about intrapreneurs as individuals—that most of us, with enough encouragement and confidence, could succeed in challenging the status quo? That’s a key message, for example, of Adam Grant’s recent bestseller, Originals, and I couldn’t agree more with his goal to create more creatives. But as most knowledge workers look across their workplaces, they don’t see a landscape densely populated by mavericks. Intrapreneurs are still relatively rare, distinguished by both who they are and what they do. So, if we did list the job qualifications for the intrapreneurs, the innovators you would want on the inside of your organization, it would look like this.


  • Action obsessed.

Forward-thinking and optimistic, intrapreneurs are energized by what hasn’t been done before. Think of Balanda Atis, undeterred by the fact that a global industry with all its resources had not solved the problem she saw. She forged ahead anyway, finding partners, doing the science, cultivating a community of internal supporters, and generally taking every step in her power to pursue her idea with passion.

  • Progress focused.

Intrapreneurs are impatient with systems that put the brakes on progress. Dakota Crow, an experienced innovation leader who is currently VP of Innovation and director of the Innovator-in-Residence program at US bank, told me about the frustration people feel when their momentum is blocked by well-intentioned managers adhering to process: “If you’re pushing on a product or idea and you’ve got enough validation to move forward, stopping is like someone saying, ‘Wait—pull the car over. We’ve got to change the tires.’ You’re like, ‘I’ve got plenty of tread!’” The next words out of his mouth could have been uttered by any one of the intrapreneurs I’ve met: “I’m just not a fan of process for the sake of process.”

  • Problem oriented.

Despite their bias for action, intrapreneurs don’t accept the first solution they arrive at just to be done with the job. They go through iterations working the problem, attacking it from different angles, and challenging the assumptions that might constrain their thinking. A favorite phrase of Intuit leaders comes to mind: the most creative people “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” Intrapreneurs understand that there are typically multiple answers to every problem and many paths to any solution. They are learners, scanning all sources for information that can advance their progress.

  • Natural hackers.

In software, hackers love the intellectual challenge of confronting a system designed to do certain things and cleverly exploiting it to achieve something different. Likewise, intrapreneurs overcome the limitations of an organization by bending its strengths to their will. A senior marketing manager at an American candy manufacturer is a fountain of new product ideas in need of customer validation. Yet customers are often treated like a protected species by those who “own” these relationships—sometimes they are completely off-limits. So this intrapreneurial manager hacked a simple solution. “An organization with several thousand employees has access to at least several thousand consumers,” he surmised. (Especially an organization that creates and distributes candy.) On any given day, he can walk around and get a “semi-outsider” perspective on new ideas by inviting feedback from employees. He hacked a good solution to what otherwise is a stubborn problem.

  • Talent attractors.

Calling intrapreneurs “hackers” might summon up the image of a lone genius chipping away at a pet project in isolation—on the contrary, they are by necessity and temperament radically inclusive. They engage in open-source partnering and codesign solutions with end users and other stakeholders. When I asked Bob Schwartz, GE Healthcare’s global design chief, about this intrapreneurial trait, he told me: “There are so many stakeholders needed to get anything out the door in any manufacturing environment—and they have to be co-owners with you.” If that means you spend a lot of time “waving your hands over your head” evangelizing your idea, while making it as much as you can about them, he said, so be it. This is a theme that cuts across most of the DIY efforts I studied: Intrapreneurs don’t try to go it alone. They reach across the aisle to complementary areas where they need help and enlist others by making it clear what’s in it for them.

  • Married to mission.

Intrapreneurs are often cast as an organization’s heretics, but the thing to understand is that they are frequently the most devout believers in its mission. Their problem is with how the mission is being translated into strategy and tactics. Ian Stephenson, who made a career out of being a maverick at Cargill, stressed this point. He said, “Entrepreneurialism inside a large organization is about identifying gaps and misalignments, and better aligning the organization so it performs better.”

In this formulation, the deviator from the strategy paradoxically keeps the company on track. Stephenson went on to say, “[Intrapreneurship] is being married to a purpose but not necessarily married to a way to do it. You know the what and the why—it’s just the how that you want to be able to play across.”

  • Frugal by nature.

Like hackers, intrapreneurs proceed on the cheap, reusing existing resources, recycling materials, and employing messy, make-do methods over expensive, sanctioned systems. They are resourceful and don’t ask for much—even when more would be granted.

I was struck by Babak Forutanpour’s response when higher ups at Qualcomm expressed an eagerness to support the grassroots innovation movement he had nurtured from one team of eight to ultimately thousands of employees on dozens of teams working over lunchtimes and weekends. He recalls, “We all agreed: let’s just ask for a little pizza and beer money.” The figure he went back with was $7,000—giving the fourteen teams $500 each to cover takeout. The point is simple: the classic engineering bias toward getting maximum output from minimum input is in these internal disrupters’ bones. From action-oriented to mission-driven and frugal, that’s seven key attributes—and there’s more, since intrapreneurs are also resourceful, thick-skinned, and resilient. Of course, it’s a lot to expect from any single individual—and the truth is that every innovator has his or her own particular strengths and preferred modes of working.

Back in 1980, Karl Vesper made this point about entrepreneurs too—that it was more useful to understand that they come in many flavors than to try to pin down their collective “type.” He came up with at least eight varieties, many of which overlap with my findings. That’s part of why Marc Nager, managing director at Telluride Venture Accelerator and former CEO of Startup Weekend, says that good teams usually come in threes. “You need the person with the structure who can operate things,” he says, “but also need the visionary, and then the executor. In other words: the hipster, the hacker, and the hustler.”

The Bottom Line

So what’s a classic intrapreneur? An employee who isn’t necessarily given the setup and top-down mandate to create something new and valuable but starts doing it anyway. Intrapreneurs are the people who are just doing their jobs when they discover needs that are not being met by their organization. They are the internal disrupters who see the possibility of addressing those problems from where they sit, and they begin finding their ways to solutions. They make progress by enlisting others, achieving small victories, and pushing ahead, for the most part under the radar. That classic entrepreneurial story of someone starting a company in their garage with fifty dollars? Translate that to someone inside a company, and that’s also the classic story of intrapreneurship. These people have always existed in large organizations. Historically, they have been somewhat taken for granted, and occasionally appreciated—in other words, they have been tolerated. Today, large organizations understand the need for constant innovation, and for the first time intrapreneurs are starting to be developed, recruited, systematically supported, and celebrated. So there is great reason to feel hopeful for the future, in spite of all the doomsday scenarios painted about large companies.

Intrapreneurs are more able to make headway and add value than ever before—especially in organizations that recognize their value—and, along with forward-looking leaders, help pave a path to a Disrupt-It-Yourself organization. It’s incumbent upon leaders to identify the disrupters the company should be supporting better, while also building the systems and driving the culture change that will produce more of them.


Excerpted with permission from Disrupt-It-Yourself: Eight Ways to Hack a Better Business--Before the Competition Does by Simone Bhan Ahuja, copyright Simone Bhan Ahuja.

Bring It Home

I’d only been in the department a few months when my manager left for her dream job. Our department of two was now just me, and I was as green as I could be. Due to some hiring mishaps, a year later I was still essentially running the department by myself. It was during this time that I noticed a rather large gap in our company’s safety procedures. Passionately, I pleaded with my manager to give me the green light I needed to come up with a solution. Thanks to her faith in me, I had the confidence to do things I could have never done without her support. Over the months that followed, I wrote a safety manual, designed and created integrated safety centers for all of our branches, and traveled to conduct first aid training for all of our employees. Had my manager not trusted me to pioneer that new venture or provided the financial support I needed to implement it, we might not have been able to fill a gap that had long put employee safety at risk.

When you think of the characteristics of an intrapreneur defined above, what employees at your company come to mind? (Maybe you’re one of them!) Join the conversation below by sharing one way you can support these creatives. How can you encourage the “hipsters, hackers, and hustlers” to step out of the shadows?

Simone Bhan Ahuja arthur of the book Disrupt-It-Yourself

Simone Bhan Ahuja

Strategist, speaker, and entrepreneur, Dr. Simone Ahuja is CEO of Blood Orange, a consulting company that supports innovation and intrapreneurship from idea through execution.

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