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Innovating Around Intrapreneurship

Michigan Ross course on social intrapreneurship is the first of its kind — and documented on

Jerry Davis
Jerry Davis

Social entrepreneurship is a field that’s gotten a lot of buzz. But what happens if you want to change the world, yet don’t have the capital to launch a startup? Do your dreams of affecting change have to die a bureaucratic death in the large corporation where you sign your offer?

Those questions form the basis of Social Intrapreneurship, a class launched in 2011 by Michigan Ross professor Jerry Davis and Chris White, MBA ’11. In talking with students and alumni, Davis and White saw a void. “People want to know how they can make a positive difference in the world within a mainstream corporate job. Jerry and I designed the class with those people in mind,” says White.

The Ross School and the University of Michigan have a lot of interesting things happening in the social intrapreneurship space — from the Nonprofit and Public Management Center to the Community Consulting Club and beyond, says Davis, Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management and professor of management and organizations. But nothing tied them together. “The class gives students one portal for understanding all the opportunities here that are related to socially conscious business.”

Not only was the class new to the University, Davis says it also was new to MBA education. “We looked around but couldn’t find anyone else teaching this subject.” While it’s nice to be first, Davis and White don’t want to be the only. “Our goal wasn’t to create this and then put a fence around it,” says Davis. “We want to make it readily available to others.”

Chris White
Chris White, MBA ’11

As part of the class, the pair created a social network site where students and business leaders who are interested in social intrapreneurship can pose questions and share best practices. Students from the Kellogg School of Management as well as Michigan Ross alumni at S.C. Johnson, IBM, and more are using the site. “Our hope is that a few years from now, hundreds of alumni will be part of the community,” Davis says. “People will say, ‘I wish I knew somebody who’s done X,’ and there’ll be someone in the community who’s been through it.”

The diversity of the students who have taken the class enhances that community. “We get the Ayn Rand fans and the Ron Paul people and the Green Party voters in the same room, which makes a richer educational experience,” says Davis. “We want Michigan to be the destination of choice for socially conscious MBA students, no matter what angle they’re coming from.”

The class begins with what Davis describes as “a heavy indoctrination” of tools and analytics useful to social intrapreneurs, as well as an understanding of how social movement theory can be applied to the field. Davis, who wrote Social Movements and Organization Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2005), says social intrapreneurship shares common elements with movements such as the Arab Spring. “Intrapreneurial ideas can make the leap from one company to another in much the same way that popular uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt.”

With frameworks in hand, students spend the second half of the class hearing from a diverse assortment of guest speakers facing intrapreneurial challenges within their companies — from multinational firms to small businesses. “Students use the tools they’ve learned in the class to help these companies address actual issues,” says Davis. “In the real world, cases don’t just hit you smack in the face. This method of learning takes the actual complexities of a real situation into account.”

The class has garnered publicity outside of Ann Arbor thanks to Nathan Springer, MBA ’11. A scheduling conflict kept him out of last year’s initial offering, but he still was eager to participate. So he pitched a weekly story about the class to and now audits the course from his home base in L.A. “GreenBiz runs articles about now being the right time for social intrapreneurship, and right next to them is the link to Nathan’s latest article about our class,” Davis says. “We seem to be tapping into something that is really blowing up in a good way.”

Although he graduated last spring, White continues to be heavily involved with the class, including lining up the guest speakers. Davis and White also are authoring a book about social intrapreneurship, Grassroots Social Innovation, set for publication this fall. “I wanted to stay involved because I think the topic is really important,” says White. “It’s also a lot of fun. I’ve learned so much about mentorship from my experience with Jerry. When you get coached so well by someone, it encourages you to be a good coach for others.”

Read Nathan Springer’s series in

Amy Spooner