8 Traits of Social Intrapreneurs

06/12/2014 01:38 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014

Social Intrapreneurs find new ways to better the world and make money. They succeed by delivering against these two seemingly divergent goals, and that is what makes them unique - they embrace paradox. Based on my experiences as an intrapreneur at Walmart, and as a First Mover Fellow at the Aspen Institute, I've observed 8 traits that contribute to their success.

1. Seek out sleeplessness.

Intrapreneurs hunt for pain points. They ask what keeps people up at night. Understanding the challenges that keep business leaders awake provides them with opportunities to innovate, using their values as an advantage. In my case, I was asked how else Walmart could help customers buy what they need when their funds were limited. Through research I learned that customers were cash poor but device rich, and this sparked an idea. Almost every Walmart customer had at least one used cell phone collecting dust in their home. Such devices degrade in value by the day, until they are ultimately worthless and end up in a landfill. If we could offer them market-value for these items (cellphones, video games, etc.) they could use the funds to buy the items they need (e.g. milk and diapers). This was the spark for the Electronics Trade-in Program.

2. Change the default.

Question the status quo to get to the root of why things are the way they are. Being inquisitive can help you uncover false or outdated assumptions that are perpetuated as fact. Walmart's laptop buyer discovered that most consumers leave their computer's sleep setting at the factory default. The default could be better, so she set a goal to improve it and increase the number of laptops sold with these advanced settings from 30% to 100%. This single shift will reduce CO2 emissions by tens of thousands of metric tons and save customers much needed money on their energy bills.

3. Prototype and tweak.

Starting is key, perfecting isn't. Our first attempt at Electronics Trade-In didn't go very well. We launched with around 100 stores to support a new product release. We had no advertising, no PR, very little training and a few 8.5" x 11" black and white printed signs explaining what the program was. Needless to say, consumers were not lining up to trade-in their items. That said, we learned a lot about pricing, the motivation to upgrade devices to get items you want versus trade-in items to get the things you really need, and the role of online versus in-store. And we used those insights to make the model better. Now the program is in just about every Walmart store across the United States.

4. Waste equals food.

Social Intrapreneurs see opportunity in waste. In his book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough posits that "if waste could become food for the technosphere, produc¬tion and consumption could become beneficial for the planet." This inspired me to architect a refurbishing infrastructure for Walmart that gave a second life to returned consumer electronics such as iPads, televisions and laptops. By identifying and unlocking value in a waste stream, we not only helped to validate a new category of value-priced products that consumers wanted (refurbished vs. new) but helped to divert a lot of product from landfill.

5. Leverage your constraints.

Electronics Trade-In at Walmart delivered instant gratification at the store level, where you could walk in with an electronic item and shortly thereafter receive a gift card, but it was challenged online - as the device had to be sent in, evaluated and then an e-gift card mailed back to you. I needed a disruptive solution and contacted PayPal about an idea. I proposed that they could offer customers instant value for their items - a type of interest free bridge loan - whose balance would be paid down upon receiving the device as promised. They ultimately agreed and we launched Instant Gratification on to offer the same level of service at Walmart Stores.

6. Hone in on the real problem.

There is a famous Einstein quote: "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions." Walmart sells a lot of food and we have thought deeply about how to minimize food waste - particularly since it is both a waste of money and could be put to much better use if properly connected to someone in need. It turns out that the key driver of avocado waste was the consumer challenge in gauging the ripeness of the fruit. One of our associates at ASDA in the UK piloted a new avocado packaging concept that aims to bring transparency to this challenge. ASDA is using color-coded trays that allow customers to select whether they want avocados that are 1.) "Ripe and Ready" to use now - green, 2.) "Nearly Ripe" 2-5 days - yellow or 3.) "Ripen at Home" 5-8 days - pink. Brilliant.

7. Assemble a personal board of directors.

A personal board is invaluable in providing the wisdom and support needed to realize something new. I had some exceptional advisors and collaborators at Walmart - Kelly Thompson, Andy Ruben, Paul Tepfenhart, Alice Quan, Fred Bedore, Mehrdad Akbar, Dawn VonBechman and Alicia Ledlie, to name a few - that helped push my thinking and connect me with the resources needed to advance and realize Electronics Trade-In. I met with each frequently and aimed to invest as much (if not more) in the relationships as I got out of them. I am indebted to them and believe their advocacy was critical.

8. Are you willing to take a hit?

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Seth Godin speak. He shared a wonderful story about his experiences growing up and playing hockey. His insight was that there were 3 things required for success in hockey: fundamental skills - the ability to skate and shoot; strategy - akin to the infamous Wayne Gretzky quote about 'skating, not to where the puck is, but where it is going'; and a willingness to get knocked down (to take a hit). That last one really struck me, and I realized that it is the differentiator between individuals trying to do great things and people who want to maintain the way things are. This feels particularly true for those trying to live their values and realize something that makes the world a better place. Getting hit is likely. In fact, it is almost a certainty, but that shouldn't stop you from getting up and trying again. That is how change is won, inch by inch, until the right combination of experience, skill, timing and luck conspire to realize something amazing.

The intrapraneurs I have met have made the conscious decision to be exceptional. They have witnessed waste, injustice, damage, poor working conditions, pollution and chosen to reject the status quo. They are committed to their values, invested in their communities, and loyal to their companies. They choose to forge a better path forward.

You have the same choice - we all do. When faced with the decision to make money or make a difference, choose to do both. Embrace the paradox, be a social intrapraneur.

This post by Rahul Raj, vice president of Marketing for ecobee and Aspen Institute First Mover Fellow, in support of the Aspen Institute First Movers Fellowship, is part of a special blog series focused on the growing importance of social intrapreneurs (change-agents within organizations large and small who are fusing business success with positive social and environmental impacts) and the value they are adding to their organizations and society.

Click here to meet the Aspen Institute's newest crop of social intrapreneurs - the 2014 Class of First Mover Fellows. Click here to visit the HuffPost Aspen Institute page and see more posts in the series.