THE BLOG
10/13/2014 02:10 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

What if Entrepreneurship Isn't the (Only) Answer?

When it comes to jobs in the Impact Economy, much of our attention is in the wrong place. With burgeoning interest in impact jobs, and a scarcity of impact job listings, we like to push people toward social entrepreneurship; the launch of new and socially-minded ventures. But there are already 4.8 million job openings in the American labor market, and we know that entrepreneurship isn't the answer for everyone. To meet this growing demand for impact jobs while helping build the next generation of impact leaders, we'll need to focus on intrapreneurship. Teach those impact-seeking young professionals the skills to shape something new, inside of existing organizations, and create a playbook for how to teach it. There are two reasons I've started thinking about this:

First, we're hitting an inflection point in the impact job market. Call it the gathering wave of the social enterprise boom. Colleges and universities are graduating an increasing number of students who (increasingly) are trying to find a job in impact. But the impact job market, as it currently exists, lacks the capacity to satisfy this demand. The Global Impact Investing Network's job board, perhaps the gold standard for impact job listings, has a total of 41 paid, full-time jobs posted this week.[1] Meanwhile, the number of impact courses, especially at business schools, continues to rise, while Net Impact's student and young professional membership has hit 40,000 people.[2]

Second, Impact Investing 2.0, a report released in late 2013, struck a chord.[3] Developed as a study of high-performing impact investment fund managers, and an exploration of their shared traits, 2.0 came to some interesting conclusions. It turns out that the commonalities between the high-performing managers (who you might think of as current-generation impact leaders) didn't rest on the names of their alma maters, nor on the geographic focus of their investments. It wasn't about the exclusivity of their investment pipelines, or the location of their headquarters offices. Instead, 2.0's authors found that one of the most important determinative factors in the success of the funds was the diversity of team member's professional backgrounds, and the way those backgrounds helped shape the funds themselves. The authors call this trait "multilingual leadership."[4] It's marked by an ability to understand the perspectives of the different sectors (public, private, and non-profit) and experience working within them.

As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, our recent inclination has been to push students and young professionals toward social entrepreneurship in pursuit of impact. Driving more new entrepreneurs to take more new risk, presuming there will be more risk-seeking capital to fund (often) ill-defined ventures. But entrepreneurship isn't for everybody. And it's rarely easy, even for those who are entrepreneurial. The success rates for venture-backed companies are low, and the failure rate for new businesses is high.[5]

So, we've got more demand for impact jobs than supply of those same jobs, 4.8 million available jobs that aren't impact-specific, research suggesting that true leadership within the Impact Economy comes from intrapreneurial experience, and a road to entrepreneurship fraught with peril. Then why can't we offer a path to social intrapreneurship?

What we should be developing now is a social intrapreneurship framework that can be widely deployed, within the impact courses and programs that already exist, to students soon to embark on corporate (or government, or non-profit) career tracks. The framework should teach the basic skills of intrapreneurship, which are also the basic skills of management, leadership, and organizational change. It's part vision (or mission, or goal), part strategy, part team building, part patience and persistence, and many more parts of many more things. Newly-minted graduates could carry with them, to their new institutions, not only the desire to move the needle toward impact but, also, the skills to move impact into their non-impact jobs.

Sometimes, the lifting might be easy. Perhaps in sectors like health, agriculture, financial services, energy, education, or disaster recovery. There, the content matter is at least related to impact. Sometimes, it won't be easy at all (and sometimes in those very same sectors). But identifying what can, and can't happen is part of intrapreneurship too. And those are skills the next generation of multilingual impact leaders need to develop.

This may not be the most compelling story to tell aspiring impact leaders, but it's a story about where the jobs are, and an opportunity to get in the door. To learn persuasion and persistence, and all those other intrapreneurial traits, while moving the mainstream economy closer to impact as impact moves ever closer to the mainstream.[6]

In short, it's in the mainstream economy that many of our next generation impact leaders should be training. It's in the mainstream economy where most of the current jobs reside. And it's from the mainstream economy that the next impact leaders might emerge. Now, we just have to start teaching those intrapreneurial skills.

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[1] As of 10/12/2014

[2] Net Impact 2013 Annual Report p.5

[3] Cathy Clark, Ben Thornley, and Jed Emerson are the lead authors of Impact Investing 2.0.

[4] The four determinative factors found by the authors are: Policy Symbiosis, Catalytic Capital, Multilingual Leadership, and Mission First and Last.

[5] Depending on who is interpreting the data, the failure rate ranges from roughly 30% to much-higher-than-30%. John McDermott covered this for Inc. Magazine in 2012.

[6] If you doubt the move to the mainstream is happening, read the World Economic Forum's From the Margins to the Mainstream report