Four intrapreneurs share how they drive social change from inside organizations

Impact-focused youth leaders on how an intrapreneurial mindset helped them navigate the pandemic

Why It Matters

Lasting impact can happen when organizations empower and encourage young leaders to create bold change from within. They help build stronger communities, increase economic opportunity and growth, and improve the quality of life of Canadians. A deeper understanding of young intrapreneurs’ stories will help the social impact sector thrive.

This story is in partnership with RBC Future Launch. 

Entrepreneurs are admired for their risk-taking, independence, and creativity – and rightly so. They often dream up new and better ways of doing things, keeping innovation alive and well in our society. 

But how often do we celebrate entrepreneurial skills within an organization? Contrary to what many believe about working at a “regular” job, firms are ripe with opportunities to innovate and make a difference for internal and external stakeholders. People who take advantage of these opportunities are called intrapreneurs, and they have the ability to create impact and lasting change in creative ways. 

Intrapreneurship has even been shown to increase employee engagement and productivity. But the benefits don’t stop there. In contrast to entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs can make far-reaching impact without taking on as much risk thanks to greater access to financial resources and human capital. This significantly reduced risk allows for sustained growth and change rather than ending initiatives prematurely due to lack of time and resources.

So how are young, impact-focused Canadian intrapreneurs disrupting the status quo in their organizations? What have been some of the challenges that they’ve faced? And how are they helping to improve the lives of Canadians through exercising their creativity? We spoke to four young intrapreneurs – who are also finalists on Future of Good’s 2021 Youth Impact Leaders list – about their journeys in the social impact world and how they spearheaded new initiatives within their organizations.

Alyssa Luttenberger

As the director of development and impact at Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) and member of the Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle’s Youth Council, the Toronto Indigenous Youth Collective, and the Toronto Urban Health Fund’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Luttenberger champions and provides wellness, health, and cultural services to youth across Canada. 

How does Luttenberger embody intrapreneurship within her organization?

In response to COVID-19, Luttenberger oversaw the launch of the CREation Granting Program which provided $5,000 grants to grassroots projects benefiting Indigenous youth across Canada. This was one of the first funds to address COVID-19, and Luttenberger designed a process that ensured money was in the hands of applicants within only three weeks of the deadline. 

“Processes are living and thus changeable. Too often, we try to build the perfect system off the bat and then adhere to it even when it becomes apparent it isn’t working,” says Luttenberger of experimentation in building a new initiative. “For our granting program, we try to create as many spaces as possible for our grantees, community and advisory to give us feedback on what is and isn’t working. But that’s only the first step. You also have to build processes that are nimble, moldable and adaptable to community feedback, and understand that people will only use resources that resonate and work for them. For us, we are always open to admitting when something doesn’t work, for trying new ideas and for adapting new concepts. We pass that grace down to our grantees as well– for a lot of them, these are their first community projects. Having the space to modify their projects, change pieces that aren’t working and decide what parts they want to move forward with is so essential.”

Luttenberger’s advice for future young leaders who want to create change from the inside:

“Trust your knowledge, your expertise and your voice. Systems are often resistant to change and don’t honour the voices of young people advocating for new processes. Learn how to navigate these systems, find your allies and speak from your heart. People can connect more with what you are trying to do if they understand where you are coming from. Don’t forget that every step forward is a victory and this work is much needed and valued by the community.”

Juanita Gnanapragasam

Gnanapragasam’s first role with the Edmonton Foundation of Community Leagues (EFCL) consisted of supporting community leagues,which are neighbourhood level non-profits that build community and serve the needs of those in the area. 

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, Gnanapragasam raised the issue of needing to be better allies to Black, Indigenous and communities of colour through sharing resources to help the communities they serve learn about racial injustices in Edmonton’s neighborhoods. This discussion led to her and her colleague creating the position she currently holds as a diversity and inclusion advisor, as well as implement an extensive course about inclusion for her peers.

Embedding anti-racism into intrapreneurship

“When my colleague and I were doing research for this resource, we realized that a lot of information in the diversity, inclusion and allyship space was written for the academic, corporation, and government contexts,” Gnanaprgasam explains. “Our bosses and board thought it’d be best that the EFCL create a course on inclusion set in the context of community since there are different challenges for someone who is feeling stigmatized in their neighbourhood than in the workplace. Our goal is to empower participants to use these insights in their role, whether it be a volunteer, board member, or paid staff member, in the communities they support. Topics and information shared in the course came from community resources and the lived experiences of injustices – our course is a by-community-for-community initiative.”

She continues, “We’ve received some good reception from league members and volunteers that the course content has helped them explore how exclusion can be present through historical decisions and programming and rethink how to engage with the community so that inclusion is embedded in all their work. Community members also let us know that they were curious about the value of this course. This further demonstrated the importance of continuing to have these conversations around inclusion and allyship so that communities are aware of the current injustices some of their neighbours live with and actively work to amend them.”

What inspires Gnanapragasam to do the work that she does? 

“My lived experience as a first-generation Canadian and woman of colour have exposed me to injustices that those without these identifiers don’t experience. I wasn’t aware of the impacts the systems in which we are embedded have in perpetuating injustice and oppression until I started pursuing my Public Health degree. This sparked my interest in how community development can be used as a tool to promote inclusion.” Gnanaprgasam continues, “It’s hard working in the inclusion and allyship space because it requires a lot of openness to acknowledge past traumas along with learning and relearning. But what inspires me to keep going is seeing the growth in the communities I work with and how they’ve come together to support their fellow neighbours through times of crisis and deliberately reanimate spaces and opportunities to be inclusive for all.

Amnesty Cornelius

Cornelius is the coordinator of the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CASEY) at Thrive Community Youth Network and coordinates an advocacy-based provincial coalition that addresses sexual exploitation of youth, gender-based violence, and poverty.

Creating a highly collaborative, national approach to fighting human trafficking

Recently, Cornelius initiated a national level coalition, in partnership with the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT), bringing together organizations from all over Canada. “When I first started my role, one of the items on my work plan was to create a formal or informal network of folks doing similar work,” she says. “I had this idea to bring the major hubs and organizations working in anti-human trafficking together to create national impact, and invite at least one group from every province and territory.” 

To Cornelius’s delight, her contact at the Centre, Maggy, said that she would love to partner on this new initiative. “Thanks to the CCEHT’s extensive national referral directory, Maggy had a point of contact for many organizations that I had not previously connected with. Additionally, her ability to speak French and English allowed us to engage French speakers more readily. Together we assessed who the leaders in each area are and started inviting people to the table.”

Primed for success as an intrapreneur 

Cornelius has always loved the idea of being an entrepreneur. “The ability to set your schedule, choose your values and approach, and enjoy that level of workplace autonomy really speaks to me. I never expected to find those benefits within an organization, but I have at CASEY. Additionally, the idea of seeing a gap and filling it with a service or product is exciting.” 

However, Amnesty understands that there are a lot of risks that come with being an entrepreneur, as well as the pressure to deal with blurred lines between professional and personal time. On the other hand, as an intrapreneur, there’s a built-in organizational infrastructure that increases the chances of success. I think you have more access out of the gate as an intrapreneur,” she says. “There’s access to a salary, financial resources, people to soundboard off of, time off and a culture of support. I think this creates a foundation [for balancing your workload].” 

Cornelius says intrapreneurship can open doors to impact, too. “With an established organization behind you, you can also access lawmakers, change-makers, and learning opportunities more readily without the same concern about finding money to support those initiatives,” she says. ”There is also great value in organizational memory. What happened in the past that did or did not work and why are essential questions to ask when creating change. We need to be bold enough to reinvent the wheel sometimes, and if we can do that reinvention from an informed and measured perspective, we will have a more considerable impact.”

Courtney Rink

As the manager of community engagement at Conexus Credit Union, Courtney Rink is a passionate leader focused on empowering her team to help drive positive impact, creating ripple effects across Saskatchewan.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in March 2020, Courtney Rink and her team redirected their focus toward the credit union’s crowd-sourced Kindness Capital Fund, which granted $5,000 each to 42 businesses and community members who responded to the pandemic in inspiring ways. 

How the Kindness Capital Fund impacted Saskatchewanians all over the province:

“This truly was such an amazing collaboration of great minds. As an organization that was operating when COVID-19 started, we began to see the impact on our members, the community, and not to mention the economy [as we rolled out the program],” Rink says.

“From concept approval to launch, it took four weeks. It was a whirlwind. Time was of the essence and our province was in dire need of some good heartwarming kindness, and rewards. In these four weeks, the team defined the program, worked through all legalities, identified criteria and a scoring matrix, set up a website, created a brand, and lastly, built a promotional plan to get the word out. The first day of Conexus Kindness Capital Fund was exhilarating and to be honest, it stayed that way until the end of the program in August when we awarded the final two recipients with $5000. Over the course of two months, we Invested a total of $210,000 back into Saskatchewan and our economy at a time where we needed it most.

Overcoming hurdles with developing the fund:

A major challenge Rink and her team encountered but didn’t anticipate were the legal implications of building a program that functions like a contest. “The program being a public contest allowed us to navigate the functionality necessary to gather submissions, assign scores and award recipients,” she explains. “But running a program like this comes with legal rules and regulations. Additionally, because we wanted to share and tell the stories of these amazing acts of kindness, we had to gather the appropriate consent from the individuals and businesses being nominated. If the consent boxes weren’t checked, we had to complete follow-ups and ensure waivers were signed – this aspect was critical, not just before launch but throughout the entire initiative.”

However, the biggest learning was the underestimation of time to get something of this magnitude launched. Rink says, “When you put four people in a room who believe so deeply about the impact of this initiative, see the potential of happiness this could bring – you want everything to be perfect. We had to learn quickly how to balance all that needed to be done with the constant drive for perfection. To do this, we had to look hard at things we could stop doing, push out on timelines, and in some cases, be okay with partial completion. Conversations like that are never easy and it was one in which we had to challenge one another because that deadline of four weeks was fast approaching.”

RBC Future Launch is a 10-year, $500 million commitment to empower Canadian youth for the jobs of tomorrow. With a focus on networking, skills development, practical work experience and mental wellbeing supports and services, the initiative aims to help break down the barriers facing young people. In 2020, RBC committed to providing $50 million in focused funding through RBC Future Launch to create meaningful and transformative pathways to prosperity for up to 25,000 BIPOC youth by 2025, with investments in areas such as skills development and mentoring.