Dave Gallon of Toyota participates in the Aspen Institute’s fellowship program for social entrepreneurs. (Photograph courtesy of Aspen Institute) 

David Gallon had a mission at Toyota: to create a cohesive corporate strategy and a culture that could respond to societal needs. But he is not the head of corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the Japanese automaker. He is head of strategic insight and innovation, working on developments such as robots that help people with poor mobility to get around with ease and devices that help blind people to navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces. In promoting a culture rooted in respect for people and the environment, his calls to action were not always heard. “I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me,” he says. “It was a little frustrating.”

Then, in 2013, Gallon embarked on a program that would give him the tools to succeed in his mission: He became a fellow at the Aspen Institute’s First Movers program, an initiative that brings together high-potential midcareer social intrapreneurs (executives pursuing social or environmental goals from within a company) and provides them with mentoring and support for their projects, seminars on topics such as championing and piloting projects, and access to networks, with an eye toward equipping them to effect change in their companies.

“Within the first month of starting [at the program], the skills I learned, the connections I made, and the mentors in the program gave me enough skill and confidence to take a different tack and be more convincing to these executives,” Gallon recalls. This, he says, allowed him to cut dramatically the time it took to implement the corporate strategy he envisioned. “I thought it would take about two years,” he says. “But the initial stages only took about four months.”

Nancy McGaw, who is deputy director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program and founded First Movers in 2009, says that Gallon’s experience is just the kind of result that the program was designed to bring about. “There’s so much out there on how to achieve change in companies, but not much about how to achieve change with this additional threshold of benefit to society,” she says. “We felt there was a role Aspen could play in bringing businesspeople together and helping them be more courageous and effective.”

Since its launch, the program has gained traction rapidly. While once individuals like Gallon pursued social and environmental goals under the radar, now many companies have engaged with Aspen, ranging from Colgate-Palmolive and Dow Chemical to Microsoft, MetLife, and Wal-Mart Stores. These companies and others have provided financial resources for the First Movers program, signaling a growing institutionalization of its efforts. (As of May 2016, 99 companies had sponsored 130 First Mover Fellows.)

Overcoming Barriers

By the time First Movers launched, CSR was well on the way to becoming an acceptable part of business strategy, with leading companies starting to align social and environmental objectives with commercial goals. Yet for many social intrapreneurs, the challenges on the ground were still very real.

“It can be lonely and frustrating,” says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the UK’s Cranfield School of Management, describing the journey of the social intrapreneur. Barriers to social intrapreneurs range from the pressure of day-to-day activities such as meeting sales targets to the fact that social or environmental projects may be seen as peripheral to the business. “There are lots of executives giving speeches about this,” says McGaw. “But the middle layer of management is being measured on objectives that don’t really relate to those bigger conversations.”

Obstacles can also emerge from unexpected quarters. “It may be that there’s resistance from individuals in the CSR function who say, ‘This is our job, not yours,’” says Grayson. An additional barrier is culture, adds Gallon: “Change is a pretty scary thing to a lot of people, especially to those at the top of the organization, who are primarily in their roles because they’re good at the status quo. So you need something that gives you more tools—how to build internal and external alliances, how to get resources together, how to overcome resistance and build the bottom-line case, and how to understand when to appeal to the heart. All those and more are the kinds of skills a successful change agent needs.”

First Movers stepped in to promote just that kind of talent development. And the Aspen Institute is not alone in its efforts. In 2012, for example, Ashoka—with sponsorship from the global consulting firm Accenture—launched the League of Intrapreneurs, a global network that offers intrapreneurs access to information, events, and networks. And since 2013, the Intrapreneur Lab—a collaboration between Accenture; TIL Ventures, which created the Intrapreneur Lab; and Business Fights Poverty, a network of professionals harnessing business for social impact—has provided an accelerator program to help business executives develop profitable innovations that create social impact.

Aspen’s Approach

The First Movers program brings participants together for three sessions totaling 12 days at Aspen Institute facilities, over the course of a year. In addition to taking seminars and meeting with mentors, fellows work on “innovation projects” that can help their company advance social or environmental objectives. These projects have included embedding impact investing into traditional investment management frameworks (Jackie VanderBrug, class of 2015, managing director at US Trust) and building an R&D park in India to test next-generation solar power technologies (Abraham Tarapani, class of 2012, then vice president of global strategy, business development, and operations at the energy company Astonfield Renewables).

Innovation projects are, in effect, the fellows’ program capstones. But Gallon says the biggest takeaway from his First Movers experience was learning how to use storytelling to convince colleagues. Before the program, in conversations with his CEO, he had emphasized the negative effects on the company of passing over such a strategy. After participating in First Movers, he started to emphasize the strategy’s potential benefits. As he puts it, “Learning how to tell these stories to gain buy-in from the senior leaders that have to drive the initiative was the most critical element.”

Similarly, for Jenny McColloch (class of 2015), the critical takeaway was learning how to develop champions in corporate functions and influence broad sets of stakeholders. During her fellowship, McColloch, who is director of global sustainability at McDonald’s, worked with everyone from equipment engineers to finance and utilities specialists to launch a new online tool to help franchisees prioritize energy efficiency and watersaving initiatives in their financial planning. “Building up cross-functional partnerships is where the work with Aspen has been extremely valuable,” she says.

A New Kind of Leader

Many First Movers participants find that they also reap value from the relationships they develop with other fellows who hail from different areas of corporate life. McGaw and her team work to include executives from a variety of core functions—such as research and development, marketing, finance, and accounting—not just those whose jobs formally include responsibility for sustainability or CSR.

Joseph Byrum (class of 2012), a senior R&D and product development executive at the agribusiness company Syngenta, puts it this way: “There’s no way I would have met those people without doing the program.” But Byrum also emphasizes the importance of including people in traditional business functions. “The only way to have impact is if you’re in a mainline part of the business,” he says. (Byrum’s project during the fellowship was developing new open models of innovation, such as crowdsourcing, in plant breeding—something he sees as critical to the bigger goal of increasing global food security.)

Most, if not all, fellows recognize the scope of the program’s potential benefits when they first learn of it. But many face a steep hurdle in persuading their company to give them the time and money to participate. Doing so isn’t always easy—the fellowship fee is $26,800. In fact, as Gallon recalls, “that was one of my biggest struggles. My boss at the time thought this was an amazing opportunity but didn’t have the money in her budget to sponsor me.” Approaching the company’s head of human resources, he met the same response. “I kept getting the ‘this sounds great but …’ message,” he says. In the end, the chief communications officer agreed to pay for Gallon’s fellowship.

The path isn’t always that difficult. For example, when it came to sponsoring Mc- Colloch, Bob Langert, now retired from his post as McDonald’s head of CSR and sustainability, saw the value immediately and was able to commit the necessary funding. “It’s not a cheap thing,” says Langert. “But I had a budget, and I wanted to support Jenny, as I see her as a superstar. She can be a future leader of McDonald’s at a high level.” (Langert is now a consultant and an editor at large at Greenbiz Group, a media company focusing on the business of sustainability.)

At Dow, four executives have been through the program—an HR director who moved into a corporate strategy role, a new business development director for Dow’s energy services business, and two marketing directors, one for the Middle East and one for Africa. Dow’s chief sustainability officer, Neil Hawkins, who sponsored all four Dow fellows, says that he deliberately looks for executives outside the sustainability department who are interested in participating. “I don’t necessarily put people from my function in there,” he says. “I try to put people in who are at the start of a different sort of career and want to make bigger change happen.”

That statement captures what McGaw sees as First Movers’ ultimate purpose. She is undoubtedly pleased by First Movers’ success. But as she speaks about the program, it’s clear that for the Aspen Institute, what’s past is definitely prologue, and McGaw and her colleagues have a bigger goal: to develop a cohort of leaders who can introduce new thinking about what makes a successful enterprise. “We’ve been in this business for quite a while,” she says. “And still we’re exploring the constraints, how to move those constraints, and how to change organizational cultures to adapt to this new way of thinking about how we work.”

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