What It Takes to Innovate Within Large Corporations20 June, 2016 / Articles
“This stuff makes my skin look like chalk.” That was 13-year-old Balanda Atis’s immediate reaction when she looked at herself in the mirror.
Trying on makeup is a rite of passage for many teenage girls, and that made it all the more disappointing for Atis when she applied liquid foundation for the first time and found the results unimpressive. Cosmetics companies, it turned out, didn’t make shades that suited her skin tone. Atis and with her Haitian American friends in East Orange, New Jersey, found that liquid and powder foundations had an unattractive, ashy-white effect on their darker skin. It was a problem regardless of brand, formula, or product — until Atis set her sights on solving it once and for all.
When Atis joined L’Oréal USA as a chemist in 1999, she was formulating mascara, but the foundation issue weighed on her mind. In 2006, when the company launched a new line of foundations intended to address a wider variety of skin tones, Atis saw that they still didn’t measure up. It lit a fire under her. She informed the head of L’Oréal’s makeup division, who challenged her to come up with a solution. Atis began to work on the issue as a side project. In short order she enrolled two other scientists at L’Oréal to join her cause.
Although Atis and her colleagues were not free from doing their day jobs, L’Oréal gave the trio access to a lab. Fueled by passion and purpose, they produced and tested foundation samples on their own time. Devoid of resources for data collection, they tagged along on L’Oréal roadshows, collecting skin tone measurements from thousands of women of color across the country. The big breakthrough came when Atis discovered they could reuse an existing color compound. Ultramarine blue was seldom used and difficult to work with, but it allowed them to create rich, deeper shades without the muddy finish that was so common in existing darker foundations. Atis and her tiny team knocked down the enduring obstacles and solved a dilemma that had existed for generations.
Atis is what I call a corporate hacker: an industrious intrapreneur working at the edges of organizations to solve persistent problems that customers care about.
Partly a byproduct of user-centered approaches and do-it-yourself ingenuity, this emerging wave of intrapreneurship is due to a rising generation of managers who have been empowered by accessible technology and mobilized by social media. These individuals represent a largely untapped opportunity within established businesses. Companies need these practical hacktivists to dream up new ways to meet the needs of consumers who require customization on demand and to outpace competitors in an era when competitive advantage is often fleeting. And yet too many companies pass over the problems and the corporate hackers trying to solve them. Being a successful corporate hacker thus requires an enormous amount of energy and persuasiveness.
Sarah Windham, senior public relations manager in global tools and storage at Stanley Black & Decker, Inc., is a lot like Atis. Windham had an idea that she couldn’t shake — a dust-attracting cleaning wand powered by static electricity. The wand would clean more thoroughly with less labor, and without spreading dust around. While Windham continued to manage PR during the day, she “became obsessed” with the idea for the electrostatic wand. She couldn’t get the image out of her head, so she began to research the technology requirements. Through sheer force of will (her passion was contagious and her research was solid) she enlisted 20 technical experts at the company, including a number of engineers who worked on their own time to help her advance the idea. Thanks to Windham and her team’s incredible perseverance, the BLACK+DECKER brand has a series of prototypes completed.
In order to support corporate hackers like Atis and Windham and foster internal innovation, companies need to identify these individuals and understand what makes them tick. Although it is impossible to create a perfect profile, the corporate hackers I’ve met all have a few things in common:
They are equipped to address difficult dilemmas. More specifically, they employ a diverse combination of capabilities to solve problems that aren’t being addressed by organizations as part of their everyday operations. Both Atis and Windham used soft skills, including the ability to imagine new solutions and enlist others in the process through passionate persuasion, and hard skills, becoming experts in the science underlying their ideas.
They don’t go it alone. Corporate hackers reach across aisles to bring others on board. Windham built an entire ad-hoc team at Stanley Black and Decker — product planners, executives, and engineers. Atis created a rich ecosystem around her idea. She found partners, attracted financing, and cultivated a community of internal supporters. All of that collaboration paid off: In 2014, L’Oréal’s Lancôme brand introduced Atis and her team’s lush shades of foundation, with Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o as the company’s first black spokesperson.
They proceed on the cheap. Given their limited resources, Atis and her team set up tables at state fairs and other large gatherings to test color tones to better deconstruct skin’s varying shades. They worked away on evenings and weekends for years until they found their solution. In the end, Atis was able to reuse existing resources, repurposing an underutilized color as opposed to creating a new one. Windham and her colleagues proceeded on their own time and with a very limited budget.
They are driven by passion. Propelled by their fascination with the idea itself and a deep desire to solve a particular problem, these individuals begin at the edges of organizations and persevere until they can create a path to the center. It was a labor of love for Atis and her partners. “We shared a common passion,” she said. Windham echoed this, saying, “I was so driven by the idea that it was all-consuming until we figured it out.”
There is one thing that separates Atis and Windham from many other corporate hackers: Their respective companies rewarded them. Today Atis manages L’Oréal’s Women of Color Lab, in Clark, New Jersey. Her goal is to ensure that women in the 140 countries that L’Oréal serves can find makeup that matches the texture and color of their skin. Windham recently won Stanley Black & Decker’s Breakthrough Innovation award. The prize? A Tesla Model S to drive for a month (with a parking spot front and center at work). “I come from a car family, so I was very motivated by the Tesla,” Windham said. The award can go to anyone at the organization who brings an innovation to the fore — a clear signal from the company that innovation can come from anywhere and will be supported if there’s a business case.
Not all intrapreneurial hacktivitsts get that kind of support: a high percentage of them leave the organization to commercialize their ideas on their own. Corporate hackers are resilient — they don’t give up. They are social — they draw others to their cause. And they are frugal — they leverage existing resources and use lean approaches to scale their ideas. Companies that want to engage these innovators, and enable these behaviors in others, should offer incentives to keep them engaged and set them up as role models for the rest of the organization.
Simone Ahuja is the founder of Blood Orange, an innovation and strategy consultancy, and an advisor to global entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs. She is co-author of the international bestseller Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth.