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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
For entrepreneurs and founders looking to build a better world, there has never been a better time to innovate for social value.
Spurred by a combination of urgent need and shifting attitudes among younger generations of customers, businesses are focusing more than ever on social challenges such as climate change, education, jobs, gender parity, and racial equity. These are far-ranging problems that demand creative solutions. The opportunity to make a difference in these areas is unprecedented, and the chance to make a healthy profit is real.
Increasingly, seizing this opportunity will mean working with or within powerful organizations that entrepreneurs tend to overlook: large and established companies.
Think that big firms handcuff entrepreneurs? Think again. In the 21st century, those firms are where entrepreneurs innovating for social value will be most empowered, and where world-changing ideas can have the greatest impact. Here’s why:
When we went into pandemic lockdown last spring, something unexpected happened: Los Angeles, a city synonymous with smog, saw day after day of clear blue skies.
All around the world, skies cleared as hundreds of millions of people stayed home and stopped driving—a dramatic illustration of how problems like air pollution and climate change can be solved when a great number of individuals shift their behavior together.
The same holds true for other social challenges. Whether it’s reimagining education for the knowledge economy, creating high-paying, upwardly mobile jobs, or establishing a level playing field for women and people of color, effective solutions don’t just need to be scalable. They need to be scaled.
That places large firms at the center of these solutions, as they are uniquely positioned to go big:
They have national and international footprints that can reach millions of clients, customers, and suppliers, allowing entrepreneurs to scale up solutions and impact many people quickly.
They have ample resources to deploy—including talent, technology, and capital—and corporate infrastructure already in place, which means entrepreneurs can focus their time and energy on building world-changing products and services without having to build a working company at the same time.
They have preexisting connections with other companies, NGOs, and governments—relationships that entrepreneurs can use to coordinate change across large institutions with broad social impact.
Because of their size and other constraints, large firms have a reputation among entrepreneurs for moving slowly and cautiously. Sometimes that’s deserved. But the pandemic has shown us that speed is a choice: last year, hotels quickly moved from hosting travelers to housing health workers. Automakers switched to manufacturing ventilators. Videoconferencing technology that usually would take months—or years—to be approved in highly-regulated industries was broadly adopted in a matter of weeks.
In short, big companies can pivot quickly when motivated to do so.
The time is right
From the Business Roundtable’s embrace of stakeholder—not shareholder—value to major, long-term sustainability and pay equity initiatives at my own company, Citi, it is clear that large firms want to create social value through their core businesses. This desire isn’t public relations window dressing—it’s genuine and urgent, driven by clear market signals.
In America, more than half of the nation’s citizens now are millennials or younger. These rising generations are the future of growth, representing the majority of tomorrow’s business customers and workforce. Far more than in previous generations, these young people expect companies to be as concerned with social responsibility as they are with profit and loss statements—and to be a part of the broader social and economic change they desire.
Big businesses know that they need to deliver. They also know that they can’t do it alone. They need fresh thinkers and doers, a new wave of entrepreneurial leaders who can fill in the gaps between what large firms are currently capable of and what the market is demanding.
Large firms are hiring entrepreneurial talent that can innovate for social value. They are investing in and partnering with startups that can do the same. If you want to leverage their strengths, now is the time.
Walking the talk
I’m a former founder myself. I understand the appeal and challenge of building something of your own from scratch. I also understand that some ideas and solutions are best pursued by independent startups. One size will never fit all. But since joining Citi—first as an Entrepreneur in Residence, now as head of Citi Ventures Studio—I’ve seen firsthand how organizational size can help entrepreneurs tackle social challenges.
My colleagues at Citi Ventures Studio are engineers, designers, user experience researchers, product managers, data scientists, technologists, and strategists. We have diverse backgrounds and skills, but share an entrepreneurial desire to create and build. Drawing on the scale, resources, and networks of a large and global firm, we are generating social value through innovative products that promote and expand economic opportunity.
If you want to take on big problems—and deliver big solutions—working with and within big businesses can help you do the same.