Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Escape From Alcatraz: Using Everyday Entrepreneurship to Unlock Innovation

By Craig Bida, Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at The Lewis Institute and independent marketing, communications and strategy consultant focused on creating economic and social value.

As a strategist and consultant, I work with organizations of all kinds and across all sectors, from companies to non-profits, social enterprises, foundations even government agencies. One thing I’ve learned: All too frequently, organizations talk a lot about driving innovation but, in reality, are trapped in the grip of their status quo.

Ask any change agent: Trying to drive change in environments that are mired in how things have always been, can be really, really hard. But it can be done. There are inspired individuals out there, entrepreneurs working within complex organizations, balancing large groups of stakeholders and harnessing the power of entrepreneurial thought and action to drive positive impact.

These entrepreneurs working within companies (a.k.a. entrepreneurs inside) embody what I like to call “everyday entrepreneurship.” It’s a far cry from the go-it-alone-and-start-your-own-company version of entrepreneurship that’s romanticized and mythologized in popular culture today—but its impact can be just as far reaching, if not more so. Imagine thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs leveraging the scale and resources of their existing organizations, every day and across all sectors, to disrupt the status quo. Now imagine they’re driving social innovation—working to create parallel economic and social value. Now we’re talking about real change.

There are lots of stories about entrepreneurs starting new companies in garages, but what about stories of everyday entrepreneurship? Here’s one of my favorites. It’s about a manager responsible for the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Over a decade old, it’s still so relevant to leaders today across all sectors.

Here’s what happened: Disposal of construction rubble from a renovation project at Alcatraz, one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, would have required a significant expenditure, as well as a time-consuming, and high-paperwork procurement process. Instead, a National Park Service employee came up with a creative solution of cutting up this concrete waste into small chunks and selling it as “Save the Rock” souvenirs for $4.95 each. Not only did this save time, paperwork and disposal costs, it engaged park visitors, garnered positive media coverage and, at the same time, raised many thousands of dollars to support restoration of a beloved landmark. It’s a brilliant example of Entrepreneurial Thought and Action® that turned trash into treasure!


Like many examples of everyday entrepreneurship, this was not easy: There was significant resistance within the organization to upending typical procurement processes. Purists resisted the idea of selling pieces of an historic building—even if the rubble was going to be thrown out anyway. Making this win-win innovation happen required persistence, risk-taking, a “yes” mindset and mobilizing others to think and act differently.

I love this story because of the simple yet powerful lesson it teaches about the possibilities of everyday entrepreneurship: If a single resourceful employee in a vast Federal agency can drive innovation through boldness of thought, independence of action, and creative use of assets and resources, then so can you. Here’s my question: How will you escape from your Alcatraz—working from within to challenge your status quo and drive positive change?