When Camille Pecor ’22 took a strategic role as growth lead at Dig Inn, a fast-casual food chain in New York City, she quickly realized how much easier her work would be if she had financial modeling expertise. Aiming to expand her knowledge, she applied to Columbia Business School, enrolling in 2020. “I didn’t have that background or skill set, so I went to develop it at Columbia,” she recalls.

But Pecor soon found herself tempted by Columbia’s entrepreneurship offerings. She had launched Worthy Jerky, an all-natural “steak” jerky, during her undergraduate studies at Cornell University. By 2021, she started her second venture, Nightingale Guide, a startup that curates gifts for people recovering from long-term illness, an idea sparked by her mother’s battle with breast cancer.

Pecor soon began participating in Greenhouse, a fellowship program at the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center that supports students launching startups, joining the summer cohort and winning first prize for her idea. Meanwhile, she was active in organizations such as Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization and Columbia Women in Business. “I took advantage of every single entrepreneurship resource at Columbia,” says Pecor.

Pecor still desired a corporate career, however. After graduation, she earned an internship in global innovation at Anheuser Busch in New York City but kept Nightingale Guide going as a “side hustle.” She found that what she’d learned as a startup CEO came in handy in the corporate world and advanced to a full-time job as head of global brands innovation, where she now manages a portfolio of brands for the multinational beverage company.

Photo Image of Camile Pecor

I didn't have that background or skillset, so I went to develop it at Columbia. I took advantage of every single entrepreneurship resource at Columbia."

- Camille Pecor '22, Head of Global Brand Innovation, AB InBev

“The skills that translated best were about how to write a pitch and storytelling,” says Pecor. Those abilities have proved critical in her role, which includes sharing best practices the company has discovered in one market and persuading colleagues halfway around the world to apply them locally. “I work in the global office, and a lot of what we’re doing is almost selling in different countries, saying, ‘We’re seeing this innovation work in Mexico. It would be great for Puerto Rico, South Africa, or South Korea,’” says Pecor.

Despite the extent to which she was leveraging the entrepreneurial skill set she developed in her internship, Pecor hesitated to talk about her startup experience with her supervisor at work. “I was worried that he would think I was more focused on that or actually wanted to be an entrepreneur and wasn’t serious,” she says. But when her boss asked about her LinkedIn posting announcing the award she received at Greenhouse, she fessed up.

“I admitted that for the whole summer, I’d been working two jobs,” she says. “It was shocking, because he said, ‘That’s amazing. You have all of these skills we want to bring to Anheuser Busch and have an ownership mentality.’ He would even bring me to meetings and say, ‘This is Camille. She’s running X,Y, Z projects this summer. She’s also an entrepreneur. Let’s tap into her [knowledge] to better understand how we can be more agile.’”

Not so long ago, launching a startup could be a risky career move, one that signaled to hiring managers that you might turn out to be “unemployable” in the structured environment of a corporation—or wouldn’t stick around for more than a year or two once you learned the ropes on their dime. That made life challenging for businesspeople who liked the structure, resources, scalability, and collegiality of corporate work but also had an entrepreneurial spark.

What a difference a few decades can make. Today, many corporations are looking to spark innovation and embracing intrapreneurship— essentially, the idea of entrepreneurship within a traditional workplace—and they are even offering financial incentives to encourage it. Some companies—such as Coca-Cola, Disney, Google, Mastercard, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Unilever, and Wells Fargo, to name a few—are even running their own business accelerators and incubators to bring startups in their industry into the mothership.

Embracing Intrapreneurship

Companies with this intrapreneurial mindset are delighted to hire team members who have startup experience, as Pecor discovered.

Corporate leaders are increasingly seeking team members who can help them keep pace with rapid change as technological advancements, societal change, and shifting priorities put ever-increasing pressure on companies and bring constant churn to the Fortune 500 as even the biggest companies get displaced by upstarts.

And increasingly, the most sought-after workers are comfortable toggling back and forth between traditional jobs and starting businesses, no longer seeing each path as mutually exclusive. “We have seen an explosion of interest in this space as students are realizing that entrepreneurship can take all forms,” says Angela Lee, faculty director of the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center. Many intrapreneurs like the idea of being able to innovate without all the financial risks and pressures of running a startup and with the resources a big company can offer—even if there is less financial upside for them if they come up with a big idea.

At the same time, many current intrapreneurs dream of being entrepreneurs someday and want to make sure they have all the skills and knowledge they need for both their present and future work.

“More and more students feel that ‘Someday, I may actually be an entrepreneur. Maybe not tomorrow, but in 10 years from tomorrow, I may want to be one,’” says Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at CBS. “We think that those are the true reasons why entrepreneurship in terms of student interest has increased—not to mention that if you don’t want to be an entrepreneur, aside from being a corporate entrepreneur, students more and more want jobs in venture capital, private equity, and product management, working for tech companies and startups.”

Beyond this, the academic discipline of entrepreneurship has evolved to incorporate a broader perspective, one in which entrepreneurship can take place in just about any environment where people work. The term intrapreneurship came into currency in the 1970s and was later popularized, some say, by entrepreneurs Gifford Pinchot III and Elizabeth Pinchot, through their paper “Intra-Corporate Entrepreneurship” and their book Intrapreneuring, published in 1985. Time magazine helped spread the idea further in the cover story “Here Come the Intrapreneurs” in 1985. However, there was considerable debate about whether it was possible to be entrepreneurial in a big company or organization, and whether that seat-of-the-pants, learn-on-your-feet way of thinking was even welcome.

CBS put a stake in the ground and embraced the emerging discipline. “Columbia Business School realized several decades ago that intrapreneurship was a key area to focus on,” says Lee. “Our focus started with research and curriculum.”

That paid off. “We have leading experts at the business school who are experts in this space,” she says. Today, these thought leaders are driving a conversation that is more about how best to put the concept of intrapreneurship into action, rather than if it can be done.

“We have seen an explosion of interest in this space as students are realizing that entrepreneurship can take all forms.”

- Angela Lee, Faculty directory, Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center

An Academic Discipline

The widespread adoption of intrapreneurship in the corporate world has opened many exciting avenues for academic study. “In the old days, we thought of entrepreneurship as purely about teaching people the bread and butter of starting a business, and that didn’t sound very intellectually interesting to faculty. But today, I think there’s a greater recognition of the value of studying entrepreneurship through multiple lenses,” says Iyengar. “So, on the one hand, there’s the ideation lens: How do you teach people how to come up with winning ideas, whether it be for an entrepreneur or for a company trying to grow? Then there is the science and research behind how you take an organization, grow it, scale it, and further develop it. Then, for product managers, how do you take what you’ve already created and expand on that in a way that makes sense? Academics care about entrepreneurship a lot, and it comes up in almost every course, whether it be corporate entrepreneurship or the next big tech idea.”

CBS aims to prepare students to answer questions like these through both its coursework and extracurriculars. Popular course offerings that support future intrapreneurs include:

These classes are complemented by what Toubia calls a “dense set of offerings” that equip students with a broad understanding of the entrepreneurial field. These classes cover topics from ideation to funding and product management, he notes.

“We have designed a curriculum that begins with foundational courses and progresses to hands-on labs, enabling students to collaborate with real companies on various projects, including product management projects in the digital space,” he explains.

Toubia says generative AI tools are reshaping the way students approach entrepreneurship. In a recent course, students were tasked with conceptualizing a business case using generative AI, resulting in the swift development of prototypes for digital products, despite limited resources and time.

“We had a group that proposed a new tool to help people learn languages in ways that could be fun and interactive,” he says. “And they actually developed a full prototype for their interactive tool and demonstrated someone using it to learn Italian.”

“They were able to do that very quickly with minimal budget using generative AI and GPT, both in terms of creating the content and the coding,” Toubia adds. “To me, this indicates a promising future for AI in simplifying MVP development, from coding to content creation, to mockups of interfaces and creating logos and graphic design.”

Other in-demand courses reflect the School’s focus on innovation on a global scale. They include Global Immersion Israel: Culture, Politics, and Leading-Edge Innovation and Global Immersion: Innovation in India.

Many of the students in these classes are students of engineering or other disciplines. “I have some students from architecture and medicine,” says Iyengar. That confluence of students is, in turn, leading to cross-pollination and expansion of students’ mindsets about what is possible for them to accomplish and has proved to be exciting for faculty, as well. “I love teaching the students how to think bigger,” she says. “I love giving them the tools to help solve their problems, whether it’s to be corporate entrepreneurs or to be entrepreneurs.”

To deepen students’ practical knowledge, CBS also offers a variety of masterclasses where corporations bring the issues they are struggling with to students for solutions. One example is the Analytics in Action course, taught by Daniel Guetta, associate professor of professional practice and director of the School’s Center for Pricing and Revenue Management.

In addition to a robust array of courses, the School hosts events such as Innovation Salon, where Iyengar and her colleagues partner with corporations to bring their ideas and projects to class and offer talks with leaders in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Iyengar was also the mastermind behind the Innovation Summit, held in May 2023, which attracted a full house of 150 C-suite executives and corporate board members from large organizations as well as students. The executives exchanged ideas on how to solve a wide variety of challenges confronting large organizations, such as becoming more carbon neutral, mastering supply chain problems, adapting to new financial services instruments, and making the most of technologies such as AI, she says.

“We have designed a curriculum that begins with foundational courses and progresses to hands- on labs, enabling students to collaborate with real companies on various projects, including product management projects in the digital space.”

- Olivier Toubia, Glaubinger Professor of Business

Given the high level of interest, Iyengar is already planning the Innovation Summit for May 2024, finding that even the most entrepreneurially minded students are eager to explore the corporate world and the opportunities to innovate there, perhaps en route to an even more entrepreneurial destination. “A lot of my students go through life thinking they might get a job for the first couple of years and then pursue their entrepreneurial venture,” she says. “They get the skills and then do it a few years out.”

CBS is also home to The Hub, a fast-growing think tank founded last year. One initiative Iyengar leads within The Hub hosts seminars, luncheons, and events for broader audiences, bringing together visiting scholars, business leaders, and policymakers to engage with students and faculty. It is a cross-campus collaboration between CBS, Columbia Engineering, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and parts of the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Under one of The Hub’s first major initiatives, a working group of students is currently addressing business challenges in New York City, such as the overabundance of office space in Midtown following the pandemic. “It’s been affecting not just the price of Midtown real estate but also the housing market in New York, retail like restaurants and shopping, and homelessness,” says Iyengar.

The result will be a roundtable in December that centers on how the innovation ecosystem in New York can respond to these changes in a way that allows that ecosystem to thrive, not diminish, she says. “You’re really creating a clearinghouse where you get ideas—but now, how do you convert those ideas so that they contribute value to New York City’s overall innovation ecosystem?” says Iyengar.

Another topic for discussion will be how to bring new ideas for technologies or businesses to market faster. “It’s to create better transit and transfer of knowledge, like Silicon Valley,” she says.

Photo Image of Suneil Ahuja

“I was given the opportunity to just explore and figure out what I want, try all these different things, and meet people.” 
- Suneil Ahuja ’19, Design director, business strategy and design, IDEO London

Access to programs that support intrapreneurs doesn’t end upon graduation. Many alumni who have finished their studies and are either entering the workplace or returning to it continue to stay engaged.

“When they graduate, they continue to leverage the tools and experiences they gained, and they become a lifelong member of an incredibly talented and engaged community of CBS alumni who are passionate about solving big problems,” says Lara Hejtmanek ’99, managing director of the Lang Center. “Not all students who pursue an entrepreneurial experience become founders of their own startups, of course. Many take this problem-solving mind-set and toolkit with them and apply it in other ways in their careers.”

A significant number of alumni, for instance, join startups in cleantech, fintech, bio-tech, transportation, and digital wellness, in roles such as business development, operations, product marketing, and strategy, says Hejtmanek. “These students join early but are growing organizations to support and lead innovation, using frameworks learned at CBS like identifying and solving problems, customer discovery, and product testing/iteration,” she says.

Others take on corporate innovation roles within established organizations. “We have alumni heading innovation centers for companies as diverse as Walmart, InBev, Amex, Douglas Elliman, NASCAR, and many more,” notes Hejtmanek. “These alumni take the lead in bringing to life transformational strategies and innovative ideas by identifying ‘What’s next?’ in their companies and industries.”

Hub of Entrepreneurial Energy

Given its location in New York City, the School has a strong presence in the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Lee notes, “not just through the number of CBS-founders based in New York but also because many of our graduates pursue other entrepreneurship-related career paths. We have a strong alumni presence in venture capital, private equity, angel investing, incubators and accelerators, venture studios, corporate innovation, and more.”

And this presence is strengthened every year with hundreds of additional alumni joining the startup ecosystem in New York City in various intrapreneurial roles. She points to K.J. Singh ’11, managing director at Techstars, and Sam Wils ’16, director at XRC Labs, as well as the many alumni who have founded and joined venture capital firms and early-stage companies in New York City and taken roles in innovation and strategy in the corporate offices of major companies with a presence in the city.

But some students venture far beyond that geographically. Suneil Ahuja ‘19, design director, business strategy and design, at IDEO in London, is one alum who has embraced intrapreneurship. Ahuja started at CBS in 2017 after three years of consulting at Accenture and a year as chief of staff at startup Run for America, a citizen-powered movement to reinvigorate government that was not as successful as he had hoped it would be.

“It became clear to me that I wanted to further my business education but also have some time to reflect on what I really want to do and how I wanted my career to go, so business school made a lot of sense,” he says. “To be honest, I really wanted the space to figure out if the entrepreneurship thing was for me or if I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to hate what I did. It’s such a cliché that people hate their jobs, and I wanted to use my time at Columbia to figure out something I would be excited about doing every day.”

With the hope of gaining greater clarity, Ahuja dove into his academic studies, taking classes on the pharmaceutical industry, media, innovation, startups, and more. He found that when he emailed potential connections from his Columbia.edu address, they were far more responsive knowing he was a student than from his Gmail account. “I was given the opportunity to just explore and figure out what I want, try all these different things, and meet people,” he says.

When it came time to look for a job after graduation, he worked with an advisor in the career services office to identify companies where he would be happy. He says the big question he wanted to answer was, “Where could I be more creative and a little more entrepreneurial in a team context?”

After graduation, he landed at the London office of IDEO, a design and innovation consultancy where he is able to tap into what he learned about intrapreneurship at CBS. “We have a bunch of different people across design disciplines who come together on consulting-type projects, with a creative and forward-looking process for addressing and solving problems,” he says.

He enjoys being part of a team where everyone is working toward the same goal, and he could potentially lead the group in the future. “I think that was what I was looking for,” he says.

One recent project involved working with a US-based automotive company that is relaunching itself into electric-only commercial vehicles in 2026. “Think about those white vans you see everywhere—a plumber’s van, electrician’s van, or delivery van,” he says. “It’s the next generation of those.” In another project, his team is helping a major clothing retailer make its entire e-commerce supply chain green. “We’re helping them take the plastic out of their logistics and reduce how much overstock they have season to season,” he says.

But sometimes, his projects are more intangible. He’s currently helping a big pharma company overhaul its culture, for instance.

The common thread is that all the companies he serves have recognized that innovation is what will keep them relevant. “It’s a mindset—a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” he says. “Innovation is easily cut because it’s so hard to be tangible about it. When you have a target to meet a particular quarter, it becomes really hard to conceptualize. It can sound fluffy. But if it goes away, companies don’t realize they’re going to suffer 10 or 15 years down the road.”

As an increasing number of students from CBS and other business schools embrace intrapreneurship and apply it within the companies that hire them, the likelihood of this scenario occurring appears lower than ever before.