How Dell's entrepreneur in residence encourages intrapreneurship

Entrepreneurs in residence are appearing in numerous companies across different industries around the world. But what does that really mean and how are they helping to foster intrepreneurship? We caught up with Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur in residence at Dell, to find out more…

So, what does it actually mean to be an entrepreneur in residence? What does the role involve?

They actually started in the venture capital arena but I think the whole notion of it is somebody comes in for a temporary amount of time that has a unique skillset that is not within that organisation to try and push through some type of innovation, whether that's an entrepreneur sitting in a VC trying to find new and innovative investments, or something else. I think the role of the EIR should be high level, reporting into the C-Suite so that they can move fast and help make decisions, but also temporary so they're coming in and being innovative and then walking back out again. It's a really great, unique, fun role.

At Dell they choose one entrepreneur in residence (EIR) every two years and our first entrepreneur, Ingrid Vanderveldt, had a specific agenda about understanding how to help entrepreneurs to get technology into their hands. Whereas my role is really about how do we look across policy to understand how to get entrepreneurs access to multiple tiers: capital, technology, market, and talent.

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How did you become the EIR at Dell?

I was actually entrepreneur in residence supporting the United Nations at the UN Foundation (UNF) and Michael Dell was the first ever global advocate for entrepreneurship at UNF. And Dell is the biggest supporter of the Global Entrepreneur Council at UNF so there was a lot of really interesting synergies between all of us.

We figured out that Michael and I had a number of shared passions, especially about the fact that entrepreneurs are the ones that are trying to solve the world's problems - whether they're in developing countries or whether they're right there in the US.

It was really neat to find someone who had that shared passion and then I found that passion is really across the entirety of the company. So if you think of 100,000 people who are really supportive of entrepreneurship, not just with their customers but with that entrepreneurial spirit that's throughout the company, it’s pretty special. 

Read more: What intrapreneurship looks like in different sectors

It was a real surprise and a great honour when I was asked by the company to come over as the entrepreneur in residence with a really specific agenda. Michael and the rest of the leadership team really believe in the UN partnership with entrepreneurs and, as you might know, the Sustainable Development Goals were being negotiated over the last two years at the UN to replace the Millennium Development Goals. We really believed that there should be a goal based on job creation and entrepreneurship for all. So when I came over to the company one of my first charges was to really use the company, the employees, our partners to understand how could we influence the UN in creating these goals, in particular goal eight. So it was really about using every muscle we could to work with governments to understand the value an influence of goal eight and we couldn't have been more pleased when it was accepted as one of the 17 goals last May. It's really been an awesome year.

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You’ve mentioned how entrepreneurism is at the heart of Dell, why is that important for companies these days?

Every company has a goal to scale. And I think what's hard as companies grow is how do you stay entrepreneurial and innovative? It's the secret spot that can help companies to be flexible, innovative, yet have a responsibility as they grow. At Dell for example, I think we're one of the only companies that has their founder at the helm after 30-odd years. And his story is that of a true entrepreneur starting in his dorm room with a small loan from his family and he's kept that spirit throughout the company. So if you work at Dell, there are a lot of intrapreneurs creating very unique ideas.

One of my favourite buildings actually in Round Rock is where most of our research and development is happening and there's patents on the wall. Thousands of patents in frames created by employees so it's giving them the credit they deserve for that innovation and entrepreneurship. It's a really cool hallway if you walk through it. And that really struck me when I first got there how much it's encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.

Read more: How to discover your inner intrapreneur 

How else does Dell foster intrapreneurship among its employees?

We really think about how we bring in great entrepreneurial ideas into the company. So whether it's through Dell Ventures where we're investing and having an equity stake in companies, or it's our OEM (original equipment manufacturing) division that’s spending a ton of time with companies really understanding what they need. Everything from Redbox to the Mars Rover has had the Dell intrapreneurs working with those companies to understand how we can help customise everything that they need, from their supply chain management to execution and so on. 

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So whether we're looking at our OEM division working with partners or whether we're really encouraging intrapreneurship with our own employees, I think it's really important for companies to focus both on that outside in, and that inside out approach to entrepreneurship.

We also have a lot of great opportunities for employees to be innovative and intrapreneurial. One of my favourites is our innovation challenge that allows Dell team members around the world to present solutions to real scenarios that are happening in the company in a competition format. A lot of companies, including Dell, sponsor and support pitch challenges and hackathons but we also have them inside our company, which I think is really interesting.

But I think there’s one thing that people discount that can either crush the spirit of entrepreneurship inside a company or it can actively encourage it and that’s culture. You absolutely from the top down have to foster a culture of innovation, intrapreneurship and failing fast. I've seen companies that as they grow their culture goes away and it just ruins that entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial spirit so even large companies have to figure out how do we continue the culture in that spirit of intrapreneurship. You can put a million systems in place but if you don't also foster the culture it's not going to happen. And that's what I've seen from Michael and the team, they continue to foster that culture. 

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