Disclaimer:This opinion piece features personal views of the author and are not representative of Meta Platforms, Inc. or any other organization. The expressed content is intended only for educational purposes as stated in the original publication.
Z. Sam Lin is a Partner Manager at Meta
A few years ago, I thought I had a world-changing idea.
I was in Austin for college. During that time, I befriended fellow Austinites struggling with homelessness. To improve their situation, my friends and I came up with an innovative approach to obtaining paid work.
Every week, I’d ask the community for “micro-jobs,” like moving outdoor furniture or raking leaves. Our team then offered the work to people struggling with employment as a way to earn income without being officially hired. After working a series of micro-jobs, we translated that work into free resumes to help people land jobs without needing full-time work experience.
It was a great idea and others seemed to agree. Our pitch won grant funding, national recognition, and plenty of eager people who cared about the cause joined our team.
In years since, I’d often hear my work described as successful because “others noticed it helped people and agreed that’s what made it impactful.” For many young people, this is where the story ends.
What they didn’t include was how incredibly difficult it was to actually run the company and how hard it was to let it fail. Our company suffered from what many young startups share: inexperienced founders, lack of structure and direction, inconsistent operations, and more.
Despite having the best intentions, our organization was unwittingly failing our beneficiaries and potentially preventing another social enterprise from succeeding with our resources. After two years of running on steam, my co-founders agreed with my diagnosis and we closed our operations for good.
What I appreciate about our generation is the authentic passion to make the world better. I believe that shared spirit stems from Gen Z’s access to increased information, allowing us to viscerally witness inequality more frequently.
However, understanding a problem and designing an idea to solve it are not enough to create an impact. Oftentimes, you need experience-driven expertise to make it happen.
To be clear, I am not advocating that Gen Z stop creating new social impact ventures. My startup was foundational in my learning journey and I met wonderful friends who challenged me to expect more from myself and others. But I wish I knew earlier on that there were other paths that I could have taken to diversify my experiences while still doing good.
Today, we can find opportunities to create impact anywhere, even in for-profit businesses. Rather than inventing a new model, I encourage people to consider using their strengths to build new competencies within existing organizations.
Academics refer to this concept as “intrapreneurship,” or the act of behaving as an entrepreneur within a large organization. Intrapreneurs strive to change the current infrastructure as an internal champion rather than challenge it from the outside. By that logic,“social intrapreneurs” transform corporate entities into social enterprises that share profit and mission-driven goals.
After working on a string of social enterprises, I joined Meta (then Facebook) to advance my understanding of digital marketing and work with brands that operate with bigger budgets and audiences than I ever could alone. At Meta, I influence executives to consider social issues in their media decisions, while also gaining valuable transferable skills from leaders at the company.
A common criticism I hear from aspiring changemakers is something similar to “capitalism incentives greed, so I can’t have an impact at a for-profit business.”
It helps to paint a picture of for-profit ecosystems as a metaphoricalboat harbor; large businesses create products and services whose impactful tide lifts the harbor’s boats. All boats move, with some lifting higher than others.
The metaphor illuminates two lessons. First, social enterprises ought to target the boats that barely budged and find ways to help them rise higher. And second, we should not forget that for-profit businesses still lift most boats in the harbor.
Think of revolutionary brands like Apple, whose devices save lives every year by improving on-call response times in life-threatening emergencies. Even big oil powers heat for rural hospitals and local animal shelters, protecting the vulnerable from winter storms and other natural disasters.
Capitalism is only a philosophy. Some people interpreted it as a machine prioritizing shareholder wealth first. But if it’s only a machine, that means it can be redesigned for new outputs, including for the public interest.
How can we, as social intrapreneurs, redesign machines to do good?
First, find the right environment.Serving the public’s interest involves solving the world’s hardest problems. To accomplish that, aim to be in a room with passionate and intelligent people. For me, this environment is where I see people challenging themselves to make Facebook and Instagram serve nonprofits better.
Second, become a necessary “cog” in the machine.These may not be the largest or most exciting roles at first, but they are vital to serve the beneficiary.In my role, I support teams that spend countless hours designing innovative, well-oiled solutions, like Facebook Fundraisers or Donation Ads. Most people will not recognize those incremental changes, but they create real outcomes for real people.
Third, nobody can work on a problem forever.Smart people are in high demand and there are always more problems to solve. Too often, that brain-drain results in stymied progress or lost strategies for urgent issues. To drive sustainablechange, we must proactively replicate our efforts so that progress does not stagnate when we move on.
With these strategies, we can build better machines that automate good for more than we could ever accomplish alone.