Start Up or Start In? Pathways to systemic change in finance

29 Jul Start Up or Start In? Pathways to systemic change in finance

In this blog, our Head of Intrapreneurship, Lydia Hascott shares a view on entrepreneurship vs intrapreneurship as pathways for building a financial system that serves people and planet.

The Silicon Valley model of innovation has infiltrated the social impact world. For those of us considering how to make an impact through our career, we often think about developing a ‘thing’ – a new product, service or programme. Package it up, pitch it to funders, roll it out, scale it up, then exit.

At the Finance Innovation Lab, we think about social and environmental impact more broadly than this. We think about changing systems. Much of what is called social innovation today is not creating systemic change; it’s dealing with symptoms of broken systems, not root causes. The Silicon Valley style model of “disruptive” innovation does not fundamentally require deep, systemic analysis. Instead it often encourages faster, cheaper, more efficient ways to do the same things and, often, to perpetuate the same systemic failures.

From a systems change stand point, the first step in coming up with any idea is to be able to articulate what the problem is that you’re trying to solve. From there, you’re able to zoom out and ask:

  1. What system or systems is this problem part of?
  2. What flaws within the system are creating or contributing to the problem? (Think not just about the entities in the system but the relationships between them.)
  3. Where in the system would a small intervention lead to ripple effects that create bigger changes across the system?


Once you’ve explored these things, the next question becomes, “To shift this system do I create an entity of my own, or make change from within an existing organisation?” Let’s call this “starting up” vs “starting in”.

At the Finance Innovation Lab, we incubate the innovators who are building a financial system that works for people and planet. We support both those starting up (entrepreneurs) and those starting in (intrapreneurs) to create systemic change. We’ve found that there are four different aspects of a system that can be addressed to transform the way it works – products, business models, structures and culture. Here is what we’ve learned about the unique challenges and opportunities of addressing these four elements either through starting up or starting in.



The first part of a system that can be changed bears resemblance to the Silicon Valley approach. It’s innovating the productisable ‘things’ within a system – except in a way that transforms the relationships between organisations and society.

Starting up: If you’re starting up you’ll have to design your product from the ground up and find all the resources, partnerships, funding and support yourself. You’ll need to be a huge generalist (there is no IT department or finance team to call on). On the other hand, you’ll have the ability to start from scratch and can choose the resources and stakeholder relationships that are aligned to the impact you’re trying to create. An example here might be designing products or services that are accessible for people with disability so they can more fully participate in society.

Starting in: If you’re starting in, you’re likely to have existing resources and even existing products to draw on. Although don’t be fooled into thinking this will make it easier. There is an opportunity cost to using these resources and you’ll have to negotiate the use of them away from other parts of the organisation. An example of product-based systems change inside an organisation is Barclays’ range of contactless bPay devices which enable people with dexterity challenges, sight loss or dyslexia to avoid having to handle a debit card. Through increasing the financial inclusion of people with disabilities, Barclays is also tapping into a £212 billion market opportunity, providing a business case for the intrapreneur needing to attract internal resources. Barclays’ wider customer base can also use these devices, which goes to show – when you design for disability, you design for everyone.



Rather than developing a new product or service itself, another way to change a system is through innovating business models. This refers to changing how value is created and shared across a system. Take for example the business model of bank current accounts. At present, it’s common for current accounts to be fee-free and for banks to make their money from the interest paid on overdrafts. Overdrafts (especially unarranged ones) are often taken out by those experiencing financial hardship. In 2016, more than 50% of bank revenue from unarranged overdrafts was paid by just 1.5% of customers. How is it fair to have a business model where those in financial distress subsidise those with good financial health? Without considering the underlying impact of its business model, a new initiative won’t come close to solving the root causes of systemic problems.

Starting in: If you’re starting in and creating a new business model, your challenge will be to confidently go against the grain of the status quo without yet having a proven solution. In order to establish a new business model, you may even need to build entire new value chains and market infrastructure. This is where timing and collaboration will be key. You’ll also need to communicate with colleagues who view things in a completely different paradigm, requiring the skills of storytelling and influence.

Starting up: If you’re starting up, once again you can create your new business model and its surrounding infrastructure from scratch without needing institutional permission. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge. While you might have more freedom to shape the business model, you still exist in a market context where you’ll need to convince funders, customers and suppliers to back something that is different to what they know.



Beyond the ‘things’ in a system and the business models that distribute them, systems have a set of enabling structures which hold their dynamics in place. These are the processes, rules and incentives that create feedback loops which can feel very difficult to shift. Systems change efforts focused on structures might be: changing KPIs in an organisation so that employees are incentivised to focus on the long term effects of their decisions; or shifting to integrated reporting where the net social and environmental value created is reported alongside financial value.

Starting in: System structures can feel really hard to shift within an institution. But just remember: people created these systems so people can change them. When starting in, you’ll need the ability to influence key decision makers and to build a network of aligned individuals within your organisation for a critical mass of people in support of change.

Starting up: There are some things that are really hard (though not impossible) to change in existing organisations – like legal structures and governance models. When starting up, you have the ability to establish your own structures that will enable the change you want to see. There are some interesting models already out there like BCorps, employee ownership models and platform cooperatives which allow you to organise in more democratic, responsible and fair ways.

For both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs there will always be systemic structures external to your organisation to consider, like regulation and policy. These are the things that often get forgotten when we are only thinking about productisable innovation because advocacy work plays the long game and is not as commonly funded. At the Lab we amplify the voice of purpose-driven financial entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs through convening them with financial regulators where they can advocate for the structural shifts in the system.



You’ve likely heard the ‘c’ word many times when it comes to transforming industries – but culture change is much easier to talk about than to do. Culture is the story we tell ourselves about the way things work and what is possible. To change culture is to shift the collective mindsets, values and norms of individuals within a system. It’s changing unwritten rules like the internalised belief that personal and professional values are separate and we can’t bring our full selves to work; or the false assumption that “externalities” like climate change and wealth inequality don’t have anything to do with doing business.

Starting in: When starting in, your job is to transform a culture that already exists. You have a huge opportunity to challenge “the way we do things around here” through operating differently and creating an alternative narrative. This requires the skills of rapport building, influence and storytelling. No, it’s not easy but intrapreneurs – we need you! If courageous people like you don’t stay and transform culture from within, the heart of the system won’t shift.

Starting up: When starting up, rather than transforming an existing organisational culture you create a new one. Systems changing entrepreneurs demonstrate what other ways of working are possible. But you’ll be doing this in the context of a status quo culture which, like it or not, you’ll feel like you’re attached to with an elastic band. In order to pull against it, you need a strong sense of purpose, plus a community of people who share your vision to create an alternative culture. 



There are both glaringly obvious and fairly nuanced differences between starting up and starting in to affect systemic change. The most appropriate path depends on your identified problem and its context. Whichever option you choose, we’ve observed that there are three core fundamentals that every systems change leader can use to maximise their impact.

  1. Collaboration – No single person or organisation can shift a system on their own. Understand who else is (and isn’t) addressing the problem to avoid duplication, share learnings and then come at it from different, but coordinated, angles. Avoid thinking in sectors too – systems operate across the public, private and community arenas and the insights to be gained from building relationships outside your bubble are invaluable.
  2. Co-design – Design with, not for, those experiencing the problem you’re trying to solve. This will help to ensure it’s useful to them, used by them, and also that you’re not doing more harm than good.
  3. Community – Find your tribe. Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship can be lonely and hard work. Find values-aligned individuals to go on the journey with you. At the Lab we support a community of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs all working on transforming the financial system. If that’s you, you can join our community here.



We must not think about social impact in the same way as Silicon Valley, unicorn-obsessed innovation. It takes so much more than a faster, shinier more technological product to deeply shift a system. We need products that fundamentally alter the relationship between whole industries and society; we need business models that create and share value more fairly; and we need structures and cultures that enable systems to produce the outcomes that benefit people and planet. Depending on which social or environmental problem you’re addressing, it might be more impactful to ‘start up’ and create a new vision for what’s possible, or, you might affect more change through ‘starting in’ and transforming what already exists. Whichever it is, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, be sure to collaborate, co-design and find a community of likeminded changemakers.