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Achieving productive intrapreneurship

We are beginning a new series that explores the role of corporations in startup investing and best practices in corporate innovation. For our first interview, we sat down with Lori Anne Wardi of Neustar to discuss her experiences in corporate innovation and ways to achieve productive intrapreneurship in the corporate space.

Lori Anne Wardi is Vice President of Registry Services at Neustar, Inc., where she oversees the business development, marketing and communications initiatives for top-level domains. Ms. Wardi was previously the co-founder of .CO Internet S.A.S, the company behind the .CO domain extension (which was acquired by Neustar, Inc. in 2014,) and she holds a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, a Masters degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from Muhlenberg College.

Startup Angels: After going back to school, and working with technology in the corporate space for several years, what emboldened your personal leap into entrepreneurship?

Lori Anne Wardi: I practiced law for five years immediately upon graduation from law school in 1992. I left the law in 1997 and went to graduate school at Cornell, where I got my Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management. When I graduated in 1998, I started working at Goldman Sachs in the Global Technology Division — which is where I first fell in love with technology, the Internet, and the promise I saw in the future of online content, communication and collaboration. Among other things, my role was focused on leadership development, career development, and helping to maximize the potential and performance of technology leaders throughout the company.

Certified as an executive coach, I had the opportunity to help people ask and answer the tough questions about themselves— what were they passionate about, identifying greatest strengths and weaknesses, natural talents or exceptional skills, what did they want most out of their career and life? It was in helping to coach others, that I started to unearth some of these answers for myself. I learned that I was passionate about big ideas, about the notion of creating something out of nothing but a thought — a glimmer or a spark in your imagination that with enough grit and determination could be turned into something that changes the world. I didn’t use the word back then, but from that point on, I think I was destined to become an entrepreneur. The year was 2000, and the .com boom was in full swing. It seemed everyone with a dream and the will to make it happen was ditching their day job and taking the plunge to launch their own Internet business. I decided I would join them — and so I quit my corporate job to venture out on my own.

Startup Angels: In what ways did your experience studying technology during the Web 1.0 affect your own entrepreneurial journey?

Wardi: Being a part of the Web 1.0 tech boom was a great lesson in humility. There was so much hubris in those early days… this strange sense of irrational exuberance all around. People really believed that with just a great idea and a domain name — the money would just come rolling on in. But that’s not what happened. Not only did the money not roll in, but startup after startup failed. And then the whole movement literally imploded — the .com bubble burst.

Believe it or not, after the .com bust — people actually questioned for a time whether the Internet would even survive as a meaningful vehicle for global commerce. Seems hard to imagine now! What I learned from the experience is that there are no shortcuts. There is no easy path to success. Without a solid business plan, high performing team, excellent execution and unyielding sense of determination, grit and passion — you can have all the great ideas in the world — and they will get you exactly nowhere.

Startup Angels: As a consultant in the art of unlocking human resources, how would you characterize productive intrapreneurship in a corporate environment?

Wardi: Like entrepreneurs who start their own ventures, intrapreneneurs find new and unique ways to solve problems, seize opportunities and/or add value to the lives and careers of others inside of an existing corporate environment. Intrapreneurs can boost productivity and positively impact the bottom line for any corporation by driving innovation, revamping ineffective systems and processes, solving old problems in new and creative ways, and inspiring people and teams to re-imagine a company’s entire future trajectory. For intrapreneurship to exist at a meaningful level, a corporation must create a culture that incentivizes risk-taking, inspires creative problem solving, and rewards people for collaborating to drive results.

Startup Angels: In terms of investing resources, how should corporations (and startups!) balance their support of ambitious existing employees, with that of entrepreneurial communities outside their walls?

Wardi: We’re living in exciting times. Technology has radically transformed the way people live, learn, work and play in ways we couldn’t have dreamed up just a decade ago. And the amazing part is that most of this innovation has come from scrappy little startups — not big, established industry leaders. Historically, industry leaders competed by having the biggest R&D budgets. These days, with the ubiquity of technology, it’s not the company with the huge R&D budgets that incumbents worry most about — it’s those little startups no one has ever heard of — the ones like Uber and Airbnb — that seem to come out of nowhere and then radically disrupt entire industries in one fell swoop.

It’s no wonder we’re seeing more and more corporate venture capital investments, where major corporations are making equity investments in an effort to harvest innovation from entrepreneurial ventures. In the past several years, we’ve also seen an increase in acquihires, where corporations buy out startups primarily for the skills, talents and expertise of the staff, rather than for the business, products or services that the company offers. There is no question that investing in entrepreneurial ventures and acquihires both can play a beneficial role in a corporation’s innovation strategy.

This said, innovation without execution is not enough to win the day. To move any organization forward, you need effective systems, processes and structures in place. And you need teams of people who “self select” to work in corporate environments who actually enjoy and are skilled at efficiently executing on defined business strategies. They are not there to change things, to mix things up, or to innovate — they are there to get things done — very important, often complex things. This is critical, because if everyone were innovating all day long, we’d have mass chaos. Just imagine the problems that might be created if a company’s accountant or compliance officer tried to be “innovative” or “creative” in the performance of their jobs. No thank you! For ambitious employees who wish to be more intrapreneurial, there are always opportunities to propose new and better ways to execute, to enhance systems, to streamline processes, and to add more value. Every day brings new challenges — and new opportunities to make an impact. Seizing those opportunities — and solving those challenges — that’s what being an intrapreneur (and an entrepreneur)— is all about.

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