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Weekly Roundup: Social Enterprise Meets Reality TV – Is That a Good Thing?
Which of these things is not like the other? If you guessed the last one … you’re wrong. Today, 12 India-based social entrepreneurs will make TV history as the world’s first reality show about social enterprise and impact investing is broadcast on NDTV. Called “The Real Deal,” the program is produced by former Indian tennis star Shikha Uberoi and is being billed as “the first-ever attempt to mainstream the sector via a TV show on social enterprises.”
The show is structured as a sort of hybrid of “Survivor” and “Shark Tank.” It pits the 12 entrepreneurs against each other in a series of competitions – “power-packed and thrilling challenges testing soft and hard skills of the entrepreneurs,” as Uberoi describes it. Their efforts will be judged by a panel of impact investors, who will award them points and invest in whichever entrepreneur prevails at the end of the 10-episode season.
As someone who found it physically painful to type the words “Honey Boo Boo,” I confess to having considerable doubts when I first heard about the show. I understand the desire to bring social enterprise and impact investing to a broader audience. But is reality TV – a genre best known for bestowing undeserved fame on talentless publicity hounds through contrived, often staged conflict – really the right way to do it?
However, after looking into the show’s background, those concerns abated. The investors hail from respected organizations like the Artha Initiative and Asha Impact, and competing enterprises were shortlisted by the social business pioneer Intellecap, which based its selections on the quality of the entrepreneurs, their ability to make a social impact and the scalability of their business model. While the producers also considered these entrepreneurs’ “telegenic presence” in the selection process, it sounded like the show was taking a rigorous, non-sensational approach in its efforts to shine a spotlight on the sector.
But I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to two people with firsthand knowledge of the show: Aditi Shrivastava, head of Intellecap’s Impact Investment Network and one of two mentors who will coach entrepreneurs during the competition; and Nilima Achwal, founder and CEO of Iesha Learning, an interactive digitized curriculum that teaches adolescents about sexuality, health and gender. Achwal is one of “The Real Deal’s” 12 contestants (and a former NextBillion editor and William Davidson Institute colleague to boot). I asked them about my three biggest concerns about the program. Here’s how they responded:
- Do you have any concerns about bringing these young companies to public attention through a reality show format, which might misrepresent or trivialize their work for the sake of entertainment value?
Aditi Shrivastava: “Since we were involved from the very beginning, we trusted the producers’ intention to portray the entrepreneurs in the fairest light possible, and were involved in helping design various aspects of the show, too. Of course, the production team kept mentioning that we all need to be a little dramatic, so that it is interesting to a lay audience – but nothing artificial was ‘staged’ for this purpose. In fact, while some of the entrepreneurs had concerns sharing numbers like revenue and valuation on the show, the part they were most excited about was the visibility and brand recognition they would get. Trivializing is not an issue – in fact, these entrepreneurs have been portrayed as heroes in their sectors!”
Nilima Achwal: “To be honest, as we got closer to the show I started to get nervous about putting our entire business on display, since we will still be iterating a lot on our business model in the coming months. Luckily though, the show was set up in a way where we were not forced to disclose the intricacies of our business on air – it was almost all about our character as entrepreneurs. And they were pretty good about keeping it professional and not riling up artificial conflict, because they know that at the end of the day, we have to protect our reputations and brands. So it ended up being quite a positive and supportive community among the contestants, investors and even the production team. Very social enterprisey.”
- Do you think the game show-style challenges that contestants go through can allow investors to make sound decisions about who to fund?
Nilima Achwal: “No, I believe not. I think that in order for that to happen, the challenges need to have been more focused around the investors and entrepreneurs actually getting to know each other, which we weren’t allowed to do (we weren’t allowed to mingle with the investors off stage, or even during the challenges, which resulted in the investors not really understanding our businesses). And for that reason, I viewed raising funding as a positive externality of participating on the show, and not as my sole purpose. Even if I don’t raise funds on the show, the exposure will also help me find the right angel for me, since we’re looking for a strategic investor in the education space.”
Aditi Shrivastava: “The investors did have a lot of information on the enterprises before the shoot began – such as investment decks, financial models and a due diligence report. So it was not like they were going into the shoot blind. Moreover, spending nine days straight with the entrepreneurs in an informal yet high-pressure environment really tells you a lot about them, and this is key since in early stages, you’re pretty much betting on the team. Some of the challenges … were spot on in terms of evaluating soft and hard aspects of the entrepreneurs. I would definitely consider making an investment after this kind of process, and would encourage the impact investing sector to adopt some aspects of such a process since it really decreases transaction times.”
- Similarly, do you have any concerns that the reality show format might give the public a simplistic or skewed understanding of social enterprise and impact investing?
Aditi Shrivastava: “You’re absolutely right that such a format peels only the top layer of the onion – it doesn’t go deep into the challenges in each sector/business, or how difficult it is to evaluate the enterprises, or even how to measure social impact. But currently people don’t even know this sector exists. So the first plan of action is to make social entrepreneurship and impact investing sound exciting and sexy, and become household terms. Overall, I would say the boost to the sector’s public profile outweighs the concerns.”
Nilima Achwal: “This show was conceptualized by Shikha in order to ‘make social enterprise mainstream.’ If you see the first episode, there is a bit of viewer education in defining impact investing, and then our backstories tell them about our social impact. I think it’s beautifully and thoughtfully put together (so far), and I think it’s going to actually be amazing in educating the masses about what social enterprise is, and inspiring a new generation to think about making a change.”
After watching the first episode (available online here), Achwal’s words rang true: The show respectfully and informatively explains the social business concept, describes each business and introduces the entrepreneurs and investors. And though it’s billed as a high-stakes encounter, the first entrepreneur/investor meetings mostly avoid the ginned-up conflicts common to the genre – the investors ask few tough questions, and Simon Cowell-like snark is nowhere to be found. In fact, ironically enough, I found myself missing that contrived drama, since without it, reality TV is actually pretty dull. Here’s hoping that “The Real Deal” manages to find a balance between educating and entertaining – and that this foray into reality television really does give the sector a shot in the arm.
– James Militzer
Doing bad while doing well
“First, do no good.”
That, says Dr. Lisa V. Adams, is what one of her colleagues tells prospective U.S. doctors when they visit low-income countries.
Adams, associate dean for global health and director of the Center for Health Equity at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, writes in the Washington Post about how “global health is the buzz on many campuses today.” This “tsunami of student interest” results in a lot of U.S. students traveling overseas “to help.” Too often, they’re doing it wrong.
Adams says her students want to share their great ideas with hosts they might assume are less educated, but she coaches them to “switch into listener mode. … What may look like simple fixes to them on first impression, are typically complicated problems embedded in complex systems that they can only begin to understand in their weeks or months on site. I impress upon them that they are working with very capable and experienced partners – so all the low-hanging fruit solutions have already been found.” It’s all about “cultural humility,” Adams said.
Which is clearly not at the forefront of the fake refugee camps in Norway. Turns out, according to the Post, “Every year, thousands of parents ask their children to live in fake refugee camps to get a feeling for the suffering millions of people experience.” For 24 hours, teens in the camps are subjected to sirens and get little food or sleep on their fake journey from Sudan to Norway.
The camps are designed to give the teens a global perspective but one could argue, convincingly, that they also trivialize the experiences of refugees fighting for their families’ lives. What if the fake camps translated into genuine concern? Well, that’s apparently not the case; Norway has been singled out for the particularly harsh way it’s handled recent asylum seekers. Would things be different if there was less role-playing and more interaction between Norwegians and actual refugees?
Whether it’s a summer project or a summer camp – or one of the problem-solving entrepreneurial ventures we feature on NextBillion – success so often seems to hinge on building relationships. And, as Adams points out, it all starts with humility.
– Kyle Poplin
Quotable: Peacemaking Through Entrepreneurship, Impact Investing
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the think tank New America and a former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department; and Elmira Bayrasli, the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and the author of From The Other Side of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, this week made the case that entrepreneurship is opening doors that traditional diplomacy cannot.
“Entrepreneurship has become a catalyst for progress in similarly thorny situations worldwide. The focus on job and wealth creation has become a ‘talking point’ upon which nearly all governments can agree – or at least find little with which to disagree. That has made it a handy tool for a new form of diplomacy.
“From Lahore to Lagos, Mexico City to Mumbai, governments are looking at their own populations as pools of talent waiting to be tapped. It is time for diplomats to do the same. They should support and encourage job creators and problem solvers, and turn development assistance into investments. They should include entrepreneurship in economic policies and trade agreements. They should press governments to allow entrepreneurs to develop their innovations as a component of human flourishing and as an essential source of sustainable solutions for often-intractable problems such as disease, climate change, migration and war.”
Entrepreneurship and impact investing smooth over partisan divides as well. And we could use that in the U.S., between Democrats and Republicans. In an interview with The Street, Fran Seegull, chief investment officer of ImpactAssets, says impact investing offers something for both parties to love.
“Progressives appreciate the fact that government aid alone is not enough to move the dial on the social and environmental issues of our time. And for the conservative folks, we say that we are trying to create private sector solutions to public sector problems, thereby decreasing the role of government.”
What’s not to love?
– Scott Anderson
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