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So You Think You Can Be a Social Entrepreneur? Reality TV Meets the Impact Economy

A social enterprise version of The Apprentice could promote good work, but will it be too superficial?

American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? have turned ordinary people, however briefly, into stars, making the rest of us wonder if maybe we could find our 15 minutes. A year and a half ago, one of the minds behind those shows decided to create a new type of star. Sharon Chang, the former chief creative officer of 19 Entertainment, is channelling her skills to promote social entrepreneurs.

Chang founded Yoxi TV, a company that handpicks media-shy nonprofit types and transforms them into what Chang calls “social innovation rock stars.”

Social innovation rock stars, Yoxi’s website says, “are original thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and fearless leaders who care about creating lasting social value. The world needs them to have more visibility and influence, so we do our part by helping them reach a mainstream audience.”

What’s the point of making do-gooders hot? To make social innovation trendy and, in turn, inspire a generation, Chang says. “[The nonprofit world] seems to be lacking a lot of marketing savvy and can get pretty dogmatic about their approach, sticking to a particular way of fundraising,” she says. “You’re talking about selling ideas to get people to do things, [w]hether it’s buying a product or getting addicted to a show or movie, it’s about an intrinsic motivation, a desire to want to be a part of something. And not being lectured into feeling guilty about not doing something.”

Rather than starting with issues like labor rights, gender equity or environmental conservation, Yoxi wants to promote individuals who embody those issues. Essentially, “star qualities” draw people in, and the issues embodied by the characters become magnetic.

Like all marketing, it’s a bit manipulative, but a little iconography could be just what people need to be persuaded to do good. If Steven Tyler and Jennifer Love Hewitt can get people to wear feathered hair extensions, then getting people to think social causes are cool should be easy. “[We] meet with the social innovation rock star we want to represent and we conduct a lot of research and strategy sessions with them,” Chang says. “We say: ‘Ok, look, what are some of the most creative projects you can do?’”

Yoxi’s website invites visitors to view the group's band of rock stars. The leader of the band is probably Chid Liberty, the charismatic co-founder of a social enterprise called Liberty and Justice, which trains and employs women at a Fair Trade garment factory in Monrovia, Liberia. Chang plans to make Liberty the star of a new reality TV show. (From a branding perspective, Chang told Liberty she worried about the term “factory” and initially encouraged him to rebrand it. He declined.)

The show, which has not been filmed yet, will be a bit like The Apprentice, Chang says, but rather than Donald Trump, Liberty will be the judge. The high-stakes, high-drama show will be shot in Liberia, one of the poorest nations in the world.

Contestants—local, diaspora, and expatriate entrepreneurs—will battle it out for mentoring and funding to start their businesses in Liberia, a country with an unemployment rate that hovers around 80 percent. “We’re going to get all these ideas together from an online platform, do a final casting, get sponsorship, make an announcement, go to Liberia, and shoot,” Chang says. The judge will use “his expertise and cultural sensibility [to] help select the next generation of entrepreneurs and help them secure funding through the show. So we’re creating a competition, literally.” Chang says one of Liberty’s strengths is “he embodies a lot of issues: labor issues, fair trade, women’s rights, health, manufacturing, a lot of things.”

Yoxi's interest in the show concept is part of being what Chang calls a "for-value company." "We don't waste time debating whether we should be for-profit or non-profit, we simply focus on creating shared value for all," Yoxi’s website says. Chang says the company is technically a nonprofit at this point, but could become hybrid model in the future.

Creating a reality TV show and shining the spotlight on social innovators the way you would an up-and-coming musician is a new concept. Chang says she always had an “icky feeling” being around the advertising world, where so much time, money, and resources go into selling products. Now she wants to market something of value to the world.

But there are reasons for sticking to the issues, not the faces. By approaching social change using models from the entertainment and advertising worlds, there’s one thing Yoxi is leaving out: equal opportunity. Chang admits that when casting for the show, she will take superficial qualities into account. “If I’m looking at 10 entrepreneurs with equal qualification and equal potential, and three of them look better, have better style, I will work with those three first because I think I stand a higher chance of putting them to the foreground and shining a spotlight on them so they can become examples for other people to follow,” she says. “And I’d rather place my bet there first.”

This approach may make nonprofit types—or anyone who believes in a meritocracy—feel a bit “icky” too. Because of good looks, style, and a charismatic personality, an aspiring social entrepreneur might ultimately benefit from massive funding to start a business, not to mention a moment in the spotlight. While Chang was hesitant to reveal her estimate of how much the winner could earn, she says “funding should be quite significant.”

But Chang doesn’t find this approach shameful; she finds it realistic. Pop culture is driven by superficial qualities, and Chang says she would rather exploit those qualities for a good purpose than wait around for people to change. “We live in a society where people are obsessed with vanity, with fame, with celebrity,” she says. “This is not something we can change overnight… it would be more useful for us not to try to fight that.”

Chang anticipates criticism and admits her project is controversial, but she’s not going to let that stop her.

“I don’t think we can accomplish anything by being afraid, so we just have to go with it.”

This is the sixth story in our series on social enterprise in Africa by Laura Burke, a reporter based in Cote d'Ivoire.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Chang

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