How Changing The Storyteller Will Cure The Savior Complex In Social Enterprise
“If we’re going to change the story, we have to change the storyteller.”
“If we’re going to change the story, we have to change the storyteller.”
Cristi Hegranes said that. She’s the founder of the Global Press Institute. You’ve probably never heard of her, and that’s just fine by her. She purposely stepped out of the spotlight to give a platform to the people she used to cover as a foreign correspondent.
Cristi’s story began when she was a little girl who dreamed of becoming a reporter so she could travel around the world to tell the stories of cultures very different from her own. She worked toward this dream with singular focus, eventually earning her Master’s in Journalism from NYU.
When it was time to get out there in the field and produce stories that weren’t gaining the attention of the industrialized world, Cristi couldn’t do it. Not for lack of trying — but for lack of access and understanding.
“I was in country for about nine days before I realized that the discipline of foreign correspondents is really theater and it’s so inauthentic,” Cristi told Lauren Schiller in a recent episode of the Inflection Point podcast. “And the people and the information you have access to are so filtered and controlled. I was really mad and heartbroken at the same time, feeling like everything I ever wanted to do was not really meant for me. I came to the realization that I was the wrong person to be telling these stories.”
How she came to this realization was a matter of setting her ego as a white Westerner aside and handing over control.
Cristi was struggling to get answers about a local issue she was reporting on in Nepal. When she interviewed sources, she could sense the locals mistrusted her as an outsider. In their experience, foreign reporters chose to tell the story of a backward country full of victims waiting for a foreign savior rather than a nation full of thriving communities overcoming challenges together.
Cristi realized the only way to get the real story was to not only speak the language but to also have an innate understanding of the history and dynamics of the community. So out of desperation to capture the heart of the story, Cristi did the only thing she could: she handed her pencil and recorder to her translator, Pratima.
“She had captured the voices, the humanity, the struggle, but also elements of progress.” Cristi said. “And I think that’s something that I recognized at the time, and continue to recognize today, in international coverage from developing communities — you know it’s such a disaster driven narrative. …Pratima captured the wholeness of her village and that was really the moment where I realized that there was a huge opportunity sitting in front of me and sitting in front of the world.”
The Opportunity In Getting Out Of The Way
You don’t have to be a complete altruist to make social impact.
It feels good to help people.
It feels wonderful to come up with an idea that will help people.
It feels amazing to get recognition for such ideas.
All of these are valid responses and motivators for placing people and planet alongside our profit-making ventures.
But sometimes our desire to feel good about rolling up our sleeves and “getting involved” can interfere with the social mission we’re on. If our lived experience has not been directly impacted by a social issue like inequality, just because we want to tell a great story doesn’t mean it’s our story to tell.
And sometimes the story we want to tell isn’t the story that will make the most impact.
It takes an extraordinary amount of listening and empathy to discover the true story of someone’s struggle and how to work with them to overcome it.
And listening takes a willingness to set aside your own desire to control the conversation.
If you’re a marketer for a social impact enterprise, one of the biggest lessons you can learn is to stop telling the story you think people want to hear and let people tell their own stories.
Here’s how I learned to get out of the way, thanks to a social enterprise whose mission was to offer a dignified living to people — but whose message wasn’t reflecting that.
When Shereef Bishay came to me for copywriting help, the Learners Guild website looked and sounded like a typical non-profit brochure. It had aspirational phrases you’d find on grant applications like “offering opportunity to historically underserved communities” and “bridging the tech diversity gap.”
But Learners Guild isn’t seeking a grants. It’s seeking profits.
As a public benefit corp, Learners Guild offers top-notch software development training to everyone with a passion for coding, especially people of color and people from other groups underrepresented in the tech world — without incurring mountains debt.
Learners Guild makes money through an income sharing agreement with its participants after they graduate from the ten-month program into high-paying positions as software engineers. For three years after completing the program, participants give a portion of their salary to the Learners Guild. They only pay Learners Guild back if they’re employed in a high-paying software job. The more money their graduates make, the more money the Learners Guild makes.
When Shereef told me about their business model, I couldn’t contain my excitement. My own student loans weigh me down like a cement block and prevent me from saving money, owning a home or even paying for childcare. The thought of tying the financial success of an educational program to the financial success of its students made perfect sense and I was eager to get this project off the ground.
The problem was, Learners Guild was having a tough time finding qualified recruits for their first Oakland cohort.
It wasn’t that there weren’t any students of color with a love of coding in Oakland, CA. I mean, hello: we’re talking about one of the most diverse cities in America, within an hour drive of Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard and other tech giants.
The problem was that Learners Guild sounded like yet another out of touch white savior.
If there’s one thing I learned as I immersed myself in the world of their target participant, the last thing anyone from an “underserved community” wants is to be seen as a charity case by the people who are seeking to help them.
And when people from communities that have been snubbed or ignored by the tech world see the word “diversity,” it’s met with understandable cynicism.
With people of color in less than 1 percent of c-level positions at Fortune 500 companies, “diversity” has become an empty marketing phrase geared to make members of privileged groups feel better about themselves.
So I needed to get to the heart of what people of color DO want out of a software training program, and what was standing in their way.
That’s when I discovered WoCinTechChat: a community of women and non-binary people of color who sought inclusion in the tech world.
And through them, I discovered People of Color in Tech: a blog and podcast devoted to the issues facing minorities working in technology professions.
WoCinTech and People of Color in Tech (POCIT) host weekly Twitter chats, which offered the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the goals, needs and challenges facing women of color in tech careers.
The conversations in #WoCinTechChat led me to a Twitter list of participants. Soon my Twitter feed was flooded with a wealth of candid conversations about issues concerning people of color as they sought a place in the tech world.
And although my instincts as a marketer were telling me to start asking market research questions, I knew that inserting myself as a white woman into the conversation about issues of race in tech could come off as entitled and exploitative.
The members of these groups owed me no answers.
It was up to me to seek the answers by doing the work of listening, internalizing, and understanding. And if I didn’t understand something, it was up to me to educate myself.
In Their Own Words
One of the top issues I learned once I started listening was that while many tech companies claim the lack of worker diversity is due to a limited talent pool, many people of color at all socioeconomic levels— especially women of color — lack the direct route from school into a well-paid career that many middle-class white Americans enjoy. It’s more likely for a white guy to have a crucial family connection or influential friendship with a Silicon Valley hiring manager than a woman of color from the same neighborhood.
And even if they went to school together and achieved similar grades, the power dynamics of gender and race in a tech learning environment can have a negative impact on a woman of color while building the confidence of a white man.
The other big issue is the disproportionate student loan burden born by people of color.
I knew if I was to win the trust of potential Learners Guild recruits, I had to reassure landing page visitors that our program wasn’t going to make their biggest problems even bigger.
Here’s what I came up with:
“Go From Beginner to Full-Stack Developer in 10 Months — Debt Free, Risk Free, Worry Free.”
The headline & subheader are designed to make clicking the call to action button as frictionless as possible.
And while the copy doesn’t specifically indicate that Learners Guild actively recruits people of color, women, and LGBTQ people, the gorgeous stock photography sourced from WoCinTechChat (and later from their first cohort) sends the message loud, proud, and clear.
The sliders just below the founder’s message addressed some of the biggest hurdles PoC in tech have to overcome: a lack of important career connections, a lack of mentors who get how privilege can impact one’s career trajectory, and a general disconnect from the larger tech community.
Notice that instead of saying “come learn FROM us,” I chose “come learn WITH us.”
I wanted participants to know they will be contributing members of a learning community of peers and experts — instead of passive outsiders who have nothing to teach and everything to learn from a closed network of tech insiders.
After the Facebook Ad leading to the landing page came out, the most common comment was “is this for real?”
People were so amazed by Learners Guild’s unique selling proposition (debt-free education), they thought it was too good to be true.
I added the last slide to reassure readers that it is, in fact, the real deal.
The final call to action uses a copywriting technique called “future pacing.” It makes the reader imagine herself in the situation being described. And the scenario I’ve described is EXACTLY what the members of the POCIT and WoCinTechChat tribes are striving for.
Thanks to the inspiration from a wonderfully supportive community, the landing page copy earned Learners Guild hundreds of excellent applicants for their first cohort in Oakland, CA.
Now: what would have happened if I had skipped all that research and came up with a vague idea of what I thought potential learners wanted to hear?
What if I had created a message that was based on what tech leaders said about diversity or my preconceived notions as a white woman of the struggles people of color in tech face rather than genuine insights?
I would have created an irresponsible narrative that patronized the reader and made Learners Guild appear tone deaf.
Even worse, I would have written a message that turned potential learners away not just from Learners Guild but from software development as a career option altogether, thus undermining the social progress that Learners Guild seeks to further.
There’s a very real danger in outsiders “helping” people without understanding them first: we risk exploiting them for our own gain — and destroying them as a consequence.
The One-for-One Business Model & Unintended Consequences
Let’s talk about Toms Shoes for a moment.
Who doesn’t love the now ubiquitous cotton slip-ons, worn by hipsters and suburban moms alike?
I’ll tell you who: the third-world cobbler whose livelihood is undermined thanks to an influx of canvas slip-ons to his community, courtesy of Toms.
Matheson Miller, producer of the documentary Poverty, Inc. is challenging the perceived benefits of one-for-one businesses like Toms Shoes. He says that despite the philanthropic glow that Toms’ marketing inspires in consumers, the problems poor populations face can’t be solved by sending them free discarded or surplus items, but by addressing the issues that contribute to their poverty:
“Poor people aren’t poor because they lack stuff; they’re poor because they lack the infrastructure to create wealth.”
This isn’t to say that the one-for-one business model is by nature harmful to poor communities. The key is to provide needed items while still preserving the dignity and independence of the recipients.
Here’s what economist Bruce Wydick had to say about an impact study he was invited to coordinate for TOMS shoes:
“So there was good news and bad news for TOMS in the results. The good news is that 95% of the kids in El Salvador had a favorable impression of the shoes, and they wore them heavily: 77% of the children wore them at least 3 days per week, and the most common response by children was wearing them every day. So the notion that kids get these donated shoes and throw them in the dumpster simply isn’t borne out by the evidence.
The bad news is that there is no evidence that the shoes exhibit any kind of life-changing impact, except for potentially making them feel somewhat more reliant on external aid.
We find some very small improvements in school attendance (about 0.16 of a day), but no overall impact on self-esteem. The most negative finding was that the children receiving the shoes were significantly more likely to agree with the statement that “others should provide for my family’s needs” and less likely to say that “my family should provide for its own needs.”
What could Toms have done to avoid the backlash caused by their shoe giveaways?
They could have researched the communities they sought to help and listened — really listened — to what they had to say. They could have had a conversation with them about why they lacked shoes (poverty) and what they needed (lack of community resources, better paying jobs, and more local business opportunities).
Toms has since changed up their model: they now sell coffee, and for every pound of coffee they sell, they donate a week’s worth of clean water to the communities they source the coffee from. Clean water is a fundamental element of infrastructure that can lead to building up the local economy.
That’s a slip-on footstep in the right direction.
The social enterprise and marketing lesson here is clear: before you adopt a model and a message that claims to help people, make sure what you’re doing is truly helping them.
What does this mean in terms of storytelling?
It means we must choose our storytellers with as much care as we choose our causes.
And as you’ve seen from my work with Learners Guild, when the stories we choose come straight from the hearts of the people we want to help, it can have a huge impact on cultivating trust, connection, and respect.