Using capitalism to enact social change

A screen shot from the documentary "The New Recruits"

Seth Kramer

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The idea behind social entrepreneurship is to do good through capitalism. Create a business to accomplish some worthwhile goal. Feed the hungry, maybe. Or sanitize a slum. The Acumen Fund out of New York City calls itself a nonprofit venture fund directing financing to those worthwhile goals. Acumen runs a fellowship program, too. Teaching young capitalists how to create and sell goods or services in developing countries -- meeting the needs of the needy, if you will.

A new documentary called "The New Recruits" follows three of those fellows during their year abroad. Seth Kramer helped produce and direct. Heidi Krauel was one of those new recruits. She went to New Delhi to sell solar-powered lanterns. It's good to have you both here.

SETH KRAMER: Yeah, great to be on with you.

HEIDI KRAUEL: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: Heidi, when you discovered, or you were told I suppose that you were going to New Delhi, you went back and you told your parents, "Listen, I just got out of this great business school, and I'm moving to India." What did they say?

KRAUEL: You know my dad was a Vietnam War vet. And he had been in the army reserves for 30 years. He took foreign service really seriously. And he just wanted me to be aware of the risks, the challenges, to take that awareness and sensitivity with me when I went to a place like India, which does have challenging areas. It has big cities, but it also has tribal belts, and deep rural areas where the rule of law doesn't always apply.

Ryssdal: Seth, what was it about the stores that you followed in the movie that made them so attractive?

KRAMER: We wanted to see if we could represent this program well, and really get sort of the diversity of the participants. So we ended up choosing three of the fellows. There's a guy named Suraj who is from India, and he finds himself in the middle of Kenya working for a company that's trying to build pay-per-use toilets in the slums, where you have a million-and-a-half people that are living without sanitation systems. Then you have a guy named Joel. He is a bonafide member of the religious right from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who finds himself in, of all places, Pakistan trying to help this company that's selling drip irrigation systems to poor farmers who have no idea about this new technology. And then there's Heidi. She's a Stanford business-school graduate. A tall, blonde, Californian, who finds herself in a string of remote Indian villages trying to sell solar-powered lights to people who don't have electricity.

Ryssdal: There's a moment when you're in that village, or maybe it's actually when you're in the offices a bit earlier, talking about this trip, but in a voice over you say, "I spend an amazing amount of my time here not being understood." Explain that.

KRAUEL: Just from a pure language perspective, that connection wasn't always there. I didn't speak Hindi. And I don't speak Merati. So just communicating was challenging. And also the perspective I had, the ways I had been trained and had experience in building businesses and establishing partnerships, the same rules didn't always apply. And so I think trying to find ways to understand intentions, form connections, and form partnerships, proved pretty challenging.

Ryssdal: Was there a moment where you discovered how to make the rules apply? Or did you sort of figure a way to make the rules work for you?

KRAUEL: I think it's pretty much impossible to bend India to your way. So figuring how you can be creative to mold yourself to fit in is usually a better tactic.

Ryssdal: Seth, when you first came up with this project, where did you think it was going to lead?

KRAMER: When we first started developing the project, the idea of charging poor people for essential goods and services, seemed like it just would absolutely not work. I wanted to know who thought this was a good idea, and if it does work, I really want to see it. And I didn't think it could work, because I really didn't understand what it means to be poor. I'm not going to speak for the four-billion people on the planet that live on less than $4 a day, but the people that we encountered wanted to have the same choices that consumers have in the Western world.

Ryssdal: And you, Heidi, what did you learn?

KRAUEL: The message of how important it is to listen to the voice of customers in solving the issues of the poor. The poor want to have the tools and opportunities to solve problems for themselves. Traditional aid treats the poor as passive recipients. Using markets, using entrepreneurship and business gives the poor a voice into the products they have available to them, and that's the voice I don't think business really can afford to ignore any longer.

Ryssdal: On the topic of what you guys did during the film, isn't there a limit to this? Doesn't there come a point where you've done all you can do?

KRAUEL: There's so much to be done. There are 500-million people in India that don't have access to power. DeeLight Design will impact 10-million lives in 2010. But one solution is not going to be enough.

Ryssdal: The film is called "The New Recruits." Seth Kramer is the director. Heidi Krauel is, I guess you might say, one of the featured players. Thanks you guys.

KRAMER: It was a pleasure.

KRAUEL: Thanks so much.

RYSSDAL: "The New Recruits" is expected to air on PBS sometime next year.

Seth Kramer

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