Business-Building Telenovela Launches for Female Immigrant and Refugee Entrepreneurs [VIDEO]

I'm more of a multimedia consumer than an educator, but upon seeing a new telenovela with business-launching lessons, I started thinking: Why use workbooks and pens when serialized video can be introduced to adult students to create more engagement and better take home value?

A similar line of thinking led Oakland, Calif., organization Creating Economic Opportunities for Women (CEO Women) to create Grand Café, an educational video series that features four immigrant women helping each other grow their endeavors after meeting in a business start-up class. The characters speak English and their experiences are cataloged in a Latin Telenovela format, and the protagonists (including a jewelry maker from Haiti, a handywoman from Mexico, and an accountant from China) were based on the nonprofit's own immigrant and refugee entrepreneur clientele.

The first four episodes of the planned 18-part series are currently being rolled out in Oakland and San Jose with lessons on separating personal and business expenses, seeking out computer skills, and securing bank loans. (And, this being soap opera-esque, there's a love story thrown in.) CEO Women, whose main aim is helping women increase their business skills to become economically independent, is using the series to scale their current 16-week business training program, and at least 700 women have viewed the telenovela-as-curriculum since it launched in September.

The series and its taped questions for students are planned to be made available through online distribution, DVDs, and possible broadcast. It's a creative way to increase the more than 5 million women-owned microenterprises that the FIELD Microenterprise Fund estimates are currently operating domestically. Annie Mathews, who manages CEO Women's alumni business support services, said they have found blended classroom and home learning to be an effective way to reach women who are looking to grow their food, artisan, and import businesses while managing families and work.

The telenovela idea isn't rocket science--they've been successfully used in radio series promoting safe sex in Africa--but its inventive use for start-up and English as a Second Language education through the Grand Café deserves recognition (and replication):

  • The blessing of leadership. At the premier screening for the series content, production company Media Factory said that CEO Women founder Farhana Huq gave the producers the green light to develop the series as they recommended, 18 episodes and all. Huq had seen the reach that telenovelas have in Latin America and thought they could be a powerful way to reach the more than 170,000 women in the Bay Area who could benefit from the organization's business training but couldn't attend classroom sessions. It sounds simple now that the series is front of students, but any producer will tell you that trust and shared vision from a high level make a major difference in creating a project of this length.

  • Timeliness. The current economy has increased the demand for services of entrepreneurial organizations for immigrant women and people seeking new careers, says Caleb Zigas, the operations director for La Cocina, a San Francisco incubator kitchen for women. There is some crossover with CEO Women students who join the Lo Cocina business incubation program, but Zigas said he's now started to see college graduates apply for the program, which is aimed at helping low-income Latina women secure operational self-sufficiency for their businesses. The influx of opportunity-rich but resource-poor individuals seeking these organizations' resources makes them more sought after than ever.
  • Multimedia tools that can help standardize these educational resources across locations and save staff time can eventually save money, which can be used to increase program participant bandwidth. (The business management tools that organizations including Women's Initiative offer for "high-potential, low-income women entrepreneurs" and research by the California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity provide more information in this area.)
  • Expert commentary. While much of the series features the main characters coaching each other through budgeting and prioritization, a banker and other professionals also give cameos and lessons. Industry experts helping with the curriculum design of the telenovela, including seasoned ESL teachers and community development lender Opportunity Fund (who provided financial advising consulting for the project), show that in-kind partnerships can be among the most valuable.
  • The series, though no small feat to create, is just one tool that results-focused organizations can use to expand their offerings if they're willing to experiment. While it can't--and shouldn't--replace small group workshops and individual market research for people starting their own businesses, the telenovela does offer scalability and an entertaining way to get excited about determining profit points. Consider it media for social change.