Late last year, Stalin K., my partner in the Knight-funded project Video Volunteers, and I were seated in the video laboratory of VCU.br in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We were joined by nine of VV’s new Brazilian Video Fellows.

We were there to conduct a workshop about entrepreneurship in the creative field of video. The purpose of our recently-launched program in Sao Paulo is to create “video entrepreneurs,” and this post is a snapshot of one of the exercises we did while we were there.

The nine young people were all from _favela_/periphery areas of Sao Paulo, and on that day we were conducting a workshop on how to market to clients. One young man started to read aloud from his introduction:

My name is Allan Jones. I’m 24 years old and live in the Guarulhos municipality of Sao Paulo State. My parents were born in the Amazon. My mother works as a seamstress and my father, I do not know who he is. I graduated high school only last year because the work I had to do did not allow me to study. I’ve worked in several areas, including as an installer of air conditioning, and around this time I had the opportunity to visit several theaters and see many shows. It was there that sparked my desire to work with theater and learn video.

Today I’m part of the project VCU.br, which is about how young people can work as independent videomakers, and I want to work in the area of script and production. I’m making a video about community theater in my area. My video tells the story of Mrs. Santa Catarina, an independent artist. She is self-taught and without resources or support, but manages to run a theater workshop in the community of Vila Isabel, in Guarulhos.”

Turning Disadvantages Into Advantages

The primary purpose of the exercise was to teach these young people to write compelling video proposals for different clients. But the deeper purpose is to teach them to turn their disadvantages into advantages, and to inspire others to see it that way.

If they are going to go into the market and compete with professionals, they must be able to communicate the value of their personal perspective. Why? Because their perspective as people who live close to the stories they are telling is the only thing they have that a professional does not. The problem is that they have spent so long hiding the fact that they’re from the disadvantaged parts of the city that they’re reluctant to write about it.

The personal narratives they wrote during the workshop revealed the challenges faced by the poor in the big cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Mumbai. These include the long distances the poor have to travel from their homes to work in the city centers; the high costs of public transportation; the need to support their families financially; and insufficient public schools. In terms of our exercise, they all also highlighted the fact that they didn’t have any professional contacts.

For one participant, all it took was a kind word from a TV reporter covering a story in his favela when he was 16 to give him the courage to ask for advice and tips about breaking into TV news. That was a turning point, and it gave him the conviction to pursue a career in media. Compare that to the 101 pieces of career advice that a privileged young person will receive by the time she is 21. Is it any wonder our Fellows seemed a little incredulous when we told them that their backgrounds are in fact a strength?

“It’s because we live there that we’re unique!”

As the days went by, the Fellows learned the step-by-step process of managing an independent video business, from identifying clients and writing proposals to creating a budget and rate sheet and “closing the deal.”

But, really, they were learning to tell and celebrate their personal stories, and to find the personal connection that makes all work meaningful. We told them that they need to dig deep inside themselves to find this connection. Being an entrepreneur, ultimately, is about finding your personal power and confidence, and believing in yourself and your ideas.

The reality is that even if they send a compelling favela story to a television producer, the TV producer will always have the option of sending his own more “professional” freelancers to cover it. Our Fellows/Producers need to learn to convince people that they have something the professionals don’t — a perspective that will enlighten and captivate the audience.

After a couple of hours of them slightly struggling to “get” this concept, Beatrice jumped up. She is a beautiful and lively girl. Over the course of our three weeks together, her hair transformed from extension corn braids to a Nefertiti-style tall wrap to, finally, a beautiful disco-inspired Afro.

“I see!” she said. “It’s because we live there that we’re unique!”

From there, they started making the connections. One girl, Layla, used to work handing out fliers on the street. She knows what it’s like to feel invisible on the street and have people walk by you as you try to get their attention. That’s why she can tell an interesting story about street artists that have to fight for the acknowledgment of passersby. Another girl, Juliet, is the right person to tell a story about schizophrenia because her brother is schizophrenic.

A third person felt inspired to tell the stories of stray and injured animals because he used to see dogs getting run over when he worked as a delivery driver. This was just one exercise, but the process, I think, was key to the whole idea of community video as a social venture for the poor. Community producers need to be their own agents in terms of convincing the “market” of the value of their background. That means not just having self expression — a voice — but also self-reflection, and a large degree of self-awareness.

Identifying Entrepreneurs

Going into this project, one of our concerns was whether we would we be able to find people who were entrepreneurial, and who would want to run their own video business. The reality is that other jobs are less satisfying, but they can guarantee work. We had our doubts about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, so we needed to find that drive in our Fellows/Producers.

Business skills are easy to teach, but personal drive or motivation is another thing. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. If we were to tell our staff one day, “from today onwards, no one is getting monthly checks; instead, everyone needs to earn their own salary,” most people would quit. Yet that’s what many people in the NGO sector expect the poor to do.

As we saw our group’s business plans develop, we became convinced they were the right people. All are committed to a career in video; all are committed to developing their own creativity, and to working for their communities.

For example, Rafael is now writing government proposals for him to create video projects in the slums. Luana is pursuing internships with TV stations they connected with during the project. Another participant, Layla, had this to say:

My experience in VCU.br was so good and the other Video Producers are such interesting people. Next year, I hope we’ll get together to make some production companies. I want to really go ahead with videos, and I think I also have the capacity for fiction, too. I don’t want everyone here to go off on their own and leave the group, so I’m thinking about how to make the idea of a group production company happen. Some of us love to write, some like to produce, others to edit. For me, we have a production company right here.

Stalin and I are convinced, as we always are with our community producers, of one thing: there is an abundance of undiscovered talent and knowledge out in the world, and we need to start tapping into it. When you give people opportunities, and you help them find their voice, there is no end to what they can achieve.