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Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa

Posted: October 29, 2009 03:03 PM

The New Recruits: Can Capitalism Save the World?

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What do you get if the 1960s and a banker on Wall Street had a baby? Social entrepreneurism. Though it has a long history, it's been a buzzword since Muhammad Yunnus and his Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for lifting people out of poverty through microloans.

Social entrepreneurism isn't charity; it's business as usual, tailored to those in high-need, and the subject of an upcoming documentary, The New Recruits: Can Capitalism Save the World?

"There's been this thing called charity, that as long as I can remember was the approach to helping those in need," says Jeremy Newberger, one of the film's directors and producers. Charity, says Newberger, has shown us it can't be the only solution. "There's still poor people, there's still suffering."

Newberger and his partners in Ironbound Films, Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller, wanted to understand this growing phenomenon of a market driven Peace Corp, so to speak. So with their video cameras, they shadowed three out of the nine 2009 fellows of the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund, as they tried to build businesses in some of the world's most volatile regions.

"You're experiencing offices in the developing world," says Newberger, who calls the film "Apprentice meets Slum Dog Millionaire." Playing on this theme, The Office's Rainn Wilson is the narrator, which infuses the film with his dry humor.

For eight days, they captured the frustration and near-death adventures of Heidi Krauel, as she built strategic partnerships in rural India for D.light, a company selling solar power LED lights as a green alternative to kerosene lamps.

"There are about 500 million people living in India who do not have access to good electricity," says Seth Kramer, one of the producers/directors of The New Recruits. It's common for kerosene lamps to tip over, causing tragic fires. "To solve the problem, a company called D.light emerged...The company was definitely in start-up mode."

Nothing spells Bourne Identity franchise like trying to develop a start-up in India. In one attempt to commute to work, Krauel hired a driver who nearly reversed on a freeway. And then there were the tough customers.

"Indian rural villagers, as you'll see [in the film], are very savvy customers," says Krauel.

Why not just give the product away if they're impoverished?

"That's what's so powerful about the idea of social enterprise," she says. "When you give something away, you're treating the poor as passive recipients. When you see them as customers, you give them a voice, a voice that informs product design, a voice that informs marketing strategy...That's a voice that businesses, I don't think, can afford to ignore any longer."

For more info on social entrepreneurism and adventures of both Acumen fellows and Ironbound filmmakers in The New Recruits, listen to Walletpop's Big News Podcast.

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