“How would you like to win $70,000?”
We were initially excited when a few weeks ago we were asked to pitch SutiSana for a Bolivian version of the reality show Shark Tank, where we would be competing with 99 other Bolivian businesses for a $70,000 prize.
SutiSana, a freedom business that employs vulnerable women, could certainly use the extra cash! We set up a stunning display of our global textile and leather purses, and the pitch seemed to be going well. Then a sharp-faced executive behind the desk asked, “We hear you work with sexually trafficked women. Would any of them be willing to tell their story on the show?”
I stuttered, “Well, yes, we offer employment to women in vulnerable situations. But we’re proud to be known for the quality of our products and ethical business practices, not just the stories of our artisans.” She brushed that off, “We have 100 businesses here, and your products aren’t any better than theirs. You need an edge over the competition, and your edge is these women’s stories.” But I could hear the subtext of her words— “We need to make the audience connect with you, feel pity for the women, maybe even cry. Tears make good TV.”
Asking a survivor to share an experience of exploitation to a television audience so that SutiSana makes more sales is a form of re-exploitation. This survivor was used over and over for her body, for her youth, for her innocence. That physical violation is deeply traumatizing for every woman. Some might assume that the opportunity to tell her story could actually be an empowering experience, an opportunity to “take back what was robbed from her.” In some cases, and in some situations, it might be.
But even if some of our artisans are far enough along on their healing journey to tell their stories to a larger audience, this was clearly not a healthy or safe environment to do that. We all know the filth and toxicity that often accompanies reality television, and it would be almost impossible to prepare our artisans for the potential vitriol and backlash they could experience.
As a business needing to make a profit to survive, how must we react when we’re in the shark tank? How do we avoid joining in, and being part of the feeding frenzy? Can we truly prioritize people over profit and pass on the big TV break and still survive as a business? What happens when a business decides to continue on the slower road, instead of grabbing at whatever flashy opportunity comes along?
We usually think of humility as a personal stance, a choice each person makes to think of others before themselves. But humility as an organization or business may mean not taking the road of most visibility if it could cause harm. We’re committed to breaking down the lie that “All publicity is good publicity,” and instead judging each “opportunity” through the lens of potential exploitation.
So, we’ll have to take a hard pass on Bolivian Shark Tank. Instead, we’ll take the slow growth and word- of-mouth marketing. We know that it’s our faithful clients, our passionate advocates, and our principles of community, YOU actually, who are the real engine behind the steady growth of our humble little business. And thanks to you, we can still look each artisan in the eye and promise, “This is still a safe space for you. We’re still a family.”