“How would you like to win $70,000?”
We were initially excited when early 2020 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.
Like most businesses, and specifically as a freedom business that employs survivors of sexual exploitation, SutiSana could certainly use the additional funds! 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 her experience of exploitation to a television audience so that SutiSana makes more sales is a form of re-exploitation. Every woman in SutiSana 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 toxicity and unhealthy rhythms that often accompany 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 in order to continue our work, 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 says “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 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.”
Cara grew up as a daughter of missionaries in Ethiopia. While attending John Brown University, she began to fully pursue Christ and was first exposed to WMF. Later, through an internship in Bolivia, she was discipled into a deeper understanding of God’s heart for the poor and a love for women caught in prostitution. After serving for two years in El Alto, Bolivia as the Servant Team Coordinator, Cara met and fell in love with Mache. They were married in 2010, the same year that Cara co-founded SutiSana: WMF Bolivia’s social enterprise that offers dignified employment to survivors of prostitution. Since 2010, Cara has thrown herself into the growth and development of SutiSana. Mache and Cara now have two daughters, Ariana and Zoe
Connect with Cara: email@example.com