Who Underwrites 'The Sky?' A Parable of Marketing Do-Gooderism Out of Africa

A Conference Gig Leads to a Story of Serendipity and Philanthropy

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Serendipity meets monstrous inequity meets senility meets a number of hitherto total strangers meets multiple personality disorder.

What a curious and hopeful story I have to tell.

It begins at a speaking event called Digital Edge, where the sponsors have flown me in to talk about what I talk about: in the rubble of mass media, doing business rooted in a sense of purpose and amassing valuable, values-based relationships one fellow traveler at a time, blah, blah, blah.

One hour. Be provocative. Crack jokes. Shake hands. Collect check. Hit the bar.

On this afternoon, though, a previous speaker says something that gets my attention. Column fodder, perhaps. Her name is Belinda Carreira. She runs digital marketing at Standard Bank, the biggest bank on the continent. When she leaves the stage I get her business card and determine to follow up on the subject. What she has said that so intrigued me I have no earthly idea. I am old and failing, but I still have her card.

Hold that thought for a moment, OK?

Meantime, it happens that I am not just me, heroic marketing pundit. I am also me, co-host of "On the Media," the public-radio program, which for its million or so listeners reports and comments on journalism, free expression, government transparency and plenty of goofy stuff besides. So, while on this visit, I reported a package of stories all hinging, one way or another, on the media landscape in relation to widespread governance failures of the ruling African National Congress.

This reporting took me to rural Darling, an hour or so outside of Cape Town. My chauffeur was a 27-year-old named Andrew Einhorn, who was the college roomie of my producer at WNYC. He was doing me a favor, so I was forced to pretend I was interested in his life. "So what do you do, Andrew?"

What Andrew is doing is chucking his Harvard degree in physics and trying to teach math to poor kids utterly disserved by the shambles that is the South African education system.

"I sat with three 17-year-olds who had passed through grade 11 out of 12," he says, "and I asked them to give me the average of five numbers. They kind of wrote down the numbers, but didn't know what to do next."

Andrew had gotten interested in the issue having previously sponsored, from his own pocket, some educational incentives for the kids of the coffee lady at his then workplace. The sum of money was trivial, but the effect was life-changing. "I kind of realized that if I took it seriously, I could make something happen." And so he pondered how the idea might scale.

He pondered the question, in fact, in an essay applying for a Potter Foundation fellowship for post-graduate work at the University of Cape Town. He indeed became a Potter Fellow, commencing a relationship with David and Elaine Potter, native South Africans living in the UK. They, too, had been fretting over the educational crisis in their homeland. As Elaine Potter succinctly states the problem, "More than 70% of math teachers there don't understand the curriculum they're supposed to teach children." One day she emailed Andrew: "Have you heard of the Khan Academy?"

The not-for-profit brainchild of ex-hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, the Khan Academy is an online compilation of hundreds of simple -- and delightfully clear -- video tutorials navigating the user from the most basic arithmetic to the most abstract calculus. Users can move along at their own pace, but not before mastering concepts in game-ified exercises. Elaine had heard of utterly astonishing results of the program, and wondered if the material could be exported online to South Africa.

She knew, of course, that the first answer was: not easily. There is the question of broadband penetration, which is minuscule in rural South Africa and the townships. And there is the matter of translation into the 10-plus non-English languages spoken in the country. These are daunting obstacles, so Andrew Einhorn took almost an entire weekend before he forged a plan.

His solution, with seed money from the Potter Foundation, is to build a network of computer labs equipped with local servers loaded with the tutorial videos translated into the local Xhosa language, which otherwise in no way is the local infrastructure capable of streaming. The exercise games, though, are not so dense as to be beyond available bandwidth. A pilot project in Khayelitsha on the western cape is underway.

"I'm phenomenally excited by this," says Elaine Potter. "If it works -- and that 's obviously a big 'if' -- the sky's the limit."

But let's say the pilot is successful. Who underwrites "the sky?" The Potters are generous philanthropists, but they are not endlessly wealthy. And, so, I got to thinking: I had just finished lecturing marketers about divining in their businesses their core purpose and cleaving to that purpose in all they do, with all their constituencies, all the time. What if a certain corporation – hypothetically -- distilled its core values down to "investing in the communities where we do business?"

A corporation such as, hypothetically, a bank. Hmm. In my wallet, not hypothetically but in 2x3 inches of real-life paper stock, was the business card of Belinda Carreira, of Standard Bank, the biggest bank in Africa.

So get this. For reasons of both do-gooderness and equally naked self-interest, Standard Bank has long contemplated furthering the education of millions of potential future customers and employees. And it has previously funded at least one other program with goals more or less along Einhorn-Potter-Khan lines. Alas, that project collapsed under the sheer weight of infrastructural obstacles.

"It just never materialized," Carreira tells me, when I finally interviewed her -- not about the thing I originally wished to interview her about (whatever that was) but about educating young South Africans. Serendipity being what it is , I had her at "Hello."

"I'm getting excited here," she says. "Not as a P.R. opportunity, but because we genuinely want to invest. This is going to be very, very intriguing to the guys who handle the purse strings."

Will it? We shall see. In any event, there is no rule that the serendipity must begin or end on the western cape of South Africa. I'm compelled to inquire: What do you do for a living, and, when you come right down to it . . . why?

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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