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Telenovelas, or television dramas, have dominated the Latin American media industry since their inception in 1959.
Melodramatic, inspirational and kitsch, they follow the story of a heroine or couple who have to overcome obstacles before the compulsory happy ending and include recurrent themes of betrayal, tragedy and love.
With an audience of millions, the telenovelas have also been used effectively to spread health messages and endorse commercial products.
Now Thunderbird School of Global Management in the US has adopted the model to deliver business education to female micro-entrepreneurs – those whose companies have less than $1,000 profit a month – throughout Peru. Launching its third series this month, the school has worked closely with the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank and several local and international partners to fund $7.4m for the campaign, called El Gran Salto – The Big Leap.
The resulting scripts incorporate three topics: marketing and sales, finance and sub-skills such as time management and networking.
Pilar, the star of the second series, for example, dreams of having her own sandwich business but is held back by her husband, who believes she should be at home with the children. She finally wins him over. And Zoila, the star of the latest series, struggles as a single mother until her children are able to help her set up a clothing business.
These themes are ones with which the female entrepreneurs in Peru are able to identify.
“It’s unbelievable how deeply this touches the women,” says Christine Pearson, a professor of leadership at Thunderbird who helped develop the curriculum for the scripts.
“They really connect with the principal characters and can tell you episodes from six months ago.”
Over four hours, women in classes of 200 watch five chapters showing challenges faced by the lead characters. At the end of each chapter, trainers from Aprenda, the main education and training arm of Grupo ACP, the local partner, pause the telenovela to teach the women basic business principles – cash flow analysis and customer relations, for example – which the women then apply to their own business using workbooks provided.
“[The telenovelas] are designed to make women feel secure as businesswomen,” says Svante Persson, senior operations specialist at MIF. “They give them the confidence to take control of their business and family life.”
This is the final step in the telenovelas project which started in 2009 with the aim of reaching 100,000 women by September 2013. It reflects the base of the pyramid approach being used increasingly by business schools to pass on academic theory to those who would not usually have access to business education, particularly in developing countries.
Thunderbird is the first to venture into script writing as a means to this end, but Prof Pearson hopes that it will soon be used globally.
“What’s so appealing is that they [telenovelas] capture the imagination and lead to direct action,” she says. “They can hit a widespread audience and work their way up the chain.”
The programme has helped more than 61,000 female micro-entrepreneurs. Of these, 350 have also received mentoring from Thunderbird MBA students, adding up to more than 2,000 hours of consultancy work.
The efforts appear to be paying off. Flor Hurtado, a single mother who began selling breakfast juice after her husband left, was able to expand her business by 25 per cent in her first week after completing the course.
“Women entrepreneurs do need more than four hours [of teaching] for huge growth but it has worked well in giving them the basic tools and changing their mindset about training,” says Ximena Querol, the project co-ordinator. “It gives them a flavour of what they can actually do.”