In Part I, social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow Andreas Heinecke discussed the inspiration behind his award-winning social enterprise, Dialogue in the Dark. Andreas’ project aims to bridge a very real divide, as explained further on the DiD website:
The social exclusion of disabled people and the unequal chances in getting the same opportunities for education, career, transportation, and leisure facilities are a major challenge around the world…
610 million people worldwide are registered as disabled – the millions unregistered not even mentioned. 2/3 of them are living in developing countries… The levels of understanding, support and access to education, information, jobs… vary from country to country. Even in developed countries like Germany, only about 15% [of the disabled] have a job.
The prevailing opinion that disability is “less worthy than normal” leads to discrimination and marginalization of the blind and disabled worldwide. The interaction with blind and other marginalized people is still dominated by pity and welfare, and is focused mainly on the deficits of being disabled. There is a lack of understanding in the potential that might arise out of a handicap as well as the fact that disabled suffer “much more from the ignorance, information deficit, unequal rights and uncertainty of the abled than from the disability itself.”
Researching the Concept
How to go about allowing people to understand and empathize? They would have to experience it by immersing themselves in worlds without sight. In order to build such a world, not only did Andreas consult the visually impaired (including a former actress who would later become his Head of Learning), but he also turned to an unexpected yet relevant research peg – the torture industry.
Building a Brand
His painstaking research and attention to detail helped him envision how a world without sight might feel for the first time to a seeing person. Crafting these experiences has helped him build a global brand, a tangible asset and commercial trait that allows the enterprise to thrive. While the ultimate goal is to give people a way to connect and provide service in the community, the brand is key to developing an economically sustainable model.
He knew he had built a brand when the imitators started cropping up. Since its launch, DiD’s Dinner in the Dark offering has been copied numerous times in cities around the world.
Concern for the brand has made Andreas very careful about expansion. So lean is the DiD team (Andreas jokingly said it consists primarily of himself as CEO – Chief Entertainment Officer – and his wife, the CCO – Chief Critical Officer) that it does not yet have a formal market research department. As such, choosing new markets has primarily been a function of people approaching them. He spoke of the need to vet both new partners and new locations carefully, ensuring that future sites preserve the emotional attachment that consumers have to DiD as opposed to diluting the concept. Current international franchisees tend to be individuals who were moved by the concept, such as a former Accenture consultant who now runs Dialogue in the Dark Hyderabad.
Apart from the partners that help expand the concept, Andreas noted the Dialogue in the Dark would be nothing without its network of supporters, including: Hogan Lovells, Bain & Company, Schwab Foundation, INSEAD Business School, Technische Universitat Muenchen, the World Economic Forum, Phi Trust – Social Investment Fund, and Ashoka.
These strategic partners provide valuable resources – business schools and universities provide research and collaboration, corporations and social investment funds provide strategic advice and financial backing (an alternative, borrowing from banks, tends to be difficult for social entrepreneurs), and the Ashoka fellowship provides financial backing and a vital peer network. “As a [social entrepreneur], it can be lonely. Ashoka provides reinforcement that one is part of a larger community.”
True to the nature of “dialogue,” a lively question and answer session followed Andreas’ presentation. The crowd of students, yuppies, academics, and social entrepreneurs at Teach for the Philippines headquarters were primarily interested in the concept of inclusion, and how the DiD concept could be applied to the Philippines. For instance:
“Inclusion is a two-way street. How did the blind react to this concept?”
Andreas admitted that there was some skepticism from the community in the beginning, but that the reluctance from these gatekeepers went away when they saw the concept at work. He cited a recent survey of blind DiD participants in which they described their career paths over the past ten years — they felt that DiD had helped them go from “passive receivers” to “active contributors,” now able to live their own lives.
“Living in darkness can stand for more than just the plight of the blind, right? You could extend the concept to include those living without electricity.”
“19 euros per ticket is a steep price tag! How do we make this experience accessible to the less financially able?”
When asked the final question of how Dialogue in the Dark Philippines could become a reality, Andreas smiled encouragingly. “All it takes is one person [to light the spark].”
Credits: Heinecke, Andreas. “Meet an Ashoka Fellow: Andreas Heinecke.” Teach for the Philippines and Ashoka Speaker Series. Makati. September 14, 2013.
Credit for the concepts discussed goes to Andreas, but any errors in transcribing and interpreting his speech are my own.
References: Dialogue in the Dark. http://www.dialogue-in-the-dark.com/