Sophie Ali Launched Educational Content for the Largest Population of Children in the World
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Sophie Ali, founder and president of International Children’s Television, launched The Flying Tent, an early learning sing-along series for babies and toddlers in Hindi, Urdu, and English — a first of its kind for the South Asian market.
A decade ago, Sophie Ali produced The Magic Tent, one of the first curriculum-based children’s programs. It was designed to teach empathy, critical thinking, and creative problem solving to children in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.
The puppets for the show were designed by none other than Michael Frith (Dr. Seuss’s book editor and creative director of The Muppet Show) and Kathy Mullen, a performer, writer, and director who played Yoda (with Frank Oz) in The Empire Strikes Back. They designed the show, free of charge, for the children in Southeast Asia.
Steven Soderbergh, director of Ocean’s 11, and Sheryl Leach, creator of Barney & Friends, were early investors. Naseeruddin Shah, a prominent Indian actor and director, starred in the pilot, and Pakistan’s most iconic rock stars, Ali Azmat, wrote the theme song. The team shot the pilot, and then the global economy tanked.
Sophie Ali spoke with impactmania about what it took to be a social entrepreneur and why this puppet show became her life’s mission.
At age 30, you found yourself in Greece and realized, “If there’s anything I should be doing, I should go home to Pakistan.”
Yes, a friend my age had just been diagnosed with cancer. We were 29 at the time, and as I watched her face death, I started thinking, “Am I ready to die? What have I done?” It is weird to look at your life from your deathbed backwards.
I was living in Los Angeles, in my Hollywood world, and I suddenly realized that if all my dreams came true, I’d be further away from being ready to die than I was at that moment.
My whole life was on the wrong track. That’s why I dropped everything and went to figure things out. I sat on a beach in Greece and thought, if I could do anything, anything at all, what would I do? The answer was crystal clear: “Go home to Pakistan.” I knew there was no real movie industry in Pakistan at that time, but I thought, “Well, they have television; how different can TV be?” Then I thought, “What’s the biggest problem?” The biggest problem to me was — and still is — education. And it became clear to me that what I needed to do was … create educational programming for kids. I discovered my life’s mission.
Paint me a picture of what home looks like.
Home is Karachi. Karachi gets under your skin. There’s a certain smell… a certain feel… a certain way the breeze feels on your skin.
I was just there a week ago … in the heat, waiting for a car to pick me up after recording the Urdu and Hindu songs for The Flying Tent… There is this tropical kind of a breeze … and a bit of a smell in the air.
What kind of smell — spices, flowers?
Kind of sewer-y. [Laughs.] It’s not perfect, but I love it.
What kind of tools did you use to build The Magic Tent?
We are going back in time… Ultimately, I drew on the production experience I had gained working on movies in Rome and in Los Angeles. … With funding from The British Foreign Office and Shell Oil, my friend Jaleel Akhtar and I created Kahani Corner (Story Corner), the first curriculum-based kids’ program for Pakistan. It aired on Pakistan national television and radio in 2000.
We had to buy the airtime because no sponsor was interested in children’s television. It was the poor stepchild of entertainment. … There was no advertising for children’s television. Nobody would give us any money for any ads during that time because in their minds kids had no buying power.
They didn’t understand the potential of a kids’ market at all in those days. I actually traveled up and down India with a Princess Jasmine toothbrush and a box of Dora Band-Aids. I was trying to explain to people what kids’ merchandising was — something the West had understood for 40 years.
What did you do next?
After Kahani Corner aired, I was inspired to do more educational kids’ programming, but for the whole region. Did you know that South Asia has the largest child population in the world? We have over half a billion kids, and there’s practically nothing for them… even today. There are no local kids’ television shows or movies or music. There is very little to engage them, to entertain or teach them.
I went back to graduate school and got a master’s degree in child development. It was after that that I met Michael Frith, Kathy Mullen, and Sharon Lerner. I went back to L.A., raised the funding, and we created The Magic Tent. We had the most amazing talent. Naseeruddin Shah starred in the pilot episode with a host of puppet characters designed by Michael Frith, and the theme music was written and performed by Pakistan’s iconic pop star Ali Azmat.
It was an exciting time, and we were all very proud of the pilot, but unfortunately, when we finally went out to market, it was 2008 and the bottom was falling out of the global economy.
As time was passing by, I realized that the media landscape was changing rapidly and that the financial model we were working with would be obsolete very soon. So rather than running head on to colossal failure, I decided to pull back and wait. It was brutal … devastating really…
It didn’t deter you?
Well, it did. I packed it all up. We were going from an advertising-based model to a streaming model. We were going from television to this digital world. I knew that DVDs were on the way out. If I lost DVDs from my model, a third of my revenue stream would be gone…
I’d given years of my life, spent all my money, and tapped every resource. I let it go. I gave it up. I spent a couple years doing other things. … I reconnected with all kinds of people, because I had such tunnel vision for so long… Another important thing was I got happy. I woke up one day in 2014 and I was happy … and life went on. Then one day, I got a call from the head of Kids and Family at YouTube India.
He said, “We are actively looking for curriculum-based kids’ programming, we’ve looked in India and in Pakistan, and we got your name.” I already had my heart broken. I knew funding projects was not their model, and I didn’t have the will to start again.
A year later, he called me back: “We’re creating this kids’ app.” Apparently a very large percentage of the YouTube viewing population are under the age of 5. Kids were getting into unsavory areas, and the parents wanted them to do something about it, so YouTube created this kids’ app, and they were rolling them out in various territories around the world. They were going to create one for India.
He continued, “We’d love it if you could give us some local-looking content.” I said, “We don’t have the money or enough time to produce anything,” and the conversation ended. That’s when my current partner, Josh Rosenzweig, said, “Come on, these characters have been sitting under the bed for 10 years. Why can’t you just do something with them?”
We decided we could use the puppets to teach language through songs and nursery rhymes. These puppets are designed to reflect South Asian culture; they are all animals indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent dressed in local attire. Josh said, “Put a micro-budget together and raise the money on a crowdfunding platform.”
We decided we would raise $25,000 on IndieGoGo for a very simple show. We created the campaign, but I was too scared to press the button to launch it…
The first day we got $50, and the second day we got $100. I was sick to my stomach… We were 24 hours in and headed nowhere fast. I made the decision that I was going to return the $50 and $100. I was going to never look at these puppets or this project again. Then the money started rolling in. It has been over a year, and we’ve raised more than 200 percent of our goal, from 160 contributors in 17 countries.
We were able to shoot the series and launch it in a way that we are proud of. … Kathy, Michael, Sharon, and I donated our time, but we were able to pay the cast and crew. We were able to raise enough money to produce a Hindi and Urdu version, as well.
What have you learned that was surprising while building all of this?
The most surprising learning was that at one point, I had all the contacts in the world. I had investment funding and a lot of star power. But none of that was enough to make it happen, because the timing wasn’t right. The way this project actually happened was much simpler. It was getting it on an open platform and reaching out to the people.
It made me realize you don’t have to be as connected as you think you do to start something. You have to get an idea you believe in and see if it resonates with other people. When you raise money as a Founder/CEO, presenting to investors can be a very lonely effort. When I raised it on IndieGoGo, it was a completely different experience. No matter where I’d go, I’d run into partners. Whether I walk into a birthday party in Lahore, or a dinner in Maine, people come up and ask me, “What’s happening with our project?” It’s absolutely wonderful!
People took ownership.
Yes! When you’re raising big money, only a certain kind of person can participate. It can be an adversarial sort of thing… Now, people can be part of it by donating as little as $10.
Two of the most surprising contributors were these 11- and 13-year-old boys in London. They saw the IndieGoGo request come in through their mom’s email. They asked her if she was going to contribute. She called me up and said, “Listen, I have to ask you some questions, because my boys want to contribute. They researched Michael, Kathy, and Sharon; looked at the videos; and decided to give all their birthday money to this project. They want to contribute $5,000.”
I told their mother, “I’m not taking $5,000 from an 11- and 13-year-old.” She said, “Listen, you have to, because they are passionate and they’ve done their homework. You can’t deny them this.”
If you give $5,000 to the project, you get to be an Associate Producer. Now their names are in the credits. They have written about it in their school newspaper. It’s something that they have serious ownership in. The wonderful thing about this platform is that a kid can participate.
Any other learning you can share as a social entrepreneur?
One of the big learnings that came out of this was that if you don’t love it, it’s not going to happen. I was miserable the way I was doing it before. I felt my mission was a burden. I was holding onto it for dear life — for identity. Now, I’m just a steward. There are so many people involved. It’s a pleasure to do it.
Tell me about the impact you are looking to make?
Creating educational content for kids in South Asia is so critically important right now because this is the region where you’re going to find the next generation of leaders. South Asia has the largest kids’ population in the world.
In Pakistan, more than 35 percent of the population is under the age of 14. These kids are primarily learning from a rote-learning educational system. They’re memorizing and repeating back and not being taught critical thinking skills. This system makes them ripe for manipulation and group thinking and all the ills that come with that.
It is important that we find a way to reach and teach them, to inspire them, and give them the opportunity to discover who they are. Because this population is going to become stewards of the world. They’re going to take over the global economy. They’re going to be running industries. They are going to be emigrating to every part of the world. A generation with this number of people coming into the job market at the same time is a ticking time bomb, and we better give them the tools to handle it — that is on us. How are you going to find your way if you’re not thinking creatively, and if you don’t have empathy?
We are starting with very little kids, but we have to engage children up to 14 years old. It’s all kinds of content on multiple platforms… reaching these kids where they are…
If I could achieve one thing only, it would be getting people to think differently about asking questions. Because right now in our culture, asking questions is seen as rude and stupid…
If we can get everyone to think of asking questions as the smart, responsible thing to do — at this point just to change the mindset about asking questions would be huge.
What one thing could people do here to support the positive social impacts that you’re trying to create in Pakistan and India?
Subscribe to The Flying Tent YouTube channel and like the videos. That helps because it starts to generate a viewership and momentum. That can take us to the place where we can then produce The Magic Tent, which is the storytelling series with a much deeper educational message, because the kids are a little bit older. By simply watching The Flying Tent videos that are free on YouTube, you’re helping the cause.
So what’s next for you?
Apart from making The Magic Tent a reality — once these characters are known, and hopefully loved, by kids and families, I’d like to use them to do public service announcements. We can then talk about child marriage, the importance of washing our hands, nutrition, health and hygiene, respect messages, and safety messages.
The other thing we’d like to do — because this is on YouTube, it requires an Internet connection. For kids that are in villages, we’d like to get companies to sponsor us to do screenings. There are vehicles … that open up a screen and project. I’d like to do that in refugee camps where these kids don’t get to enjoy any kind of childhood.
One of the biggest problems in the refugee camps is boredom. So we’d like to send content. We are in the process of creating a 40-minute special just for this purpose. If you would like, you too can contribute to the campaign to help fund this special project.
Anything to add?
The kids in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan have inspired this project. When people think about some of these children, they think of extremism, radicalism, and terrorism. So our mission is two-fold: We want to create programs that teach kids to think critically. And also, we want to educate other kids around the world to see the softer, gentler side of who we are. There are 200 million people in Pakistan, most of them children. Presenting a softer, gentler side of us to kids around the world is also an important part of the show.