Despite being the fastest-growing ethnic population, currently estimated at 58 million, Latinos remain underrepresented in the media. That lack of representation has been highlighted in the entertainment industry, where Latino film and television actors in major roles are rare, as are Latino show runners, producers, writers and directors – and where negative stereotypes of Latinos persist. It’s not any better in the English-language news industry. Studies show only 1% of the thousands of stories reported each year are about Latinos and most of that coverage is negative, focusing on crime and immigration.
While some strides have been made in the entertainment and news industries in recent years, a lot more needs to be done to change the cultural narrative.
“Mainstream media misrepresents and omits positive role models or figures that are actively bringing change and reshaping their communities. They do a good job of being sensational in a way that sells, but not in a way that informs and unites our community,” says actress, activist and entrepreneur Zoe Saldana. “I wanted to find a way to encourage mainstream media to evolve so it can better represent what the American public really looks like today versus 80 years ago.”
That’s exactly what Saldana is attempting to do with her recently launched digital news platform BESE, of which she is CEO and Editor-in-Chief. The Star Trek, Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy actress, who got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in May of this year, believes in the power of role models, which is why she wants BESE to shine a light on untold and positive stories of Latinos geared to Millennial and Gen Z audiences.
“That meant creating a platform that lives in a digital space and operates primarily in social media, where we can showcase stories of American figures – past and present – that have impacted the very fabric of our nation on a local or national scale, based on their contributions to our nation through science, technology, art, culture and identity,” she says. “It’s about inclusivity and telling stories that can inspire people.”
“Zoe moved the needle forward. We want to inspire people to achieve new heights and change perspectives outside the Latino community,” states Daniel Batista, co-founder and president of BESE, who left Latino millennial-targeted digital video company mitú last year to develop and launch Saldana’s startup.
“What was appealing to me was to build a company from scratch and that its mission was to create purpose-driven content.”
According to Batista, BESE will focus on intellectual property – developing premium, high-quality original content that is authentic and that showcases how Latinos are integrated into American culture.
“We’re focusing on the Latinx community right now, because it’s the most marginalized, according to its size and growth, but our purpose is also to highlight other multicultural figures in our nation,” adds Saldana.
BESE kicked off with a Saldana-narrated brand video on the last day of February and launched its first video from editorial team on March 1.
The platform started featuring video content and short-form series, such as “Point by Point,” which looks at emerging athletes and “Hidden Figuras” – a play on the title of movie Hidden Figures, about the previously unknown story of black female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960’s. “Hidden Figuras” highlights individuals who have made impact and done outstanding things.
“We are focusing more on people who have made an impact in the past, because many of these stories are not in our history books,” states Batista.
The videos are short for maximum impact and audience retention. The average is four minutes for documentary videos. Socially native videos are “bite-sized” at about one minute. The platform currently has nine original series. The most recent, a weekly docuseries featuring Latino entrepreneurs called “Within Reach” launched August 1.
There are plans to produce podcasts and events, pop-up galleries and eventually expand into long-form video. There will be a period of testing, trial and error, as the company explores what works and what doesn’t.
Their first pop-up art event, titled “The BESE Identity Gallery” on July 27 was a success. They had expected 250 people, but more than 430 showed up.
Can BESE thrive and grow amid the difficult economic realities of the digital media space?
“The endgame for us is to build a loyal and engaged community and scale our audience to a point where we can monetize further through ads, licensing and consumer initiatives. Right now, we’re building audience and brand. We’ll be generating revenue in coming months,” states Batista.
BESE is currently operating with pre-seed funding from Saldana herself, as well as a network of high-profile individuals and investors. Among them, Monica Lozano, former CEO of ImpreMedia and La Opinión newspaper in Los Angeles.
“I invested in Zoe’s startup, because I believe that as a community we are obligated to continue to find ways in which we can elevate our voice and present a more accurate representation,” says Lozano. “Zoe has put both her personal and financial capital behind the company and I’m proud to be associated with it.”
Other investors include global telecommunications and media executive and former CEO of US West Sol Trujillo; Ralph de la Vega, former Vice-Chairman of AT&T; actress Rosario Dawson; Carmen Castillo, CEO of SDI International; and Christian Martínez, Country Director of Mexico for Facebook.
The startup also counts on investment from White Owl Capital Partners, M Ventures; Howard Morgan, co-founder of First Round Capital; Michael Francis, former CMO of Target and DreamWorks Animation; Erik Oberholtzer, co-founder and CEO of Tender Greens; Kevin Yorn, Saldana’s attorney and co-founder of Morris Yorn; and Harley Neuman, Saldana’s business manager and founder and president of Neuman + Associates.
BESE currently has an in-house staff of seven, who work with several freelancers. “They’re talented young filmmakers and creators, predominately Latino descent, who came from general market,” says Batista. “We have a very collaborative approach and focus on team work, but we follow the creative direction of Zoe, who gives us notes on every article and video posted and as editor in chief has the final say.”
Although Batista runs the day-to-day operations of the digital platform, Saldana is very hands-on.
“I care a great deal about this platform. It has a mission. Thinking about it that way, it becomes a duty that you want to nurture and pursue every day,” says Saldana. “I am very hands on because I’m building BESE for myself and children. When they’re old enough, I want them to be able to see proper representation of who they are as Americans, so they have a sense of proprietorship whithin their own land and have a sense of service, commitment and community.”
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