‘Culture is capital, and this country is oozing with it’ – How smart tech is breaking down diversity doors in the UK’s production sector

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Mel Rodrigues has big plans for the world of TV and film recruitment. As an expert in connecting diverse talent with major broadcasters like the BBC, Channel 4 and TEDx, she’s shifting the power balance in a sector infamous for its who-you-know hiring tendencies. Through the creation of a new smart tech app that gives production sector recruiters a direct connection to a wide-array of new faces, Rodrigues has already found early success, receiving a £100,000 grant from Innovate UK to usher her much-needed concept to market. With the continued support of Creative Enterprise Evolve, a scheme designed to make innovative screen-sector businesses investor-ready, her plans to disrupt an industry long set in its ways are well on their way – and it’s about time.

“I founded Gritty Talent in 2019 but before that I spent the best part of two decades working in network TV production,” says Rodrigues. After carving out a career that saw her working with the BBC, training journalists in Zambia, producing factual shows in Australia and retooling TEDxBristol to showcase under-represented voices, the West Midlands-native noticed a common issue that spanned all roles and set out to fix it. “The media, and particularly public service broadcasters, are supposed to reflect the whole of society – but it’s become apparent in recent years that, despite three decades of pledges and initiatives, TV still has a big diversity and portrayal problem,” she explains. “The global pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement laid bare just how big some of these gaps and inequalities are, and the broadcast sector risks losing reputation and audiences if it doesn’t radically shift up its on and off-screen diversity.”

Rodrigues continues: “As a result, all UK broadcasters have doubled-down on their commitment to diversifying their on and off-screen pipeline. The BBC pledged £100 million to a diversity fund – and from the beginning 2021, it has introduced a 20% ‘inclusion rider’ for all production teams and on-screen roles to increase participation from people of BAME, disability and low-income backgrounds,” she explains. “Channel 4, ITV, Channel 5, Sky and Netflix have all announced a slate of equally progressive targets and initiatives.” It was this rise in social awareness that encouraged Rodrigues to start work on a new smart tech initiative that utilized her expertise in connecting broadcasters with untapped talent: “Our business is founded on cracking a big part of this sector problem,” says Rodrigues, “providing access to authentic but less visible and networked talent.”

The road to remedying this lingering issue started with the creation of a brand-new recruitment tool – one which started life as a simple online resource. “I founded Gritty Talent prior to the pandemic with a firm focus on disrupting the talent pipeline so that people from less represented groups in media could get a foothold in both on and off-camera storytelling roles,” she explains, recalling the thought process behind the project. “We connect emerging on and off-screen talent with decision makers in TV and film and we’re designing algorithms to counter some of the often unconscious biases that creep in during recruitment decisions.”

Not long after Rodrigues’ web-browser-based concept started taking shape, disaster struck. In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, throwing an entire industry that relies heavily on networking and face-to-face connections – the very same activities Rodrigues’ recruitment tool aimed to showcase – into an overnight standstill. However, when the dust finally settled an unlikely opportunity appeared amid the chaos: “I began a bit of a passion project to see whether I could design and use technology to solve my industry’s problems,” says Rodrigues. “Could smart tech bridge the gap, now that COVID-19 has changed the way we work and interact? The idea for our core service was born: An app to connect with diverse, emerging talent – all in one place.”

Very quickly, Rodrigues’ product aligned itself with the current trends facing the production recruitment sector – namely its shift to remote working: “Bedrooms became edit suits, the kitchen became the production office and outdoors or virtual was the new ‘studio’ show,” she explains. “Many colleagues expressed frustration in not being able to find or access the right technology to enable exactly what they need to do. Online team tools like Trello, Basecamp, Monday, Slack and Miro have been useful – but not always able to completely replicate the efficiencies of having a production team together in one space. This insight has been a key driver of our product development,” reveals Rodrigues. “I know my industry production processes inside out – so we tried to develop a very intuitive and practical interface which created an easy and efficient virtual way to discover and connect with talent.”

In addition to solving talent recruitment issues in a social distanced world, Gritty Talent also reduces carbon footprints whilst building a framework to future-proof an industry against similar shocks. However, at its core, Rodrigues’ service is primarily aimed at removing the barriers that often get in the way of diverse talent reaching employment. “The number one service we’re offering to start with is a searching, matching and connecting facility and we’re designing and testing algorithms to bring forward high potential talent who might otherwise be hard for recruiters to find,” she tells us. “Via our app, production teams and prospective talent can chat safely, without having to share personal contact details unless they want to. Talent can bring their videos and profiles from other platforms, so their skills and experiences are visible and easily accessible – and the app content is live, so TV decision makers can see their latest, up-to-date skills and experiences.”

Transforming a catastrophe into inspiration, Rodrigues is on track to remould the way an entire sector sources its talent – the first version of the app has just launched. “An investor wanting to back both a culturally and economically high-potential portfolio should look no further,” she says of Gritty Talent. “Culture is capital and this country is oozing with it. When you combine creativity with smart tech – whether that’s VR, CGI or A.I, like my business – you increase the potential to scale and enter new markets. I’m convinced media tech will be the next high-growth area in technology,” reasons Rodrigues. “The time for talking about the problem is over. Our business is founded on providing access to authentic but less visible employees. A strong, plentiful supply of talent is critical to winning new business and delivering on diversity targets,” she reasons. “Gritty Talent does this in a smart, accessible and easy-to-use digital space.”

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