Kate Roberts is the founder and director of YouthAIDS and Five & Alive, two marketing programs implemented by Population Services International (PSI), where she is a vice president. Founded in 2001, YouthAIDS is a global education and prevention initiative that uses pop culture, music, theater, movies and sports to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. The program reaches 600 million young people in more than 60 countries with life-saving products and services. In 2002, YouthAIDS partnered with MTV to produce the “Staying Alive” concert, a $3 million event broadcast worldwide and featured on all major news channels. Roberts spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about cause-related marketing, the Indian film industry and an event in Africa that changed her life, among other topics.

Knowledge at Wharton: Our guest today is Kate Roberts, founder of YouthAIDS. Kate, thank you so much for joining us.

Kate Roberts: It’s my pleasure.

Knowledge at Wharton: Before you started YouthAIDS, you had a background in marketing. Could you tell us a little bit about your career before YouthAIDS?

Roberts: Sure. I was about six years in advertising before I went to PSI, which is Population Services International. YouthAIDS is a program of PSI. I focused on youth and how to develop advertising programs targeted to youth, so some of my products were cigarettes, bubble gum, soda pop, liquor, all the things that damage young people. I used a lot of media and pop culture to reach these young people with these messages to sell products.

Knowledge at Wharton: I read in a piece in the Washington Post that you had this epiphany when you were in Africa that changed your life. Tell us about that.

Roberts: What happened was this incredible individual, Michael Holscher, contacted me in Romania when I was at Saatchi & Saatchi Romania to ask me to donate my time on a pro bono basis to develop the first national AIDS campaign in Romania. The situation in Romania, which is obviously very poor, is he had very little resources to fund the campaign. So, on agreeing to do this pro bono work, I also looked at which clients I had and thought it might be smart to get them involved in funding the campaign. Because I was involving media and musicians and actors and models in the campaign, it was actually an incentive for these corporations to come forth and help with this social campaign.

I did that for about a year. Being so inspired by the work that I was doing that was actually for the organization PSI, in Romania, I also got a little burned out, trying to juggle my for-profit work with my pro bono, non-profit work. So I went to Africa for three weeks to have a rest. I went to South Africa and really the moment I touched down, I saw the townships and the devastation of HIV/AIDS affecting young people and the sheer poverty that these beautiful African people were living in. Within about three days, I realized that I wanted to put my marketing expertise towards doing something on a much grander scale — taking the model that I was operating with in Romania and perhaps implementing it on a worldwide basis, finding an existing organization that perhaps would need my help, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

Knowledge at Wharton: What led you to founding YouthAIDS, though?

Roberts: I realized that my expertise was in youth and I have a passion for youth. I believe that young people, obviously, are our next generation and I wanted to keep them alive. In Africa, for instance, between 30% and 40% of people are already infected with HIV, which will mean that the economic situation will drastically change in the future. Companies such as Coca-Cola were hiring two people in place of the one, because they knew that one person would die. And, so for me, it was about taking my knowledge of how to reach these young people with the use of pop culture, fashion, media, sports and fashion — and all the things that young people like and are inspired — by and reaching them with life-saving messages rather than these nasty products that will ultimately affect their health.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is that what you call cause-related marketing?

Roberts: Yes. Cause-related marketing is the combination of taking a cause, such as YouthAIDS, finding a corporation that wishes to embark on a cause-related marketing campaign, and then building in media and celebrity to get that program out. I have an example for you, if that would help.

We have a program called See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil. It’s a program that’s funded and spearheaded by Aldo, a shoe company, and their objective was to increase the traffic going into their stores and ultimately sell more shoes. Our objective was to find a large, global corporate sponsor that wanted to sell more products, that was interested in showing the world how much they care about their customer with a disease that affects mostly youth. So Aldo worked together with us to develop this campaign.

The campaign, which has now run for three years, has raised over $3 million and developed 1.5 billion media editorial impressions and has increased Aldo’s sales by 50%. It’s a huge win-win. It’s a win for the cause having all of this awareness and funding, and the funding is lightly restricted, so we’re able to put the funding in the place where it needs to go to have the most health impact, and for Aldo, it speaks for itself. We were able to get about 40 A-list celebrities involved who worked pro bono in the campaign and it really increased their bottom line. That’s what we strive to do and that’s what cause marketing is.

People are much more likely to buy a product that’s associated with a cause than one that isn’t. I think in this day and age, with the financial crisis, it’s a very smart way of marketing, because you’re speaking to your customer, you’re showing your customer that you care about their health and their needs and their education, and you are helping to [publicize] a global crisis, a health crisis, whether it’s supporting malaria prevention, water-born diseases — which are a huge problem with a billion people with no access to clean water — or HIV/AIDS, which is one of the biggest crises that we’ve had in the 21st century. And it’s a smart way to do business. It’s cheaper to do cause marketing than it is to do regular marketing.

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s really interesting. You mentioned the work you’ve done in Africa. I know in addition to that you’ve also done some work in India, which is another country where AIDS is really very serious. Could you tell me a little bit about your initiatives in collaboration with Bollywood, the Indian film industry, and how that works with your economic model?

Roberts: We have a very large program in India. In fact, it’s one of our largest. With a population of over a billion people, it’s necessary to find lots of different techniques for reaching the people who need these health products and services the most. HIV/AIDS in India is a bubbling pandemic just waiting to happen. It’s also very controversial. It’s talking about sex and how you contract HIV. It’s highly controversial in India. There’s also another problem in that there is a very large sex trade, whether it’s girls being trafficked into commercial sex or prostitutes (we call them commercial sex workers), really through necessity, going into the business.

We have a very successful program that’s been long-established, especially in Mumbai, where, if you go to the streets at 4 o’clock, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of men crawling around, looking for sex. It’s a problem that we all know will really never go away…. We have to protect the men who are going to sex workers and the women who are providing the services. A lot of these people are illiterate, so they’re not going to read posters or magazines. A lot of people don’t have television to be able to understand the issue. So, to really enhance and help our program in India, [we have] this existing infrastructure that reaches the people with these life-saving messages and products through testing centers, through peer education, through posters and billboards on the truck paths, at the truck stops. You know, immigration is a huge issue and it’s how people contract HIV.

We decided that a good technique would be to tap into Bollywood, being one of the biggest industries in the world, to reach these people who are affected and infected. We worked with a couple of Bollywood stars, ShahRukh Khan, Suchitra Sen and Akshay Kumar and we actually made a film about HIV/AIDS in India with our global ambassador, Ashley Judd, that aired on National Geographic. Moreover, we [created] a fictional character that we developed a soap opera around. People didn’t know if he was for real or if he was an actor. We followed his life and how at risk he was. Of course he went to a brothel — he led a little bit of a risky lifestyle — and through that way we were able to reach almost all of India with these important messages.

Knowledge at Wharton: You referred earlier to the economic slowdown. Typically a lot of philanthropic activity is affected during a recession. Do you have any plans for how you might cope with that situation? How would you adjust your business model?

Roberts: We’re actually not going to adjust our business model, because it’s a business model that works. We provide a platform for all corporations, whether they’re big or small. We make a tailored plan for those companies based on their objectives and all objectives are different, so every single project that we work on is tailor-made. This is a business model that works for anybody. And whatever their budget, which might be greatly reduced, we can still provide a very effective CSR strategy or cause-related marketing plan.

Actually, as I was saying before, I think that in these times of recession, it’s going to be more interesting for companies to do cause-related marketing, because it’s much cheaper to do than regular marketing and it makes more business sense. So we’re not going anywhere and, in fact, we have a new program called 5 and Alive, which is a child survival program that focuses on getting clean water, treated malaria nets and nutritional supplements to families all over the world to try to keep their children alive to their 5th birthday, which is the dangerous time. 5 and Alive already has very strong media partnerships and celebrity ambassadors to help us provide this platform for corporations that perhaps deal with children or sell products to children who might wish to be involved in the program.

Knowledge at Wharton: In thinking back over the years that you’ve been doing this, what would you say is the biggest leadership challenge that you have faced and how did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

Roberts: I would say that the biggest leadership challenge is trying to re-invent the wheel. I don’t believe in it at all. I chose to join an existing organization with a track record of providing solid health impact and measurable results, PSI. And the reason I did that is because they needed help to expand on their donor base. I could have started a brand new organization on my own, but I truly believe that social entrepreneurs should find these gaps in the market where their expertise can go to really good use.

I also think that partnership is really, really important. At PSI, we really believe in partnership. We don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel and doing something we’re perhaps not good at. We’d rather go out and find that expertise in different organizations and even sub-grant those organizations in partnership. One thing we found with donors is that donors really like it if you come hand in hand with other organizations. There are so many new NGOs just popping up all the time, that are often worthy, but perhaps they’re not big and well-known and they could use the help of an existing organization like ours. So we have hundreds of thousands of partnerships around the world. I think the challenge is just that. It’s not re-inventing the wheel. It’s really doing your research and looking at which programs are effective and have measured results. I think the other challenge is proving your health impact. We spend a lot of time really researching what works in any one country. You have to set up programs like the Bollywood program in India that is culturally relevant to that country. What works in India doesn’t necessarily work in Africa or Eastern Europe. So it’s about being relevant. It’s about measuring your health impact and partnership.

Knowledge at Wharton: Since the cause that you’re dealing with affects a lot of young people, including high school students, what would you suggest as some of the ways that people can get involved in supporting what you’re doing, especially high school students?

Roberts: I would go through to www.youthaids.org. It actually outlines very clearly what you can do as a student. I spend a lot of time speaking to students. I had a great time here today at Wharton, talking to the MBA students, and I believe that everybody is a social entrepreneur and I really believe in youth. I think that they can change the world. Anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it and find their passion. So I would suggest to go to YouthAIDS, but also to go www.psi.org. That also talks about the issues.

Knowledge at Wharton: One last question, Kate: How do you define success?

Roberts: Success in what way?

Knowledge at Wharton: For yourself. For your cause.

Roberts: Well, coming to Wharton is pretty successful. Success for my cause comes in two ways. We’re obviously a programmatic organization and we have grassroots programs in 65 countries around the world and success is saving lives and being able to measure that. That for me is success. Success on the commercial side of things is finding champions. I’ve spent my whole career looking for champions and I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done today without identifying those champions. You have to sell yourself in order to find that champion who’s willing to listen to you and believe in you and develop a program with you. So my success is finding other successful people who can be successful on my behalf.

Knowledge at Wharton: Kate, thank you so much for joining us today.

Roberts: It’s been absolutely my pleasure.