How GoDaddy Turned a CSR Initiative Into a Festival Film: Q&A with Adam Palmer and Sophie Harris

Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, Brand Storytelling

Big Water Summer: A Creation Story recently screened at SXSW as part of its Documentary Shorts Competition Presented by IMDbPro. The film tells the story of Cherilyn Yazzie, a social worker-turned-farmer on a mission to bring healthy crops to her childhood home on the Navajo Nation. The film finds its roots in a brand-funded series produced by web hosting company and business platform GoDaddy. The series spotlights participants in GoDaddy's 'Empower' program, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative equipping entrepreneurs in underserved communities with training, tools, and peer networks to accelerate their business journeys. Brand Storytelling caught up with GoDaddy's Director of Creative Production Ops Adam Palmer and the film's director Sophie Harris to learn more about how Cherilyn Yazzie went from Empower program participant to the subject of a festival doc:

What are the origins of Big Water Summer?

Adam Palmer: When I started at GoDaddy in 2019, this project was the first of its kind to be undertaken by the company. In my first week, I met with the leader of our Corporate Sustainability program, Stacy Cline, and heard first-hand how GoDaddy’s philanthropic arm, Empower by GoDaddy, was ramping up the growth of its partnerships across the U.S. Stacy and her team’s goal is to ensure small business opportunity is available to all, no matter an individual’s circumstance or means, and to approach these issues beyond the digital presence GoDaddy had already established. Hearing about this team and the program’s ability to partner with local CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) to create a sense of hope for small businesses truly inspired me. GoDaddy was providing tools and resources to underserved entrepreneurs who were in critical need of support. As an example, some of the businesses we worked with on this project lacked access to broadband connectivity and access to traditional financing to scale their businesses and further foster business growth. The work being done through GoDaddy’s CSR programs were making an enormous impact on businesses, and I knew immediately that this was something that my team and I needed to leverage through storytelling.

The documentary Big Water Summer: A Creation Story was a byproduct of our long-form series initiative called Made in America, A GoDaddy Series. In the most recent installment of Made in America, we met with and documented Cherilyn Yazzie as part of the larger series which takes place in Phoenix, Arizona. There were so many aspects of Cherilyn's personal story that we found profoundly touching. We captured amazing and heart-breaking moments that continued to inspire us as a team, as we captured her story in real-time. When Sophie Harris, the series director, approached me about releasing Cherilyn's story as a short film, and I immediately saw it as an opportunity to bring additional audiences together over a narrative that we had such an emotional connection with.

What did kicking off a series like Made in America look like internally? What set it apart from other media driven initiatives within the company?

​AP: This began internally with GoDaddy's in-house studio. We started small in identifying the scope of this initiative. We knew that we had the opportunity to capture compelling content that had the potential to draw in an audience to be captivated by the subject's stories. We knew, however, that developing the technique of casting these individuals—real people starting and growing their businesses—was going to take special care. These individuals are not “talent,” after all, and their comfort level and on-camera presence were something that we understood would take time and care to evolve.

Sophie Harris: This project is unique because it was produced in-house, and our goal was to document real-life graduates of GoDaddy’s Empower program, a social impact program which offers tools, training and support to entrepreneurs in underserved communities. Allowing for the space in production for those relationships and real-life stories to develop and unfold organically was crucial to this project.

What did the balance of input and influence look like between director and brand?

SH: From the onset, there was a core connection between the storytelling and the brand. We cast the project from within the Empower by GoDaddy program, reaching out to small business owners who were genuinely enrolled in the program.

AP: Our goals and objectives were clearly identified from the beginning and helped us to guide the project from its very onset. We briefed our in-house studio on the opportunity to create compelling, audience-first content. We knew from the start that this documentary was translating GoDaddy's vision of democratizing opportunities for entrepreneurs, and it was our responsibility to tell the story of small business owners and operators who had overcome obstacles and who had the potential to inspire other individuals who wanted to start their own businesses. Our Brand team worked closely with us in the casting process. Sophie took the lead in casting the individuals we met on the ground.

Knowing these business owners would fuel the narrative, it was a painstaking process to understand what the next several months might entail for these businesses, as well as the owners, that were starting or growing their ventures, plus we had to factor in their chemistry and charisma on-camera. Once Sophie landed on Cherilyn Yazzie, a farmer on the Navajo Nation reservation, who was providing much needed fresh produce to the community via her business, Coffee Pot Farms, production could begin. Our team was dispatched to capture as much of her story as we could—with the added challenge of being in the middle a pandemic.

Under Sophie's direction, we were able to capture an intimate view of Cherilyn’s business. The trials of operating a small business during COVID-19 lockdowns were no small task, and the perils for the business its