Q+A: Giving dignified, steady, fair-wage work is the most effective way to eradicate poverty, Leila Janah says. Her San Francisco–based company, Samasource, connects workers in poor communities throughout the U.S. and the world with digital jobs. In the U.S., for example, the company’s Samaschool program trains low-income people for independent work and for freelance jobs in the gig economy on platforms such as TaskRabbit and Upwork. In Kenya, Uganda and India, its workforce focuses on enterprise data services, including creating the training data required for machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) applications, including self-driving cars. Access recently met up with Janah to learn more about the difference her business is making — and how she’s inspiring others to follow suit.
How did you initially generate interest and support for Samasource? What did you tell the naysayers?
In short, it took a lot of hustle. I knew early on that poverty was a problem I wanted to solve and the best way to solve it was by creating employment. What I had to figure out was what kind of employment I could create that would solve a real market need.
This to me is actually the future of business, where doing good isn’t an afterthought but something built right into the business model.
I was working as a management consultant at the time, and one of my first projects was with a call center in India. I remember not being excited about the project because I thought call centers were bad — that they were taking jobs away from middle America and reducing economic opportunity — but then I realized the model could be really powerful on a larger level. I realized digital work could go to places where the markets were really small, like parts of rural Africa. It was eye-opening. I thought, “What if we could train people in low-income communities to do digital work for companies all over the world?” That was the aha moment.
Then, over nights and weekends, over the span of two years, I read every possible book on social entrepreneurship and how to start a company. I put together a business plan and started submitting it to various competitions I found online. Finally, an organization in Amsterdam invited me to present in the semifinals of a business plan competition. I won second place and 22,000 euros. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to make me quit my job and start Samasource. Don’t worry about the people who tell you no — I had plenty of those and actually still do. All you need is one yes.
And now your company, Samasource, has operations around the U.S. and the world. Give us a sense of the business model.
The relationship is mutually beneficial. We like to say it’s good business to do good. We’re helping companies like Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and many others solve real business problems, and the money they’d be spending on outsourcing anyway is moving people out of poverty.
One of my favorite moments — and it’s happened several times since — was when I was on a panel at Dreamforce with the CEO of Glassdoor, a customer of ours. Backstage, he came up to me and said, “I had no idea you guys were a nonprofit!” Companies choose us time and time again because of the quality of our work — the social mission becomes an added bonus and a no-brainer. This to me is actually the future of business, where doing good isn’t an afterthought but something built right into the business model.
You’ve shown that doing good and doing good work pair together perfectly. What success story demonstrating this makes you particularly proud?
Three years ago, I met a young man named Ken Kihara, who at the time was living in Mathare, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya. In this area, kids play alongside open sewers and people make a living by scooping up bits of scrap plastic and metal for recycling. Ten years ago, one of those people was Ken. He was an orphan, his mother a victim of tuberculosis, which also killed six of her siblings, because living in a slum due to poverty turns out to be a major risk factor for TB.
In spite of all of this, Ken managed to get a scholarship to a boarding school in Nairobi. He was so poor he almost got kicked out for stealing toothpaste and toilet paper. Luckily, the principal let him go and Ken managed to graduate. You’d think that’d be the happily-ever-after moment, but with youth unemployment reaching 70 percent in some areas, Ken was forced to move back to Mathare. He found a job brewing chang’aa, a local spirit that’s mixed with kerosene and other toxic substances to enhance its potency. The guys who make it earn less than $2 a day selling it to their fellow residents.
Eventually, Ken found a flier for computer classes at a local center, which happened to be a partner to Samasource. He started as an agent, working on projects like image tagging, and is now a trainer for our Samaschool program in Kenya. In fact, he has now trained over 500 people from the slums of Mathare and Kibera. I last saw him in Beirut, where he had taken his first plane trip to train Syrian refugees in digital work skills. Ken and his daughter Roselyn now live in an apartment, outside the slum, with clean water and their own bathroom. He told me recently that everything in his life has changed thanks to work.
This is the type of transformation we see, on average, across Samasource. We move people from $2 a day to $8 a day and see them invest their earnings in exactly the kinds of things we want to see, like safe housing and nutritious food. They often spend on education for themselves or their family members, and on health care. They’re even able to open up savings accounts.
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In your book, Give Work (Portfolio Penguin, 2017), you talk about how many nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do noble work but are too often treating the symptoms of poverty rather than the causes. How do you think NGOs should shift to address the causes?
I think for NGOs, it’s a shift in how we view the people we help through a lens of solidarity versus charity. My friend Leah Hunt-Hendrix, founder of Solidaire, introduced me to a flaw in the traditional charity model: It creates a two-tiered system of givers and beneficiaries. The givers have all of the power in this relationship. Beneficiaries are expected to be grateful.
With every purchase we make, we’re choosing the kind of world we live in.
This two-tiered system doesn’t solve the underlying problems that led to the need for charity in the first place. It often robs beneficiaries of agency — of the chance to chart the course of their own lives and invest in what they believe is most needed in their communities. When we donate money to get a feel-good surge of dopamine, seeing our name on a well or the side of a schoolroom, we don’t always force ourselves to think in solidarity with those we help.
Solidarity is a new paradigm with new rules. In this model, we work alongside the people we aim to help, listening to them and valuing their feedback as equals on a level playing field.
Has there ever been a time when the challenges were such that you thought the idea might not work? What did you tell yourself?
Of course. I think every entrepreneur has those moments. Personally, when this happens, I force myself to zoom out. I go look at the stars or the sea. I spend time in nature to understand my own smallness — that helps me put things in perspective. I also think meditation, prayer or simply reflecting on the core values that brought you into doing this work in the first place are all helpful tactics in making it through a rough patch.
I also think one of the most important qualities you need that no one tells you about before starting a business is emotional resilience — the ability to not quit. I value this over brilliance or talent or raising a lot of money. It’s critical to “making it” as an entrepreneur.
You’ve said that the future is about integrating the business-oriented, profit-oriented side of society with the socially conscious, compassionate side. Why is that important to the future, and how can entrepreneurs and innovators move toward that — where can they start?
With every purchase we make, we’re choosing the kind of world we want to live in. For consumers, this can be seen in the products we buy — anything from coffee to beauty products to housewares and everything in between. For companies, it’s in the way they do procurement. And if we can influence how that spend happens — from the caterer they choose for a company party to their data services vendor — we can literally change the world.
This is why we created the Give Work Guide, which launched earlier this year — to show you can procure the same goods and services from vendors that actively solve a social or environmental issue in the way they do business. We currently aren’t incentivized to spend more on social enterprises, so, at the policy level, it’s my hope that we build structure around this to incorporate these behaviors into doing business.
Samasource has had great success connecting people with opportunities. How do you think other companies can follow your lead, even if it’s not in the specific realm of lifting people out of poverty?
One of the biggest opportunities we have in reducing poverty is getting corporations to change the way they spend money. It’s reported the top global 2,000 companies spend $12 trillion on goods and services annually. Even 1 percent of that spent on social enterprises would lift millions out of poverty. Imagine that. We could reverse global poverty in our lifetimes.
As you mention in Give Work, how and what support to provide after a disaster is a tricky area. Tell us more about your thoughts on disaster relief and at what point organizations and supporters need to look at shifting from providing basic necessities and tangible goods to sources of income.
There are many cases when giving work isn’t feasible: in a violent conflict zone, for example, or in the aftermath of a natural disaster. In these cases, the best approach may be cash transfers or other forms of aid used as a temporary stopgap, the way foreign aid was originally intended in Europe after the Second World War.
But the only thing that will truly solve the problem of poverty in the long term is to put more money directly in the hands of the world’s poor. And the most sustainable, cost-efficient and so¬cially beneficial way to do this is to give work via direct job creation to connect these poor populations directly with employers.
More and more businesses are starting to depend on machine learning, and companies will increasingly depend on humans to “teach” computers. This new demand has been a source of job opportunities for Samasource. What do you see as the next big wave of opportunities for your employees?
We believe there will always be work for humans. Samasource started with data entry — converting data files into PDF files. Now software can do that. As we’ve grown the business, we’ve evolved the services we offer in tandem with how technology is evolving.
The future of work is a world where humans and technology work together. And this field of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning will create jobs in new fields — like training data for algorithms. And there will be more and more of this work as these algorithms become more sophisticated and there are more edge cases. The hope is that machines will take over the type of work humans don’t want to do — manual labor and knowledge work will be automated, and humans will be free to do more creative things, or things that require human judgement or a human touch.
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- What aspect of doing good do you — or would you like to — incorporate into your business?