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Grace, Grit, and Optimism: Remembering Leila Janah

SOCAP February 4, 2020


“Clarify your core values and why you’re doing what you’re doing and then–when you’ve decided on a model–embrace it with grace, grit, and optimism.”

–Leila Janah’s advice to social entrepreneurs at SOCAP14


The SOCAP community is mourning the tragic loss of entrepreneur Leila Janah. Janah was an inspiration to many of us. She was a visionary who worked tirelessly to lift people out of poverty using the tools of business and technology. Janah generously shared the story of her successes and the challenges she faced as a social entrepreneur, as well as her insights and hard won expertise, at numerous SOCAP conferences and other convenings focused on social impact and technology across the world.

Throughout her career Janah argued that the solution to poverty was for global business leaders to create fair-wage jobs for low-income people. She presented her case for this in her 2017 book, Give Work. Janah practiced what she preached at all of the organizations that she founded. The name of her first and most famous venture, Samasource, was inspired by the Sanskrit word Sama, meaning “equal.” Samasource’s mission is to leverage technology to give people living in poverty equal access to life changing job opportunities. Through Samasource and the other organizations she founded, LXMI and Samaschool, Janah positively impacted the lives of thousands of people who had been living below the poverty line.
Though she started Samasource with little support and extremely limited resources, by the time Janah appeared on the mainstage plenary at SOCAP14 Samasource had reached $10 million in revenue. Earlier that year she had been named one of Fortune’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs.
During her main stage address at SOCAP14, Janah introduced her work by telling the story of a Samasource employee she had just met–a man named Kevin who lived in the Mathare slum in Kenya. Access to steady and dignified work had changed, not only Kevin’s life, but the lives of many members of his family and his community. Janah then sat down for a conversation with SOCAP co-founder Kevin Jones about the evolution of her career in social impact. During their conversation she offered insights and advice for other social entrepreneurs that remain valuable today. To honor the memory of Leila Janah and inspire others to follow her path of grace, grit, and optimism we offer her full remarks at SOCAP14.

Transcript: Leila Janah at SOCAP14

It’s such a pleasure to be here and see so many familiar faces and I’m really grateful that you all came out so early in the morning to hear about social enterprise. I’m going to kick off by just telling you a little bit about the Sama Group. I wanted to set the tone for my conversation with Kevin Jones by talking about an experience I just had in Kenya.
Sama means equal in Sanskrit and our mission is to use technology to level the playing field for low-income people. We started Samasource six years ago with a mission to bring digital work to some of the lowest income people in the world. We thought if we could figure out a way to employ people in corners of the world where employment opportunities are really scarce we could really change the game for poverty alleviation. We started that six years ago. It evolved into a global outsourcing organization that has employed over 6,000 people and that has moved 25,000 people out of poverty.
So what is The Sama Group? We are a family of social enterprises. Some of you may know us through our largest social enterprise which is called Samasource. Sama means equal in Sanskrit and our mission is to use technology to level the playing field for low-income people. We started Samasource six years ago with a mission to bring digital work to some of the lowest income people in the world. We thought if we could figure out a way to employ people in corners of the world where employment opportunities are really scarce we could really change the game for poverty alleviation. We started that six years ago. It evolved into a global outsourcing organization that has employed over 6,000 people and that has moved 25,000 people out of poverty. We have a model that we call microwork. We actually work with large technology enterprises primarily here in the Bay Area–companies like Google, Microsoft, and walmart.com. And we work with them to take large data projects and break them down into small units of work and then we train people in low-income communities to do this work from local computer labs. I’ll show you a little bit about what that looks like in practice in a minute.
Out of Samasource, we started SamaUSA which is a domestic program that’s somewhat similar. SamaUSA trains low-income community college students and youth around the country to learn how to use their existing skills to earn money online. We started a pilot last year and so far the program has been able to generate around $2000 in supplemental income for students who do an 80 hour bootcamp. And the average starting income for these students is around $11,000 a year. So we’ve seen some big impacts using the same philosophy of digital work. Lastly we kind of went out on a limb and had an idea for the world’s first crowdfunding site a couple of years ago for medical treatments. We were traveling through Africa and noticed a huge need for doctors who do surgeries to share word about what they were doing and to be able to attract donors directly.
So I’m going to tell you a little story. This is where I was two weeks ago. This is Mathare slum in Kenya. Have any of you been there? Show of hands. I love that in this audience I can ask that question and like ten people raised their hands. So those of you who have been to Mathare know that it’s a pretty destitute place. I’ve seen quite a lot of poverty in my lifetime and I haven’t quite seen something like this. There are open sewers everywhere. The community was built on a trash dump about 800,000 people live in this slum. And I went to spend the day with one of our workers, a young man named Kevin. Kevin started working with Samasource about a year and a half ago. He’s chosen to stay in Mathare because he actually has a small house that he owns so he’s able to save a hundred percent of his income. But just seeing what Kevin’s daily life looks like it’s such a reminder of the power of this kind of work.
The kind of work we do is a lifeline for people like Kevin. And there are so few jobs that pay dignified wages in a place like this. I took a photo of this sign as I was walking into the slum. There’s a huge challenge in met and much of East Africa around labor contracting. Young men get pulled out of these communities to go and work as labourers in countries that are that are building a lot and many of them get their passports taken and are part of the cycle of human trafficking and we wonder you know what what could we do to prevent this. And I feel like that the core essence of what we do at Sama Group with creating jobs is the long term solution to this. These kinds of signs are everywhere in poor countries were probably familiar with them. So this was walking in and then we got to Kevin’s house and he talked to me a lot about what it was like to raise his daughter in these conditions. He was orphaned at age 10 and his first job in the slum was putting his hands in an open sewer to collect little pieces of metal that would wash in from different parts of the slum and then he would sort the metal and take them to a local trash collector to make probably about $1.25 a day and that was his first job at 10 years old. And unbelievably this young man made it through secondary school he got a scholarship to attend a secondary school outside the slum. When I visited him he took out his worn collection of favorite novels including Moby Dick and told me that he was a great fan of literature and that his biggest challenge was that the kinds of jobs available to people like him in a place like Mathare didn’t really rely on his brainpower. So he was pretty depressed for a while. He tried many different jobs he tried making this local alcohol which a lot of people are addicted to. He tried anything he could do to make a few bucks. And then luckily he was selected into a program that trains young people in digital work skills and that program is a feeder for Samasource.
I think the biggest challenge for people like these is that there’s a sense of pervasive hopelessness around jobs. There’s the sense that it’s never going to get any better. I think that the least we can do for them is to fuel their optimism by connecting them to work.
So you can see here it’s a program called Nairobits and they’re all over Africa and they train young people in using computers and also using computers for relevant kind of job skills. He learned Photoshop, he learned blogging, and then he heard about Samasource through our recruiter. Since Kevin started working with us two years ago his entire life has changed. He’s been able to put aside money for his daughter’s education. He pays for several siblings to survive. Several of them still live in Mathare. And he has a completely different outlook on life. I think the biggest challenge for people like these is that there’s a sense of pervasive hopelessness around jobs. There’s the sense that it’s never going to get any better. I think that the least we can do for them is to fuel their optimism by connecting them to work.
So with that I’m going to invite Kevin Jones on stage and we’ll talk a little bit about the evolution of this organization.

Leila Janah and Kevin Jones in Conversation

Kevin Jones: So Leila, we’ve known each other awhile. Let me tell you a story about knowing Leila when she was a real raw startup–about six years ago I guess it was. I got Leila a little gig to be an intern for a YPO like thing, small group support group of really experienced social entrepreneurs Jim Fruchterman of Benetech and Rebecca Masisak of Techsoup, and my partner Tim Freundlich.
There was some cause that came along that people were donating to. I asked Leila if she could donate and she said no. She said, ‘you know to keep Samasource alive I’ve actually had to give up my apartment. I’m sleeping on the couch of my former boyfriend and I’m eating ramen.’ Wow! Echoing Green asked a question, what will keep you going when things are bad (to achieve) your mission? So I did this kind of small silly thing–I started giving her a check for $50 for protein every month–to put some chicken on the ramen. But now she’s a success–actually doing well enough that you just bought a house here, and congratulations, in San Francisco. That’s kind of you know it shows…you’re up to $10 million in revenue.
Leila Janah: House is kind of a euphemistic term here right yeah–San Francisco house.
Kevin Jones: On the nights when you’re on the couch thinking, this is it. I’ve hit a wall. This is not working. What kept you going?
Leila Janah: So first off I have to thank Kevin. I don’t even know if he knows this, but Jim Fruchterman who he mentioned was our very first client. He gave us a $30,000 contract right around the time that I got the protein donation. Those are the kinds of things that keep you going.
You know I think for me the constant validation came from the point of view of the workers. I made it a point, even when it didn’t make economic sense, to go back to Africa and talk to local people. It was the only thing that really kept me going in the end. That made me feel like, no matter what people were saying in the outside world–and we got a lot of negative feedback early on–I had people literally telling me there’s no way that these poor slum women are ever going to be able to do computer work. We need food and water and and clothing before they can do that. It was really hard to illustrate to people that the way they could purchase food and water was if they had a job.
Kevin Jones: The charity mindset was getting in the way.
I think there are a lot of preconceived ideas about education levels in Africa, and now we work all over the world, but people have the sense that people are poor and helpless and not very bright, right? And you go there and you realize that talent is equally distributed–it’s just opportunity that’s not.
Leila Janah: I think there are a lot of preconceived ideas about education levels in Africa, and now we work all over the world, but people have the sense that people are poor and helpless and not very bright, right? And you go there and you realize that talent is equally distributed–it’s just opportunity that’s not. What really kept me going was meeting our workers. I remember getting a note from one of them on Facebook in the early days that just said you know maybe you’re not aware but the fact that we had work at all–we worked in Dadaab a refugee camp in Kenya, a really desperate place–he said I don’t think you understand what the true meaning of what you’re doing here. People here are so hopeless. Just the exposure to all of these different ways of working and to the fact that they can be on a level playing field from the middle of Dadaab is pretty eye-opening for all of us. And I kept getting that validation from the people in the field and you know even when you’re feeling really terrible you’re sitting in San Francisco thinking like my life is not nearly as bad and that and and here are these people who are so grateful and so I’m not going to stop.
Kevin Jones: Were there people telling you ‘you should get a job–you’re smart you’re capable–stop living on nothing?’
Leila Janah: I heard everything from ‘marry rich,’ to you know “moonlight doing this and get a real job’ to turn it into a big corporate outsourcing company. Because our revenue growth on the sales side has always been really healthy and we were starting to see really great economies of scale in some areas of our work. And so a lot of my friends were like why on earth would you build this as a non-profit? You should build a big profitable outsourcing company. But my whole point in doing this was to use our model to show funders that it wasn’t actually so risky to move these kinds of projects to really low-income places and to do that I thought we had to be a nonprofit.
Kevin Jones: And what caused the the wheel to turn and the door to open so that you could afford a small apartment or you know live a life where you’re not just staring at somebody else’s ceiling?
Leila Janah: That was the Heinz Award. It’s amazing. There are a lot of organizations that exist out there to support social entrepreneurs. And you know it’s kind of a random process to get to get connected to them, but I feel like there was some grace involved in that. In prior years you know we had a steady revenue build we had a really solid really solid management team with good audits and so funders were willing to invest in us because they started seeing that we had the capacity to really do good work. And I remember having several conversations with funders who said, look doing this work doesn’t mean that you have to starve. And you shouldn’t feel ashamed to take a salary that allows you to live a dignified life in San Francisco. And you know especially as an unmarried woman in San Francisco there’s a lot of expenses that you have on your own. And I think that that’s a huge lesson for me. I try to tell younger social entrepreneurs don’t try to be a martyr. You know you’re trying to do this for the long run. 
Kevin Jones: When did you really think your model was gonna take off? You’re up to seven figure, eight figure revenues. When did you think it was really going to take off? Was there a sign that said hey we’re gonna make it
Leila Janah: I’m still really waiting for it to really take off. Our team is all sitting over here and
laughing at that. You know we see a lot of evidence of success, but we’re pretty hungry for more. I think one of the things that has made us moderately successful, and I still think there’s so much room for us to grow, it’s just that we have a lot of drive to do more and we look at the numbers and there’s so many…you know the unemployment crisis in just Sub-Saharan Africa alone is huge. So it kind of forces us to keep going. 
I think that one pivotal moment for us was when the Rockefeller Foundation last year decided to invest $80 million in Digital Jobs Africa, which is an initiative that in many ways was linked to Samasource. We were their first grantee in this category and I remember talking to their VP of strategy in the early days and saying look I really think this idea of bringing digital work to low-income communities in Africa is one of the solutions we can embrace for various reasons. And there was you know initially there was some resistance at the foundation, but they have a lot of really smart people and over time that’s evolved into a huge initiative and I think that kind of validation shows to the world that what’s now called impact sourcing is a business model. 
Kevin Jones: It’s a real business model. You know not everybody should keep going. Sometimes when you hit a wall, you should know the model is not working. I ran into some driven folks who should have quit a while ago. What do you tell folks like that like? You know when maybe it really isn’t working. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe you’re not the right person? What kind of advice can you tell people to not be like you? 
Leila Janah: I think a few things helped us out. One was setting really clear goals and saying if if we can’t hit these goals if we can’t hit this kind of return on investment that’s going to trigger an evaluation process and put us, not on probation, but at least on alert that at some point we should stop if we don’t start seeing a change because we’ll just be wasting donor money. And for us that ROI point was always, I mean my concept is, are we doing better than going to Africa with suitcases full of cash and giving direct cash transfers. And if we’re not you know there’s no sort of leverage of the model then then we should really reconsider what we’re doing. And with all of our programs, when we started Samahope and SamaUSA, we set really clear targets. For SamaUSA, for example we said–if students don’t earn at least what it cost to train them per person in the pilot then that could trigger an evaluation and we should be really careful about expanding or even continuing to fund it. And luckily that program thanks to the amazing leadership of its co-founder Tess Posner, that program has done remarkably well. And and I think that focus also made the team realize we have a goal to hit and we have accountability here
Kevin Jones: How about Samahope. Is it hitting its milestones? 
Leila Janah: It is. So we have a goal of treating a thousand patients this year. And we’re at about 500 and we’ve a bunch of things that we’re planning for the website to scale it. The challenge and I’ll just add this on to what I said earlier, along with those kinds of metrics I think you also need to realize that every model has an incubation period. Our CFO who comes from Oracle has said to our team, we really think that there’s a three-year incubation period. Most things can’t really get off the ground and show any traction for about three years and so what we look at is can we fund something for a three-year horizon and is our board comfortable making a three-year commitment and I think that’s roughly the time that you need to determine whether something is going to be a success. 
Kevin Jones: This is the second year for Samahope? 
Leila Janah: Yeah. We relaunched the site in November last year so we’re sort of counting that as a start. And before that you know there was like $25,000 in funding from an angel.
Kevin Jones: What’s next a for-profit spin-out or anything else that you’re gonna build? 
Leila Janah: So we have three enterprises now which are keeping us really busy and SamaUSA and Samasource are quite similar. So we really kind of view those as two programs that are working together. 
Kevin Jones: Do it in the US and do it in Africa.
Leila Janah: Exactly. And what we’ve realized is that we can use our brand now, which has strong brand recognition, to start thinking about developing one additional business line that could bring us more revenue so some of sources are really amazing business from the standpoint of how many people it can employ and how fast it’s growing, but it’s not a very high margin business. Low end digital work is becoming more and more commoditized. So it’s a healthy social enterprise, but we don’t think it’s ever going to generate profits that can kick back into the group and fund new ventures that we want to start or you know subsidize the operations of something that’s not as revenue generating like Samahope. And so we have a concept in mind–I can’t share all of the details, but it’s in the beauty category and and it’s in the luxury space. And we’re evaluating different options for launching a brand that can generate these kinds of returns for the group. And I think at that point we’ll probably take a break. 
Kevin Jones: And the beauty category would be sourcing from some of these same people-providing jobs for the same people?  
Leila Janah: Exactly I mean one of the core tenants of Sama Group is giving work and you know we really believe that dignified work is a solution to a lot of the problems that we see from labor trafficking, to sex trafficking, to child malnutrition–right. And so this is a different method of giving work that involves sourcing not digital work, but but sourcing raw ingredients from low-income communities and I think that there’s a huge opportunity in this space to look at categories like luxury where the margins are really high but typically go to you know LVMH marketing or they go to these very large corporations. I think very few social enterprises think about tackling that space. 
Kevin Jones: Right the luxury and fair trade thing. Alter-ego is one of our investors and they have a new truffle that actually has all the social value baked in at that margin you know and so it but chocolate doesn’t quite cover all the social good it so that’s that’s I’m seeing some people do some interesting thing nobody’s done anything quite big enough yet.
Leila Janah: I think Maiyet is really interesting. I haven’t followed the social impact side of that story, but I think they’ve done a really beautiful job of building a luxury brand that also highlights artisans in developing countries. And I think that that sort of a riff on the traditional Fairtrade model that’s getting more traction. 
Kevin Jones: Yeah and then you would be the spokesmodel entrepreneur kind of thing? 
Leila Janah: Yes, we have to have a product first, but yes that’s the goal. 
Kevin Jones: Yeah so many people are coming to put you on magazines and then you’re giving the money from the the photo shoots to Samasource and I mean that seems to be where the idea came. 
Leila Janah: I will say that I don’t. Probably other women social entrepreneurs in the room might have thoughts about this, but you know initially I was kind of conflicted about using my personal brand and story so closely tied to the nonprofit as part of my work. And then at some point you just realized that that’s your job as an entrepreneur is to use what you have to offer to build your organization and and I think because there are so few younger women in tech and younger women in social enterprise in tech, we get a lot of opportunities to tell our story and a lot of invitations to panels and being featured and that sort of thing so it did come out of that. We thought well how can we leverage this more? We’re getting so much attention from women’s magazines for example and unfortunately the people making decisions about Samasource type work are typically middle-aged men you know in tech companies in Silicon Valley not reading Marie Claire. Right yeah so we do. I think we’ve been sort of market driven and opportunistic from the beginning and when we see an opportunity like that we evaluate it. 
Kevin Jones: yeah and it seems like it’s really there you get the attention but then you can source the goods that are that are incredibly high margin that are going to the same people. 
Leila Janah: And it only works if you have a fantastic team that can execute flawlessly. I’m really proud of our team. We’ve built it out a lot over the last few years and so I’m able to go out there and do my thing and know that the home fires are burning. 
Kevin Jones: You’re a role model for a lot of young social integrators because you’ve built something from nothing and at a sacrifice. What do you tell other entrepreneurs? I mean do you get into evaluating, well maybe you should quit or do you just say, press on? What do you tell somebody when they can be wrongly inspired by your example to keep hitting a wall that they can’t break down? 
I think the other thing is my grandmother. (My grandmother) hitchhiked around the world after World War Two. She’s a Belgian woman and met my grandfather in Calcutta and she had this motto: trust the world. And when my parents were getting their first mortgage and really scared she leaned in and told my dad, fear not–the world is beautiful. Trust the world. And I think that’s kind of true. I think if you allow other people to help you and you allow other people in, you’ll be often pleasantly surprised.
Leila Janah: Well I will say that the things that are most worth doing are the hardest usually. And there were several moments that I could have quit, but I remember reading a Ben Horowitz blog post. He’s from Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capitalist. And he has this saying ‘don’t punk out and quit.’ And I think it’s often like right after those worst moments that the best moments can come. Last year I had a huge issue trying to push this new strategic plan through. There was some disagreement among our board and it was really really really hard. There were several moments when I just thought I don’t know if I could do this longer. And and I think doing anything requires–my philosophy is I’m gonna put 10 years into this and see where it is. And push through those hard times. 
I think the other thing is my grandmother. (My grandmother) hitchhiked around the world after World War Two. She’s a Belgian woman and met my grandfather in Calcutta and she had this motto: trust the world. And when my parents were getting their first mortgage and really scared she leaned in and told my dad, fear not–the world is beautiful. Trust the world. And I think that’s kind of true. I think if you allow other people to help you and you allow other people in, you’ll be often pleasantly surprised. 
Kevin Jones: Yeah, I run into lots of would-be visionaries and that kind of thing and if they’re not being followed by people or if people aren’t helping and if there’s not social capital coming in… Another thing I’ve learned from Echoing Green is (to ask) what are your volunteer resources and are people giving you more things now than they did when you started? I saw something in you. You were worth some protein. Jim Fruchterman thought it was worth a thirty thousand dollar contract. I mean that could be an indicator too. The world did show up for you.
Leila Janah: Absolutely and I will say, as a counter to don’t punk out and quit– you also have to be rational. So if you’re really not hitting that the goals that you set for yourself and if donors are, after three years, still having issues–even if you can show them really good data–I think I think having a clear impact model that you can be rational about really helps. Then I think that should call into question what you’re doing. So it’s not don’t punk out and quit for anything. If a model is not working you need to adjust it. But I do think that a lot of people quit prematurely or quit before trying to pivot and trying to build something new if what they’re doing is not working. I think it’s especially true in social enterprise because it’s just so hard. You know I feel like we have all the burden, as nonprofit social entrepreneurs, of tech startups but without any of the upside. And so it really is sort of mission and calling oriented work and I think it requires a certain level of resilience.
Kevin Jones: Yeah and there was a Jim Fruchterman around that you could you could reach out you in the Bay Area. Sometimes it’s hard. A particular entrepreneur I was working with a while ago,a Native American company called Native Touch needed to know about distribution for cosmeceuticals. Luckily I could find somebody at Social Venture Network who knew that kind of thing, but I realize that’s a real hard thing. So we’ve invested in a company called Startgrid that finds you the domain-specific mentor that you don’t have in the Bay Area. Do you do any mentoring to younger entrepreneurs?
Leila Janah: I do. I try to do it more ad hoc and I actually mentor a couple of the daughters of women on our staff who are younger and they can come by the office often. I really enjoy it and I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by a number of amazing people. I met Howard Schultz a little under a year ago and the way he’s built Starbucks is so inspirational to me in terms of our mission is giving work. I feel like I have some kind of a duty to give back. It’s also tough though there’s so many demands on your time.

Kevin Jones: What would you say to a young social entrepreneur looking at you saying I want to be like her–I want to grow to $10 million from almost zero. How should they follow your path?
Leila Janah: I would say that the most important thing is to clarify your core values and why you’re doing what you’re doing and then, when you’ve decided on a model, to embrace it with grace, grit, and optimism.
Kevin Jones: What would you say to a young social entrepreneur looking at you saying I want to be like her–I want to grow to $10 million from almost zero. How should they follow your path?
Leila Janah: I would say that the most important thing is to clarify your core values and why you’re doing what you’re doing and then, when you’ve decided on a model, to embrace it with grace, grit, and optimism. 

Her Legacy

Though her life was cut short, the organizations that Leila Janah founded, Samasource, Samaschool, and LXMI, will continue to create positive impact in the lives of people around the world.
When Samasource announced Janah’s passing they promised that they are “committed to continuing Leila’s work, and to ensuring her legacy and vision is carried out for years to come.”

Learn More About Leila Janah

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