The aid effort was failing.
That’s one of the first things Leila Janah noticed when she moved to Ghana for six months, during her high school senior year, to teach English to blind students in Ghana.
Talented people were struggling to live their lives because of the predatory aid model—which encouraged dependence—and geographic isolation—which limited good work opportunities.
It was a watershed experience. Inspired, she began school at Harvard by creating her own special major, African Development Studies, to dive into the issue. In school, she explained, “I spent all the time I could understanding what makes poor countries poor and what prevents low-income people within poor countries from moving quickly up the economic ladder.”
After graduating, she started as a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners (now Booz and Co.), founded Incentives for Global Health, and worked at a variety of NGOs.
Working in various fields opened her to eyes to the different factors affecting poverty.
As a teacher, spending time with low-income communities, she discovered that the paternalistic aid models prevented impoverished communities from becoming competitive on the global job market. People grew dependent on the money, creating a negative feedback loop.
At Incentives for Global Health, she used market-solutions to solve worldwide health issues. In her eyes, the capitalistic system was here to stay; instead of working against it, we could use it to solve the problems it created.
But her epiphany surfaced as a consultant when she became aware of the transportation barriers affecting low-income communities. Her company assigned her to take a call center in India public. There, she talked with workers who had to commute many miles every day from the slums. After a particularly enlightening conversation, she asked the question, “what if we could locate the call center in the slums?” And from there, she realized that the same model of bringing work opportunities directly to communities could also work in countries like Ghana in East Africa.
Many would’ve tossed the idea as fairytale economics. After all, how could one combat poverty when its tendrils extended so deep into disconnected communities around the world.
But Leila was different.
“I was always hustling. I was always interested in social justice and environmental justice. It was a part of my upbringing, [and] it’s part of my family’s history and upbringing. I feel like it was as much destiny as there could be,” she told me, explaining how her childhood turned her into that kind of person.
She always had ideas, always acted on them, and loved forming teams to get started. In middle school, she kickstarted an International Club. In high school, she founded a chapter of the ACLU and led the Debate team.
For Leila, fleshing out her ideas in the real world was as much the community as it was the idea. She elaborated, “I think a company, at the end of the day, is just a community of people with a shared objective. It’s the same kind of concept of getting people excited about an idea and sharing a vision and executing on that vision together.”
Daunting as it may be, solving poverty one community at a time was destiny for Leila. With an idea and the experience of leadership across domains, Leila Janah founded Samasource. As she put it, “we connect low-income people to cutting edge artificial intelligence and machine learning work that moves them out of poverty.”
How did they come up with the idea behind this new model for poverty reduction? In emerging markets, giving too much aid money prevents people from developing marketable job skills. To help these people better compete in the global market and develop themselves, it’s necessary to pair them with well-paying jobs that bring the competitive global work (like AI) directly to their doors.
When Leila first started the company, it was challenging. Before they settled on AI, they tried a variety of work, ranging from remote assistance to travel booking. Many of those projects failed, and many of the people she worked with made it hard to push forward.
Some partners didn’t follow fair-pay guidelines for employees—which was the whole premise behind their company. Early on, they were also short on cash. Their San Francisco office, in fact, had challenges with managing a budget for HR because nobody would give them funding. Foundations thought Samasource was just another profit-grubbing business, while potential business investors thought the company was too “social-enterprisey.”
Leila struggled the most, however, with learning to run an international company. Most companies start domestic in a niche market. But since Samasource was premised on the idea of connecting developing communities with high skill jobs, Leila had to start out across borders immediately.
Cultural differences quickly manifested. Leila mused, “not everything that you read about in leadership guidelines in the US is appropriate in a different country, and yet some things are universal. Your core values are universal. [But] how you exercise those values can vary.”
In fact, when I called Leila, she was in Kenya at a delivery center working with a team to make some of their processes more efficient. Succeeding in diverse environments involved a lot of listening, learning, and sharing. Leila would hear the obstacles they faced, bring one of her best practices from Silicon Valley, and collaborate with native workers to adapt those procedures for that specific location. Something that works in California might not work in Kenya.
But then again, even with all the cultural barriers to cross, there was a high level of excitement in the company. Leila told me that when people saw something successful and meaningful, they wanted to be a part of it. And that greatly helped her in building up her team.
Despite the early successes, Leila often “felt challenged to the brink.” When the company was four or five years old, she got engaged. Company growth took over her life. Her relationship with her fiancée was tenuous. She saw herself sacrificing her personal life to control the internal chaos in the company.
And she almost quit.
However, on a phone call with friends from the Valley, Leila absorbed an important founder’s virtue. Do what’s best for your company and think about the impact of your decision three to four years from now. She didn’t quit. And it was the best choice she ever made because, in that time of intense changes, she realized that leaving would’ve caused the business to collapse.
It also helps to have a strong support group around you with complementary skill sets—relieving the pressure. In particular, Leila praised the current interim CEO, Wendy Gonzalez, who joined five years prior.
She is extremely patient and detail-oriented and is able to see in a large team all the moving parts. Once a thing’s broken, [she knows] what is needed to go in and fix it. She is very organizationally savvy. And on the flip side, I’m very creative and entrepreneurial. I see big picture trends. I see what’s happening in the market. I can woo an audience and get a new sales lead or funding lead but I often don’t have that organizational intelligence. And really both of those types of intelligence are needed to make a company grow and be successful.
Through building her team, overcoming cultural barriers, and finding reliable funding and support for her company, Leila learned two major lessons.
First is to trust your gut. Leila sometimes doubts her decisions. Listening to seniors on the team, she might go against her gut. But every single time it’s proven to be the wrong move. As a founder bestowed with the vision of where you want your company to go, you often know what’s best, even if others aren’t on board. But she warns, “this is not to say that you shouldn’t take input or a process for coming to decisions because often what my gut feeling might be telling me in a moment is not necessarily the right thing over time. Just observe that feeling over time, collect data, get input, and then check in with yourself.”
Second, Leila explains that you need to have confidence in your decisions. Similar to trusting your gut, once you’ve made a decision, go all in. When others—especially investor and board members—push back on your ideas, you have to have the resolve to say no and believe in your decisions. Endlessly capitulating on “rights” and “wrongs” will hurt your company. You’re better off sticking to your values.
But most of all, Leila pointed out what she thinks is the secret sauce to personal success as an entrepreneur.
I think not quitting is the single most important strength for an entrepreneur and frankly for a human. There are many many times when life gets so challenging that if you feel like it’s not worth it or it’s overwhelming or why am I even alive, and I think that it’s Brave and courageous to keep going and face those obstacles.
Samasource is, ultimately, a company focused on building a coalition around humanity. It’s even in their marketing message, which focused on storytelling and bringing benefits to customers for working with a social enterprise. They’ve successfully built AI training data with a marginalized workforce and have helped move tens of thousands of families and individuals out of poverty. They’re “the largest data services company in East Africa and probably the biggest AI company in Subsaharan Africa today.”
With a completely different approach to poverty reduction and a mission anyone can relate to, Samasource is one-of-a-kind as well.
A Note From The Editor
I interviewed Leila Janah last year, and she has had an unparalleled impact on me. Her message on social entrepreneurship and leveling the playing field even pushed me to start my own company. But my biggest takeaway from her was to not give up. To be confident in my decisions. And I saw that play out in her life. Her battle against cancer while running her company was immensely inspiring to me, and it pushed me to go out there and create more opportunities for others.
Without this serendipitous interview, I might not be where I am today. So for Leila, in memorial to your contributions to the world, thank you.
Be confident. Own it. Don’t be a shrinking violet.
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