Doing Well by Doing Good: An Interview with Leila Janah, Founder and CEO of Sama and Laxmi

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(Photo credit: Lee-or Atsmon Fruin)

At age 25, Leila left her consulting job in NYC to launch Samasource, bringing her skill set in management consulting to the global development space. In Sanskrit, sama means equal. It's the essence of her social enterprise - fighting global poverty by providing people equal access to jobs. She is truly multicultural and she even speaks French fluently ;)

You are the Founder and CEO of Sama and Laxmi; two companies that share a common social mission to end global poverty by giving work to people in need. Tell me about your transition from working at a management consulting firm to fighting global poverty.

In 2005, I was working in India for an American management consulting firm at a large call center. One day, I met a young man who I learned commuted to the center from Dharavi, the infamous slum depicted in the film Slumdog Millionaire, and I was shocked. Here was someone capable of taking calls for British Airways who was living in a cholera-infested slum. I couldn't help but wonder how many more were like him?

At the time I was reading Tom Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, and I had an epiphany: if outsourcing could generate billions of dollars for a few Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, why couldn't we use it to send a few dollars to the billions of poor people who need it most? Soon after that, I quit my New York consulting job, moved to Palo Alto, and I launched a social enterprise nonprofit called Samasource. It was September 2008, I was 25.

You mentioned in an interview that a profound experience in Africa was what led you to pursue mission driven work. Can you share that experience with us?

I was 17 when I took my first trip to Africa. I was a high school senior living in southern California and, through a scholarship I earned through a big tobacco company - of all places - I traveled to Ghana to teach English as part of a student-volunteer program.

I taught in the village of Akuapem and quickly settled in with students from the area, whose ages ranged from 11 to 25 and many of whom were blind. Water and electricity were available only sporadically. People walked everywhere and a trip to the capital required a two-hour ride on a tro tro, a privately-owned minivan packed with people.

Despite all of these obstacles, my students managed to make it to school every day dressed in white pressed shirts. They were extremely motivated and eager to learn.

"In all of these programs, I care about only one thing: lifting people out of poverty. We spend so much money on charity and on these stopgaps like providing poor people with free stuff. What people need most is an income." Why do you believe giving work is the most powerful solution to ending global poverty? Why use technology and private sector methods?

So many problems - from sex trafficking to infant mortality - are rooted in poverty. The only true solution to ending poverty is to give people income. The most popular theory around this is to give cash through mechanisms like universal basic income and cash transfers. Another option, and one that costs less, is to give work.

Samasource recently completed an analysis that proves that compared to cash transfers, giving work provides deeper, more sustained benefits to people and their families. Measured over a 4-year period, giving work resulted in a 184% increase in income relative to a 41% increase in giving cash. The analysis also looked at consumption patterns to understand the impact of income on the movement out of poverty. The findings indicate significant increases in savings (140%), and spend on food (100%) and education (71%).

This type of investment doesn't just affect the earner but also extends to their families and broader community. Giving work is really the long-game of poverty reduction.

Samaschool trains students in the US in high demand digital skills. What did you observe in the United States that drove you to launch Samaschool?

Samaschool is the training arm of Samasource and while it started in the US, it has since grown to reach people from around the world- namely through our online program.

We wanted to start something in the US because someone heard me speak on Samasource and challenged me, saying that we weren't doing anything to address poverty here in our own backyard. I actually invited him to share his ideas and after I talked to a few more people and secured a bit of funding to get it off the ground, we launched a pilot of the Samaschool program in 2013 in Merced, one of the most impoverished communities in California's Central Valley.

What we saw in the US was an opportunity gap: millions of jobs were being posted to online platforms, and unemployed people in communities like Merced couldn't access those types of jobs because they didn't possess the digital skills. Samaschool was created to bridge that gap and the program continues to grow and adapt to keep up with market driven skills and trends - like training for gig economy apps.

Samasource employed 7,605 workers since 2008; that's huge! How many workers do you project will be hired by 2018?

Under our current revenue plan, we expect to hire an additional 2,700 people by 2018.

"Sama" means "equal" in Sanskrit. Apart from your own initiatives, how do you hope to bring more "sama" in the world we live in today?

What I - and my team - spend a lot of time on now is thinking about how to make this idea of giving work mainstream.

For companies, that might mean taking our Give Work Pledge that will launch later this fall and committing to a 1% impact sourcing initiative such as hiring 1% of its workforce from marginalized backgrounds. For consumers - people like you and me - that might be purchasing more goods from fair trade or social enterprises that give work to low-income people.

Our hope is to create a movement around this and start viewing these people as producers and participants in our global economy vs. recipients of aid.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as an entrepreneur?

There have been a lot of lessons along the way but a big one has been understanding the relationship between altruism and ego.

As a social entrepreneur, people often view me as a saint and incapable of flaws. This type of praise can certainly go to your head - and lead to what I call an "unchecked ego" - so I have to take a step back and remind myself of my smallness.

I do this by following a simple routine that grounds me when the work starts to feel overwhelming:

1. I meditate, usually for 5-20 minutes a day.
2. I read about "bigger-than-humanity" subjects like the intricacies of the ocean or deep space.
3. I exercise: Kitesurfing and dance remind me that I'm part of a larger community.

Finally, do you think by doing good, you're more successful?

I don't know if "successful" is the right term, but this type of work is certainly rewarding. To me, success is a journey. It's something best measured over the arc of a lifetime, so I think it's too early to tell.