Leila Chirayath Janah is the founder of Samasource, an award-winning social business that connects people living in poverty to microwork — small, computer-based tasks that build skills and generate life-changing income. Janah is a frequent speaker on social entrepreneurship and technology, and her work has been profiled by CBS, CNN, NPR, the BBC, The New York Times, and The New Scientist. She serves on the board of the non-profit TechSoup Global and as an advisor to mobile shopping app Spreetales. She received the World Technology Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2010, and in 2009 was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Women in Tech.
Prior to Samasource, Janah was a founding Director of Incentives for Global Health, an initiative to increase R&D spending on diseases of the poor, and a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners (now Booz & Co.). She has also worked at the World Bank and as a travel writer for Let’s Go in Mozambique, Brazil, and Borneo.
Janah was a Visiting Scholar with the Stanford Program on Global Justice and Australian National University’s Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. She received a BA from Harvard and lives in San Francisco.
Can you tell us a little bit about Samasource and what inspired you to start it?
I founded Samasource in 2008 to reduce poverty among poor women and youth by giving them dignified work. Inspired by entrepreneurs I had met in Kenya the year before, and by experiences I had as a management consultant working in the global services sector, I engineered the idea of sending microwork — small, web-based tasks like enhancing or verifying data, images, and text –to people who live on less than three dollars a day in poor parts of the world. Samasource employs this workforce in 16 work centers around the world, providing a web platform that we built in-house, training for workers, and a lot of work quality management and feedback. Our team in San Francisco runs sales, international operations, and engineering, and operates much like a typical startup. To date, Samasource has provided work to more than 1,500 people living in India, Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa and distributed over one million US dollars in worker payments to the field.
I first visited Africa when I was seventeen to volunteer at a school for blind in Ghana. There, I quickly learned that many of the ideas I had about poverty were wrong— I found that people are poor because they are disconnected from global markets. In Ghana, this was manifested directly in a lack of good, quality jobs available to bright young people. Most of my students wanted to leave Ghana for no other reason than to find decent work.
I believe that the best societies are the ones that promote the hardest working and brightest people. After Ghana, I felt that my life’s purpose was to level the playing field for work. I feel that even more strongly now. I think we have a duty, as people who live in a relatively wealthy country, to free up all of this talent waiting in the wings and ready to participate in the global economy. We have to connect that talent to genuine opportunity.
The idea of Samasource really came together a few years later in 2007 when I was in Kenya on a safari. I got bored vacationing and convinced a local business incubator to connect me to some local entrepreneurs in the emerging tech space in Nairobi. I met almost 50 who were starting small companies that could do data entry, web mining, and other basic tasks. The entrepreneurs told me that their greatest challenge was finding enough contracts for employment. I asked them how someone like me might be valuable to them. “Go out and find us work. You can sell our services”, they said.
Outsourcing deals are typically won on golf courses and in the boardrooms and bars of big European and American cities. These Kenyan entrepreneurs were totally disconnected from global markets, but willing and able to work.
Can you tell us a story of how the Samasource platform was successfully used?
In 2009, we began building a delivery center in Haiti using low-cost netbooks and satellite connectivity, on the back of our tech platform. Haitians live in a densely populated country (10 million people on an island smaller than Maryland), learn French and English at school, share a time zone with New York, and live a short, cheap flight away from Miami – all this makes them great candidates for digital work. In a region where the chief economic activity is subsistence farming and 80% of the population lives in poverty, the type of work Samasource offers could make a dramatic impact. Fifty-three percent of Haitians are literate. By the most conservative estimate, that leaves about a million people as potential Samasource workers.
When the country was rocked by a massive earthquake on January 12th, 2010, it became clear that Samasource’s work in Haiti would become an important part of the country’s reconstruction, and we moved ahead with great urgency. Working with a partner on the ground, we maintained Internet connectivity in Mirebalais and provided microwork opportunities to people who had lost their livelihoods. Today, Samasource has trained forty workers in Haiti who now have employment and a growing set of skills. Most importantly, they have hope for the future.
What’s the largest challenge in bringing digital work to rural communities in the developing world?
My vision is that Samasource operates on a business model that benefits both our clients and our workers by offering a qualified distributed pool of labor that is well educated, trained and motivated. Because we focus on work that requires some measure of expertise and dedication, our biggest challenges are designing the micro tasks smartly and giving people the right and effective training. We stay on top of this by employing a dedicated workforce managed by strong local leaders who provide quality control and extensive training in local work centers.
One challenge to the work that Samasource does is the fact that jobs that could be done by workers here in the US are being outsourced to workers abroad. How do you respond to individuals that challenge Samasource’s mission on those grounds?
Before going to Africa, I started my career in global justice working on educational equity for the ACLU in Inglewood, a neighborhood close to where I went to high school. There are definitely important battles to be fought here in America, and we’re actually in the midst of brainstorming ways to bring Samasource’s model to the US.
In terms of our global work, I would respond by saying that Samasource is not displacing opportunities for Americans, but rather expanding what businesses can do with a limited budget. Minimum wages in the US start at over $5 per hour, but the work we do tend to be lower-skill tasks that don’t make sense to do at that cost – it would put most of our clients out of business. Moving this work to lower-cost locations is the only option for our clients to maintain prices Americans can afford. Most of our clients choose Samasource over other offshore providers, not American workers — given that its already a part of the supply chain, we’re generally competing with large, for-profit outsourcing firms in big cities in India and China. These firms have generated seven billionaires in the last 20 years. These companies don’t recruit marginalized women and youth, and do not guarantee living wages to their workers. Because of their high attrition rates, we also tend to outperform them on quality. So I think what we do is a win-win for American businesses and for poor women and youth who desperately need a chance.
What’s the vision for Samasource for the next 5 years?
To date, we have distributed over one million US dollars in microwork wages since our founding. We have a global capacity of close to 2000 workers. Looking to the future, we aim to scale and take work to tens of thousands of workers in the next five years. Once Samasource really takes off, I envision building a family of “Sama” social businesses, all focused on using technology to drive social change.
How can our readers help you push forward your mission?
Readers can support Samasource’s efforts in Haiti and worldwide by giving work or donating through our website. We also accept qualified volunteers for projects that require a minimum commitment of a few hours a week. If you’re interested, please email us at email@example.com. You can also follow us on Twitter (@Samasource) and Like us on Facebook (facebook.com/Samasource).
Originally published on Care2.