Leila Janah launched Samasource, a global nonprofit that provides impoverished people with digital employment, at age 25. Eight years later, Samasource has moved 7,600 people in developing nations into living-wage jobs—with a ripple effect (including families) that has elevated 30,000 lives. Real Simple spoke with Janah, 33, about the distance between dreaming up a smart solution and putting it into practice.
How did you come up with the idea for Samasource?
I was working as a management consultant right after college. When I first joined the firm, I was sent to work for a major outsourcing company in India. I was 22, and I had no idea what I was doing. It was incredible exposure to this new industry of digital work and the start of the digital economy.
What did you learn?
These big outsourcing firms were getting set up in India, China, the Philippines, and South Africa to do back-office work for big companies in the U.S. I thought, If this model can work hiring middle-class people in India, couldn’t the same idea bring opportunities to the poorest people? After a couple of years, I left and started Samasource. [Sama means “equal” in Sanskrit.]
What kind of work does Sama provide people?
Tasks like tagging images, captioning video, transcribing, and other things that can be done through the Internet. Most require only basic training—though now we have some that call for a higher skill set, so there’s room for promotion. We train people to do the work.
We’re mostly in East Africa and South Asia, and we have a small presence in Haiti.
What was your childhood like?
My parents were immigrants from India. They came [to the United States] with nothing, and it was a constant struggle. We never had enough money. There was quite a lot of discord in my family. I worked a lot—babysitting, tutoring, as a legal secretary. I got a scholarship to go teach in Africa when I was 17. I didn’t really have a home life to rely on. That’s part of the reason I wanted to leave.
You spent most of your senior year of high school in Africa.
I was there for six months and came back the day of my prom. It was a culture shock coming back and trying to make sense of the fact that some people in the world have so little and work so hard to earn not even enough to pay for the most basic needs.
What about college?
I went to Harvard and did a special major in African-development studies. I ended up going back to Africa pretty much every summer after that. After working in Africa for nonprofits and traditional NGOs, I realized what people most needed was income. They didn’t want handouts. They didn’t want people to just give them stuff.
How did you first get Sama off the ground?
I was a visiting scholar at Stanford and was part of a business-plan competition that won us $14,000. Then I got $30,000 from a European business-plan competition. Those helped, but it was still really, really hard.
What came next?
I went into Nairobi first, and we worked with people who came from the slums. We got our first contract from a nonprofit in Silicon Valley. They had books they were trying to digitize for blind readers, and they gave me a $30,000 contract. I found a local Nairobi guy who ran an Internet café that had four computers and convinced him to be the first person to do recruiting and training.
What’s a mistake you’ve learned from?
I think my biggest mistakes have come from being impatient. As an entrepreneur, I’m constantly urging my people to keep pushing. I think that can burn people out, and it’s not a great way to run a business long-term.
What’s your life like outside of work?
One of the challenges of doing this work is that I travel so much, it can be hard to maintain a consistent presence in San Francisco. I was traveling 80 percent of the time for the last year. I don’t have kids. I’ve built up an amazing network of friends, and they’re around the world. I kite-surf, paraglide, and do a lot of adventure sports. My friends do these things, which makes it easy. I know it’s a blessing to be able to do this and not have responsibilities that pull me away from that right now. I’m sure I’ll have kids at some point.
Any parting advice?
My biggest advice comes from Shonda Rhimes, and it’s to be your own sun. Women are socialized to think we need to be partnered, we need to have a family, we need to somehow be revolving around someone else. Instead, think of yourself as the sun, not the planet.