In rural Northern Uganda, a group of workers assemble each day in a shipping container, which is equipped with solar panels on the roof and high-speed Internet access. These workers are trained by an U.S.-based nonprofit organization called Samasource to perform work for fast-growing tech companies like LinkedIn and Eventbrite.
At Samasource’s helm is a 31-year-old San Franciscan: Leila Janah.
Inspiration for the company struck when Janah was just a teenager and teaching English to high school students in Ghana. During this trip, she noticed that the country’s most talented and well-educated young people could not find employment opportunities and were wasting away in slums.
In her 20s, Janah quit her steady day job at a consulting firm to launch Samasource. She became one of the pioneers of a new “microwork” model and the face of the emerging technology-for-good movement.
Today, Samasource is flourishing, with thousands of young people in emerging nations earning a fair wage to perform computer work, including content moderation, photo-tagging, and routine data entry. Samasource takes a small cut of the overall budget from corporate clients to sustain its operations.
I caught up with Janah during a break in preparations for an upcoming fundraiser. Each year, her gala draws Silicon Valley’s most glamorous entrepreneurs, and it typically raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes. It’s a particularly exciting time for the entrepreneur, who recently announced her engagement to investor and yoga instructor Benjamin Lesley, and a new crowdfunding site called Samahope.
Entrepreneurship meets philanthropy
Samasource is a bit different from most nonprofits, as it aims to generate sustainable revenues. Janah has also borrowed management techniques from the most successful tech companies, like Facebook and Google.
“The nonprofit world is embracing lean business methods and is more comfortable with the idea of experimentation and failure,” she said.
Janah first got the idea when she moved to Ghana as a teenager and made friends with many of the locals, many of whom couldn’t find reasonable employment.
After college, she joined an elite management-consulting firm and went to Southeast Asia to work on a project. In the bustling city of Mumbai, she made the acquaintance of a man living in the slums, the site of the hit indie flick Slumdog Millionaire. “He helped me realize that there were young people with secondary school education living in poverty, who have the skill and will to work,” she told me.
Pioneering the microwork model
Corporations such as Walmart, LinkedIn, eBay, Evenbrite, and Getty Images have already signed up as Samasource clients.
“We have brought these companies into places you would never expect digital work,” she said.
They negotiate a fee with Samasource, and Janah’s team on the ground provides training, equipment, quality assurance, and more. Workers in the developing world receive a fair wage, and with opportunities for career advancement.
Since Janah introduced the microwork model, over 15,000 people have been lifted from the poverty line, and 92 percent move on to higher paying work or higher education. The majority of Samasource’s workers are under 30, and over 50 percent are women, according to Janah.
Janah does not hail from a privileged background and has hustled her way up the career ladder. She did not have a nest egg to fall back on when she quit the consulting firm.
“It took a long time to get Samasource off the ground,” she explained. In 2008, she couldn’t afford health insurance and was earning less than $400 a month. She slept on a friend’s futon in San Francisco and tutored over the weekends to make ends meet.
Indeed, starting a nonprofit is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s a slog,” she remarks. “You have to be resilient and in it for the long haul.”
Despite her struggles, Janah believes it has become exponentially easier for anyone to start a nonprofit. New service-oriented startups like Uber and Taskrabbit offer flexible work and a decent hourly wage.
The challenges of running a business
Janah recently experienced some drama on her board of directors, and it’s still fresh on her mind. She emerged from the whole episode with the realization that a far more insidious form of sexism exists: paternalism.
“I used to think that the worst form of discrimination for women was being hit on or hearing something disparaging,” she said. “What’s even more challenging for young women is a very senior male who will take an interest in you, who see themselves as father figures or mentors.”
According to Janah, when there’s a difference in opinion, the relationship will quickly turn nasty.
“These paternal figures can’t handle being defied, and that’s a big problem,” she said.
Janah advises that other entrepreneurs stay true to their vision despite intimidation tactics from older colleagues.
Janah admits that she hasn’t been the most supportive CEO in the past. However, in her 30s, she’s begun to dedicate more time to managing people and refining her leadership style.
“I used to think my job as a CEO meant managing metrics and meeting goals,” she told me. “But I’ve realized now that’s it’s about managing my board and employees.”
Her advice to fellow female executives? Ensure that others can feel and experience your passion. “True leadership isn’t about having an idea. It’s about having an idea and recruiting other people to execute on this vision,” she said.
Janah admits that she used to dedicate upward of 16 hours a day to her work. “It’s not glamorous, but I think there’s something to be said for the sheer number of hours you can work,” she said. The entrepreneur still intends to work hard, but she has realized that more hours don’t necessarily mean better results.
Her secret to success is that she can survive on very little sleep. “I have a lot of energy, which I pour into the company.” However, for the sake of clarity (and her employees, who don’t all share her stamina), she intends to take short vacations with her fiancé and relax at home. She describes her future husband as an attentive partner, one who deserves her time and attention.
“In the long-term, the only way to be successful in this path is to have a good support network,” she concluded. “I have to invest in that network.”