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‘We Teach People How to Benefit from the Gig Economy’

Leila Janah, the social entrepreneur behind the nonprofit Samasource, wants to lift people in developing countries out of poverty—now by selling face cream.  

Leila Janah.

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Leila Janah
Founder and CEO of Samasource and LXMI
Age: 34
Residence: San Francisco

San Francisco: You started your nonprofit Samasource when you were only 25. What’s the idea behind it?
Leila Janah: In Sanskrit, sama means “equal.” My goal is to get 100,000 people moved out of poverty as soon as possible. I want to shift the role of philanthropy from giving away stuff to people to giving them jobs.

And how do you do that?
We teach people how to benefit from the gig economy. Low-income people often don’t know how to access information on these types of jobs. We train them so they can do jobs such as moderating reviews on TripAdvisor or categorizing catalog merchandise for Walmart or content work for Glassdoor or building custom databases for companies. We’ve helped elevate 35,000 workers and their dependents out of poverty since 2008. The majority of them are in Kenya, Uganda, India, and Haiti.

Does this politically charged climate make you rethink the fact that you are outsourcing jobs that could go to U.S. workers?
It’s not “either you help someone in the United States or just someone in Africa.” It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s like if you have a great product like an iPhone, why would you sell it only in the United States? Why not make it accessible to everyone?

Have you come under fire for it?
I started our U.S. program in 2012 after someone emailed me to say that we were ruining America. We place people in different types of work here—telemarketing, localized customer service, and having people drive to places to do address verification. We’re reaching people who are unemployed or underemployed in places like rural Arkansas, where people lost jobs after factories closed.

You graduated from Harvard with a major you crafted—international development with a focus on Africa. What set you on this path?
I got a scholarship from a tobacco company when I was 16. I wanted to use the money to do something more beneficial than just going to a fancy Ivy League school. I had never seen poverty up close in a developing country. So my senior year in high school, I used some of that money to volunteer at a school for the blind in Ghana. I went over there feeling like I was going to save them. I felt very righteous. But you learn in the aid world that’s the worst attitude to have. When I got there, I learned the students could recite parts of Bill Clinton’s speeches. They listened to NPR. They were poor materially, but rich in knowledge. It changed my perspective on why poor people are poor.

You had a somewhat volatile upbringing, with your family moving a dozen times and your parents divorcing when you were a teenager. What effect did that have on you?
We had no money even though both my parents worked. We lived paycheck to paycheck. My parents even dealt with homelessness periodically after I left for college. They were not financially savvy. I was always so worried and anxious about money. But you become resilient because you know the worst that can happen.

Where did the social justice gene come from?
My mom grew up in Calcutta, which is very poor, and my father went to Jesuit schools. They always cared about social justice. With them, there was always the feeling that there are things to change in the world, things to fight for.

And how does LXMI, your new luxury skincare brand, fit into all of this?
Its main ingredient is nilotica, a powerful and rare shea butter found in northern Uganda. It is all hand-harvested by women. I thought, Why not build a beauty brand that can give work to women? I donated one-third of my shares of LXMI to Samasource, which is equivalent to a cofounder equity position. I believe a beauty brand should not only make you more beautiful, but make the world more beautiful, too. 

This interview was originally conducted for our sister publication, Silicon Valley.

Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco 

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