“People everywhere yearn for meaning in their lives,” says Leila Janah. “What is more meaningful than giving work and giving life?” Janah is proving this daily with Samasource, her nonprofit enterprise, founded in 2008, which teaches women and youth in rural villages and slums how to do digital-based work for companies like Google and Microsoft that are often housed thousands of miles away. It’s a much-needed corrective to a top-down economic model that, let’s face it, doesn’t work.
Before Samasource, Janah followed a prescribed path, studying economic development at Harvard and later working at the World Bank, but everywhere she looked, Janah saw an economic system that wasn’t benefiting those who needed it most. Enter Samasource (sama means “same” in Sanskrit). It has employed thousands of people using its Microwork Model, which breaks down big digital projects into smaller tasks — think transcribing or tagging images.
In 2009, Samasource was cherry-picked as a tech startup to watch by the Facebook Fund, which highlights companies using Facebook in innovative ways. Donors started jumping onboard afterward, and today Samasource has lifted 14,500 people above the poverty line, with 85 percent of their workers going on to higher-paying jobs elsewhere. That old proverb — “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” — rings especially true here. Another project in a similar Sama vein is Samahope.org, a sort of Kickstarter for medical care, founded by Janah in 2011. People can choose patients whose surgeries they want to fund, and the organization pays back local clinics. It sounds so simple it begs the question: Why haven’t we been doing this all along?
She practices what she preaches, too. “At Samasource, we embrace the Hindi word jugaad, which means roughly ‘doing more with less.’ We share a small office on a gritty corner in San Francisco’s Mission District and try to keep things lean.” Janah's humility is enough to make you do a double take, especially when she says, “I’ve not succeeded in any major way — we are still very young.” As for her own future, Janah says, “If I’m lucky, I’ll still be doing this when I’m 90.” Here, she breaks down her microworking miracle.
“When I formed Samasource, I wanted two things: To create a challenging work environment that would drive me to learn constantly and to find meaning in my work. I think we’ve built a different kind of nonprofit that fulfills both aims. Everyone at Samasource works incredibly hard-to-win contracts from companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Microsoft and get[s] the work done in unlikely places by people who’ve been overlooked by traditional employers.”
The Big Idea
“My job forces me to travel from a city with the highest median income in the United States to places like rural Benin and Uganda, where the average person makes less than $1.25 a day, can’t afford basic human necessities, and can expect to die 30 years sooner than someone in a rich country. These people aren’t poor, because they are lazy or don’t have the right values. They are poor, because we have created institutions that keep them that way, and because we don’t value them as contributors to our economic system. They literally break their backs to mine the minerals used in our electronics and stitch the clothes we wear. How is this morally permissible? Our greatest natural resource is the human capacity of the people our current economic system has written off. What propels me forward is the vision of building massive social businesses that enfranchise these bottom billions, treat them fairly, and offer them the chance to achieve their human potential.”
Kickstarter for Medical Care
“Last year, I launched a second social venture, Samahope, the first crowdfunding website for medical treatments. The results are so tangible. One woman I met last year in Sierra Leone was raped at age 12 by her teacher and suffered with fistula (a condition that causes incontinence after obstructed labor) for four years, stuck at home. We raised the funds to give her a life-saving surgery, and she is back in school. We have over 100 similar stories with Samahope. Armed with evidence like this, it’s not hard to approach donors and supporters and explain what we do.”
Patience, Meet Virtue
“Nothing is an overnight success. Building Samasource and now Samahope has required more persistence than I knew I had. For the first few years, we got little attention from funders and clients. I was friends with a group of people who joined Facebook in the early days, and it was incredibly hard to see how quickly Facebook was growing and then return to my tiny desk at Stanford (where I incubated Samasource) and be motivated to keep plugging away at my vision. The boldest ideas — those that create radical cultural and business transformation — take a great deal of time to mature and take form.”
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