Lelia Janah knew something most of us didn’t when it comes to sourcing top tech talent, and she bet on her idea with all her heart.
If you had to guess, what are the odds that someone living in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya, (the largest urban slum in Africa with a population estimated between 500K-1M), could land a technology-based job with Google, Microsoft, Salesforce or Walmart? With little access to electricity, basic sanitation, or transportation — could the brightest, most talented resident even stand a chance?
Leila Janah: There are no Lost Causes
What most people would consider a lost cause — bringing high-quality tech-based job opportunities to those living in the poorest, most underserved communities on earth — Leila Janah (say “Lila Ja-nah”) took on as the central focus of her career. From her humble beginnings as a daughter of Indian immigrants until her untimely passing on Jan. 24, 2020 due to a rare form of cancer, Janah defied the odds and succeeded in her mission to “Give Work” to over 50,000 people in places like Kenya, Uganda and Northern Afghanistan. And because her vision was built on an incredibly solid foundation by a collective of talented, trusted partners, the impact continues to multiply.
To learn more about the life and legacy of Samasource Founder Leila Janah, as well as the future of Samasource, I spoke with Samasource CEO Wendy Gonzalez.
When you think about Leila, what word first comes to mind for you?
“The first thing that comes to mind for me is audacious, without hesitation. She had this truly audacious and very bold idea that you could purposely hire people in underserved communities [who] could deliver against the most challenging and complex work. [She believed] that while talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not. While that sounds straightforward, what is so audacious is the bold move to create a company that puts our money where our mouth is. It’s revolutionary in that it goes ten steps beyond Affirmative Action or other standard regulations. We operate in a commercial model, which means we have to be the best and deliver against market-demanded skill sets. We serve companies like Google, Microsoft, and Walmart, so we have to bring it! And we do.”
“We began by hiring in Kibera, Nairobi, one of the largest slums in Sub-Saharan Africa where unemployment is between 70-73 percent. Then we moved into war-torn northern Uganda where unemployment rates sit between 83-85 percent. So, that’s what’s so audacious. We are purposely going in and hiring people with the greatest barriers to employment, letting their amazing talent and human capital shine. And doing so while supporting some of the largest companies in the world.”
“Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.”Leila Janah
What exactly is the job of someone who works at a Samasource site?
“We do something called training data and validation. Training data is what is necessary to allow an Artificial Intelligence algorithm to see, speak and think. For example, before a car can learn how to drive itself, the computer needs to learn to detect lanes, cars, pedestrians, traffic lights, and other road markings. We have a proprietary technology platform called Samahub that allows us to bring thousands of people online at the same time to tag and label this data from images and video. The output is the labeled training data, which we provide back to our customers.”
“Everyone we bring on board is a full-time employee with benefits, and they report to a physical location. Oftentimes this kind of work is done through crowd-sourcing, which means anybody anywhere, even a child, could input data and be paid cents per transaction. With this [dispersed, piecemeal] model, there is very little quality control. What we’ve done is build in-person delivery centers with high-quality machines, reliable internet and on-site managers to support and train people to do the work. This produces a better business result with more secure and consistent data. And, from an employee impact perspective, the results are transformative. Our attrition is incredibly low because we pay very well and focus on upskilling our workforce. We are able to initiate a permanent move out of poverty by providing professional skills and the wages to move into safer housing and pursue continued education. We call this model Impact Sourcing.”
What do you remember about the way Leila expressed her personal identity?
“I think in a lot of ways, Samasource is a true embodiment of her values and the background she grew up in. As a child of immigrant parents, who were not able to secure the same level careers in the United States as they had in India. Leila didn’t grow up with a lot of money and had to work very hard to obtain scholarships for school. At age 17, she got a scholarship to teach English in Ghana. This became the foundation for our mission. She met incredibly smart, talented, well-read children and asked herself what could be done to bring their talent to [the world].
“By the way, I am telling you about her work because this really was a huge part of her life. She was completely driven by this mission, on a personal level. Eventually, she quit a consulting job and began crafting the beginnings of Samasource. She knocked on many doors and pushed through many barriers until it finally happened. Grit is another word I’d use to describe her — a lot of hustle. You know, we look at the magazine covers and think things were so glamorous for her. But, in fact, there was so much toil that happened to get there. She lived the values of impact and made the hard decisions that were needed.”
“Yes, there were times when it made sense to tell our story through her personal brand. Yet, there came a point when we realized we had established an incredible company in a very exciting field, AI, and we all wanted to share the story of our technology and our brand of business. We want to show the world that business and social good do not have to be mutually exclusive. Now, it’s about letting the work speak for itself.”
Can you tell us about your own story, and about your relationship with Leila Janah?
“Sure. I was born in Seattle and my parents emigrated from China. I married a man from Mexico and we have three children. My immigrant background has had a big impact on my own values.”
“When I had the opportunity to meet with Leila and discuss what she was doing with Samasource, it just completely spoke to every single value I had. The idea of using business as a change agent for social good and building that into the ecosystem of the company — to me this was such an amazing way to create sustainable impact. It’s really about unlocking potential, which is really what the American Dream is all about. Once I joined Samasource, we worked together to establish a scalable, technology-driven business that would carry her vision on for generations to come.”
“We worked together practically daily for almost the last five years. It wasn’t just a business partnership — it was absolutely a friendship. One interesting thing about our partnership was that we were always the only two female minority executives in the room, especially as we went through our investment rounds. Fortunately our results really spoke for themselves.”
“Like me, Leila was beginning her own cross-cultural family. She married a man from Austria. We used to laugh together about differences in culture all the time. For example, I remember meeting my future mother-in-law for the first time. She went in for a big hug and I was stiff as a board. We had lots of funny stories like that to share with each other. Leila, herself, actually defied a lot of cultural stereotypes.”
What dreams did the two of you have for the future of Samasource?
“Our company, which is venture-funded, is unique in that it is majority owned by our non-profit: Leila Janah Foundation. This means, if there is a financial benefit to the company, the non-profit would be the benefactor so that we could fund many, many more social enterprises for years to come. There is a list of at least 20 new enterprise ideas that all share the same mission, which is to find ways to give work. I swear [Leila] logged every domain name on earth! We wanted Samasource to continue to be a multiplier effect for human dignity and ingenuity.”
How can our readers support the mission of Samasource, either directly or indirectly?
“Every individual can vote with their feet — vote with their dollars. At the end of the day businesses, employees and consumers make decisions — and we can all factor in social criteria. We can buy from, work for and procure from companies that make conscious decisions not to go for the cheap, easy way but who actually work to do everything from pay living wages and value their employees to contributing positively to the environment.”
Since my interview with Wendy Gonzalez, Samasource has continued making headlines. In April, Fast Company named Samasource a 2020 World Changing Ideas Finalist in AI and Data. The company has introduced a revolutionary public chatbot named Chloe to help support the fight against the spread of Covid-19 in Canada. And, the company was featured in Wired magazine for housing their Kenyan workforce in luxury housing in order to allow them to continue working in safety.
There is no doubt that the audacious legacy of Leila Janah lives on.