A nonprofit takes on poverty by bringing digital jobs to emerging markets These seven innovators are having a major influence on technology, healthcare and the government. Their ideas are changing the ways we do businessand addressing broader issues of national security, gender bias, world poverty and the state of the startup community at large. We’ve got our eye on these powerful women. You should, too. Leila Janah didn’t launch Samasource to make it rich. She did it to make a difference.
Samasource creates living-wage digital jobs for women and youths in emerging markets, including sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and the Caribbean. It collaborates with in-country partners to recruit prospective employees and tackle client needs such as data augmentation, digital transcription, image tagging for SEO and machine learning. On average, Samasource workers more than double their incomes after only a few months on the job, and 92 percent stay out of poverty after leaving the nonprofit.
Six years after its founding, San Francisco-based Samasource directly employs more than 4,000 people across the globe. It has generated more than $5 million in contracts from enterprises and academic institutions including Google, eBay, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Eventbrite and Stanford University, and in early 2013 announced a 400 percent increase in accounts over fiscal 2011.
“Something has to be done about extreme poverty,” says Janah, Samasource’s CEO. “It’s an abomination that half the world’s population lives on $3 to $4 a day. It’s disgusting to me. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something about it.”
Janah traces the roots of her activism to her extended family’s efforts to combat poverty in India: Her great-uncle, celebrated photojournalist Sunil Janah, earned international renown for a series of images documenting the 1943 Bengal famine that claimed some 3 million lives. Leila joined the American Civil Liberties Union at age 15 and two years later earned a $10,000 scholarship that funded a volunteer stint in Ghana, where she taught English as part of the American Field Service student exchange group.
“The more time I spent in developing countries, and the more time I spent talking to poor people, I realized what they want more than anything is a good job,” she says. “We spend billions on international aid annually, but we don’t find ways to connect people to dignified work. I realized that if we don’t think about ways to harness private capital to solve problems, we’re leaving large amounts of money on the table and doing ourselves a disservice.”
Samasource–the name derives from sama, the Sanskrit word for equal–took shape after Janah graduated from Harvard and worked briefly at the World Bank. While meeting clients in Mumbai, she befriended a young call-center employee who commuted each day from his home in Dharavi, the notorious slum featured in the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.
I wanted to create a digital work model that disintermediates the middlemen that take up all the margins.””I knew there were more people like him capable of doing quality work, but connecting poor countries to richer companies historically benefits the elite,” Janah says. “That’s where we had a lot of opportunity to change things.
The Samasource model leverages a proprietary micro-work platform called the SamaHub, which transforms large digital projects into a multitude of smaller tasks assigned to individual workers via the internet. Samasource carefully vets computer centers and internet cafes in each market to identify staffers and house each project. Once new hires complete a two- to four-week training program and demonstrate proficiency on trial assignments, Samasource turns them loose on client work, with SamaHub software recompiling each project and checking the work against five steps of automated quality assurance.
“We tell [clients], ‘You’re going to spend this money on an outsourcing company anyway–why not end poverty and save the world without spending more money than you already spend?'” Janah says. “It’s critical that we convince business leaders to see the potential. We have to convince them that this model makes business sense.”
Samasource has paid out more than $4 million to workers across nine countries and earned financial support from MasterCard, eBay, Cisco Foundation and the U.S. Department of State. Janah is now turning her focus closer to home–last year, she kicked off SamaUSA, a pilot program that offers an 80-hour online boot camp to community-college students in low-income areas around San Francisco and Merced, Calif., and helps them find work online.
“The theory is that if we can get community-college students an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a semester, they’re more likely to graduate,” Janah explains. “And even if they do drop out, they now have this other skill set. We’re optimistic this is a model that has widespread application to populations across the U.S.”
That optimism is the central tenet of Janah’s life and work. “What propels me is conviction,” she says. “It’s a joy spending the majority of your time in concert with your deepest values. There’s immense pleasure in doing something that comes out of your heart.” –J.A.