Leilah Janah Reimagining Relief: Social Justice in the Tech Age

A few days ago I had the privilege of attending Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford at the Said Business School. I took notes for the sessions I attended, and hope that these might be useful for other members of the Wesleyan entrepreneurship community. In the master post linked here you can find links to the notes of other lectures I attended. Said Business School also video-recorded them, and when they’re posted I’ll update these posts with the links. These notes definitely don’t do justice to these talks.


Leilah Janah is the founder and CEO of Sama group which she founded in 2008. Sama group is comprised of three organizations, Samasource, Samahope, and Samaschool, that aim to use “technology and private sector methods” to tackle the poor’s access to dignified work, critical medical care, and education. She chose the name Sama because it means “equal” in Sanskrit. To her, technology is the best way to create change at the bottom of the pyramid. By their count, these organizations combined have worked with over 29,000 people from all over the globe.

Killing Traditional Charity

Leilah wants “traditional” charity dead. She feels that the current industry is too focused on how donors feel, and not the impact. In addition to that, she takes issue with the savior mentality and the wholesale giving away of free aid. Free aid has the approach of making people devalue the life saving medicine or the malaria nets to the point of not using them. Instead, she believes that increasing work opportunities to people she says have shown themselves to be “resilient” and “capable” will create more sustainable changes.

Helping people achieve a living wage to her is the best way to change people’s lives. Samasource is a program that provides “dignified” work that allows the educated poor (some formal schooling) to learn how to function in a professional work environment. These are people that could not get a job anywhere else, but after spending a year or two doing the outsourced digital work are able to get jobs that pay at or higher than what Samasource pays. This digital work ranges from tagging images for Getty Images to helping train machine learning algorithms for Google.

Not Digital Sweatshops

Critics are quick to call operations like Samasource the digital equivalent of sweatshops. Leilah counters that these are business models that have been selfishly kept in the private sector, and should not be kept from the social sector. She argues that "Impact sourcing is the future. This is one way how we're going to get rid poverty." Fair trade coffee is an example of a successful and ethical movement to impact source, and the digital work she does is along these lines. She views Samasource as a stepping stone for her workers, and the sustained tripling of income workers receive after going through these programs is evidence of this. She contends the work is “drone like,” but the exposure to the digital economy far outweighs the monotony.

Pull Model

An interesting component to how Samasource spreads is that it is often grassroots led. Leilah gave an example of a cyber cafe owner in Nairobi, Kenya who asked her to come help. By hosting the Samasource program, the cafe owner was able to make revenue and have more customers who could afford to visit his cafe. She gives several other examples of how Samasource’s operations have spread organically to various countries. She calls this a “pull” model that she believes is better than the traditional “push” model by charities. This is because the organization is inherently more connected to the demands of the people they serve.

One common question social entrepreneurs get is why don’t they focus on poverty in their own countries. To that she replies, “I don't think there is a moral salience that I owe more to people in America than a person in Kenya. That makes the world seem like a zero-sum game. A person is a person.” However, it should be noted that Sama does have U.S programs through the Samaschool organization. Samaschool does job training for “high demand” and “market-aligned” skills. The organization tracks the increased pay of program graduates to measure its impact.

Measuring Impact

Leilah says for social entrepreneurship measuring impact should be done right at the get-go. For Samasource they did a three year income study that showed 89% of Samasource employees keep the new $3,300 income level or higher ($800 prior to working to Samasource) after leaving. A special advantage of digital work is that she can be in direct contact with employees who work for Samasource. This lets her keep tabs on impact at a much more real-time level. For instance, she frequently uses Facebook and texting as a means to get more real-time feedback. Facebook is also good for longitudinal studies because it is more reliable and unchanging than mobile numbers.  This measuring of impact is immensely important for social entrepreneurship and it also helps prevents the risk of abuse that we’ve become so familiar with in the manufacturing sphere. With employees connected to the world, it is much harder to sweep work-violations under the rug.

Not a Handout

Procurement managers, the people that hand out contracts to outsourcing firms, do not do charity contracts. That means the services Samasource provides has to be competitive with other firms that don’t have Sama’s mission–and according to her they’ve been successful. This goes to show how people in slums that are written off by many as incapable are just as capable as their more fortunate and educated counterparts. Too often people in slums are seen as helpless, and her work has clearly show this is not the case. Currently 89% of the company runs on revenue and she hopes to get that to a 100% soon. There is this notion that non-profit means “no revenue,” and she rebukes that Goodwill, yes the one that you donate your clothes to, has higher revenue than most funded tech companies.  

On Starting and Being Called Crazy

“If I were registering today I would register as a b-corp. I started in 2008 when it was not very common and impact investors were tiny in number and not giving much money.” However, she cautions that one should consider what structures would best advance the mission of the organization one’s trying to start. Sometimes it could be that non-profit really is the best structure.

In regards to approaching people, I’ll let her explain: “It was so hard approaching these big companies. I'm kind of an introvert. I kind of survive a cocktail party if I talked with one or two people, but talking with everyone would be crazy. We ended up getting funded by the Stanford social enterprise fund, then we got a free office by the Facebook fund (no funding). Jim B., a regular at Skoll, was our first business person who signed on.”

Everyone else thought she was crazy. Her initial marketing materials were a “disaster” and scared people away. It took her two years to get Google funding, despite having 85 contacts in the company. In the early days the only validation she got were the people in her program that got jobs. Everyone from friends to former professors thought she was crazy. The word “crazy” might be getting a little repetitive at this point, but it is the reality.

The Future

In response to a question over whether robots and computers will replace most of the low-level digital work Sama provides Leilah gave a surprising answer, “it’s true.” She cited the The Second Machine Age as a good book to look into. As a good business person it’s good to be knowledgeable of the trends, and she plans to adapt her model for whatever technological changes come along.

In Closing

Leilah is a very impressive social entrepreneur. I attended both her lectures and found them informative on the range of questions social entrepreneurs are faced ethically, financially, and personally when working on immense problems. For all those interested in the field, I highly encourage you to lookup Sama Group and their various initiatives. If you are going into traditional business then I’ll pass on her call to action to you, “give work!” Models like Sama’s exemplify how social entrepreneurship can leverage private sector needs to create social change. At cost and quality on par with non-social impact focused enterprises, the new wave of social impact ventures are highly promising and leave me optimistic we can make some change within the current system. That doesn’t mean things shouldn’t change systems wise. As Leilah suggested, concepts like a “universal basic income,” while perceived as radical in the U.S, might actually be great ideas.