Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of Samasource, a self-funding nonprofit, which reduces global poverty by outsourcing digital labor to impoverished places around the world, and LXMI, the organic skincare brand. Both companies were recently highlighted on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list.
Leila is one of the Slush 2017 speakers and I had a chance to have a chat with her beforehand. Here’s our conversation with Leila on the importance of prioritizing work, not aid, and about the Internet being a human right.
As you say, giving work, not aid, is essential for lifting people in low-income economies out of poverty. What do you think is the best way to ensure that the most vulnerable groups have an equal access to digital work? For example, issues to do with Internet access and computer literacy? How have you tackled these issues?
I think Internet access in 2017 should be a human right. Internet access, electricity, being on the power grid – it is completely possible for governments to provide that to people. We have had to close our Samaschool program (which trains low-income people in the US to benefit from the gig economy) in rural Arkansas because of the lack of Internet access.
What’s the best way to encourage companies to shift from the idea of corporate responsibility towards real corporate activism? What should social justice look like in the tech era?
The most powerful thing a company can do instead of giving a handout is to give work. We currently don’t have incentives to spend more on social enterprises, which would be much better for immediate poverty eradication. The global 2,000 companies annually spend 12 trillion dollars on goods and services. Even 1 percent of that spent on social enterprises would lift millions out of poverty – imagine! The fair trade coffee providers, local food services, so many different options for people to work out how to hire low-income people. We really need a structure to incentive these behaviors in doing business.
A fun fact – Sama means “equal” in both Sanskrit and Finnish! When talking about the importance of dealing with intersectionality in tech, is there something you think often goes unnoticed, or is left unsaid?
Absolutely. First world feminism is a major problem. There is rampant sexism in Silicon Valley. It is all problematic because of the strong disparity: access to capital is locked up, and very few female partners represent those firms. There’s an imbalance of power which often leads to a very ripe environment for abuse. It is the same thing as in Hollywood. In any scenario, if there’s someone who holds all the power and there are no checks and balances, it will corrupt human nature.
Even if we reach minorities in our own backyard in San Francisco, there is still more to do. We need to include those in the world who make less than 3 dollars a day. It is unfortunate we don’t really think about those women when we think about our own concept of feminism. We are directly tied to those women.
More and more entrepreneurs talk about the art of failure, but well – it can really never be talked about enough. You come across as a resilient character. What do you think have been your biggest setbacks, and what have you learnt from them?
It is hard enough to raise money as a woman in Silicon Valley, even with a reputation of making things profitable. On top of that, running a social enterprise is even harder. This is what I have struggled with so much. It was really hard in the beginning; it took three years to raise the money. Most of my early failures, having to put myself in pretty dire situations, having multiple jobs to afford to go to school, many of them have been big sacrifices, but I have never quit. It’s a lot easier to let go and go do something else. It is really hard to keep going.
What achievement of yours have you recently been the most proud of?
The best success stories are within our workforce. We have created jobs for the chronically unemployed, which has led to a dramatic increase in their quality of life. Going from 2 dollars a day to 8 dollars a day is a big income increase for someone living on a farm in Kenya, or rural India. People invest in things like safer housing, more nutritious foods, continued education, health insurance and other things that benefit their communities. It’s truly transformative.
Any interesting people or startups at the crossroads of global justice and tech you wish we would keep an eye out for in the future?
Kiva, microfinancing company, is a very scalable finance solution. I think the future is going to be about us buying things directly from these people – investing in their businesses and connecting them to global markets.