How Samasource Reverses Poverty One Job at a Time

Jan Alexander
Contributor

Leila Janah, a young entrepreneur whose goal is to help the world’s poorest people earn a living wage, has employees who tag images that make it possible for drones to count the population of wildebeests and elephants in African woodlands and for self-driving cars to recognize objects in the road.

Many of Janah’s employees come from villages without running water, but through her social impact company, Samasource, they are supplying technology to multinational clients that include Google, LinkedIn, Marriott, Microsoft, and Walmart.

“The only thing that will truly solve the problem of poverty is to put more money directly in the hands of the world’s poor,” Janah says in her new book, Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job at a Time (Portfolio/Penguin, New York). The book is both an autobiography and a call to action. Janah started Samasource — the name comes from the Sanskrit word for “equal” or “fair”– in 2006, when she was 25. Since then she has become a force for a different approach to capitalism and the global economy. Samasource operates on a business model known as impact sourcing, recruiting people who live in extreme poverty — which the World Bank defines as living on less than their local currency’s equivalent of  $1.90 a day — and training them to do skilled IT work for large global outsourcers.

When Janah started her business there were only a handful of impact sourcing platforms, the best known of which was Digital Divide Data, launched in Cambodia in 2001. But impact sourcing continues to grow. At the last official count, in 2011, the World Bank estimated its size at $4.5 billion. The most important metrics, however, are those that assess the extent to which it’s changing lives. The Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2016 launched its Global Impact Sourcing Coalition to promote impact sourcing as a hiring strategy, finds that impact workers can experience income increases of between 40% and 200% above their starting point.

The only thing that will truly solve the problem of poverty is to put more money directly in the hands of the world’s poor

Janah’s ventures, which now include a natural cosmetics line, LXMI, have pulled approximately 60,000 people around the world out of poverty, a figure that includes dependents of those they’ve employed. It isn’t a huge number considering that the World Bank counts at least 767 million people as the poorest of the poor based on its under-$1.90 a day standard. But Janah sees it as 60,000 more people who will go through life healthy, educated, and in a position to make an impact themselves.

Janah, who was named one of Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in 2013, was born in Buffalo, NY, to parents who had immigrated from Mumbai. Her parents struggled, but they also taught her that making the world a better place was as important as earning money. Yet she admits in her book that by the time she was 17 and went to Ghana through a study-abroad program, she’d internalized a belief that poor people “might be in their predicament because they were not willing to work hard enough or had not developed the right personal or family values, or that certain regions had become poor because they were not ‘culturally oriented’ toward working hard and creating wealth.” It was a shock to her to see how hard the people of Ghana worked on their farmland, and a greater shock still to see a child die because his parents couldn’t afford a $4 malaria medication.

Later, she went to Harvard with a scholarship, though she still had to take on a succession of odd jobs that included cleaning toilets. After graduation she landed a high-paying position with a consulting firm, and it was on a business trip to Mumbai that the idea of how to bridge the gap between wealth and poverty gelled for her. She was there to help launch an IPO for an outsourcing company that operated a call center. While most of the call center workers came from middle class families, a few commuted from Dharavi — the raw sewage-filled district that was the setting for the 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.  Janah saw that with encouragement and training, a company could create opportunities for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid — and she reasoned that the Internet had given rise to a need for digital jobs that could be outsourced to those who needed work the most.

She started the business with a vendor in Nairobi and a $30,000 contract to proofread digital book transcripts for Bookshare, the online library for people with print or reading disabilities. Samasource now employs or contracts about 1,500 impact workers and had revenues of $10 million in 2016.

As a nonprofit, it receives social investment capital and, while donors get their initial amount back, profits go into expansion and training workers not only in technological capabilities but also in financial literacy, investing, and other skills that will help them work in the real-world economy. One of the most important of these skills is the to keep trying when things go wrong. Janah learned early on that doing otherwise runs rampant among the world’s poorest people.

Give Work is full of stories about people who learned that they didn’t have to give up. Juliet Ayot, for example, was an AIDS orphan from an area in Uganda “best known for civil war, child abductions, and extreme rural poverty.” At Samasource, Juliet tagged photos of celebrities for Getty Images, a job that paid more than three times the average local wage. With her earnings she bought two pigs, then used money from breeding and selling pigs to invest in cows and start a dairy business. Janah writes that Juliet hopes to own a factory-scale dried-fruit business one day, and has already written a detailed business plan.

Make it your business to figure out what good needs to be done in the world, and then do it

In spite of such success stories, however, Janah is frank about the challenges ahead. The greatest concern is that as technology continues to advance, in five to ten years machines might perform the tasks that Samasource is now training people to do. Janah and her management team recognize that part of the solution is to train their workers to contribute the human element to technology; digital data serves people, after all, and needs human interpretation to be useful and beneficial.

Janah is also an advocate for more training in sectors that should be safe from offshoring and mechanization, such as the care economy. Yet she is steadfast in her belief that the world needs more social enterprises to solve problems and prepare for the future. “Government aid programs should act as venture capital firms, allocating funds to the most effective social enterprises that demonstrate, through controlled trials and other third-part experimental data, high social return on investment,” she advises.

Samasource now offers social impact measurement advisory services to other companies, and has produced a Give Work Guide that lists other companies that provide impact sourcing. Even if a company has limited resources, Janah says in her book, they can contribute in small ways, such as hiring caterers from “give work” organizations for company parties. “Just try,” she says. “Make it your business to figure out what good needs to be done in the world, and then do it.”