Leila Janah, Founder, Samasource
Creating Brighter Futures in the Global Economy
At the age of 25, a newly minted Harvard grad working at a high-powered position in management consulting dropped everything. Three months before a big end-of-year bonus check, Leila Janah left it all behind to follow an idea that had captured her heart and soul—to alleviate poverty through digital economic development.
“I had this dream of starting a new model for digital work that would involve training really low-income people to do basic tasks on the internet, so they could move out of poverty and companies could get their work done. This was the beginning of the outsourcing era, so we were just starting to see the rise of call centers and these types of big outsourcing operations, and I thought we could make this industry relevant for low-income people, and use it to transform people’s lives in very poor regions of the world.”
Years later, Leila Janah and her resulting brainchild Samasource continue to drive the mission of creating a new paradigm for our rapidly changing global economy. Janah sits at the helm of a thriving business now employing more than 1,100 people, which has so far lifted 33,000 people out of poverty. With no signs of slowing down, Janah is launching new social enterprises, tackling poverty head-on in exciting ways.
Expanding the Digital Economy to Those in Need
Leila Janah was first inspired to start a social enterprise following her work managing a call center in India as one of her first management consultant tasks. There, she realized that although these call centers created plenty of jobs, few of them went to the very low-income people who may be needing them the most.
A holistic thinker, she realized that there were bridges to build between poverty, outsourcing, and a sustainable business model.
“Often, the things that solve a social or environmental problem are not highly profitable, so you have basically two business models that you’re creating: one business model for creating some kind of social or environmental change, and another business model for earning enough money to do that sustainably.”
With Samasource—sama being the Sanskrit word for “equal”—Janah found a business model that meets both needs. Samasource connects large corporations looking to outsource digital labor with trained workers who come from the lowest levels of poverty, improving the distribution of opportunity for higher paying work. The tasks are straightforward, but expensive if completed at the volume required in first world countries. As a result, this new model for sourcing digital work extends the number of people who can benefit from outsourced, digital-based labor.
Janah has kept her focus on this approach to “impact sourcing,” which is about using business to give more people paths out of poverty. Nonetheless, she and her umbrella organization Sama Group have expanded to address other nagging societal problems.
Janah’s Social Enterprise Empire
The Sama Group is expanding; here Leila Janah explains in her words its various initiatives:
“Established in 2008, Samasource is a non-profit business that connects marginalized women and youth to dignified work via the internet. We move people out of poverty by providing work that pays a sustainable, living wage in places with high rates of unemployment, including slums and rural communities in East Africa, South
Asia, and the Americas. Since 2008, Samasource has helped over 30,000 people move out of poverty.”
“We were the first-ever crowdfunding site for medical treatments, globally. We launched in 2012, and funded 16,000 patient treatments, from fistula repair for women who are suffering from fistula, to safe-birth kits. So, it was a pretty transformational website for many people. We merged it with Johnson & Johnson’s CaringCrowd Platform last year.”
“Samaschool is a training program that we launched a couple of years ago, targeting disadvantaged communities here in the US that are in rural or disconnected areas, that don’t have a chance to contribute meaningfully to the economy. We started off around the country, and we’ve trained over 25,000 people now through Samaschool.org, the tech platform that we built to host our content there. So, that’s training to enter the digital economy. We started in the US, and then expanded that globally. Source is the work side, and Samaschool is the training side. They’re both part of the non-profit organization. They’re not two separate companies, just two programs.”
“Then, lastly, we have LXMI, which launched in retail stores—in Sephora stores, and on QVC nationwide here in the US. LXMI is a new luxury skincare brand based on the same idea of giving work. We give work through the supply chain to low-income people, and the products are made of rare, organic ingredients that are safe enough to eat.”
A Business for Good That Does Good Business
For all of her dreams and idealism, Janah is also a keen businesswomen and entrepreneurial thinker. She has approached impact sourcing through both nonprofit and for-profit angles. Her companies in Sama Group—which include the sub-companies Samaschool and Samasource—are nonprofits, but with a twist. Unlike most nonprofits, which struggle to make enough revenue to cover operating costs, Samasource has generated enough revenue to not only cover costs, but also reinvest in growth.
“We became profitable this year at Samasource, off of our earned income, as a nonprofit, which is really rare in the nonprofit world, and very hard to do. And we only got there because we just took a very different approach of being extremely cash-conscious, and investing a little bit less in some of the R&D initiatives, and some of the new projects, and getting more focused.”
Leila Janah has taken a new and different approach with LXMI, her luxury skincare brand, by creating it as a mission-driven, for-profit company in 2015. Using her network in the entrepreneurial space, she’s raised a $2 million seed round from the likes of LinkedIn co-founder and VC Reid Hoffman, Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, and former Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle.
“I was shocked at how easy it was to raise money as a for-profit business,” Janah says.
Sama Group owns 12 percent of LXMI and Janah owns 24 percent. This means that if LXMI pays dividends or is acquired, Sama Group will earn revenue that can go toward its charitable programs. This is a clever hack of the nonprofit/for-profit divide, as it make a non-profit business a shareholder of a for-profit company.
With her many businesses, Janah acknowledges that she is kept quite busy. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think if I were working for a typical big company, and making that company more money, I wouldn’t have the same satisfaction that I feel doing what I do now. I also feel that there are a number of ways that you can both earn a decent living and do good work in the world. I don’t think you have to starve or live like Mother Teresa in order to do important things that change the world for the better.”
Leila Janah’s Top Social Enterprise Business Hacks:
Hire people who are better than you. “The number-one lesson I’ve sort of learned running businesses is that you’re only as strong as your team. I’ve learned to hire people who are better than me at pretty much everything I used to do, and I have to keep doing that to run a good company.”
Learn-Build-Measure. “Let’s try something, see what happens, manage the return on investment really carefully, keep a separate [profit and loss statement] for that.” Make sure we know how much we’re spending on it, and it’s not just blending back into the whole organization. “Then set some goals. If it’s not meeting the goals, shut it down, or change it out.” Or even if it does meet the goals, you can spin it out and then kind of see what happens.
Solve a real problem. “I think, in our case, I believe that there are two core foundation problems from which everything else stems. One of them is extreme poverty, and another one of them is climate change.”
- The role of the entrepreneur when it comes to social enterprises
- Keys to leading and managing a global enterprise with thousands of employees
- How to pitch your social enterprise to investors and secure funding
- Why every business should be looking to make a difference in the world
- The skills that every entrepreneur needs to succeed, no matter what industry you’re in
Full Transcript of Podcast with Leila Janah
Nathan: What’s up, guys? Nathan Chan, here, CEO and publisher of “Foundr Magazine,” and also the host of the “Foundr” podcast. And today, we have another absolutely incredible guest, her name’s Leila Janah and she’s actually joining us for the second time around. We’ve been around for a while now. Some people are getting the second round worth of podcast interviews, which is really interesting, because, you know, I look back and I think to myself, “Well, what didn’t I ask this person, for the second time around? What can we tackle further?” And in this episode, Leila really breaks down a common question that I get asked a lot. A lot of people say, “Oh, you know, Nathan, it’s not just about making money, all this capitalism stuff. I want to do social good.”
And you know, it’s interesting because I don’t see what we do at Foundr as a form of social good, but after speaking with Leila, you know, it’s interesting. Put it this way, it’s interesting because, you know, with everything that we’re doing with Foundr, I see it as a ripple effect. We impact millions of people on a monthly basis, consuming our content, and then imagine the impact that that makes on future people and it’s kind of like, you know, we’re helping create, you know, help people create the next Google or Elon Musk or you know what I mean? So it’s kind of cool like that, so it can be seen as social good.
But anyways, I digress. A common question that we get asked is, you know, “I don’t want to want to build a business like that, you know, a capitalist-based business or a for-profit business. I want to build as a none-for-profit or a social enterprise,” which seems to be quite common these days. And Leila, she’s an incredible social entrepreneur. She has a ton of extremely successful businesses, Samasource, LXMI, and now she’s actually tried and tested her business models and she’s wrote an incredible book called “Give Work,” where she really breaks down this social good model, why it works, why all the other models, she believes, a broken, and she really details this in depth.
And the cool part is what if a kind of business that you have, you can implement this model into your business as well? And you know, I think it’s really, really important that, you know, we listen and learn from people like Leila, because, you know, entrepreneurialism, everything that we do as founders, you know, we’re here to make the world a better place. And at the end of the day, we are the ones that are going to drive the world forward.
So I hope you enjoy this episode. It’s a little different, a little interesting, and that’s it for me, guys. If you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review. It helps more than you can imagine. Make sure you check out everything else we’ve going on. Just go to foundr.com, foundr.com. Yes, we are not foundrmag anymore, .com. We are foundr.com, not foundrmag. We’ve moved the domain to a much bigger thing, which is foundr.com, because we’ve become much more than a magazine. And you can expect courses, more books, more printed magazines, and also maybe, maybe, hint, hint, nudge, nudge, a software product in the near future.
All right, guys. That’s it for me. Now, it’s up for the show.
The first question I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Leila: I did Samasource when I was 25 and I had a real passion because I had worked in Africa, and worked with really low-income people and felt like the existing solution to poverty were not working. That aid model is really crippling well low-income people and preventing them from achieving their full potential. And so I thought, you know, what if I could create a different kind of a model and it was really inspired by the idea of microfinance and the work that had been done there.
But the challenge with a lot of those types of models is that they’re helping low-income people create small businesses that sell to a client base that is also local, right. So if you get a loan for a $100, you sell a few more tomatoes to women who also make less than two dollars a day. And so your potential to really be catapulted out of poverty is low. And yet, you know, we have global markets for goods and services that are enormous, and people spend enormous amounts of money on things like data services, which can be done from anywhere. And if you have to think about luxury goods and food, I mean, there are international global markets for products that poor people can make. And I think that there are very few companies really tapping into that full potential.
And so I thought to myself, “This is the best way to both address poverty and create a sustainable enterprise that’s not based on aid dollars.” I was especially motivated to work in Ghana as a teacher when I was 17, before starting college, and I’d worked there for 6 months and lived in a really small village where my students were incredibly bright and absolutely capable of doing kind of high quality work, but they just had no job opportunity. There’s a talent base that is able to read and write the Queen’s English, literally. I mean, a lot of school in sub-Saharan Africa that was set up during British colonial times have the same educational kind of framework as UK schools do, and so people O-levels.
And I was shocked at how many bright, educated young people there were in a country like Ghana, especially with rural areas, with nothing to do. They see these kids graduating from high school, speaking, you know, beautiful English, and then, where are they going to go after that? They end going back to the same village that they grew up in and, you know, selling stuff by the side of the road. And that, to me, seems like such a huge weight of human potential, and that was kind of what led me to start Samasource.
Nathan: Wow. And can you give our audience a perspective on how far you’ve taken that business and the impact you’re making right now?
Leila: I started it in 2008, so we are now nine years old. And the model is we hire people who make less than two dollars a day and we train them to do work for large technology companies, so that they can move out of poverty and we can also run the model as a social business that can break even and cover the cost. And I started out with one contract and now we have employed almost 10,000 people. We have 35,000 people out of poverty, so our workers and their families, on average, moving their income from two dollars a day to over eight dollars a day, which is a really dramatic improvement that means clean drinking water, health care, access to education, everything that you would expect from a good development program.
And the beauty of this model is we’re doing this not with money from donations but with money from the budget that large corporations for hiring and for saying. This is the most direct way to address poverty at the root, and we’re doing it in a way that is entirely sustainable and it’s having and existing large pool of cash that’s currently not addressing poverty. And that’s what’s so exciting.
Nathan: Yeah. No, I love it. It’s truly amazing what you’re doing. And I’m curious, this model, how did you conceptualize it? How did you come up with it? Before you started Samasource, did it exist?
Leila: No, not that I was aware of. You know, I’ve definitely read about social enterprise before, and I had a lot of experience on the ground working for different NGOs, but I wasn’t aware of a model that existed that was like ours in Africa. And I was really interested in doing this in East Africa. And like the closest thing, what really inspired me was the outsourcing industry. And I thought, “Here is an industry where you see people doing call center for, like, British Airways, from a city in India or the Philippines.” So most of the people who are getting that work were middle class people. They weren’t really coming from slums. They were coming from colleges. They were somewhat educated. The idea that you could get slum workers to do this was so exciting. And that really what inspired Samasource.
Nathan: I see. And when it comes to your new book, “Give Work,” can you tell me the basic premise on why you wrote this book?
Leila: So, I’ve been working in this field for nine years. We finally became profitable last year. And we employ…we currently have over 1200 agents, so 1200 workers in Kenya, Uganda, India, and Haiti. So the business had come to a point where we’ve matured enough to really show that yes, the model worked. We just completed an impact audit by a third party, so it’s sort of like a financial audit, except they look at your impact numbers instead of your finances. So it’s sort of a third party proof point for whether you are measuring up to what you say you’re doing in terms of impact. And so we have this third party audit and we passed it with flying colors. And basically, we’ve proved out that we increased people’s incomes by 400%. And I thought, “Okay, now is the time, now that I know this model works, the business is going well enough that I can take my mind off of it for a few minutes and work on a book.”
And the world needs to know the story because right now, we are spending billions of dollars on aid. We’re putting that money into programs that are generally run by governments that don’t often have the impacts that we want to see in the communities we’re targeting. So we spend billions of dollars, that money doesn’t have the intended effect on poor people. And even if it reaches poor people, let’s say we end up building them a well or building them a school, if you go and look at the long-term impacts of that, it’s so much less effective than creating a job in that community. People in poor parts of Africa and Asia and Latin America, people in developing worlds, they don’t want us to build their schools for them. They don’t want our charity. They want a job so that they can have enough money to build their own schools and infrastructure according to what they feel is important.
And that’s the message of the book, that the most powerful way to address poverty at the root is to give work rather than aid, and aid program. To the contrary, I think we actually need more money in the category, but the money needs to be directed into where it’s most effective. And there are two places where that money can go, and fund social enterprises like Samasource, and there are enterprises like mine in so many categories. There are everything from, you know, coffee chains, to restaurants to now there’s a growing data services kind of sectors, so like people doing computer-based work. There are so many different kinds of social enterprises that have a mission of hiring people from a poor background or a marginalized background, maybe people who have disabilities that make it difficult to work or people who come from an ethnic minority that’s often excluded from the work force.
These types of organizations give work. And what if we redirected aid money to fund them? What if we created incentives for companies that could prove that they were hiring people from these sorts of backgrounds that normally get excluded. So it’s almost like a new layer for hiring. We think often about gender diversity when you’re hiring in a company or ethnic diversity, but rarely do we think about economic diversity, rarely do we think about deliberately hiring someone from a very low-income background. And yet if we do that, we address poverty and inequality at the root. And to me, there should be government incentives for that. That’s where aid dollars go. If Microsoft wants to go and hire a thousand people who are living in pretty extreme poverty from the slum and paid to train them, I think we should pay Microsoft the equivalent of aid money to do that, and to pay living wages to those people directly. And that’s the premise of the book, in a nutshell.
Nathan: Yeah. No, it’s amazing. It’s really interesting. For example, we do hire staff, our company, in the Philippines. I guess my question is like what is your thoughts on companies like Freelancer or… Yeah, what are your thoughts on companies like that, these outsourcing platforms?
Leila: Yeah, they’re great. It’s definitely great to hire people in the Philippines or India, but I think there is a very different level of challenge and hiring someone who comes from a genuinely poor background, i.e., under the local poverty line, which in a place like the Philippines, it would be under two dollars a day. And generally speaking, the people that do this freelance work are not coming from those backgrounds. They’re coming from middle class backgrounds. They’re not living in abject poverty. And our mission to try to make it possible for people who would otherwise be excluded, those people who are not finding work on Upwork or who are finding work with companies like yours to ask us this work for the first time.
Now, a lot of people think, “Oh well, you know, then we should fund these training programs.” But the problem with a lot of training programs is that they’re not market-aligned. So lots of poor people pay billions of dollars every year to try to get training, some kind of vocational training that will lead to a job. And very often, that vocational training is completely disconnected from what the employer needs, because the organizations that provide the training are not the ones that are giving the work, right? They’re a third party.
And in my view, I think the best solution to that is to incentivize the companies themselves to do the training. And in the case of Upwork, we’ve actually partnered with them, where we have a program that allows people to go through our training program at Samaschool, and then sort of graduate into an agency that we help manage on Upwork. And we provide… I think the other thing that’s often challenging for people from these sorts of backgrounds is if you’ve never grown up with any computing device at home and you no familiarity with what that looks like, if no one in your family has ever had a job in an office before, you’re not going to be able to graduate from a simple basic program that teaches you how to do tasks on the Internet and immediately know how to market yourself and win business on Upwork, right?
And so the role that Samasource plays and the role that a social enterprise can play is to market the services that he took and to do quality assurance and provide other guarantees to the employer that this work is going to get done at a good quality level. And that’s effectively why Samasource exists.
In the early days, we actually tried to build our whole platform on the back of Odesk and Elance, and we realized that it just wasn’t going to work, because our workers required, you know, extra levels of quality assurance and training that could not be provided for those platforms. But I do think, in general, they provide a much more meritocratic launchpad for many people who come from the poorest parts of the world.
Nathan: So talk to me around what drives you. Like I find it very, very fascinating that you’ve got quite a… You know, you also LMXI, which is another… Would you say that’s an extension or is LXMI totally separate from Samasource?
Leila: Yeah, but LXMI shares the same giving work and poverty, but a separate company, and I donated a third of my shares in LXMI to the non-profit, Samasource.
Nathan: Gotcha. Talk to me, like, what drives you? What makes you get up out of the bed in the morning and one inspired, like just this thirst to want to make a difference in the world?
Leila: I think if you lived in a community where people are living in poverty, it is something that you do not ever forget. And the fact that billions of people are living on less than a few dollars a day and thus experiencing really dramatic and also avoidable suffering is something that I can’t let go off. And if I were not working in this field, I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night, because there’s too much of a pressing concern having seen it in person. I mean, I’ve seen children dying of entirely preventable causes. Most of the children in my school where I taught English in Ghana were blind because their parents couldn’t afford a very basic medical intervention when the child was young. Many of the students had… some cataracts which could have been fixed with a simple surgery.
And to me, that represent the biggest waste on the planet, the biggest untapped human resources, the brainpower at the bottom of the pyramid, and instead of building AI algorithms, you know, and building software, what if we could find out a way to unlock that human potential that’s currently completely destroyed by poverty. And to me, that’s the most exciting and compelling thing I could imagine working on, day-to-day, despite the challenges, and there are so many. And in the case of LXMI, you know what, we’re fighting with same battle, just in a different industry, which is to figure out how to create this impact sourcing model for women who are even less skilled than the workers at Samasource, who don’t have a high school diploma, who don’t read and write English, who are often illiterate, who are the women who are picking the raw ingredients in our supply chain. And I think there’s an opportunity for impact sourcing there too.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. So across the two companies, how do you spend and spread your time?
Leila: Right now, I’m CEO of both companies, so I divide my time between the two. And it’s tough, but it’s worked.
Nathan: And do you kind of a Jack Dorsey where you have certain days for certain companies or how do you manage both? Can you give us some insight around that?
Leila: Yeah, I mean, I wish I could do what Jack Dorsey did, but my companies probably have far fewer resources than his, so I don’t yet have the size of a team that allows me to devote just a few days a week to each company. It’s a little bit more blended.
For me, you know, the good news is that Samasource is profitable and growing quite quickly and we have a very talented executive team. And so my role at Samasource has shifted really dramatically. It’s not an early-stage startup anymore. It’s a much later stage startup where we have a real viable business that is going to keep growing and very large corporate customers that have been with us for, in some cases, five years. And so I think my role there is much more to guide the strategic direction of the company and to think much more big picture about where we’re headed, which is kind of what I do anyway, you know, on weekends and at nights. And so the nature of the role has changed.
With LXMI, it’s a more tactical day-to-day, how do we raise the next round, how do we grow our sales at Sephora, and how do we build this consumer brand.
Nathan: When it comes to strategy, do you dedicate time to think about it?
Leila: I do. I actually set up time with my team to discuss strategy. And what I’m trying to do is like I used to do a lot of team meetings that, you know, covered off key kind of organizational updates, and now we Slack for anything that’s update-related so that if I’m having a meeting with my management team, for Sama, for example, I really want us to be focused on big strategic questions, not the day-to-day kind of operational things that I just spend a lot more time doing. And I think that now that I’ve hired people are around me who manage much of the day-to-day operations and make sure things are running smoothly, it’s given me the freedom to really think more deeply about strategy. And for me, it’s a very different process than the day-to-day management of company. You need to be in a completely different head space. I need to be in sort of like a meditative head space.
Often, I find, for me, I get the best ideas about where I want to take care the organization when I’m out in nature, on a deep hike, or in Africa, in a jungle, I mean, somewhere kind of remote where I’m not distracted by, you know, did I catch the last blurb for our book in on time or did I… There’s so many day-to-day concerns that come up and I really think the hardest part of a CEO or a corporate leader’s job, company leader’s job is to carve out time away from the day-to-day to really think about what’s going to happen five years from now, and where do you see the business going in five years. You should really have that vision. And that is what is often unique to the founder or the leader of an organization, and that’s the most precious use of the founder’s time.
And I’m really lucky that now, at Sama, we have a team that really understand that and so they almost kind of protect me from issues that come up day-to-day. And then they think about these things and come back and present some options that the team can then discuss together. But really, I think that, you know, holding the vision and defining the strategy, at the highest level, is probably the most important job for a founder to do once you have achieved a level of operational wherewithal. And with LXMI, we’re still not there yet. We’re still kind of building the business and there’s a lot of fires to be put out all the time, and I’m writing copy for the ads that run on Facebook and I’m shooting some of the photos that are on Instagram and I’m very much involved in much more of the day to day, because I have to be because we don’t yet have the luxury of having me think about the strategic direction, but I think it’s often a phase question for a company.
Nathan: And which phase do you prefer, like to being on the kind of building it from scratch phase, the hustle, or versus kind of having an amazing executive team?
Leila: I love the detail in certain areas, I mean, I love… And I still obsess over details, don’t get me wrong. Like I definitely weigh in on the card stock we’re going to use for the invitation for our annual dinner, or you know, a line that we’re gonna tweet out on Twitter. I will get involved to that level of detail if necessary. But you really have the kind of pick and choose. And I think as the founder or the CEO, the hard thing is that you’re often gravitating to what’s broken, what’s not working in the company, and then you tend to micromanage that. I personally hate getting into the minutia and I only do it if something’s broken and not working, and therefore I have to kind of dive in and understand what’s not working so that we can fix it.
But for the most part, you know, when the team is hitting the numbers, when our business is growing, when I’m getting good metrics back and if you have a good set of performance indicators, then it’s really clear, it’s really easy to understand whether the business is working or not. And once you have those indicators and see that the business is working, then you can, I think, you now can focus on the bigger picture. However there’s always like an eye to the detail whenever, you know, in the area that maybe it’s not working. For example, at Samasoure, we don’t have a CMO. We’ve not had a CMO in our history. So a lot of the marketing work kind of defaults to me, and that means that I’m much more of a micro-manager when it comes to marketing stuff at Samasource, in which they finance where we have a very talented leader or delivery where we have a talented leader or sales.
So you kind of gravitate to where there’s a hole that needs plugging. And the challenge is how do you avoid getting sucked into that because you obviously don’t want to spend all your time thinking about the minutia in one area and ignoring the bigger picture, like the next big sales deal, you know, you might be able to find if you can only make the connection for your team.
Nathan: You know, I like that. And when it comes, actually, to these big sales deals, what advice do you have, like working with these big corporations, getting that cut through, because you’ve done an incredible job there, as with Sama?
Leila: I think what differentiates a successful company from “I don’t think that’s the one,” that is pretty much an ability to keep going even when the sky feels like it’s crashing down around you and everyone rejects you and most people would quit. I mean it’s really not extreme talent, I think, that defines the best companies. It’s basically an incredible sense of resilience and grit. And you know, some companies, I think, bring something so unique to the table that, like Google’s, you know, search algorithms, okay, that’s probably a different category, but I think in most businesses, I really think there are very few new things that that are invented. I think every kind of a regurgitation of what happened in the past, and therefore, often the job of the founder is to kind of keep pushing and keep going even when it seems like the business isn’t going to work, and it’s not really brilliance that makes the company successful but rather just that intuitiveness.
And so when it comes to sales, I had so many examples like that where I was flat out rejected many times, but managed to still build a relationship without, you know, without asking for anything. And often, I mean, sales, like any part of a business, is just human relationships. So my first biggest customers were me really putting is tons sweat equity to try to meet them, understand what they are looking for, understand what their objections might be, you know, figure out any way possible to get the types who were interested in working with us, and then one of our huge success is for free trials program that we launched, when we said, “Look, if you’re nervous that these workers are not going to be able to get the job done, why don’t you try it out? You know, you’ll never know unless you try it out.” And we’ll do that for free, and that really helped.
Nathan: Yeah. No, you’ve done an incredible job there, because it must have been so difficult to get that cut through, especially in the beginning.
Leila: Yeah, yeah, totally.
Nathan: Did you ever feel like giving up?
Leila: Many times. I mean, I really struggled for a long time because I had no money and the business was really tough at the beginning. I mean, I pay myself $400 a month when we first started with Samasource, and then I slowly grew a salary, but I mean, it’s not a salary to live on in San Francisco. And it took many years before I had enough of a budget to even have a decent…you know, to be able to afford the basics for myself.
And there were moments when…I had a lot of friends, I went to Harvard undergrad, and a lot of my friends went to go work in Facebook, because they knew the founders, and they were part of the main crew. And a lot of my friends kind of said, “Why don’t you come work with us?” I really thought about it, and I… Had I done that, I would have, you know, made millions and millions of dollars. And I mean, assuming I got a job there, but a lot of my friends were kind of early stage test employees in Silicon Valley and I chose a different path.
And so, you know, that obviously causes you to wonder, “Was that the right path and should I have done what I did?” And I really feel, like, despite all of the hardships and the challenges, I really believe in what we do. I mean, I believe it almost the way that someone believes their religion. To me, it’s like a mission and a calling, much more than a job, and really a privilege and a pleasure to get to work on that mission every day with other people who care so deeply and profoundly about making the world better, you know.
And the thing that helped me not quit is the people that we hire at Sama. We had a little farewell party for one of our junior employees who had been with us for two years and it was his first job out of college. And the level of just moral awareness that this young man has for a 23-year-old, you know, young worker, I mean, it defies every stereotype about millennials. You know, that millennials are cynical or lazy and selfish. I mean, we have people who are literally the polar opposite of that, people who are, like, completely exemplars in every area of their life. And for me, like, the privilege to work with people like that who are also really smart and funny, I mean, that is worth a lot of money.
Nathan: Yeah, I know. That’s really amazing. So we have to work towards wrapping out, but question around, I guess, talent. What do you look for? What are your rules?
Leila: I’m looking for people who…I guess a few things. In both companies, I look for people who are entrepreneurial. So especially in an early-stage company, I think it’s less so now with Samasource, because we have systems and processes in place. We have the infrastructure of a real company, which we didn’t have at the beginning.
With LXMI, we’re still at the stage where we’re building all of that. You know, we don’t have a lot of processes. Everything’s kind of we’re doing by the beat of our pants, like things are new each time we do them. And so in that kind of an environment, it’s not just the founder who has to be an entrepreneur, it’s everyone in the company. And our marketing person is daily trying to figure out new strategies for getting our brand in front of people in an environment that’s rapidly changing, everything shifting from print to digital media, and everything shifting with consumer brands away from a very traditional awareness building mechanism towards Instagram influencers. And so, if she’s not entrepreneurial, we’re not going to succeed. And our designer is forced to come up with how to make beautiful images on a budget that is, like, far below what any other brand has, and that requires entrepreneurship.
And so, you know, everyone has to be a hustler in an early stage company, and that’s the number one thing that I look for. Is someone going to sweat the small stuff the way I do? Are they willing to put in the extra hours to make something right on a lower budget because we don’t have, you know, the money to hire someone else to do the thing? Are they personally invested in the outcome the way that an owner or a founder is? And if you have those qualities, I think you can often learn skills you may not have come into the job with, and it does make up for a lot of other thigs that you might miss. Therefore, like, formal qualifications often don’t matter that much to me, whether someone has a fancy degree or went to a really fancy school. It’s more about, “Is that person going to stay up at night, you know, worrying about their part of the business as much as I worry about the whole business?”
Nathan: Yeah, I know. I love that. And couple last questions, when it comes to looking for people like that, aren’t you worried that they might leave though?
Leila: Oh definitely. You know, we’ve had people leave and go start their own companies. We’ve had people leave and join other startups, but I think great people who are highly entrepreneurial in a company that’s growing and providing challenges associated with that growth will stay. And I think when something becomes a mission and a calling, and when you can see the results of your personal effort and when you get credit for those results, that’s what makes something an exciting job, so exciting to work. You know, I think we’re really lucky to have the kind of people that are hard to walk away from, and that’s as much about the mission of the organization and the values as just the people that you interact with daily who inspire you. And I think again, that sense of accomplishment where you feel like you’re really…you can see the results of your job, materially.
Nathan: Yeah, you’re doing your best work.
Leila: Yeah, you’re doing your best work, and it’s for, like, the most noble cause, and you’re doing it with fun, smart people who share your values. I mean, I really think there are very few things that make you happier than that in life.
Nathan: Yeah, I love it. Two last questions. One, what would you like to share finishing off this conversation, just around the premise of your new book, around “Giving Work,” and two, where’s the best place people ho can find out more about yourself and your work and to grab a copy of the book?
Leila: Sorry, where the best place is? So leilajanah.com is my website, and that’s probably the best place to sign up for email updates and follow the work. I also post updates on the book on that page, and I mean, newsletter list, and they can also follow along on Facebook or on Twitter. I share quite a lot on those channels.
Nathan: Aweseome. All right, well, we’re wrap there, but thank you so much for your time, Leila. It’s really, really amazing conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Leila: My pleasure. I enjoyed it as well.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Leila Janah
- Learn more about Leila Janah
- Checkout Samasource
- Connect with Leila Janah on Linkedin
- Follow Leila Janah on Twitter
- Like Leila Janah on Facebook
- Follow Leila Janah on Instagram