Leila Janah, Founder & CEO of Samasource
Leila Janah: On Creating a Brighter Future through Digital Work
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 which had captured her heart and soul: to alleviate poverty through 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 brain child 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 employing over 1100 people, and 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.
Digital Work to Light Up Lives/ Bringing Digital Work to those who Need It
Leila Janah was first inspired to start a social enterprise following a her work managing a call centre 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 the way. With Samasource, she connected large corporations to outsourced talents from the poorer indian classes. The tasks were straightforward, but expensive if completed at the volume required in the first-world. As a result, this new model for digital work got “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.”
Janah has kept her focus on “impact-sourcing”, which is about creating businesses that give people a path path out of poverty. Nonetheless, Janah and her umbrella organization Sama Group has expanded to address other nagging societal problems.
Janah’s Social Enterprise Empire
“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 and Johnson’s Caring Crowd 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 astute businesswomen and entrepreneurial thinker. She has approached “impact sourcing” through both a non-profit and for-profit angle. Her companies in Sama Group – that is Samaschool and Samasource – are non-profits, but with a twist. Unlike most non-profits which barely make enough revenue to cover operating costs, Samasource has generated enough revenue to not only cover its operating costs, but reinvest in growth.
“We became profitable this year at Samasource, off of our earned income, as a non-profit, which is really rare in the non-profit 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-drive for-profit company in 2015. Using her network in the entrepreneurship space, she’s raised $2 million seed round from the likes of LinkedIn cofounder 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% of Laxmi and Janah owns 24%. This means that if Laxmi pays dividends or is acquired, Sama group will receive a revenue. A very clever business hack of the system.
With her many business, 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 P&L for that,” — so, make sure we know how much we’re spending on it, and it’s not just blending back into the whole organization — “and then set some goals. If it’s not meeting the goals, shut it down, or spin it out,” — I mean, even if it does meet the goals, you can spin in 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.”
You can find out more about Leila Janah and her work on leilajanah.com
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- The business of tackling the world’s largest problems
- How to find and instill passion into the people who work around you
- The strategy of divide and conquer when it comes to nonprofits
- How to keep it simple with project management and personal goals
- What you can accomplish as a social entrepreneur if you put your mind to it
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Leila Janah
Nathan: Today’s episode is proudly brought to you by our sponsor FreshBooks. FreshBooks is an easy to use cloud accounting software that’s completely transformed over 10 million entrepreneurs deal with their day-to-day paperwork. It’s an absolutely amazing product and you can start your 30-day trial at freshbooks.com/foundr.
Hey there, my fellow founders. Welcome to another episode of the Foundr podcast. My name is Nathan Chan, and I am coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. I’m the host of the Foundr podcast and the CEO of Foundr Magazine. So what’s been happening in my world, working hard, working on many different projects. For those of you that have supported the Foundr version 1.0 physical coffee table book, that is on track, it is on track to go live in April. So we will be shipping it to you, guys, and for those of you guys that didn’t wanna support us on Kickstarter, you will be able to purchase the book if you wanna go to foundrmag.com/book. So that’s all happening.
We’re working on an amazing secret e-commerce project. If you wanna start an online business, you wanna know how to start in particular a physical product-based business, we’ve found someone that’s probably one of the best out there, definitely in Australia, that we’re teaming up with and she’s an absolute superstar. So if you wanna know how to launch your online business you know, wanna start business, don’t know where to start, thinking about a physical product, [00:02:00] you can find out more if you sign up to the waiting list and you’ll be notified when this product comes out. But pretty much it will be a step by step in-depth course. And if you wanna know more you can go to foundrmag.com/ecommerce.
So that project is really exciting. I know it’s gonna really help a big problem for a lot of you guys in the community. I’m really excited about that. We’re scaling up content. We’re actually gonna open up the Foundr blog. So if people do wanna start contributing, please do get in touch. You can contact our support team at [email protected] We’re looking for amazing contributors. Please note we’re looking for the best kind of content, it has to be super in-depth but we’d love for you to share your experience and you know, write a really in-depth piece that can really help our community. That’s one thing I’m really excited about, we’re really scaling up content. And another thing that we’re doing is rolling in a new version of the websites. So it’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m hustling hard, recording these episodes just before I go to the States. It’s early March.
All right. So now let’s talk about today’s guest on the show, Leila Janah. Now, she’s an absolutely incredible entrepreneur and she’s trying to fight poverty right now. And she’s built this amazing social enterprise. She’s built a couple of companies actually, one called Sama Group, another called LXMI. But they all revolve around giving and making an impact on the world and she is a force to be reckoned with. And if you guys wanna know anything about social enterprise, how she started, tips for getting started, how to do good, how to build a business that has a business model that can be you know, for profit, still for profit but you know, has an element of social good [00:04:00] attached to it.
I always find these you know, speaking to entrepreneurs that do these kinds of stuff quite interesting because you know, a lot of the entrepreneurs and founders that we interview are mainly for-profit but you know, no social element attached to it, to the business model. So she’s a very famous founder, very very well renowned for her work, she’s absolutely killing it. All right. Now, let’s jump to the show.
So the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Leila: So I created my job. I was 25 and I quit my job at a management consulting firm two months before I was supposed to receive my end of year bonus which in retrospect was not such a great move. And I had this dream of starting basically a new model for digital work that would involve training really low-income people to do basic tasks on the Internet so that they could move out of poverty and companies could get their work done. And this is 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, very poor regions of the world. So I started it and it took years before I finally was able to earn any sort of salary and now eight years later we have a really amazing business that employees over 1,100 people and we’ve helped over 33,000 people move out of poverty.
Nathan: Wow. That’s incredible. So I guess the first question that I’m gonna ask is we get a lot of requests from a lot of people in our community to ask around you know, social enterprise and how can people start to create [00:06:00] I guess a business that has an element of impact in their model as well. So what advice would you have for someone that wants to start a social enterprise?
Leila: So I guess the first piece of advice is, find a real problem. So I think, in our case, I believe that there are two sort of core foundational problems from which everything else stems. One of them is extreme poverty and another one of them is climate change. So if you can…so to me a lot of things, really awful things that happen in many parts of the world like sex trafficking and childhood malnutrition are you know, they have their root cause in poverty.
So I’d say like try to find a problem that is as close as possible to a root cause problem. And then secondly, find a solution that works for a particular group of people who experience that problem. And you can start in a small way, with like a local group that you know well because you really need to understand the problem from every angle and ensure that you have a solution that’s unique to that population.
The challenge with the social enterprise is you’re trying to do that, which is one business, and at the same time figure out a way to earn revenue from that and often the things that solve the 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 sort of social or environmental change and another business model for you know, earning enough money to do that sustainably. So I’d say it’s harder, it’s probably twice as hard as starting an enterprise that doesn’t have the get back component.
Nathan: Got you. And can you tell us about you know, the different groups and the different, I guess, businesses that you have underneath the Sama Group, you have Samasource, the school, the hope, LXMI, which is that’s not part of the group, that’s a separate organization, correct?
Leila: Yeah. So we actually [00:08:00] we started off with Samasource, which is still our main kind of focus today and where we’ve seen the largest impact. We then experimented a little bit and we tried out something called Samahope, we were the first ever crowdfunding site for medical treatments globally. We launched in 2012 and funded 16,000 patient treatments ranging from fistula repair for women who are suffering from fistula to safe birth kits.
So it was a pretty transformational website for many people. And we merged it with Johnson and Johnson’s CaringCrowd platform last year because we wanted to be able to focus on our core impacts sourcing business. So impact sourcing is the core of what we do at Sama Group and that involves giving people work as a path out of poverty and we focus on doing that in the digital space with Samasource.
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. So we started it off around the country and we’ve trained over 25,000 people now through our samaschool.org, this tech platform that we built to host our content there. And so that’s training to enter the digital economy and we started in the US and then expanded that globally. So Source is the work side and Samaschool is the training side and they’re both part of the nonprofit organization. So they’re not two separate companies they’re just two programs.
And then lastly, we have LXMI, which launched this year in retail stores, at Sephora stores, and on QVC nationwide here in the US. And LXMI is a new luxury skincare brand based on the same idea of giving work. So we give work to the supply chain to low-income people and the [00:10:00] products are made of rare organic ingredients that are safe enough to eat.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s incredible. So it sounds like you’re pretty busy.
Leila: Yeah. Well, it’s just really these two companies, that’s Sama and LXMI and yeah, that does keep me pretty busy.
Nathan: Interesting. So what is your biggest challenge right now to manage all these companies and to keep them moving forward?
Leila: I’d say the biggest challenge is always like finding great people and doing more with less. Like we’re always trying to be scrappy and entrepreneurial and not burn through tons of cash. 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 took a very different approach of just being extremely cash conscious and investing a little bit less in some of the R and D initiatives and some of the new projects and getting more focused.
With LXMI we’re trying to change the way that people think about luxury. And so we have a focus on basically luxury that gives back through the supply chain and luxury that’s natural and organic. And so, the biggest focus there is just driving awareness and sales. So then hopefully you’ll mention it in the newsletter and you can put a link to our website.
Nathan: Yeah, sure thing.
Leila: It’s LXMI, lxmi.com.
Nathan: Got you. Well, so yeah, I didn’t know how it was pronounced. I, to be honest, hadn’t heard of that company yet until recently when I was doing more research about you. So can you tell me actually around, you know, you said that you guys are profitable with Samasource, how does that work? Because every you know, dollar that you guys make wouldn’t you want to put back to fuel growth?
Leila: Yes, that’s what we mean. But we’re profitable meaning that we are [00:12:00] not…at the end of the year we have a surplus that goes back into growth.
Nathan: Gotcha. That’s incredible.
Leila: If that makes sense so.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that makes 100% sense…
Leila: This is the first year we have that and that’s because we have this business model of earned revenue contracts.
Nathan: Gotcha. I see. And when it comes to you know, being an entrepreneur like what are some great productivity hacks? Because I think you know, I know you’re an incredibly busy person, you’ve got so many people that want your time, what are some things that you are doing to really maximize and get leverage?
Leila: To maximize my time and get leverage?
Leila: So I guess the number one lesson I’ve sort of learned doing this…running businesses is that you’re only as strong as your team. And I’ve kind of 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. So you should always be on the hunt for people who are more talented than you, who are you know, gonna bring something totally new and important to the company. And then figure out how to not get in their way too much.
So I guess we have a strategy of divide and conquer and I kind of have learned what I do best and try to stick to doing that and make sure that I’m helping/not getting in the way of really really great people that we hire. But it’s not always easy and I think you also have to you know, it’s hard to find your sweet spot of people that you really trust. I think I was maybe a little too trusting in the beginning and then too disappointed if people didn’t meet the expectations I had.
Nathan: That’s an interesting one. Because you know, one thing I’m learning is if you don’t let people know what success looks like it can be difficult for them to meet your expectations. So is that something that you’re actively doing amongst all of your companies now?
Leila: Yeah. I mean, we have pretty clear like KPIs, pretty clear objectives for each goal, [00:14:00] for each person. And then we use Slack which has changed the game completely for teams that have a lot of remote people. Like for Sama, we have people in Kenya, in the Netherlands. We’re opening up a center in India, across the US on the East Coast, on the West Coast and then we have some people who work remotely. So Slack is the only way to keep track of all these communications. We have a team right now from Kenya and Beirut in Lebanon working on an interesting project.
So the only way to keep track of stuff, I think, is that kind of constant communication and for each person to have pretty clear measurable goals and I just look at the people who’re reporting to me and what they’re able to do. And even on a quarterly basis, it’s tough to manage people who have bigger picture objectives. So you have to kind of look at things on an annual basis or once every six months basis to see if people are on track. And that’s, of course, once you get to the senior levels.
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You’re known as quite the visionary in the media and you’re changing the world. And I’m just really curious to delve a little bit deeper, like where is this stemmed from?
Leila: I don’t know. I guess [00:16:00] my father went to Jesuit school his whole life in India and kind of grew up with the Jesuit values. I’m not Catholic but I have this image of St. Francis in my office. And I really do believe that we’re personally served when doing things for others, it makes us happier. And the world is served when we think about doing things for others and doing things beyond sort of the narrow confines of our own selves and ego. So I guess I do it selfishly in a way because I feel better about myself when I do this work.
And I also find it really intellectually and ethically interesting. 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. And I also think 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.
Nathan: Yeah, that seems to be a common thing amongst you know, people that sign non-for-profits or social enterprises that we do speak to. It’s yeah. It’s not like you just described. So I’m also curious like you must have a ton of ideas, like your crazy ideas and all these things that you want to do as a visionary. How do you know what to choose and what to choose next when you talk about dividing and conquering?
Leila: How do I choose what to do next. I mean, I guess I would say you know, I know what the annual goals are and so whatever’s an obstacle in achieving that goal is what I focus on. So if we have a sales goal and we’re not hitting that goal, I aim to be constantly thinking, okay what’s gonna drive sales. Like how do I get around that and I kind of prioritize based on where I think the fire is. And if before we were kind of hitting the goals and there were no fires then I have the luxury of focusing on where are things really working well [00:18:00] can we accelerate. So for example, you know, if we’re hitting all of our…with Sama we’ve had a banner year, we exceeded our targets and so now I’m thinking okay, so if this is working well you know, a study of kind of what works well and then the next step is to just like put the gas on that. So it’s a constant balance of switching between the two.
Nathan: Gotcha. And when it comes to projects, do you guys have to find because you’re a visionary because you’re thinking so far ahead, you’ve got all these crazy ideas and amazing game-changing ideas, do you ever find that you have too many projects going on at one point in time?
Leila: Definitely. That was kind of one of the biggest things I learned out of the Samahope experiment we did. So I am very happy we did it because I think it was super important to…super important to launch that at a time when no one else did and then several other sites came you know, got developed and competed with us. And that to me was evidence that this was an important thing to do and also evidence that we could merge with someone else who’s doing this and not keep running it.
So I think one of our approaches to iteration has been, let’s try something, see what happens, manage the return on investment really carefully, keep a separate P and L for that. So make sure we know how much we’re spending on it. Let’s not just blend it back into more organization and then set some goals and if it doesn’t hit the goals shut it down or spin it out or I mean, even if it does hit the goals you can spin it out and kind of see what happens.
So I think companies like ours have to constantly be doing some R and D. The trick is to figure out what is really core to your mission and what is not and to focus the R and D on what is core. And I think what we learned is that Samahope, while it was so important to do, was not really core to our mission of bringing work to people through the digital economy and so that’s why we spread it out. I mean, we could have probably grown it a lot more, but it just seemed like it would distract us from the other work that we were doing [00:20:00] and getting a lot of notice for.
Nathan: I see. Because one thing, and I’m being a little bit selfish here asking questions myself you know, I have so many crazy ideas and I felt that you know, within the company Foundr right now we’re doing too many projects. And I see that you must experience this too. Like how do you know if you’re doing too many projects, how do you know how far you can push with your team and stuff like that?
Leila: I think you have to ask your team and trust them and I didn’t always trust them. I think I waited, I think I did burn some people out in the early days and it was through some trial and error that I realized that that was not the right thing to do. And if you really do trust the people you’ve hired and think they’re the very best and if they tell you that they’re burning out or they tell you that we need to focus more, that’s a good indication that you probably should.
And I think that there are just in general two types of people, yes people and no people. And the yes people share really similar tendencies. They tend to be a little bit hypo-manic, they’re often entrepreneurs, they’re often creative types you know, designers or artists or musicians or writers. They share both an artistic temperament and a predisposition towards being open to new ideas and those types of people tend to get really excited about new ideas and change and get bored if they’re doing the same thing over a long period of time.
The second category of people are no people. Those are often people in finance, in operations who are not entrepreneurs and I think they are typically logical you know, rational thinkers who approach things pretty sequentially, who like following routines and who are more risk and change-averse. So I think that any company is best served by having a mix of both of those types of people. And I learned [00:22:00] that by surrounding myself with people who are, some people who are no people and some people who are maybe more mild, the yes people that I am that will eventually arrive at the right decisions by having these checks and balances within the company.
Nathan: That’s really interesting. And can you tell us a little bit more about your hiring process? Like you talked about trust, you talked about yes and no people, no people aren’t entrepreneurial types. Can you yeah, tell us more about your hiring process and what you look for to really retain and find great talent?
Leila: Yes, we’ve used recruiters in the past but we try to hire from our network. So we do a lot of like social sharing and then we also have used LinkedIn a lot. We do target and reach out on LinkedIn.
Nathan: Yeah, gotcha. Okay, interesting. Well, look, we have to work towards wrapping up because I know you have to finish up soon. So I’ve got a couple more questions around just your experience as an entrepreneur because you’ve had an incredible amount of success in the small amount of time you’ve been working on the Sama Group. I’m curious what are like you know, a couple of pieces, the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from your journey as a founder that you could share with our audience. And then lastly, yeah, where’s the next best place people can find you or your work?
Leila: So the best place they can find me is on Facebook, just facebook.com/leilajanah. And they can also subscribe to my newsletter which is that LXMI, lxmi.com. And I write like roughly once a week about what’s happening in startup land, actually let me take that back. The best newsletter is my website leilajanah.com. That’s where I send out my regular updates. And yeah, I guess my parting advice is to realize that we are given an incredibly short amount of time on the planet and we gotta make every minute count.
Nathan: Love it. [00:24:00] Awesome. Well, look we’ll wrap there but thank you so much for your time, Leila, and keep up the incredible work that you’re doing. If there’s anything else we can do to help yeah, here for you.
Leila: Thank you so much.
- Learn more about Leila on her website
- Explore LeilaJanah.com
- Check out Leila’s blog page
- Follow Leila on Twitter
- Follow Leila on Facebook
- Explore Samasource
- Follow Samasource on Twitter