January 19, 2012 | Innovation, Science and Technology

Woman of the Week: Leila Janah

With SamaSource, she brings work from Silicon Valley to where it's needed most.

Woman of the Week: Leila Janah

By Anna Louie Sussman

A school for the blind in Ghana is a long way from Silicon Valley, but it was there, twelve years ago, where Leila Janah had her vision. She was a 17-year-old student, teaching English as a volunteer, and learning her own lesson from her smart, motivated students: the world’s poorest weren’t poor because they didn’t want to work. Rather, they were being left out of global markets.

After graduating from Harvard and working at the World Bank and as a management consultant in India, Ms. Janah founded SamaSource in 2008, a non-profit that connects major technology companies, including Google, LinkedIn and Intuit, with women, refugees and youth who perform “microwork.” The company’s proprietary software, the SamaHub, breaks down tasks like outsourcing, transcription, or data-tagging, into smaller pieces, which are then distributed to workers in high-poverty countries. From her home base San Francisco, Ms. Janah, 29, now oversees an operation of over 1,500 workers from Pakistan to Haiti and a dozen other countries in between, that has paid out over $1.12 million in living wages to date.

Your key insight was that poverty stems from a lack of access to markets, and that technology could deliver that access. Why did you feel you had to start SamaSource to address this, as opposed to working within your capacity at the World Bank or as a management consultant?

I knew I wanted to do this work ever since my time in Ghana, and I knew it was only a matter of time. I was growing frustrated in my consulting job, since I felt ultimately we were just making profitable companies even more profitable. I experimented with trying to do this work during my day-to-day, so as I was consulting, I started a non-profit with a former professor, Thomas Pogge, called Incentives for Global Health, which I eventually left my job to do full-time. At the time, I had the vague idea for SamaSource, which was then called Market for Change.

Can you describe taking that leap to start SamaSource?

I had found a professor in the Global Justice Program who was a mentee of Thomas Pogges’, named Joshua Cohen, who was kind enough to let me be the Visiting Scholar. It didn’t come with any money, but it came with some prestige, and a desk at Stanford, and a lot of professors there were really supportive, so that made me confident enough to move out to California. I also had a little bit of money from the gig at Incentives for Global Health. I started a 501(c)3, and was doing Market for Change, which later became SamaSource, part-time. Once I got funding for MFC stuff, that’s when everything really took off.

You’ve said that most people have this perception that poor people can’t work on a computer. My perception was that poor people don’t necessarily have access to a computer, although I understand that cellphone penetration is very high in the developing world.

There is a myth that poor people don’t have access to technology, and there is still a long way to go in that respect. But among those who are connected and still live in poverty, there is a big market there. I spent a lot of time in former British colonies across Africa and South Asia, where there are a large number of unemployed young people with the skill and will to work, and access to technology. It may not be the most cutting-edge technology, but they have computers that work and Windows software. But despite the infrastructure and their work skills, they still could not access work. 

This seems like a tough sell. How did you get your first contract?

It was really hard when you start out to figure out who your first customers are going to be, so I just pounded the pavement. I made a brochure that I printed out at Kinko’s, and then tried to figure out who would buy frome me. Got first contract from a company called Benetech, which had a huge need for people to digitize books into text documents so they could be read by audio software to blind readers. They were using these huge machines that converted PDFs, but they were making a ton of mistakes. So if you were a blind person hearing the book being read, 10% of what you were hearing was gobbledygook, which is a really bad user experience. So we stepped in and cleaned it up. They’ve been a customer ever since. I convinced them by personally guaranteeing the CEO, who was and is a mentor of mine, that I would personally be responsible for delivering the results.

Can you talk a little about your experience of being a woman in Silicon Valley? There’s a lot of talk about bias, and women having a harder time getting projects funded.

It’s really not challenging, being a woman in Silicon Valley. To me, the bigger challenge is that there aren’t a lot of us, so it’s like being a minority in any field: there’s nobody that looks like you, or who comes from your perspective. But I think the whole thing is slightly overblown. The real problem is that there are fewer women graduating with engineering degrees, so there’s a smaller available pool.

If anything it’s been helpful for me, because people will always take your meetings, and people like to write about women in tech.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.