“My dad used to lecture my brother and me about poverty and tell us to eat all our food because there were starving kids back in India,” remembers entrepreneur Leila Janah, now 30. “We’d roll our eyes and be like, ‘Oh my God, Dad, not again.’”
The Los Angeles native’s perspective shifted while she was still in high school. “One local school had 99 percent white and East Asian students and 41 advanced placement courses,” says Janah, who now resides in San Francisco. “Another school in the same district had 99 percent Latino and black students and there was not a single advanced placement course.” It was then that she decided it was important to help level the playing field for the impoverished and underserved.
After graduating from Harvard in 2005 with a degree in economic development, Janah worked in the private sector for a few years. When she’d saved enough money, she left to found Samasource, a nonprofit business that connects people living in poverty with digital-work opportunities.
“We want to move from 3,500 workers paid and trained to 5,000 by the end of the year,” Janah says. “Our team is working feverishly to make that happen.”
The “Sama” umbrella also includes Samahope, a Kickstarter-type website for necessary (but rarely available) medical treatments in developing countries, and SamaUSA, which helps low-income community college students access digital work to supplement their income.
EL | What’s the best way to help people understand the global impact of poverty?
LJ | There are 1.4 billion people who live on less than $1.25 a day. Several more billion people live on less than $2 and $3, and when you think of it that way, you realize that we live in a world with vastly unequal distribution of opportunity.
EL | What did you learn about the world’s poor the first time you traveled abroad?
LJ | I graduated from high school a semester early and I spent the second semester of that year teaching English in Ghana. My students, who were blind and living in one of the poorest countries in the world, were incredibly articulate and just really capable at a level that surprised me. They could name U.S. senators. They could write well. They had read all sorts of interesting books.
I was really shocked because I’d internalized this myth about poverty — that poor people were either incapable or unable to work — and it struck me, as a teacher there, that all of my students would have been completely capable of doing all sorts of basic white-collar jobs. The people certainly were not charity cases and, yet, that’s how we were treating them.
EL | When did you know that you wanted to turn your passions into a career?
LJ | I worked at a consulting firm for a few years after college and I’m really grateful to that company. I had fantastic managers, and many of them have become donors and supporters of Samasource, but my heart wasn’t in it.
It was funny to me because when I was in high school, I was energized by having more work added to my plate. I ran multiple clubs and did a marathon and had tons of energy.
So it dawned on me when I was consulting that I was just deeply, professionally unhappy. It really had weighed me down. Now, getting a chance to do what I love, to tackle what I consider to be the greatest moral challenge of our time, is deeply fulfilling on a level that is hard to put into words. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
EL | So the energy you first felt in high school returned?
LJ | Oh, my goodness. Back in full force — probably even too much force. Not only do I have more energy for work, but I’ve also found that I have a lot more energy to socialize with people and do all sorts of other things that I didn’t do before.
I see a lot of people remove their morality from their work — they do something they don’t really believe in, but then they give to their church, or they support all sorts of great nonprofit projects on the side, or they support their kids’ school. It’s a very bifurcated model: You discard your values at work and live them in your personal life.
I think that there’s something energizing and deeply fulfilling, at the risk of sounding like a hippie, when you can exercise your values every day at work.
EL | What is your advice to someone who is looking to make more of a difference in his or her work?
LJ | The first phase is being introspective and sorting out what you’d like to see in the world, what sort of change you’d like to help effect. Then when you’re clear on what your goals are, you can work backward from there and think, “OK, well, what are the strategies that I can put in place to hit those goals?”
Even if you are depressed at your job working in retail, you don’t need to, say, quit and decide to go on a mission with your church. You can set aside time every week to write down your goals, think really clearly about the change you want to see in the world, and then craft a strategy around that. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t always happen overnight. Some people take decades to figure it out, and that’s OK, too.
EL | I imagine that, for a lot of Westerners, poverty and deep inequality feel like very faraway issues. How do you engage people in the developed world?
LJ | That’s a tough question. I’ve found that, at the end of the day, you have to make the message positive, and you have to relate it to people’s day-to-day experience in life. The first way you relate it to people is you bring them back to the idea that a human is a human, no matter where he or she happens to live, and that no human’s fate should be determined by an accident of birth.
I think it is a very American idea to provide people with a level playing field and let them compete, and I’ve found that using that language, we’ve been able to get people to support our mission who would normally not be very concerned with international development or people on the other side of the world.
To learn more about Janah’s social businesses and find out how you can contribute, visit www.samasource.org.