At 25, she started Samasource, which has helped more than 35,000 people develop new skills and find jobs that earn them a living wage. Sama — which means "equal" in Sanskrit — recruits and trains people to do digital work such as data management, content curation, and search engine optimization for clients like Google, Microsoft, eBay, and Walmart.
Janah grew Samasource into Sama Group, which also runs the online training academy Samaschool, and sister company, Laxmi, a for-profit skin care line that employs impoverished indigenous women and pays them three times the local living wage. Sama Group — which Fast Company named one of2016's most innovative companies — also developed Samahope, the world's first health care crowd-funding platform, through which individual donors help fund medical treatments for people who otherwise can't afford them. In 2015, Samahope became a part of Johnson & Johnson's CaringCrowd platform.
Janah, 33, talks about the experiences that led to her success and how she hopes to provide the same opportunities to the rest of the world.
I grew up in San Pedro, a gritty but beautiful city in Southern California next to the ocean. My parents enrolled me in a charter high school called the California Academy of Math and Science. My guidance counselor encouraged me to apply to Harvard, which I thought was crazy. I had good grades — I only missed one question on the SAT — but I never thought I would go to such a fancy school.
I applied for tons of scholarships, which I would need to finance any college education. I decided to graduate high school early and use a $10,000 scholarship I won to travel. What would have been the second semester of my senior year, I went to a rural town in Ghana to teach English at a school for blind children.
Before that trip, I thought I would study ocean science. I was scuba certified at 12, and I always considered myself an adventurette like my grandmother, who hitchhiked through Europe, Africa, and Asia. But when I got to Ghana, I was so shocked by the level of deprivation that was just normal. I stayed in this village where everyone was living on $2 a day or less. I heard about a little girl who died of malaria because her parents couldn't afford a medication that cost a few dollars.
My parents [immigrated to the U.S. and] are the American Dream story. My family benefited so much from all of the amazing opportunities in this country. But the young people I taught in Ghana — all of them so smart and hardworking — were trapped because of poverty.
I ended up receiving a really good financial aid package from Harvard, and I won a Coca-Cola Foundation scholarship, but it was still hard to make it work. I had to work three jobs as an undergrad. I was a barmaid and an usher at the local theater, I was a tutor, and I did janitorial work. I felt the class difference between myself and the other students, many of whom had gone to private schools.
My major was international economic development, which consisted of classes in economics, history, politics, anthropology, French, and Portuguese. I raised over $50,000 [in grants] that enabled me to work in Senegal in the summer of 2001 after my freshman year, writing for a travel guide series. I got a grant to do field research on transitional justice with a group of people in Rwanda. I also got to work at the World Bank while I was still an undergrad because of Harvard connections.
I took a job at a management-consulting firm in New York City when I graduated in 2005. The offer was the kind that would allow me to pay back my student loans really quickly. I did basic strategy consulting work, helping big companies go public, [but] I kept thinking about my time in Africa. I felt I had a moral obligation to do serious work.
My first project was working for a big Indian outsourcing company. I met a guy on the call center floor of this giant corporation in Mumbai who was commuting in from the slums. This light bulb went off: If this guy can do this work and he's from a place with open sewers and cholera outbreaks, what if we can use this [outsourcing and training] model to grant more people access to work and get them out of poverty? That was the genesis of what became Samasource.
I was working on the business plan nights and weekends while working at the firm. I researched what kind of work low-income people could do and what training they needed. Two years later, I quit my job. I had some connections at Stanford through a [former] professor. He was able to get me a gig as a visiting scholar at Stanford in the global justice program. The visiting scholar program was not paid, but I had an office and it gave me a little bit of cache. A lot of my Harvard friends — including my boyfriend at the time — all worked at Facebook, so I had a network [in the Bay Area].
I set up Samasource as a nonprofit because I wanted the social mission to always reign supreme: Hire marginalized people to do computer-based work. The goal is to move them out of poverty through employment.
The first year in business was so hard. I broke up with my boyfriend, but he let me sleep on his futon for four months because I couldn't afford rent. I was paying myself $400 a month [off my savings]. I had calculated that the cheapest form of sustenance was candy and Top Ramen, so that's what I ate.
No one wanted to give me venture capital to hire a bunch of poor people in a slum. Even grant makers didn't want to give me grants. Everyone thought it was insane. So I started really small. In 2008, I won $30,000 from two business plan competitions in the Bay Area, which helped Sama get off the ground.
My next round of funding came from begging. I had just returned from a refugee camp in Africa [to scout workers for Sama], where I saw so much opportunity to provide work. I gave my pitch at a cocktail party full of Silicon Valley investor-types, and two people wrote me checks for $50,000 each.
In late 2008, I won my first contract with a small firm in San Francisco to digitize books for blind readers. I set up a work center in an Internet café in Nairobi, which I had visited on a consulting trip a year earlier. I hired four people to work from an Internet café, and the owner became the project manager. [Future projects were set up the same way.] We hire impact workers, which means applicants who are earning below a living wage for whatever is standard in that region. We primarily look for people who have completed at least a high school education, and can read and write in English. The main source [of recruitment] is through word of mouth. For example, a current or former worker will refer their neighbor or family member to Samasource.
That first project served as a case study that I was able to then show to some of my contacts at big companies like Getty Images and Microsoft, and to people that I met at events and conferences. There was a lot of courting in the beginning, and even still today, but now we have a fair amount of business coming in through word of mouth from our customers, people who read about us in the press or have seen something on social media.
Today, we employ 80 people in San Francisco and Nairobi, and our team is distributed around the world [running work sites] remotely. Since 2008, we've moved 35,000 people from less than $2 a day to more than $8 a day. In Southeast Asia and East Africa, that is literally the difference between life and death. It's living in a slum and getting exposed to cholera, versus living in safe housing, having access to health care, and being able to send your kids to school.
We track what happens to workers over the years, and more than 90 percent of them earn more in their next jobs after they leave Sama. Many of them go back to college and get a degree, which helps them contribute to their country's economy. We see our workers going from eating sugarcane as their primary source of calories to eating protein and fresh fruits and vegetables after working with us. We get letters from workers every day. A man in Nairobi recently wrote a poem that essentially said Sama saved his life. He was an abducted child soldier during the Ugandan Civil War. His life had been marked by so much suffering. To see him so gleeful for the chance to work is just incredible.
In 2009, I ran a Hulu ad showcasing Samasource's work. The next day I got a very nasty email from a guy in Ohio that said, "You are ruining America, taking jobs from us and giving them to these refugees!" I wrote back and said, "I hear you. The recession is really bad. What do you think we could do to make things better in the U.S.?" He totally changed his tune. He said, "I come from a state with all these factory closures, and we don't know how to provide for our families. Maybe your model would work in rural Ohio." Three years after that email exchange, we launched our U.S. program called Samaschool, which trains low-income workers for the digital economy. We're now [serving] Arkansas, New York, and the Bay Area. We've trained over 1,500 people and enrolled 7,000 in our online classes.
During a trip to Sierra Leone and Liberia looking for Samasource workers, I realized neither of those countries were good candidates because they had very little infrastructure and high levels of illiteracy. I kept my eyes open for other ways to help out, and I met this doctor who was doing fistula repair surgery [the tissue between the vagina and anus that can be frequently damaged during childbirth; this damage can cause incontinence, nerve damage, or even immobility]. He told me about the prevalence of women suffering from a [damaged] fistula in this region and that with a $1,000 surgery they could get their lives back. I thought, somebody has got to raise money for this guy. If I could tell the story of just one of these women, I was sure that 50 people would give $20 for her to get a surgery.
In 2012, we set up the first-ever crowdfunding site for medical treatments called Samahope. Over the years, we've funded 16,000 patient treatments ranging from fistula repairs in Africa to C-sections in Haiti, to providing critical dental care to low-income and homeless populations in the U.S. In 2015, we joined forces with Johnson & Johnson's CaringCrowd [an organization with similar goals and farther reach].
In all of these programs, I care about only one thing: lifting people out of poverty. We spend so much money on charity and on these stopgaps like providing poor people with free stuff. What people need most is an income. We are working on building a movement around this idea of giving work.