Leila Janah: All it takes is one trip
Sometimes a little is all it takes. A gesture, a few words, a trip, an encounter. And when you realize that, all of a sudden you can feel your body vibrating under the dictates of a lucidity that grips you around your throat. But lucidity often gives way to frustration. That’s what I had felt at the end of this journey : a suffocating melange of shame, helplessness and waste, mixed with awe and total respect ; one does not emerge unscathed from a road trip in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. Take my word for it. I remember all the questions that I started asking myself : how can you help without positioning yourself as a dominant? How can we fight poverty without undermining the integrity of those who have nothing, without depriving them of their human rights, choose their own destiny? How can we give without being paternalistic, without interfering? How do you respark desire and enthusiasm ? How do you deal with the past? The problem of poverty seemed insoluble to me. I had no solutions. I was ashamed. So I chose silence.
The reason that all this had suddenly come flooding back to me years later is that Swenson magazine had just asked me to look further into the matter by interviewing Leila Janah and discuss her project to fight poverty. A total slap in the face. By studying the subject once again, I must admit that I wasn’t at all expecting to find anything like this. Leila Janah, a thirty-four-year-old American visionary, is one of those people who are full of resolutions, who have the genius and strength to carry out projects that nobody else believes in. In recent years, Leila has become well respected in the world of entrepreneurship thanks to a project that she has engaged in, body and soul. A project called Samasource.
A non-profit organization, Samasource’s mission is to reduce poverty in the world by providing sustainable and worthy jobs via the Internet for people living in poverty. In fact, Samasource is one of the first organizations to engage in « Impact Sourcing ». It uses an internet-based model of operation called microwork, which consists of decomposing large digital projects into several smaller projects; projects that require skills that can easily be assimilated by workers. If we had to summarize the subject, you could say that Samasource provides practical management projects that enrich and organize the large databases of international companies such as Google, Tripadvisor or eBay, via an economic model that helps to get people out of poverty. The idea is original and of a rather disconcerting efficiency. It is a source of hope as well as a source of admiration and curiosity. Curiosity … Behind every idea, I told myself before preparing the interview, there is a story, that of a man or a woman. Yes, you have to start by being curious and by telling a story. Their story. For if one wants to understand the genesis of Leila Janah’s brilliant idea, if one wants to understand where the strength and courage of this American woman stemmed from, one must first of all take a look at her life, her own story. An atypical story, of course, but one which is especially open to the world and particularly imbued with tolerance and generosity.
« I am an American woman who comes from a first generation of migrants,” Leila begins to tell me when I discuss her roots and younger years with her by e-mail. “The mother of my mother, who was Belgian, hitch-hited around the world after World War II before finally settling in Calcutta, where she opened a ceramic workshop with her husband. She taught me the importance of working hard to get what you want. My father, for his part, had had a Jesuit education all his life. He came from a long line of Calcutta Christians in southern India and had inherited a deep sense of social justice and compassion. So he made sure that I understood the fact that every human being had worth and a dignity of their own. And then, in spite of the fact that we were terribly poor – I had to work from the age of thirteen – we were taught that money was not a goal in itself. »
So with her head firmly screwed onto her shoulders and her eyes wide open to the world, Leila began to build an identity for herself. Strong from this solid and conscientious background, at seventeen, eager for adventure, she decided to go on a trip to Ghana that was about to change her life forever. An electric shock, no doubt, you can still hear it resonating in her words; the crucial turning point that shaped all of her future enterprises.
« I had no idea what I was getting myself into » she tells me when I ask her about her first trip to the African continent. « I think in the beginning, I went there to escape and live an adventure. I had the vague sensation that I would eventually be led to help people in need, as a volunteer English teacher. But when I arrived in Ghana, I was amazed by the level of my students. They could all read and write in very good English. It made me realize that we had really created a myth about poverty, a myth that suggests that poor people are incapable of helping themselves. Africa holds a rather mysterious place in our collective imagination – it frustrates me that we still associate so many stereotypes with it. It was so frustrating to see so many talented souls going to waste. I remember being amazed by the talent of some of them and I also remember feeling like I had a duty to help these people get out of poverty. »
Following this first trip, young Leila continued to go back and forth to the African continent, trying to think of possible solutions to fight against poverty. After graduating from Harvard, she began working in an office as a strategy and outsourcing consultant, and in 2008, after a trip to Kenya, she decided to launch her famous Samasource project. At that time, nurtured by her work as a consultant, she realized that the little internet cafes that could be found throughout the country could act as leverage, as work centers, for the digital logistics chains that develop within large international companies: Microwork.
« When I got back from that trip in Kenya,” she says, “I thought: and what if I could transform the outsourcing sector so that people with low incomes could benefit from odd jobs, just like Muhammad Yunus had transformed the banking system into microfinance? (Read our article “On a world tour to spread microfinance”) What if I could train the youth living in the slums to perform small tasks via the Internet so as they could earn a living? In September 2008, I launched Samasource and since then we haven’t stopped growing. We now employ 8,000 people, all from very poor backgrounds. »
Read the full interview in Swenson Mag Vol.01
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