"I just started bawling," Leila Janah is telling me about a trip she took to Sierra Leone earlier this year. "I’m usually pretty steely as a matter of course. But I’ve been crying a lot more lately."
But a sweet teenaged girl named Tiangay Kaiwo moved Janah to tears. Kaiwo was waiting for surgery at the government hospital in Bo to repair the extensive damage to her body after her teacher brutally raped her. Traditional tribal remedies involving herbs and a bath in boiling water exacerbated her condition. Kaiwo had been living with a painful rectovaginal fistula for over a year, but best as Janah could tell, the rapes began when she was 12 years old. Janah met dozens of girls and women with similar stories, all needing life-changing surgeries that nobody could afford. "Nobody even to hold their hands, to tell them that this wasn’t their fault," Janah said.
When the slice of the market you are trying to corner is as troubled as the one that Janah is, then tears are clearly a rational response. But after tears, at least if you’re built like Janah, comes action.
Enter her latest project, Samahope, an experiment in crowdfunding medical treatment—like burn care—for the very poor. Think of it as Kiva for surgery. "There are millions of people who need corrective surgeries that we take for granted in the West," she says. But the very poor often need types of care, like fistula surgery, that are now wholly unfamiliar and largely unnecessary in the developed world. (You can contribute to the development of the site via their Indiegogo campaign here.)
The site launched last month and has already funded a handful of surgeries; there are over 70 profiles on the site. If you believe in the premise of the League of Extraordinary Women, then the business case is clear: If you get one girl back on her feet, she can go to school. If she goes to school, she can get a job. Enough girls join the workforce and a country gets uplifted. But Janah sees another benefit. "They want to say what happened to them, to tell their own stories," she says.
She has collected so many of these stories—of the poor and the embattled and their search for basic human rights through employment—that she’s writing a book. "I just interviewed a security guard at a hotel in Freetown," Janah said. "He grew up as a rebel and child soldier in the conflict—think about that for a minute—then forced into the diamond mines. His life was so full of conflict, a constant struggle to access basic human resources, that it’s impossible to wrap my mind around." Recalling young Kaiwo, "For someone like her, being able to tell her story and help other girls not become a victim is a very powerful thing."
Samasource, which last month closed a $7.5 million round of philanthropic funding led by The MasterCard Foundation, has become the darling of the tech crowd for its deft use of the Internet to match an excess capacity of potential workers with the jobs they need to live in dignity. "But the scale of the problems can seem so great compared to the resources you have to address them," says Janah—thus, the crowdsourcing project. Unlike her peers in the for-proft tech world, she is not going to be able to turn to her staffers with breathless reports of sky-high valuations, rounds of venture funding, or promises of equity upside.
And yet, Janah is convinced that dignified work can resurrect even the most damaged lives, and that her own business case is sound. "We’ve gotten the microwork model on the agenda of a lot of foundations and government entities. We just have to prove it can scale."
Janah recalls with fondness the "aha" moment when she knew that Samasource could actually be a business. But the slog of ramping up to achieve a massive goal is largely free of lightbulb moments. "Not a day goes by when I don’t doubt myself or question something," she says. So instead, she takes the power of microwork and puts it to work for herself and her team. "I had to manage my own psychology around this. So, I’ve trained myself to pause and celebrate each step."
She rattles off a list of things that sound more startup than do-good: Realign your expectations, hit your goals, stay close to the customer, stay connected to your mission. She ends up sounding more like a Zen master than elevator pitcher. "It’s about looking down and doing what’s in front of you. Truly savor it. Then do the next thing. My job is to make sure we’re all going in the right direction, and at the end of the year, the sum of those steps adds up to something really great."
[Image: Flickr user Kris Krüg]