"The best way to end poverty is to simply give people work, which isn't considered 'sexy' among donors who want to fund a preschool or cure a disease," says Leila Janah. So she founded Samasource, an Internet nonprofit that provides poor women, youth, and refugees throughout the world with computer-based work. After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, 40 young Haitians were paid to translate emergency text messages from Creole into English.
Janah describes Samasource as a marriage between Silicon Valley technology and poor people that creates a compelling value proposition for customers who send work assignments to the firm. Some of her success has come from support from fellow female tech entrepreneurs, including Women 2.0 cofounder Shaherose Charania, who uses its virtual assistant service. Charania's assistant, Vanessa Lucky Kanyi, is a 22-year-old Kenyan college student, whose position with Samasource allows her to stay in school. "Working from Nairobi, Vanessa handles everything from booking appointments to taxes. Her support allows me to leverage my strengths, adding value to each day, to each task, and to the world. While we've never spoken verbally—we communicate through email and Skype—I feel like we truly know each other," says Charania.
Some small tasks are handled through GiveWork, the nonprofit's iPhone application. Assignments are sent to refugees—some 45 are currently involved—and, through outsourcing startup CrowdFlower, to 20,000 volunteers who have downloaded the app. Basically the volunteers' efforts serve as a quality check on the work done by the refugees; when a task needs to be done over, the Samasource workers are paid for the additional work. Samasource and CrowdFlower plan to launch a Web-based version of GiveWork via Facebook that allows users to compete for points. "This will hopefully facilitate some healthy competition among participants, increasing excitement about our mission," says Janah.
"Technology is a tough realm to navigate as a younger woman who is not married," Janah adds. "It can be hard to cultivate professional relationships because you have to be conscious of how to engage potential investors." At the same time, she believes it's easier for minority women to be recognized because they stand out—an advantage, perhaps, for Janah and Samasource.
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