Leila Janah is founder and CEO of three San Francisco-based companies: Samasource, which connects people in developing countries with digital work; SamaUSA, which replicated the model in the U.S. and has increased the income of people in the program by 20%; and Samahope, which crowdfunds medical treatments for safe births and has funded over 500 patients.
“‘Sama’ means ‘equal’ in Sanskrit; ‘balance’ is the root word,” says Janah. “It’s the guiding principle for my work and life and our family of enterprises. I apply it to our culture as much as our mission of addressing the root cause of poverty.”
Janah says a focus on balance has been critical in overcoming her biggest challenge as leader of the three companies, which is to recruit top digital talent from much richer organizations. “We have people from places like Oracle, Microsoft, Intuit,” she says. “Sama plays a huge role in why people leave lucrative careers to join a social enterprise.”
“Grit, grace, and optimism” are the three qualities that Janah says are essential to maintaining a balanced work culture, as well as “maintaining my composure and not going crazy” when things don’t go as planned, particularly in facing the challenges of sourcing digital work to developing countries. “Three years ago, a ship dropped its anchor on the one cable that provided all Internet to east Africa, and we had to reroute a Samasource client’s work through India,” she says. “Last year there was a shooting at a mall that we had people working out of. Those things come up for us more than another tech company, but we are fundamentally optimistic about what we’re doing.”
Another way that Janah has connected workplace culture with organizational mission is in her choice of office location. “I located our office in a hectic corner of [San Francisco neighborhood] the Mission at 16th,” says Janah. “It’s colorful, has the best murals and coffee, but there are some downsides on our corner. Not major crime, but there is a problem with homelessness in the community. It can be challenging to people who are young or new to the area. But I chose the location because it connects us to our social mission and reminds us why we do it, even though we do a lot of work overseas. I also love walking, and it’s one of the richest areas for urban hikes. I take the management team on 30 to 60 minute walks around the neighborhood. That helps not only keep me sane but ground our new staff in the area we’re working in.”
In the office itself, Janah installed what she calls the “Ation Room,” for meditation and lactation. “Last year I started meditation, which I never thought I would do,” says Janah. “It seemed very new age-y, but then I started reading about the science behind it, and there is a lot of contemporary neuroscience that validates what my ancestors in India said thousands of years ago. We have a weekly group meditation, not tied to any philosophy, but an optional 30 minutes before all staff meetings. It slows down constant barrage of thoughts, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs who are naturally type A have a lot of the same challenges. It has helped me focus, come to conclusions about things.”
Finally, Janah has taken up new, out-of-comfort-zone physical activities that can be done close to the office, which for her are kiteboarding and Latin dance. “It’s really helpful to be physically engaged in something that’s completely different from my day-to-day work,” she says. “We’re four blocks from my favorite dance studio called ODC. I did ballet for 10 years, so I started taking Latin dance, and the new movements help my brain process. During one of my classes, I came up with an idea for a game that my team will play to help them connect to the mission of what we do, which is to level the playing field and correct for the social imbalances created by the birth lottery.”