Leila Janah set out to help end world poverty seven years ago by matching low-income workers in impoverished areas with digital work through her nonprofit Samasource.
The Sama Group holding company eventually grew to comprise Samaschool, its training and education arm, and Samahope, a medical crowdfunding platform for impoverished women and children through its system of “impact sourcing”—deliberately matching impoverished people with job opportunities.
Today, Sama Group is unveiling its first-ever online curriculum under Samaschool, which will allow users (including those in the U.S. as well as abroad) to learn computer literacy and other digital skills at their own pace. And next month, Sama will also launch its first in-house product in the form of Laxmi, an all-natural luxury beauty line produced by Sama workers at fair wages. Both of these rollouts come as Janah’s team opened its first Sama-owned work center last week near the Mathare slums in Nairobi, where many of Sama’s workers in that region live.
Bringing products and work centers in house, as well as expanding its training program to the web, have been longtime visions for Janah. But she knew she couldn’t build it right away. Here’s how she managed to pivot Sama toward all of those goals, all while redefining what it means to be a social business.
Janah wasn’t patient, or even particularly deliberate, about moving things forward. “I don’t know what the milestones are because I think that we kind of do things by the seat of our pants, which is changing as we bring in more executive talent into the company,” she told Fast Company.
Creating the right environment for an education arm and in-house business venture took years and more than a few uphill battles, and Janah was often frustrated by the stagnating pace of change inside and outside of Sama.
“Samaschool came out of years and years of wanting to do something in the U.S. to show that the [impact sourcing] model would work, not just in a developing country but also in a developed country,” Janah says. “The thing that the Internet does, is it allows labor to move freely across borders in the way that capital does but traditionally, labor cannot. So the Internet frees workers to be based anywhere and work for employers anywhere.”
In the early days of Sama, which was founded in 2008, sites like TaskRabbit and Care.com that used the Internet to connect people with offline work took off in the U.S. And Janah wanted to teach low-income workers how to take advantage of those marketplaces.
But Janah said she faced some opposition from U.S. entrepreneurs about a year after launching. “The real catalyst was actually from negative feedback that I got on our model from a guy in Ohio, who said that we were ruining America by outsourcing American jobs to Kenya,” Janah said. She learned that her detractor was a recently laid-off worker from an Ohio factory who was enraged after seeing Sama ads on Hulu videos, and his derision made Janah even more determined to help narrow the income gap in America.
“That criticism made me think even more deeply about what we could do locally, and eventually led to me getting funding from the California Endowment to pilot our model in the Bayview district of San Francisco and eventually launching,” she says.
Two years later, in 2011, she had drafted a proposal for what would become Samaschool. But it took another two years to launch a U.S.-based pilot of the program (known as SamaUSA at the time) that included 80 credit hours of boot camp-style 101 courses for learning web-based job skills over 10 weeks.
With today’s launch, Samaschool will offer its first online courses through SkillJar’s software and will allow users from anywhere to work through the approximately 30 hours of curriculum at their own pace. Students who complete the training will receive a certificate that transfers to their LinkedIn profiles.
It wasn’t just external criticism of Sama’s impact sourcing model that altered Janah’s vision of creating a far-reaching education arm of Sama. She said convincing her own team that impact sourcing really worked was at times an uphill battle, too.
“I had a lot of internal opposition from my board at the time and members of my former management team. So it took a long time to convince everybody that this was a good idea,” she says. “I think in general, people who aren’t themselves entrepreneurs are often more risk averse. And I think you see this dynamic a lot with entrepreneurial people who lead a company, which is that they hire people who complement them. I hired people who are very different from me—people who are very methodical and very organized—because otherwise our company wouldn’t function.”
Janah helped to convince some members of her management and executive teams to support the Samaschool venture by being bullish about getting it funded. Finally in 2013, she met a source at the California Endowment, which was interested in supporting the program, and went for it.
“For me, a lot of these things come up opportunistically. My bigger vision is to show that impact sourcing is a model that can work in many categories of business. And the best way to alleviate poverty is to provide people with dignified work,” Janah says. “I always thought in the back of my head, if I can get this person to give us money to pilot this program, we’re just going to do it. I don’t care who opposes it, but we’ll figure out a way because we’re not going to turn that down.”
All of Sama’s new expansions feed its existing parts.
Samaschool’s expansion means even more people around the world will have the skills to take on digital jobs inside Samasource and elsewhere. Whereas Sama used to rely exclusively on partner work centers everywhere from Haiti to Ghana to Pakistan, it now has its first-ever self-owned center in Nairobi to train and host workers.
Laxmi is also a continued part of Sama’s vision to use impact sourcing to directly infuse impoverished regions with economic strength. It’s Janah’s first pivot to producing her own physical product. Laxmi will source its shea butter and other luxury materials from the same places in East Africa that it will source the workers who produce the beauty line, ensuring that some of the riches will return to the area from which they’re derived.
Laxmi will exist as a separate for-profit company part owned by the nonprofit holding company Sama Group. Janah says the Laxmi team just closed a seed round of funding that will likely end up between $2.5 million and $3 million to launch the line. It will launch online in October, but by early next year, the line will likely be sold on the shelves of a major cosmetics retailer.
And just as she did with Samaschool, Janah says she waited until she had the money to hire someone else to run the brand day-to-day and to grow Laxmi independently of Sama. MJ Doctors, Janah’s cofounder, will manage operations.
“The idea was to show that if we can build out a for-profit model for impact sourcing that has higher margins and can generate profit, then some of that profit can be used to offset our costs of running Sama,” Janah says. “And that’s another thing I want to demonstrate: We can build these businesses as social business. They don’t have to be profit maximizing, and we can get investors interested in this new way of thinking about business.”