Heart of the matter
Social entrepreneur Leila Janah always knew she wanted to give back in a meaningful way. As well as empowering workers in developing countries through her company Samasource, she provides a healthy wage for women in Africa via her natural skincare enterpr
Leila Janah is, for the briefest of moments, back in her head office in San Francisco’s Mission district. Brief, because having just returned from a rare four-day holiday in Bali, she’s about to head to Hong Kong for work before making a trip to Europe. “Jet lag is a kind of norm for me, sadly. I’m good with it, but I don’t really have a choice, and with two companies and a book …” she trails off, with a shrug. Right now she is fitting in a take-away lunch during our interview, for which she apologises profusely, but such is the day-to-day of a serial social impact entrepreneur.
“I don’t love travelling as much for work, but I love achieving our mission and it requires that, so it’s a privilege to do it.” The mission Janah is referring to is bringing “dignified internet work” to people living in poverty in Uganda, Kenya, India and Haiti through her company Samasource, a business based on impact outsourcing, if you will. So far Samasource has trained and found internet work for 10,000 people, generating employment for them with companies such as eBay, Google and Getty Images while also ensuring they’re paid an above-average wage. ‘Give work’ is the mantra, and also the name of Janah’s book about her career, which came out last year.
In person, Janah is striking, with skin that boasts the kind of luminosity that exists when one also runs a beauty company (her’s is LXMI – but more on that later). She became the first person in her high school to attend Harvard – “because they offered me the best financial package”, she says pragmatically, and supplemented that with wages earned through cleaning toilets, working as a waitress and tutoring other students. “But socially it was hard because I came from a lower income background in southern California where it’s not very class conscious, which Boston is.”
Janah’s parents had migrated from Calcutta, India, and instilled in her and her brother a love of nature. “I still find my happy place when I’m in the jungle or in a remote, natural area. I’m very thankful for my childhood, because it wasn’t programmed and my gift was that I’m naturally curious. My parents couldn’t afford for me to do ballet classes so I had to take on babysitting to take the classes, which made me take it seriously,” she explains. She only took cello lessons as an adult when she could afford to pay for them herself.
Following Harvard, Janah found herself in management consulting, but aspired to work in poverty reduction. “I knew when I joined the firm I was not going to be a career consultant,” she says of her time there, which she adds, “was like a free MBA – they teach you financial analysis, business acumen, how to read a P&L and all these skills that are useful to have if you’re starting a company.”
Although her goal was to find a role in poverty reduction, she says: “I felt that maybe the best thing I could do was to figure out how to create direct, measureable impact myself. I wanted to directly create jobs for people. I had the inkling of the idea for Samasource when I was working in Africa when I was in college.” Samasource launched in 2008 and also includes Samaschool in the US, which trains low-income Americans in skills to help them in the gig economy. It recently won a US$1 million grant from Google.
Janah’s second company, LXMI, launched in 2015. The concept for the business arose when she suffered dry skin while travelling and discovered a solution at a Ugandan market: nilotica, a type of wild shea butter packed with antioxidants. The ingredient became the basis of the natural skincare range, which is now sold at Sephora US. That it is stocked there was fortuitous: a contact of Janah, who worked at the company, nominated LXMI for Sephora’s accelerator program, which promotes female entrepreneurs. “It sounds crazy, but I believe in serendipity, and even manufacturing your own serendipity. I want to create things, but I try to be patient for opportunities that are coming in instead of pushing and trying to open doors that are closed, because that’s what tires you out. When you’re ready and prepared, things happen,” says Janah. LXMI provides a wage to its female workers three times the local average wage. “The best way to help low-income women is to buy things from them as directly as possible and give them the agency that a pay cheque creates.”
When LXMI was established, Samasource was well under way. “It might not have been the smartest idea to launch [LXMI] so soon after Samasource, but I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to sit by the side of the pool reading magazines, because I get so bored. I need to be creating things because that’s what gets me excited and out of bed,” says Janah.
To calm her mind, she participates in extreme sports like kite-surfing and paragliding. “Because they’re so engrossing when you do them, you can’t think about what emails you haven’t sent!” she explains. “The hardest part of working for me is the stress – I get stressed about things I should or shouldn’t be doing as opposed to the stress of actually doing it, which is a waste of time. Those sports force me to be fully present and focused in the moment.”
On her recent holiday to Bali, in between yoga and trying to unwind, she was still researching ingredients for the new LXMI products, meeting with herbalists and healers and talking to locals about job creation in the textile sector.
“My brain is always spinning with ideas about this business. To me, it’s not a burden because it’s what I love,” she says, comparing nurturing her business to having a child. (She doesn’t have children, and has written for Glamour magazine about freezing her eggs.) “My friends who do have children say they’re always on your mind. You drop your kid off at day care but it’s not like you don’t think about them … you’re wondering if they’ve eaten, slept. There’s a part of your brain that’s always churning around what’s going on with the company, and I would be doing this even if it weren’t my job, because it’s my passion.” Leila Janah is speaking at Vogue Codes Summit in Sydney on June 22 and Vogue Codes Live on June 23. Go to codes.vogue.com.au.
“I want to create things but I try to be patient for opportunities that are coming in instead of trying to open doors that are closed, because that’s what tires you out”