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

VOGUE Australia - - CODES -

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”

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