“I am so sick of fundraising.” Leila Janah, the founder and CEO of Sama Group, has just left an hour-long staff meeting about grant proposals, and she is venting as we dig into an artisanal brick-oven pizza at Farina, a restaurant in San Francisco.
Janah, 33, founded Sama in 2008 with the belief that creating work opportunities is the most effective tool for fighting poverty Sama goes into communities tha lack living-wage jobs—from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to rural Arkansas—and trains people to do digital work, such as verifying data that makes Google’s search algorithms smarter and flagging inappropriate content posted to TripAdvisor. So far, Sama reports that it has helped approximately 51,000 people, almost 22,000 direct beneficiaries and another 29,000-plus of their income dependents. In 2015, Sama aided twice as many people as it did in 2014.
Janah, as usual, is feeling bullish about her mission, but she’s chafing at the strictures of the traditional not-for-profit model. Janah may run an antipoverty organization, but she is also a Harvard-educated former management consultant who believes in the startup ethos of experimentation, iteration, and the occasional pivot. Grant proposals, by contrast, typically compel organizations like Sama to detail programs step-by-step, in advance. “It basically requires you to predict what is going to happen in the future,” Janah says.
Eradicating poverty, though, is by definition unpredictable labor. Janah’s team has to find and train people in Kenya who have never used a computer. It has to find dependable Internet access to teach clients in rural Arkansas, where bandwidth is as scarce as jobs. Some of the good assignments it finds require several weeks of unpaid training, and Sama’s clients can’t afford to go that long between paychecks.
Janah tells me that when she gets discouraged, she remembers the maxim that every human being you help is an infinite victory. In Sama’s work, its success stories are people like Kristen Logan, a former administrative assistant in economically depressed Merced, California. She lost her job after five years and wasn’t sure if she would ever find another one that would let her support three kids by herself. Logan has used the skills she learned via Sama’s training academy to find a position fielding calls for a beauty school in New York—and earns more than she did previously.
For Janah, that is hardly enough—which is why she has dedicated herself to freeing Sama from the stifling not-for-profit funding process. This is a radical burst of independence, and Sama is already close to achieving it. Thanks to contracts with companies including Getty Images, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, Sama has generated enough income to cover the majority of its operating costs. “If we can show that not only can we provide this dramatic improvement [in Sama workers’ lives], but we can do it on a break-even basis, it’s revolutionary,” Janah says. “Let’s say you invested a dollar in 2009. The social return on that dollar will be infinite.”
Sama represents a new model for social impact: a nonprofit that is self-funding. To get closer to that goal, in October, Janah launched an affiliated for-profit business called Laxmi, a high-end cosmetics line that enlists poor African people, predominantly women, to grow, harvest, and process its ingredients in exchange for a fair wage. Her goal is to use some of Laxmi’s profits to fund Sama’s current operations as well as give her additional capital to find new ways to fight poverty. While buy-one, get-one companies like Toms and tech powered not-for-profits like Charity: Water have blurred the line between charities and startups, Janah wants to merge the two worlds entirely.
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