Five Questions: Leila Janah

© Eva Kolenko

The Samasource founder has helped 26,000 people in the developing world rise out of poverty through microwork: parceling data-processing jobs into a series of small tasks that can be completed by anyone with an Internet connection. Now she’s rolling out her programs in the United States.

How do you respond to those who say “ethical outsourcing” is an oxymoron? Our floor is to pay above a local living wage. In Kenya, that’s $5 a day, which doesn’t look like much until you consider that it’s often triple what workers made before and that each supports on average four dependents. So that $5 enables children to go to school, breaking the cycle.

What about to those who say
 you’re exporting American jobs in 
a still-tender economy?
 These jobs aren’t being taken from the U.S. The data—transcription, say, or image-tagging—wouldn’t be processed otherwise, as the costs here would be too high. There are over 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day. We look at how we can move them out of poverty whether in Nairobi 
or Nashville. So we launched SamaUSA last year. We’re now expanding nationally.

How is SamaUSA different from other jobs-training programs? 
Most such programs focus on 9-to-5 jobs that don’t have much future in the new economy, where 30 percent of workers are freelance. We provide digital-literacy training so our students can compete in the growing online marketplace, breaking the poverty cycle with remote-access 
work that enables some of the 46.5 million impoverished Americans to find gainful employment outside their local, economically depressed markets. And we do so for three times less than comparable programs.

What else is in the pipeline? We’re expanding Samahope—the first crowdfunding platform to raise money 
for doctors—stateside. Internationally, bridging the gap between patients and health care means treating severe burns and birth injuries. Here, it’s providing things like cervical screenings and medical kits to those who fall outside the insurance structure. The U.S. has the most expensive health-care system in the world, yet we underperform when it comes to health outcomes. One reason is the lowest income among us have very poor access to care. The challenges that the homeless face aren’t dissimilar to those in developing countries. When I share some of the statistics underlying our work, people often think I have my numbers wrong. Luckily I worked at the World Bank, so I know where to find those numbers.

You run a company that’s helped 26,000 people escape poverty. Yet when I Google you, the first two auto-fills are “husband” and “married.” It would be great if that resulted in more actual dates. But I wish people would Google “Leila Janah donate” instead.