You mean outsourcing's not all about making big corporate profits? Meet Leila Janah...

November 29, 2013 | Phil Fersht

Leila Janah is Founder and CEO of non-profit social sourcing organization, Samasource (click for bio)

One person we are very excited to be addressing the Blueprint 3.0 Sessions next week is Leila Janah, the dynamic Founder and CEO of non-profit social sourcing firm Samasource.  

Leila's work is focused on providing training and computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty, while providing Internet-enabled outsourcing services to paying clients. Samasource recruits workers from low-income, underserved communities across the world. We managed to catch up with Leila to learn more about her, and what we can expect to hear from her address next week...

Phil Fersht (HfS): Leila, we are very excited at HfS that you will be coming to our event and delivering our evening keynote address. Before we get into that, can you give us a little bit of information on your background?

Leila Janah (Samasource): Sure, Phil. I started Samasource 5 years ago. Before that I studied international economic development at Harvard as an undergrad and did a lot of work in the NGO world after going to Africa when I was 17 to do volunteer work. I worked with Ashoka and the World Bank and just became frustrated with the traditional approaches to poverty alleviation, which saw poor people as helpless. What I saw while I was there was how much educated human talent was emerging and could be tapped to contribute to the global economy and would contribute to wages that would help to alleviate poverty. Over time, I thought through that model further and became a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, which was later acquired by Booz & Company. My first consulting assignment was to help take a large Indian Outsourcing firm public. Through that I got a lot of exposure to the industry and I learned the dynamics of outsourcing. Perhaps the most powerful thing that I learned was that thanks to the internet, a back-office job can be done pretty much anywhere. This frees us of the traditional constraints of capitalism, which is that money can move freely across borders but people cannot. That has profound implications for the ½ of the world’s population that lives off of less than $4 a day. This population is increasingly educated and capable of doing knowledge work. So it was this background that led me to found Samasource. I had a number of experiences following my undergraduate career, both through the World Bank and Ashoka , but also through some other NGO’s that really led me down this path.

Phil: You are working across a number of economically challenged nations including Haiti, parts of Africa, and even parts of rural America. Can you tell us more about your global reach and where you are engaging with your clients today?

Leila: Sure, and I think as I talk about this, the thing to consider is that the bulk of people living in extreme poverty now live in middle income countries. One of the myths about poverty is that poor nations have most of the world’s impoverished population, yet what we are finding increasingly is because of income inequality, those poor people reside in places like India, China, and Brazil; places that are not seen as the most destitute areas. So that is where Samasource does most of its work. We work in India, Kenya, Uganda, Haiti, have a small presence in Ghana and we launched a new program in the US called SamaUSA, which trains low-income Americans to do online work.

Phil: Leila, can you give us some examples of some of the types of projects that you’ve taken on across the world for your clients and how they are developing as you evolve the company?

Leila: We work with Google, Wal-Mart, and Getty Images. The reach of these three projects is really astounding. For Getty Images we are doing a large-scale image tagging project. At the Blueprint Sessions, I will start with a video that outlines this program. We have workers at locations disparate as Northern India, where we have an all-women’s center in a conservative Muslim community where women are not ordinarily allowed to work. Additionally we have a center in rural northern Uganda, which is an area that had previously been in the middle of a massive civil war that had tens of thousands of children abducted as child soldiers and some of those former child soldiers are now working on that same project for Getty. The project involves tagging celebrity images in a way that machines cannot yet do. We have human workers identifying images with celebrities and then tagging the celebrities. The same images then get pulled into national and international media that requires celebrity images. It is a very exciting project for workers because their output is immediately seen by people all over the world.

Another example is what we do for Wal-Mart.com, which is a growing need among e-commerce companies. That work involves helping to improve the quality of the e-commerce product catalogue. In this case we have English speaking workers who come together and write descriptions of products on Wal-Mart’s website. What’s remarkable about this project is that people who don’t have a lot of exposure to Western products, but are interested in them because of their interest in Western media, are very passionate about learning about these products. So you will find a worker in Kampala who is able to write a very accurate and thoughtful description of the product that has never before been seen in Uganda. Nonetheless, the quality of the descriptions remains high because there is such a strong motivation to do this work well.

Phil: When you look at the broad commercial outsourcing industry today, which is so centric around India, the Philippines, Central and Eastern Europe, what is your take on where all of that is headed? Do you feel that there is a race to the lowest common denominator or do you feel that it is an industry that is headed in the right direction?

Leila: I do see some things that are concerning. I see the consistent production rate in the price that companies are willing to pay for these services, which has a lot of implications for workers in these countries. At the same time, I think that the constant price pressure forces us to look beyond the current locations for outsourcing and that can be a good thing for workers in poor locations. What might be less than a livable wage in one country could be a huge boon for a worker in another. So, that can be good. The critical concern that I have is that the wages that workers are paid are appropriate and living wages given their context. That is not currently a huge priority for the industry, but it really should be.

Phil: You are going to meet a lot of these folks who are big customers of outsourcing and suppliers of outsourcing at the Blueprint 3.0 event in December. What do you plan to talk about at the event? 

Leila: First, I think I will talk about the evolution of corporate social responsibility. It used to be something that companies would do to check a box and to show that they had been responsible and then could move on. I think what we are seeing now is this hunger among employees at big companies to feel like their company is not just checking boxes but is having a positive impact on the world. The new generation of people entering these companies are young people who are hungry for change and are less interested in just taking home a big paycheck. They want to see that the organizations that they are a part of are genuinely improving the world. I think that Impact Sourcing is one trend that goes far beyond CSR and cuts across so many aspects of the business, especially in the supply chain. It is a very real way for a company to make a social impact that goes far beyond just having an employee volunteer day or giving some money to a charity. This is helping people in a way that is completely integrated with the company’s bottom line and supply chain and that is the real way to create change and to evolve capitalism from within. I will talk about the implications of that strategy and what that means for the field of poverty alleviation. In this field, which is dominated by non-profits, we are finally starting to come around to the idea that corporations have far more capital than non-profits do to solve some of these big problems. Essentially, what we do, is we take money from Google and Wal-Mart and we get it into the hands of poor people in rural Uganda. Traditionally that would only be done by a development agency and now I think it is really cool that it is being done by a big corporation. So we need more corporations doing that and I think the other piece of it is ensuring that once those relationships are established, that they continue to work for the benefit of people. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Bangladesh factory fire, I think there is growing concern that Western firms can have a negative impact in poor countries. As an industry, I think we have to nip that in the bud and ensure that we are setting things up in a way that doesn't lead to those outcomes. I think it is very possible and not so difficult to do.

Phil: Leila, thank you for your time today and looking forward to seeing you in NYC next week!

Laila Janah (pictured above) is Founder and CEO of Samasource.  You can also learn more about Leila Janah at her personal website and follow her on twitter here.

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