Create & Cultivate 100: STEM: Leila Janah

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EVENING THE PLAYING FIELD.

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If beauty is only skin deep, then lifelong social entrepreneur, anti-poverty activist, and skincare guru Leila Janah hasn’t gotten the memo.

Since founding Samasource in 2008, the visionary “impact sourcing” company has unlocked thousands of dignified digital job opportunities for people in the the world’s poorest countries. With LXMI, the ethical, organic skincare line she co-founded, Janah continues her mission of ending world poverty by providing fair wage work for marginalized East African women through the harvesting of a rare butter called Nilotica—LXMI’s signature ingredient.

For more on being a woman in tech, how men suck at introductions, and why world travel isn’t always glamorous, follow Janah’s journey below.

Name: Leila Janah

Instagram Handle: @leilajanah

Business Instagram Handle: @samasource, lxmiofficial

Both of your companies share a common social mission to end global poverty. Where do your drive and passion come from?

I knew from an early age I wanted to dedicate my career to social justice. I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take exactly, but my family was always on the front lines advocating for human rights.

It all started with my grandparents. My grandfather was one of the top trial lawyers in Calcutta. Because he grew up poor, he made a point of taking pro bono cases for tribal people who were being discriminated against and had no prayer of finding representation. After finishing university in Paris, my grandmother joined a group of friends called “The Messengers,” and traveled around the world spreading messages of peace. She finally ended up in Calcutta, and that’s where she met my grandfather.

Also, my mother worked for the Sisters of Charity when she was a teenager and my dad instilled a deep sense of social justice in my brother and me. I took the lessons to heart and in middle school joined my local chapter of the ACLU, and even started my high school’s chapter of Amnesty International.

So, you could say it’s in my blood :)

How do you feel as a woman in tech?

When most people ask what it’s like to be a woman in tech, they immediately ask if I’m always getting hit on. Truthfully, I think we’ve mischaracterized the problem. Yes, people hit on each other in business settings. Men and women alike have been the subject of unwanted sexual advances. It’s awful to feel objectified, and nothing makes that excusable.

But personally, I find being hit on far less damaging than what I feel most often: not being seen. This is true even when I’m a speaker. If I’m standing near a man, someone will inevitably come up and talk to the man, assuming I’m his plus one. And when men introduce their wives, they often leave it at that— “oh, and this is my wife, Mary.” I find myself wondering, is that all we get to learn about Mary?

"I find being hit on far less damaging than what I feel most often: not being seen." 

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Men, please introduce the women in your life as full human beings with interesting stories, talents, and ambitions, rather than accessories. And women, if you witness a man doing what I’ve described, gently but firmly call him out. Talk to his wife, girlfriend or colleague, and play a part in making another human being feel valuable, rather than a satellite around someone else’s sun.

Men, please introduce the women in your life as full human beings with interesting stories, talents, and ambitions, rather than accessories. And women, if you witness a man doing what I’ve described, gently but firmly call him out.

How have you successfully navigated such a male-dominated field?

I think I’m still figuring out how to navigate it but the success I’ve seen comes from the mindset I’ve chosen to take on. I’m optimistic about what we’re capable of accomplishing as humans and am hopeful we can close the gap between the gender imbalance. In the meantime, I’m deliberate about taking a moment to celebrate things others would consider table stakes for a man–like a woman being appointed to a board, or raising a round of funding–as big wins for moving women forward in business.

Another important note is I don’t consider men my enemies. I receive a lot of support from men as mentors, colleagues, investors and overall champions of the work we’re doing so I choose to focus on the good that comes from those relationships.

What are your hopes for young women who are interested in STEM?

My hope is they stick with it. We need more women in STEM. I recently read a stat that about 50% of STEM college graduates are women–but that number drastically drops after graduation when they begin their careers. I think a lot of this is because we don’t have the right systems– like proper maternity leave–in place to help women thrive in these fields.

I hope to see more men take action here as well. Advocating for things like fair pay, inclusive hiring practices and equal funding opportunities would help create a more even playing field for women.

What are your bigger hopes for the world?

One of the biggest opportunities we have in reducing poverty is getting corporations to change the way they spend money. It’s said the global 2,000 companies spend 12 trillion dollars on goods and services annually. Even 1% of that spent on social enterprises would lift millions out of poverty–imagine! The fair-trade coffee providers, local food services, so many different options for people to work out how to hire low-income people. We currently aren’t incentivized to spend more on social enterprises so it’s my hope we build structure around this to incorporate these behaviors into doing business.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

It’s not really a pet peeve but people often come up to me after a talk or event and say, “Thank you...we need more people like you!” I tell them, “No, we need more people like YOU!” We’re all capable of change and the only way it’s going to happen is if more people get involved.

What are your biggest fears about running a business?

Focus is something I struggle with. My team will tell you I have a lot of ideas–for Sama or LXMI, for other businesses or things I want to try to further our mission. I travel a lot and meet so many awesome entrepreneurs with incredible ideas–it’s hard not to be inspired all the time. My default setting is to create but I have to remember to hunker down and focus on growing our current programs.

What's something you'd like people to know about your job that they probably don’t?

I think my social channels can glamorize my travel and appear as a highlight reel. I post photos of me in various parts of the world, meeting fun people and trying new things from other social enterprises. I’m incredibly grateful for those experiences and chance encounters, which is why I share them as sort of an entrepreneurial diary. What people don’t see is that the travel is constant, often over long hours–I’m usually sleep deprived, dehydrated, running on caffeine and whatever I could find at an airport to pass for food. Being away from family and friends for so long can also be a bit lonely so sharing my experiences on social media helps me feel connected.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to make an effort to share more of the challenges I face–not just the successes. Hopefully it shows people that, just like everyone, I’m working to achieve balance and the experiences will help other people facing similar obstacles.

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IYO-- How can we stay original when we are so saturated by other people's work?

I actually think it’s people’s tendency to think they aren’t original enough so they don’t put their work out there. They think it doesn’t matter. I wish more people felt confident enough to share what they create so we’d be surrounded by more perspectives and a well-rounded lens through which to view the world.

"I wish more people felt confident enough to share what they create so we’d be surrounded by more perspectives and a well-rounded lens through which to view the world."

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What about your career makes you feel the most complete?

I feel most complete when I hear a story about one of our Samasource agents or Samaschool students whose life has been transformed by work–someone who was able to move into safer housing, or provide better education for their kids or family members. We also often hear of agents starting their own businesses with their Sama wages–our workforce is beyond talented.

What’s more, we’ve now seen first-hand that giving work is good for society as it addresses poverty at the root, and for business as Samasource recently became self-sustainable off of earned revenue this past year. What I love most is that we’re applying our Give Work model to new industries like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence as well as new labor trends like the gig economy. We’re at the forefront of some of the greatest technology and economic shifts in our lifetime, and working with some of the biggest corporations who are redirecting their procurement dollars to radically transform people’s lives (nearly 60k, to date!). It’s pretty incredible.

If you had to trade jobs with anyone else in the world, who would it be and why?

That’s a tough one. I would likely be a conservationist of some kind, but I was blown away by “West With the Night,” a book by Beryl Markham. Markham was the first aviatrix (love that word) in East Africa, and she set a record flying west over the Atlantic in 1936, in the early days of aviation. Her memoir is full of gorgeous images of Africa, Los Angeles (her second home), and horses (her second love).

At what point in your career did you find the confidence to really take charge and become the woman you are today?

I think my most character defining moments have come from really challenging decisions. The most recent that comes to mind is the decision to merge Samahope, the first crowdfunding platform for medical treatments (which we launched in 2012), with Johnson & Johnson in early 2016. We funded over 16,000 critical medical procedures for women and children - things like surgeries for birth injuries that destroyed women's lives in rural Africa and Asia. Seeing the avoidable suffering that still marks people's lives in many parts of the world due to lack of basic medical care is heartbreaking.

But we realized that Sama wasn't the right organization to scale this business, and that even though we raised over $1M for the procedures, we'd never be able to scale the platform as fast as a big health organization could. It felt like giving up a baby. My cofounder Shivani and I cried about it. But I think it was the right thing to do, and because of our increased focus Samasource was able to scale much faster and help many more people. It was also a major growth moment for me as an entrepreneur.

What's the best advice you've ever been given? Or your favorite piece of #realtalk?

My grandmother once told me, simply, to, “Trust the world.”

"My grandmother once told me, simply, to, 'Trust the world.'"

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I also like Ben Horowitz’s, “Don’t punk out and don’t quit.” Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s so easy to give up and go do something else–to go back to a big company and make a lot of money instead of scraping by to get your idea off the ground. Emotional resilience, the ability to not quit, is probably the most important (and often overlooked) thing in entrepreneurship–more than brilliance or talent or raising a lot of money.

When you hit a big bump in the road, how do you find a new road or a detour?

I zoom out. I go look at the stars or the sea. I spend time in nature to understand my own smallness–that helps me put things in perspective. I also think meditation, prayer, or simply reflecting on the core values that brought you into doing this work in the first place are all helpful tactics in making it through a rough patch.

I zoom out. I go look at the stars or the sea. I spend time in nature to understand my own smallness–that helps me put things in perspective.

What song do you sing in the shower when you’ve had a bad day?

Probably “Work” by Rihanna. Ha ha, I talk about giving work all day so sometimes will change the line to, "Give work work work work work."

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