Leila Janah
Photography by Jeff Singer

Leila Janah is helping to lower the world’s poverty rate with her nonprofit, Samasource, one data-processing task at a time.

They thought she was crazy, and maybe they had a point. After all, back in 2008, when Harvard graduate Leila Janah was 25, she abandoned a lucrative job in management consulting, burned through her savings and ended up sleeping on a friend’s futon so she could afford to get a nonprofit she called Samasource up and running. Its mission: To help alleviate poverty by convincing large companies that some of the world’s poorest people are capable of handling data-processing tasks while working from remote, rural villages or refugee camps.

But five years later, Janah, a California native whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India, has left her friend’s futon behind, and Samasource has collected $5 million in donations while inking nearly $3 million in contracts with some of the biggest companies in the technology industry, including Microsoft, LinkedIn and Google. Those contracts have provided jobs to 4,000 people in Kenya, Uganda, India, Haiti and the United States. And that, Janah says, has helped those workers and their families lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

American Way: How does Samasource work?
Leila Janah:
Samasource is a nonprofit focused on refugees; young people ages 18 to 30 and women in need. We teach them how to do microwork, a method we invented. It involves breaking down large technology projects into small units of work that are completed through the Internet using a Web-based platform we built. The work might be tagging images to organize them in photo archives or it might be some kind of transcription work. All of it is working with data services that require a human touch.

To learn more about Leila Janah or to get involved with Samasource, visit www.samasource.org

AW: Where did the idea for Samasource originate?
Ever since I first traveled to Africa when I was 17, I’ve felt my mission in life is to level the playing field for the very poor. When I was 21, working at my first job, I was sent to India on a project for one of the largest outsourcing companies in the world. There, I met a young man who was commuting from Dharavi, which is the slum where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. A light bulb went off in my head. If this man could find work in this industry, so, too, could millions of others in similar conditions. And if we could bring the work to rural communities rather than it existing only in large cities, in big office buildings, then this could be a method for large-scale poverty alleviation.

AW: How do you convince big tech firms that somebody working in a shipping container in Uganda can do this work?
We say, “Look, we have a unique workforce. But the talent in these regions is incredible. And these are people who may have no other opportunities, so they’re motivated to do a good job because they know this is their lifeline.”

If you can ensure people are earning a living wage — and we audit our supply chains to do that — and if you make workers and their well-being your priority — and we do — then this is a far more powerful strategy toward alleviating poverty than just leveraging the limited money available in the philanthropic community.

AW: Do you travel to these areas?
Yes, a lot. I was recently in Kenya, where we’re working in a region that has been devastated by a civil war. I met a young man there who was a former child soldier and lives in a village of about 400 people. It has no grid power, no running water. This young man is now earning a living wage doing image-tagging work for Getty Images. To do this project, he walks about three minutes from his home, a thatched-roof hut, to a shipping container that’s air-conditioned. He told me his dream is to be a lawyer. He finished high school at age 25, is now 29 and has just enrolled in a university.

For me, that is the cornerstone of poverty alleviation: If you give people dignified work and the opportunity to earn a living wage, you’ll see them come alive.