An American Social Entrepreneur Whose Visit To Ghana Changed Her Outlook On Life Dies At Age 37

Leila Janah, a social entrepreneur who employed thousands of desperately poor people in Africa and India in the fervent belief that jobs, not handouts, offered the best escape from poverty, died on Jan. 24 in Manhattan. She was 37.

Samasource, one of her companies, said the cause was epithelioid sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer.

A child of Indian immigrants, Ms. Janah traveled to Mumbai, India, in about 2005 as a management consultant to help take an outsourcing company public. Riding through the city by auto rickshaw, she passed an enormous slum. But after arriving at the outsourcing center, she found a staff of educated middle-class workers. Few, if any, of the nearby poor were employed there.

“Couldn’t the people from the slums do some of this work?” she recalled thinking, in an interview with Wired magazine in 2015.

It proved to be a galvanizing moment for Ms. Janah, who called the intellect of the poorest people in the world “the biggest untapped resource” in the global economy.

She went on to start Samasource in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008 — “sama” means “equal” in Sanskrit — with the aim of employing poor people, for a living wage, in digital jobs like photo tagging and image annotation at what she called delivery centers in Kenya, Uganda and India. The workers generate data that is used for projects as diverse as self-driving cars, video game technology and software that helps park rangers in sub-Saharan Africa prevent elephant poaching.

At least half the people hired by Samasource are women, the company says.

Samasource’s employees have worked under contracts with companies including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Walmart, Getty Images, Glassdoor and Vulcan Capital, a holding company formed by Paul G. Allen, a founder of Microsoft.

The company has helped an estimated 50,000 people — 11,000 workers and their dependents — and regularly evaluates whether it is meeting living-wage requirements, Wendy Gonzalez, Samasource’s interim chief executive, said in a phone interview.

Ms. Janah speaking in New York in 2010 at an event sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative.
Ms. Janah speaking in New York in 2010 at an event sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative.Credit…Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Leila Chirayath was born on Oct. 9, 1982, in Lewiston, N.Y., near Niagara Falls. Her father, Sahadev Chirayath, is a structural engineer; her mother, Martine Janah, held various jobs, including chopping onions at a Wendy’s restaurant, after immigrating to the United States. Leila began using her mother’s surname professionally about 10 years ago.

The family moved to Arizona before settling in the San Pedro neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

Leila’s desire to help improve the world gained traction when she was in middle school and joined the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. During high school, she went to a rural area of Ghana as part of an international student exchange program to teach blind children; she learned Braille while she was there.

“I had never experienced anything like the poverty I saw there,” she said in an interview with Hearts on Fire, an organization devoted to social change. “It helped me to understand how poverty oppresses people.”

After graduating from Harvard in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in development studies, Ms. Janah worked for Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting company in New York. She was later a founding director of Incentives for Global Health, which develops market-based financial solutions to meet health problems, and worked for the World Bank’s development research group.

Ms. Janah said the work done at Samasource underscored her faith in providing decent jobs to poor people. While most of the company’s employees hold entry-level positions, some have moved into managerial jobs and others have started their own small businesses.

Dean Karlan, a professor of economics and finance at Northwestern University and a founder of ImpactMatters, which measures the effectiveness of nonprofit groups, said Samasource had achieved its mission.

“It was laser-focused on creating work for the poorest,” he said in an email, and its results “were backed by sophisticated data systems that showed they got results.”

Ms. Janah, who died in a hospital, is survived by her husband, Tassilo Festetics; her parents; a brother, Ved; and a stepdaughter. She had homes in Manhattan and San Francisco.

On her blog in 2018, Ms. Janah described the challenges of being a social entrepreneur.

“We are fighting the battle of birthing a new venture,” she wrote, “while at the same time trying to show the world that we can inject a sense of justice into the business itself, rather than merely trying to rack up profit.”

Source: NYTimes

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