'The ones who don't quit are the ones who ultimately survive and lead their businesses,' says Samasource founder Leila Janah.
June 15, 2018 8 min read
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
Samasource and LXMI founder and CEO Leila Janah describes herself as a real optimist. “I believe that if something doesn't exist, and I believe that it should exist, that I can will it into existence,” she says.
It’s that mindset that helped her stand her ground with the Samasource board chair when she wanted to invest more into creating initiatives that would tie back into her initial vision: moving people out of poverty via access to work opportunities and technological skills. Her argument to the board was simple. She would step down as the company’s leader if she would not be able to see her goals for the company through. Janah’s conviction won out in the end and since then, her company’s sales have quadrupled.
“I woke up in this period and thought, wait a minute, I'm running a multimillion dollar business here with Google and Microsoft as clients, who I recruited. The idea is mine. I built a whole team,” Janah recalled to Entrepreneur." I absolutely deserve not just to have a seat at the table around strategy, but to set the strategy. That's my job."
In 2008, Janah launched Samasource as a nonprofit business to help women in low-income and marginalized communities in East Africa, South Asia and the Americas find employment through the internet. A digital skills spinoff initiative called Samaschool launched in 2015.
Janah is also the founder of organic skincare brand LXMI, which makes products sourced from East Africa, which provides women in the region work that allows them earn at least three times local wages. Samasource has helped move more than 33,000 people out of poverty since 2008. And more than 20,000 people from 65 countries have taken courses with Samaschool.
“All that we can do is try our best to make the world a little bit better,” Janah says of the driving force behind her companies -- and what inspires her doing tough moments. “If it's too easy, it's probably not worth doing.”
Janah says that her ultimate aim is to inspire everyone to reassess their perceptions about charity, work, reducing poverty and solving social problems. She says she believes that it’s on every business to embed social and environmental consciousness into its DNA.
“And not just a 'do no harm' policy. To me, that's pretty lame. In 2018 businesses should be more ambitious than not harming the planet,” Janah says. “My biggest hope is that the world reorients itself to the concept of social business. Rather than being an outlier or nice to have, that it will actually be the predominant form of business. If you're an entrepreneur building a company, it damn well be a company that does good in the world.”
Janah shared her insights with Entrepreneur about finding confidence in herself as a leader.
Can you tell me about a time you needed to pursue an opportunity? How did you approach it?
I had a struggle several years ago around the strategy and vision for Sama. I wanted to basically set up a structure where we could do R&D on some new initiatives, which is how our U.S. program Samaschool developed. It's now the only nonprofit in the U.S. that trains low-income Americans to benefit from the gig economy. To me it was really important that I build that kind of organization that could continually be doing R&D even though we were resource-constrained on the main business.
My board chair didn't agree with the strategy. We had some differences of how we wanted to do things. So it was a tough period because nonprofit CEOs have no power, basically. You don't have any equity in the business so you can be be fired at any time. So we considered it and eventually my strategic vision ended up going forward. So I think it was the right call then. It was also an important inflection point for me because I heard some feedback from the board about ways that I could be a lot more effective at selling that vision.
What was at stake for you in this moment? Did it change how you thought about yourself as a leader?
It did. I had been afraid to step up and own things. I'm now the chairman. My former board chair was a 60-something-year-old former venture capitalist, a tall white man who was very wealthy. That is often the dynamic with nonprofit women CEOS. I've seen it countless times, you've got a lot of women in the management team, but if you look at the board composition it's not gender balanced. If you're a young woman, frankly it can be challenging.
I so often get the question did you launch this business by yourself? People ask me all the time because as if they're so shocked that I might be able to do that. I went to Harvard, I busted my ass to get into a good college and then worked as a management consultant so I could learn how to read a P&L and know how to run at least part of a business. I found those types of comments to be really cutting and patronizing and allowed them to make me feel like I didn't deserve the role that I had.
If I can do [my job] effectively and if there's somebody in the board that's hampering that, that's a problem and I need to address that head-on rather than accept it. Had I left, I don't know that we would have survived as a company. Now we're in a different position. But it helped me perceive the lens that I should use in making these decisions.
What do you think entrepreneurs need to do to make the most out of the opportunities that cross their path?
When I started Sama, I had people at foundations and famous venture capitalists who told me it's never going to work in Africa. You're never going to get poor women from a slum to be able to use a computer. They need mosquito nets and water before they can do anything. Now you have all these companies setting up shop in East Africa, and we were really the pioneers of that movement.
The most important quality for any entrepreneur is a willingness to not quit. It's really not about brilliance. I mean I'd like to think that I'm smart and I work hard but I think a lot of people are smart and work hard. The real difference is some people decide to keep going in the face of every obstacle when it seems like there's no hope or path forward. The ones who don't quit are the ones who ultimately survive and lead their businesses.
Was there a blindspot that you had about leadership and opportunity you worked to change within yourself?
The biggest blind spot for me is that I grew up in a very perfectionist household where if you didn't perform, there were repercussions. Consequently, I've had a very harsh management style until several years ago when I had that big board change. I didn't believe that much in coaching or development. I felt like if they were not getting it and they're not doing their job correctly it's time for them to move on and hire someone else. The saying in Silicon Valley is hire slow, fire fast. I don't know that I believe that now. I think firing fast is often a mistake.
Now I come at it from the perspective, we're not hitting our goals, why is that? What additional tools or resources do you need to be able to grow and develop into the work that you're doing. It's very different from what I grew up with and from what I saw being crafted by a lot of leaders in Silicon Valley. For me that idea has been really helpful and it's reduced attrition really dramatically at the company. It's made me evaluate my own style and be less hard on myself and people around me. Now I'm more focused on if we're not here today, how do we grow and develop the teams so that in two years time, everyone will be up a level.