Meet the entrepreneur who has lifted 15000 young people over the poverty line

December 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

Would you consider yourself a philanthropist or an entrepreneur?

Samasource is a bit different than most non-profits, as it aims to be generate
sustainable revenues. Leila has also borrowed management techniques from the
most successful tech companies, like Facebook and Google. “The non-profit
world is embracing lean business methods, and is more comfortable with the
idea of experimentation and failure,” she says.

You formed the idea for Samasource at the very young age of sixteen. Was there
one moment in particular when inspiration struck?

Leila moved to Ghana as a teenager and made friends with many of the locals,
who couldn’t find reasonable employment.

After college, she joined an elite management consulting firm, and was sent to
Southeast Asia to work on a project. In the bustling city of Mumbai, she
made the acquaintance of a man living in the slums, the site of the hit
indie flick Slumdog Millionaire. “He helped me realise that there were young
people with secondary school education living in poverty, who have the skill
and will to work,” she tells me.

What’s special about the micro-work model?

Corporations like Walmart, LinkedIn, eBay, Evenbrite and Getty Images, have
already signed up as Samasource clients. “We have brought these companies
into places you would never expect digital work,” says Leila.

They negotiate a fee with Samasource, and Leila’s team on the ground provide
training, equipment, quality assurance, and more. Workers in the developing
world are paid a fair wage, and there are opportunities for career

Since Leila introduced the micro-work model, over 15,000 people have been
lifted from the poverty line, and 92 percent move on to higher paying work
or higher education. The majority of Samasource’s workers are under 30, and
over 50 percent are women.

How did you know it was the right time to quit your job, and work on
Samasource full-time?

Leila does not hail from a privileged background, but has hustled her way up
the career ladder. She did not have a nest egg to fall back on when she quit
her steady day job at her consulting firm.

“It took a long time to get Samasource off the ground,” she explains. In 2008,
she couldn’t afford health insurance and was earning less than $400 a month.
She slept on a friend’s futon in San Francisco, and tutored over the
weekends to make ends meet.

Indeed, starting a nonprofit is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s a slog,” she
remarks. “You have to be resilient and in it for the long haul.”

On a positive note, Leila believes it has become exponentially easier for
anyone to start a non-profit. New service-oriented startups, like Uber
and TaskRabbit, offer
flexible work and a decent hourly wage.

There is a dearth of female leaders in Silicon Valley. What are the
challenges of being a CEO?

Leila recently experienced some drama on her board of directors, which is
still fresh on her mind. She emerged from the whole episode with the
realisation that a far more insidious form of sexism exists: paternalism.

“I used to think that the worst form of discrimination for women was being hit
on or hearing something disparaging,” she says. “What’s even more
challenging for young women is a very senior male who will take an interest
in you, who see themselves as father figures or mentors.”

According to Leila, when there’s a difference in opinion, the relationship
will quickly turn nasty. “These paternal figures can’t handle being defied,
and that’s a big problem.” Leila advises that other entrepreneurs stay true
to their vision, despite intimidation tactics from more senior members of
the team.

It can’t be easy running several businesses, and several boards. Do you
have any management tips to pass on?

Leila admits that she hasn’t been the most supportive CEO in the past.
However, in her thirties, she’s begun to dedicate more time to managing
people, and refining her leadership style.

“I used to think my job as a CEO meant managing metrics and meeting goals,”
she tells me. “But I’ve realised now that’s it’s about managing my board and

Her advice to fellow female executives? Ensure that others can feel and
experience your passion. “True leadership isn’t about having an idea. It’s
about having an idea and recruiting other people to execute on this vision,”
she says.

You recently got engaged – congratulations! Are you finding it easier now
to balance your personal and professional life?

Leila admits that she used to dedicate upwards of 16 hours a day to her work.
“It’s not glamorous, but I think there’s something to be said for the sheer
number of hours you can work,” she says. The entrepreneur still intends to
work hard, but she has realised that more hours don’t necessarily mean
better results.

Her secret to success is that she can survive on very little sleep. “I have a
lot of energy, which I pour into the company.” However, for the sake of
clarity (and her employees, who don’t all share her stamina), she intends to
take mini vacations with her fiancé and relax at home. She describes her
future husband Benjamin as an attentive partner, who deserves her time and

“In the long term, the only way to be successful in this path is to have a
good support network,” she concludes. “I have to invest in that network.”

Christina Farr is a San
Francisco-based staff writer at VentureBeat,
where she covers enterprise, education technology, health IT, and venture

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