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Video Interview with Leila Chirayath Janah, CEO & Founder Samasource. Leila first developed the idea behind Samasource while working as a management consultant at Katzenbach Partners (now Booz & Co.), where her clients included global leaders in the outsourcing and telecom sectors and a number of prominent non-profits. Along with Professors Thomas Pogge and Aidan Hollis, she founded Incentives for Global Health and helped produce a plan for incentivizing the development of new drugs for neglected diseases. As an undergraduate, Leila authored background papers for the World Bank’s Development Research Group and Ashoka on equity and social rights. You can find Leila on her website on Twitter @leila_c & blogging @Social Edge
Transcript follows & video above. This is Part I of the interview.
- Could you briefly explain what your business Samasource does?
Sure Samasource is a 501(c)3 non profit that connects people living in poverty to work over the internet. So essentially we take these large outsourcing contracts that involve data entry & human judgment & we break them down to various small tasks & send those tasks out to small computer centers in 5 different countries in Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia & Haiti. We train poor people to do those tasks & earn income from companies like Google, Linkedin & facebook.
Would there be a lot of women involved in these projects?
Yeah about 50% of our workforce is women. And we have some partners who are all women. It turns out that women are naturally good at this type of work. We’ve seen a lot of demand & grow communities among women for basic jobs.
Oh isn’t that encouraging, that’s brilliant!
- Have you ever had to source angel investment or venture funding?
Have I! It’s my job!
The challenge with being a non-profit is that you have no equity. Technically you’re owned by the general public & you have a Board of Directors who act as Trustees. So the challenge for social entrepreneurs who are building new models is that traditional philanthropy isn’t well suited to funding new ventures. Traditional philanthropy is well suited to funding more traditional more established non profit organizations. There’s been a new movement around venture philanthropy, taking the traditional model & turning it on its head & really looking at venture capital as a model for philanthropy. I think we’re a long way away from having the kind of resources in the non profit world that we do in the for profit world to fund new enterprises. So the challenge we’ve had is trying to build a company. We’ve run in many ways like a normal business it’s just that all of the revenue we get gets reinvested by default into the business. So its been challenging to build the infrastructure of a business without a significant amount of starting capital.
So I guess you’ve had to be really creative with your model as well, in the sense that you’re breaking out of the old traditional ways of doing things.
Sure we’ve had to be incredibly scrappy about getting resources. We try not to pay for things when we can avoid it. We shared office space for a really long time & a lot of our infrastructure is donated. We have people working with us from companies like Goldman Sachs & Morgan Stanley who take huge pay cuts to work with us. I actually think that receiving less funding early on forces you to be disciplined about the way you grow the business & not do stuff that you shouldn’t be doing because you don’t have extra money. So it’s been I think a bit of a blessing for us.
Yes I would agree with you, just in ordinary startups, that would be my philosophy. I think that it does trigger a lot of creative evolution & ways of doing things. Good on you!
- What personal lessons being a woman have you taken out of your successes &/or failures in that regard?
It’s funny to put the woman lense on it, because I just think of myself as me, as an entrepreneur. A lot of the lessons I’ve drawn about entrepreneurship have been from leaders in the valley who happen to be men or happen to not be Indians. I don’t put myself in a category. But in terms of lessons learned I think, the most important lesson is persistence. Early on I imagined that I had this great idea & that other people would understand the idea & buy into it & get excited about it. It took me a long time to get the sort of traction that we have now. It felt like a long time but people outside the organization have said ‘Wow you’ve grown so quickly in 2 years & you already have all this legitimacy. But to me it took for ever. So I think that the first lesson I learned is that if you have an idea particularly in the social space: my idea was to take people living in refugee camps & in rural parts of India & plug them directly into the digital supply chain for companies like Google. Most people laughed when I told them that & said what about all these operational issues & there isn’t power in some of these places & those people that do this work need bed nets, they don’t need computers. I heard every objection you can imagine. I think the biggest, boldest ideas are those that require a lot of stamina to get going & rely on a lot of persistence on the part of the entrepreneur. That’s the first lesson I learned. I’d say secondly, I hate to make generalizations, but the women that I know confirm this & the studies I’ve read confirm this, women are less aggressive than men in raising money & in pitching an idea. If you’re trying to get legitimacy for an idea that hasn’t yet materialized as a company you have to be aggressive. You have to sell the vision 5 years out. You can’t be selling what you currently have, which is you, your friend’s futon & your laptop. I think that women are far too conservative in business settings particularly when it comes to raising money & selling a vision for whatever reason. I find that that conservatism can be really good for the business. I have a COO who is much more conservative than I am & much more risk averse & that’s wonderful because she makes contingency plans & ensures that our books are done correctly. But in terms of the founder, you need to have somebody who is going to aggressively sell the vision & aggressively make people buy into this idea. Otherwise it will never get launched.
And not take things personally, not take rejection personally?
Oh sure & there are a million stories I could tell you about awkward situations: being a young woman founder in a field that’s dominated by men has it’s challenges & it’s benefits. I think you know I’ve experienced both.
Great! I mean not great that you’ve had the bad things but great that you’ve seen it all & that would make you very experienced.
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right?
- What attitudes towards you being female have you noted from the venture community?
Well I think Silicon Valley is pretty meritocratic. I really think, that if anything, it’s been easier for me to get visibility. Visibility, I won’t say anything beyond that, but it’s been easier for me to get featured in blogs & journals & magazines because everybody is looking for a woman founder in technology. And if you happen to be a woman founder in a minority, then you kill two birds with one stone, and they want you even more. My challenge has been I don’t want to be known because we are headed by a woman minority founder. I want to be known because we’re doing something useful. I don’t want the kind of coverage that comes from being a token anything. So sometimes the challenge is I feel is that we’re being asked or being featured in something because of who I am & not because of what our organization is doing. So the downside of that is that it makes me less confident as a founder, that we’re being recognized because of something we deserve or recognized deservedly, I should say.
It’s a moral conflict for you?
Yeah I think that there’s this myth that it’s harder to get visibility as a woman. I don’t think it’s harder to get visibility. I think where there’s substance to that myth, is that it may be harder to actually close funding deals. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that people fund companies or people fund other people who look & act & are from the same social milieu as them.
I keep hearing this, since I’ve been in the valley, this is what I hear.
I think something like 85% or 90% of venture capitalists are men from certain socio economic backgrounds? I’m sure that plays into who they eventually fund. I don’t think it’s conscious & I don’t think there’s any malice on the part of people in this community. I also think that if you run a good venture capital firm, your job is look at results & to try & find people who are going to deliver results. The best firms are highly meritocratic in the entrepreneurs they select.
Fantastic, that’s reassuring!
- What qualities do you think women entrepreneurs need specifically for sourcing venture? You’ve mentioned persistence & not taking things too personally & being a little bit more aggressive & holding that passion & vision & not giving up. Is there anything else that you could think of that would assist women?
Well if you’re in a male dominated space, maybe you have to play like a man?
Ok, tell me more about that.
Sure, I’ve just noticed that a lot of deals get done over drinks or at events that tend to have more men at them. Golfing events & bars that I probably wouldn’t go to with my girlfriends. The reality is that if that is the turf you have to play on, even if it’s hard or even if it’s not really fair, then that’s the turf you have to play on. I actually think that women who know how to do that well have an advantage over men. If you’re the only woman on the golf course you have a lot more visibility & it’s probably going to be easier for you to talk to people than it would be otherwise.
And there’s sort of a shock value. I remember when I was in Dublin, with the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. They had their annual ball & I went into a bar that had Dublin Chamber of Commerce on it & I was the only woman in there & I’m giving out my business cards. One guy looked at me & said ‘What the hell are you doing in here?’ I said ‘Well I’m in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.’ He said ‘This is only for the guys!’ But I’d shocked them all so much that they were taking my business cards.
You know I think that’s fine. It may be uncomfortable sometimes. Occasionally I’ll be at a tech conference & people will ask me to meet the CEO of the company & assume that I’m some hired woman who’s there to hand out brochures. As demeaning as that initially feels, ultimately that’s great. I can get all sorts of information out of somebody who stops by the booth & doesn’t think that I’m the CEO. Is it bad for my business? No! That the people don’t think that I’m the CEO? Not at all! We have to get over some of that as women. We also have to understand that if we’re playing in a man’s world, there are lots of things we can do to play better than men in that world that aren’t about imitating men or acting like them but are about being ourselves & being confident. The last thing I will say, I really do think that California especially, is a place that rewards results. Silicon Valley wouldn’t be the way it is without people from all walks of life coming through here & being successful. I can point to many women CEOs & minority CEOs who’ve done well here. So I think if you’ve got a good business to sell & you’ve built a good team behind it & theres a market out there that you’re tapping in a smart way, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get funding. And it could be that I’ve been very lucky & I’m a non profit too so I haven’t had to walk Sand Hill Road like other women founders. But I think we’ve had tremendous support for Samasource. I think it just speaks to the fact, that if you have a good idea & you know what you’re doing, people will be around to support you.