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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 Twitter @leila_c & blogging @Social Edge
Transcript follows & video above. This is Part II of the interview.
- In your opinion what percentage of women would qualify then as regards having these qualities? Could they be developed? If so what are your ideas about how this could happen?
I was very fortunate to have a strong mother who considered herself a feminist & who got me involved in social justice work early on! She was pretty outspoken & made sure that her children were outspoken. So I think it really starts at home. I think the first ingredient is having parents who believe in you & instill you with the sort of confidence that you need to go out & run a business. I think that applies to women & men alike. In terms of the other ingredients for success that women can do, I think it’s sort of comfort with public speaking & selling a big bold vision. I can’t imagine that Samasource would be where it was if I wasn’t comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people & really getting people excited about the idea. A lot of that is completely independent from the skills required to run a business efficiently. So if you don’t have the ability to sell in the early days it can be tough to find funding, it can be tough to win good Board Members or to attract people to your team. Unless you have an outside source for those sorts of things, the business won’t get off the ground. Once it’s off the ground, I think the skills are more about running a good organization.
So what I’m hearing from you, is that some of it has to innate & encouraged quite young. So you don’t lean towards that some of these things could be learnt?
Absolutely, I think that none of it is innate. I think that all of it can be learnt, whether its from your parents or learnt later. I will say I’m attracted to traditionally manly sports & activities. I don’t know whether that has anything to do with it? I got a motorcycle license a while ago. I box to exercise. I go shooting down at the range in Burlingame. So potentially that helps or makes me comfortable in environments where there’s lots of men. But I do what I like to do & I don’t think of these activities as male or female activities. They’re just fun things to do.
Yes really, I guess in a way traditionally they’ve gone in that direction. But I’m sure a lot of women like to do so called ‘male’ sports or male hobbies. I know I worked many years ago in the AIDS crisis in Melbourne when it was a big crisis. I would often find myself in a huge room, just men & me. You either get comfortable with it or you don’t go there anymore.
I think a lot of it, is that we’re socialized. Again I don’t really buy a lot of these conspiracy theories but for whatever reason & sometimes women perpetuate it ourselves, we’re socialized to think that women only belong in certain types of sports or certain types of environments. But theres been a long tradition of women really charting new territory. One of my heroes is a woman named Mary Kingsley, who was a Victorian woman who explored the Congo in the 1800s. You didn’t see many Victorian women in full skirts canoing up the Congo River. She wrote some of the most insightful things about local Congolese people & about the importance of understanding other cultures at a time when many men would have gotten sick & died the first month of being there. She survived for something like 7 or 8 years. So there are all sorts of women that one could look to as examples of this. I think the challenge is that they’re not featured enough in popular culture or we don’t do a good enough job of sharing their stories.
And if you can’t find a role model that’s female, as a woman you can still have a role model as a male & still follow those qualities, I know I have.
- What do you see as the challenges for women entrepreneurs generally in sourcing venture capital? You’ve mentioned that you sometimes have to ‘play like the boys’ & possibly be much more confident & aggressive. Is there anything else that you could think of at this point?
Sure, I think it’s important to note that a lot of the companies around here are tech companies. Tech companies tend to hire engineers. If you just look at the number of women who are graduating from computer science programs. I think it’s something like no more than 8 to 10% of the graduating classes Computer Science Bachelor programs in the US are women. So to me it’s no surprise then, that you see very few women engineers & women technical founders. If I had a degree in computer science & didn’t have to recruit an engineer to help me build my company, I would have been a lot better off & a lot more fundable from a vc perspective. So I think that’s a huge part of it, there’s just fewer women graduating with technical degrees. That might start because women are socialized in elementary school that they’re bad at math or science? I’m not sure where that starts? I went to a maths & science high school & my parents are Indians & therefore pushed me to enter maths & science from a young age. We grew up around it so I never thought it was something that men were better at than me. Maybe we just need to encourage more women to pursue those sort of fields?
- Have you noted bias or lack of openness from many venture capitalists as regards women entrepreneurs?
That’s really good news!
I will say, I cannot speak for all women, just with my experience. There are many reasons why it could have been easier for me. I went to a really good school. I have good networks. Being a non profit is a totally different thing than being a for profit. So it may well be very difficult for women to get funding from vcs? But I can only speak from my experience.
Well it’s always good to see it from all angles, is my opinion.
- What do you see as the obstacles for inclusion of women entrepreneurs in achieving funding?
I think a big part of it is first of all, women are less aggressive about pitching than men. I think when they do pitch they sell a much smaller vision. VCs want to know that they’re going to make a lot of money out of your enterprise in a short period of time. So a lot of the pitches I’ve seen that my male friends do are extremely aggressive – over the top! I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving them & I think I’m a pretty aggressive person. So I think it really requires that because there’s a discount factor that the vc is going to apply to your model anyway. So I think if you don’t have an incredibly large vision, if you don’t have your sights set on a huge market & really disrupting that market, it’s going to be incredibly hard to interest a venture capital firm. For whatever reason I think that women are by nature more conservative. Secondly I would say & again this is anecdotal evidence, Carol Bartz said in a report that I thought was really interesting, she’s the CEO of Yahoo & quite an outspoken woman entrepreneur, she said that women believe in this myth that you can have work/life balance. In a startup or if you’re running a technology company there’s no such thing as work/life balance. You can’t wake up in the morning & make breakfast for the kids & do some yoga, go to work, run a company all day, come home & manage to have time to make love to your husband! It’s just not possible, right! A lot of the men who do this work end up getting divorced or devoting every second of their lives to the company because that’s what it takes. I think that means that the partners of women entrepreneurs have to be accepting of that & women have to recruit partners who know that the business is going to take priority over everything else for a certain amount of time. We have to be realistic about what we can do. Part of that is expectations that are placed on women by others. But we can set those expectations!
Yes that’s very sane, thank you!
- What is your advice for women entrepreneurs sourcing venture capital with all your experience & background?
Yeah, it’s just funny because we are a non profit & I have to caveat everything with that! We haven’t sourced traditional venture capital. We’ve sourced philanthropy from venture capitalists. I guess my advice would be to have a really clear plan. Have a really bold vision. And be able to sell that effectively & realize that it’s not going to happen overnight. It takes persistence & it takes being willing to pound the pavement a little bit & not get discouraged. If there’s one common trait I’ve seen in successful entrepreneurs, it’s the ability to take criticism in stride & to keep going despite what everybody else says. Some of the best entrepreneurs on the planet: I mean in my sector its people like Muhammad Yunus or Gandhi or some of the big social change leaders were told time & time again for decades they were completely wrong. It’s only because they had the balls, pardon the expression, or maybe the estrogen in our case? to know & believe in their convictions. It was only that they had that to allow them to succeed. I think women are much more likely to allow that lack of confidence to affect their morale. Maybe that’s the way we are programmed or the way we are socialized? But we have to not let that happen in order to be successful entrepreneurs.
So it’s really important to hold the vision, no matter what’s going on around you? Even if they start calling you insane? (Joking)
Even if they start doing that! And another piece of this is that I think there are many women who do that. It’s just funny for me to think of things as a woman. I think of things as an entrepreneur. There are so many examples of people who manage to maintain their convictions. So just allowing those examples to set in & learning from them is important for people in our space.
Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it & you’ve been incredibly inspiring to me personally! Thank you.