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A brief biography
Leila Janah was 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.
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.
“Leila had a vision about bringing the dignity of work and the promise of a living wage to the world’s most vulnerable,” Kennedy Odede, the founder and chief executive of Shining Hope for Communities, a grass-roots organization in Kenya that has worked with Samasource, said by email. Through her work, he added, “young people began to see different possibilities for their futures.” 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.
Another venture developed by Ms. Janah is LXMI, a luxury cosmetics line that has the same mission as Samasource: to hire marginalized people and give them a decent wage. Begun in 2015, it employs hundreds of poor women along the Nile River Valley, largely in Uganda, to harvest Nilotica nuts and turn them into a butter that is exported to the United States for use in the production of its skin-care products. More people have been hired in other African countries and in India to harvest other ingredients.
The idea for LXMI came to Ms. Janah during a visit to Benin, in West Africa, where she saw local people growing shea nuts, from which a butter is extracted, in their yards.
“I said, ‘Let’s build an export industry but only for poor women,’” she told Fast Company magazine in 2016. “We can solve poverty while also making our skin better.”