SVCO: Leila Janah — Reimagining Relief: Social Justice in the Tech Age
Female: Good afternoon everybody. I hope everybody enjoyed some lunch and is ready for the afternoon sessions. I would just like to introduce our next speaker. We are really delighted to have her here. We’ve very honoured. She is an award-winning entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Sama Group, which Leila will talk about a little more. We’re delighted to have her. I’ll probably leave it at that actually. Leila’s going to talk to you more. She’s incredibly accomplished. Think about questions for when we open for the twenty minutes of Q&A at the end but really, I’ll just hand over to Leila. Welcome Leila.
Leila Janah: I just have to point out, there are a lot of non-profits in the tech space, they’re just unintentional non-profits, we’re actually an intentional non-profit organisation. Sama means equal in Sanskrit. We were founded on the premise that people everywhere deserve a level playing field. Despite the fact that we’re a non-profit, I’m going to tell you today that my dream is a future in which charity, as we know it, is dead, completely dead.
I think part of the problem with charity is that it tends to make us view people as helpless victims. I think in the future, we’ll look back on charity in the same way that we look back on colonialism today, as a very paternalistic system that doesn’t fully recognise the full spectrum of humanity. Traditional charity is still fairly focused on how it makes donors feel as opposed to outcomes for people that need help. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there aren’t problems that need solving. There are over a billion people living on less than $2 a day, that number is adjusted for purchasing power so that’s what $2 would buy you in the average American town in 2005 for a day. About 300,000 women die each year in child birth and the World Health Organisation estimates that 99% of those deaths are preventable and occur in developing countries. Nearly a billion people live without access to clean water and more than 2 billion people live without access to basic sanitation like toilets. These are tragic circumstances but it’s really important to separate the circumstances from the people who are living in them. The people who are living in these circumstances are not themselves tragic and they’re certainly not deserving of pity.
We have a poster woman for traditional charity and I’m only brave enough to say this at Oxford because Christopher Hitchens said it before me and he’s one of your most famous alumni. Mother Teresa took a vow of poverty and she required the nuns in her order to possess little more than a spoon and a bowl and one set of clothing. Though she’s heralded as a champion of compassion and as an advocate of the poor and although I believe her motivations were absolutely right and beautiful, I think her approach and her outcomes were dead wrong. Several critics have pointed out that Mother Teresa refused to track outcome data for her hospice centres. She actually thought that the whole point of serving the poor was enough. Just the act of service was something beautiful and that poverty itself was something beautiful, which is why she wanted her nuns to live in poverty. As a result many people argue that these methods exacerbated conditions of poverty rather than fixing them at the root and addressing the deep socio-political injustices that led to so many people being poor.
This issue is really near and dear to my heart because my mother grew up in Calcutta and actually worked for the Sisters of Charity when she lived there as a teenager and felt very strongly that that approach denied a lot of the humanity of everyday people in Bengal. She even said, “I think it’s beautiful for the poor to accept their lot and the world is being helped by the suffering of poor people.” This approach typifies the traditional charity model that we’re used to seeing. It also illustrates that point I was making earlier, that so often we give because of the way it makes us feel. We give to programmes where we don’t necessarily know that the outcomes that we want to see longer-term are being achieved. This is what happens when we reduce people to the single dimension of poverty and when we don’t see their humanity, when we don’t see them as equals.
At this point many people throw up their hands and say, “Well, if even a saint can’t fix poverty, then what hope does the tech community have?” I actually think that we are in the best position in history to put poverty behind us. I think we’re able to do that now through the mechanism of the market in ways we couldn’t before. A recent book by the polling company Gallup reports that in over 200 countries where they surveyed people, that more than money, love, peace, an end to terrorism and even sex, what most people want around the world is a good job. That’s defined as a job that pays a steady wage and doesn’t subject people to inhumane conditions — pretty astounding. We believe that work is at the core of human dignity at Sama Group. It’s how we define ourselves and it’s how we make a contribution to the world. Work is really the best way to end this condition of poverty that seems really obvious but it’s not always obvious to those of us in the non-profit, NGO and relief sector. We think that a living wage is the best way to transform people’s lives and it gives people access to cash in their own hands and then that cash can be driven towards local markets which can address these problems from the ground up.
We find that one of the best ways to create wages at the bottom of the pyramid is through technology. We now have tools that we didn’t have before when the relief and traditional aid models got started. In the US, that model really got started during World War II during the Marshall Plan, it was our first major experiment with international aid when we sent money to Europe. At that time, we didn’t have access to the tools that we now have to enfranchise people living in poverty.
The challenge with the traditional mechanism of job creation… Let’s take the assembly line which created millions of jobs in the last century. Well, to create an assembly line and a big manufacturing process, you need infrastructure. You need good roads. You need waterways. You need reliable power. Most of this kind of infrastructure just doesn’t exist in the kinds of places where poor people live, in slums or in villages far from major cities. That kind of investment is something that you don’t need in the technology age to create jobs. You can create jobs based on one major resource which is brain power.
In 2008, I started an organisation called Sama Source. We just rebranded last year just as Sama because we now do more than this model which I’ll tell you about. The mission that we had was to use the internet to connect very low income people, the kinds of people that would traditionally get aid, to jobs through the internet. This was during the rise of the outsourcing industry. Many of you might have read Tom Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat, which argued that the internet was going to make the world a much flatter and more equal place by distributing opportunities to poor communities. Yet at that time that wasn’t exactly happening with the outsourcing industry — business process outsourcing, so fields like data entry, image tagging and other types of work that could be done by third parties outside of corporate headquarters. This industry was typically employing people who were middle income. People who had graduated from college and who lived close to infrastructure in major capital cities. We decided, what if we could take this model which has created billions of dollars for a few entrepreneurs and flip it on its head? What if we could use it to create a few dollars for the billions of people who live in poverty?
We decided to call this model “impact sourcing.” We came up with something which we call “micro work.” Micro work is the idea that all of these big business process outsourcing projects can be divided into smaller units of work. Some of you might have heard of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, which has done this successfully for the last decade or so for a computer scientist. Along with this trend of being able to make big projects into smaller tasks, we also saw that there was a growing need among computer scientists and people involved in this emerging data sector to categorize data in entirely new ways. We saw that this model could be used to employ people who didn’t have the type of skills that would be required in the traditional outsourcing industry. You don’t need to know how to do project management to be able to tag an image.
This model has now resulted in a substantial impact for low income people in east Africa, south Asia and Haiti. You can think of it as Outsourcing 2.0, as teaching a man to fish but more importantly making sure that he’s not living in a desert. We piloted a model… this breaks down how we do things. We piloted a model abroad and in the US and now have seen that about 27,000 people have moved above the poverty line since we started. That’s about 6500 workers and their income dependents, typically about three people per worker. We also piloted a model in the US which we called Sama School, which is really applicable to many developed economies where there are plenty of jobs but they are really hard to access for low income people. With Sama School we train low income people to do jobs through freelancer sites like Care.com, TaskRabbit, Thumbtack and to a lesser extent, sites that require you to have an asset like Uber or Lift, which are a really big opportunity for people who can’t access, for whatever reason, traditional jobs.
What does this actually look like for people living in poverty? How has a life changed through a model like impact sourcing? Well this is the person I showed you earlier, her name is Juliette Iyot ___[0:10:25]. Juliette lives in Northern Uganda in the town of Gulu, which was made famous by the Invisible Children video featuring Joseph Kony. Some of you are nodding, you’ve seen it. Northern Uganda was the location for a really awful civil war and Juliette managed to escape becoming a child solder or being recruited into a rebel army herself but many of her friends perished that way. She became an AIDS orphan when she was just ten years old. Juliette’s story is typical in this environment. There are now a number of young people who’ve emerged from the war. She managed to get a scholarship through a couple of different programmes and managed to make it all the way to college. Then like so many young people who finish high school in Uganda, a country where there are no student loans available if you want to go to college, she ended up getting stuck after high school doing very low wage jobs. Juliette was working in subsistence farming before she joined our programme. She stumbled into our programme after applying to Gulu University and getting in but being unable to pay for it. We recruited her for doing image tagging for Getty Images, believe it or not. She’s sitting in northern Uganda right now tagging pictures of Rihanna and Andy Murray and various other celebrities which was quite surreal to see. She’s doing that from within this shipping container. We set up an internet centre there with five shipping containers that have solar panels on the roof and high speed internet access. In part because we lobbied the government, based on this model, to provide it.
Juliette’s income has shifted dramatically. We believe in tracking outcomes and we find that most of our workers on average make about $800 a year before they join Sama and that income goes to $3,300 after they leave us, between six and nine months after joining. Interestingly, and this is something we didn’t anticipate, they stay that way after three years. What tends to happen is they join the formal sector, or in the case of people like Juliette who live in a more remote area where there aren’t a lot of formal sector jobs, they will find their own work on sites like oDesk and Elance, just recently renamed Upwork, but on all of these new freelancer marketplaces for digital work doing things like data entry or editing or copywriting for foreign clients. It’s really a remarkable difference but more important than the money, because the money is really just a proxy for well-being, people like Juliette are able to pay school fees for younger children in the family. We find that our workers typically invest substantially in health and education at the family level. This income really makes a significant difference.
We’re not the only ones who’ve thought through a model like impact sourcing. In the UK, you’re probably more familiar than we are in the US, with a model like fair trade. You might buy fair trade coffee. I think all the espressos now that Starbucks sells are fair trade. Fair trade started in the 1950s as a movement partly to bring prosperity to low income people by hiring them in a supply chain. Fair trade coffee is an early example of this model of impact sourcing. Another model is this Made in Detroit which is a coalition of artisans based in a very low income US that have branded themselves as Made in Detroit to try to bring more awareness to their community. Artisinal groups can benefit from impact sourcing. Lastly, one of my favourite examples is a company called Maiyet which sells beautiful fashion, beautiful apparel and accessories and footwear at retail locations like Barneys and Net-a-Porter, so not exactly the type of venue where you would normally find fair trade goods. They’re trying to elevate the concept of impact sourcing by showing the world that artisans in places like Kenya and India, who’ve typically made very little money by producing for global retailers, can actually make beautiful goods that are worth quite a lot to the end consumer. Maiyet sells luxury goods under an impact sourcing model.
I think ultimately this is the direction of the future, this is how we’re going to end poverty in our lifetimes. We still have a long way to go. The digital work impact sourcing industry employs 100,000 people globally. The Rockerfeller Foundation just invested $100 million into this space to create jobs for one million people in sub-Saharan Africa through digital work. There’s a huge need for more companies and more business models like ours, I hope you’ll consider starting one. McKinsey did a report on impact sourcing in the tech sector and found that it has the potential to employ about three million people if the model really scales. We could make a big impact here just within the outsourcing industry alone.
There are two things that you can do today if you want to get involved in the movement. The first is to give work yourself if you run a company. You can think about hiring low income people as part of your supply chain or building a business model that does that. More importantly, if you haven’t yet started a company and you’re in the phase of thinking about what you want to do next, I want to encourage you to think bigger than short-term profit or how you might sell this company within the next five years. It’s unfortunate but I still encounter so many people who come to the Valley with the dream of getting rich quick. I think the way you build a company for the future has to include social impact, it has to be part of the fabric of your company. I think when you do that, you invariably end up with much better outcomes, even in the short-term. I will leave it there and open it up for questions if you have any.
Male: Do you have opportunities for people to get involved in a volunteer capacity at locations around the States or in the UK?
Leila Janah: Yes, samaschool.org, you can sign up there and find locations to volunteer. That’s a digital… It’s an online work platform boot camp. We need to come up with better branding but it essentially teaches people who would traditionally get federally-funded job training centres around the US and hopefully soon in Europe, we’re talking to some partners here. We teach them how to make money in the new economy. A lot of our job training programmes, and I suspect this is very true in Europe and in the UK, a lot of our job training programmes are focused on jobs of the past. We’re teaching people how to do nine to five hospitality or retail jobs and we’re not teaching people how to be resilient in the new economy.
Our boot camp, which does have some guest teachers, shows people everything from how to set up a LinkedIn profile and use the right key words to how to set up a profile to earn you supplemental income on one of the new freelancer marketplaces. On average our students, after a ten week boot camp, which lasts 80 hours or so, it’s on nights and weekends, increase their income by $1,500 in the first three months. It might not sound like much but in the US, one in six Americans lives under the federal poverty line, which is $11,000 a year for an adult so it’s a ten percent income increase pretty quickly.
Male: I volunteered, I spent some time in Tanzania for three months and one of the issues we saw over there was that for every million graduates that are coming out of universities every year, only about 100,000 jobs exist so these are highly skilled people, highly trained people, but there is no real opportunity to gain skilled jobs. Do you think your programme can be up-scaled to those levels as well, to people coming out of university, post grads even with Computer Science degrees but they can’t get good jobs?
Leila Janah: Absolutely. We started off in East Africa in 2008 and I remember doing a seminar on oDesk and Elance, which I think at the time… I think oDesk’s biggest opportunity for workers was computer science related coding jobs, or really basic coding jobs. After I gave this day-long seminar, a woman at oDesk emailed me the following day and said, “Have you been doing anything about oDesk in Africa because you’re the only person we know who’s working on this mission and we just got 350 sign-ups from Nairobi and we can’t really explain this.” I said, “That’s really funny because we did just host a seminar.”
Interestingly, Nairobi grew really robustly as a major source for workers on oDesk over the next couple of years. Not so much on coding but more in higher end copywriting. We had one of our former workers get hired by a Korean test prep company to help people with their college essays online. Who would have thought that a guy from a slum in Nairobi would be collecting the papers of rich kids in Korea at some point? I think it exposes this really long trail of jobs and if people are tenacious enough, and we’ve found that people in low income environments typically are, I think this is the way to get around that core problem with the modern economy which is that capital can move freely across borders but people cannot, which is in my mind really silly. You end up having all these inefficiencies like really smart people stuck in a location like Kenya, or Tanzania or Uganda or previously India, where my parents come from, with so much to offer the world and no local jobs. I really think the internet can get around that, especially because the regulatory agencies haven’t yet caught up with it. The Kenyan authorities haven’t figured out how to effectively police this and tax it, which is a great thing. It means that we can get a lot more done, more quickly.
Male: I have a question about the sustainability of the model. If you think about the work that Juliette does, it’s a kind of tedious and repetitive task. Now machine learning and artificial intelligence is trying to do that and automate that. How do you make sure that these people learn valuable skills that can’t be replaced by a computer? They will be able to keep working in the future and learning.
Leila Janah: Thank you so much for that question, I was hoping someone would ask that. I try not to get into… I’m assuming you’re a French engineer… I try not to get into that question because sometimes people look at me funny when I talk about machine learning and they don’t know what I’m referring to. Interestingly a lot of the work that our workers are doing is designed to make them out of a job in the following year. We work for example with an auto company that had our workers tag pictures that are taken from cameras that are in the bumpers of cars. The idea is they are trying to teach an algorithm to recognise when a human is walking in front of the car so the car automatically stops. Very motivating for our workers who are saving lives but we obviously realise that if the point is to train an algorithm to do what a human is doing now, those jobs are going to go away at some point.
There’s a really interesting book called The Second Machine Age by these two labour economists at MIT who are extremely pessimistic about what technology is doing to the job market. Although some people call them pessimistic, I just think they’re realists and I think it’s absolutely happening. As someone who is deeply embedded in the sector, I think most of what we’re training these people to do will be completely useless to them in terms of that specific skill in five years. We’ve seen that with optical character recognition for example. It used to be that you could hire people to do data entry and have them convert pdfs images of text into text files and now a machine can do that almost perfectly.
So what do we do about that? Firstly, I think just exposing people to the internet economy is itself incredibly important because once you show people the tools to be an autodidact, once you show people the tools to learn something on your own, they tend to keep on learning. What we really teach at Sama in all of our programmes is this idea that in the future, your job will be about the set of skills you have at that moment and you will constantly need to adjust those skills and upskill as the economy changes and that the internet gives you a lot of different paths to do that. We introduce them to sites like Khan Academy which is a free education online platform. We introduce them to all of the free online course sites like Coursera and Codeacademy. There are tons of them now. We show them that there is a way to get an education entirely online and a lot of it for free and prepare yourself for a job much more effectively than through a traditional university or school diploma.
The problem in a lot of low income countries is that people take out loans to go and get degrees which are then irrelevant in the job market. I think the core skill we’re teaching is resilience and using the internet to identify new types of jobs and to prepare yourself for them. Really what we’re doing in the meantime is a stop gap. It’s a way to get people money that works now that probably won’t work in five years. Frankly I think that’s true for a lot of industries, not just ours. If you’re a driver for Uber right now, in four years when self-driving cars take over the entire Uber fleet, you’re going to be out of a job. I think it’s better to prepare people for what’s coming and to get them thinking about it.
I’ll say one more thing. Not to be too long-winded but I think ultimately we need to be solving a much bigger problem, which is not really a problem but a wonderful thing which is that fewer and fewer people will be required to product the goods and services that are needed to run humanity. We’ll have a lot of people who don’t need to do anything for us to get even more benefit than we ever did from basic inputs. In that kind of a world, where you just need a few people and lot of machines and robots to produce things, we need to think of ways of distributing wealth that make more sense.
I’m a fan of something that’s been talked about, the universal basic income which Americans hate talking about because it’s welfare. But if we dismantles some of the big service agencies that have become horrible bureaucracies in the US and we just gave people direct cash transfers as they no longer had skills relevant for the economy, I think we might see some interesting outcomes. There are all sorts of things we can think about in that space. Maybe we should pay people to do creative pursuits, like we did during the Works Progress Administration in the US. Maybe we could pay artists and sculptors and people who make the world more beautiful. Maybe we could direct more income to teachers and people who provide some kind of a value that’s not easily automated. I just think it triggers a larger discussion. Unfortunately the tag line of our organisation is ‘give work’ so I have to think of a different organisation to do that.
Male: Leila, I just wanted to ask, the model that you’ve spoken about presupposes that there’s infrastructure and availability to resources, high speed internet, you’re example of Uganda and gentleman’s example of Tanzania. There are loads of areas around the world that don’t have access to that. How do you guys look to address those kinds of areas?
Leila Janah: Yes, that’s a good question because even though I made a big deal about how the internet economy circumvents the traditional need for infrastructure, you still need high speed internet and computers which are, themselves, infrastructure. Well, interestingly, in Northern Uganda, our centre is not on any grid power system. They just laid the fibre optic cable that our centre connects to two years ago. If you go to Uganda now, you can still see women with hoes by the side of the road digging ditches for the red fibre optic cable to be rolled out, literally. That infrastructure is only just arriving and I still think it’s much lighter than the heavy infrastructure required to make a destination into a huge manufacturing zone. You don’t need a port for example. Provided you have enough will power…
Now there is quite a lot of international funding for things like high speed internet. I still think it’s an interesting alternative but of course you need people who are literate and have skills that lots of other poor people don’t. So what do we do with all those other poor people? Well two things. One is that we can do impact sourcing for lower skilled workers. In fact, I mentioned Maiyet which employs artisans, a very small number of artisans but Fairtrade as a whole is employing loads of people now. I don’t know the latest number but certainly above hundreds of thousands of people around the world so I think we can think about models where we source things form people around the world and pay people fairly for those things. We can think about including them in supply chains on fairer terms.
We’re actually launching a new business unit within Sama called Laxmi, which is a high end luxury skincare line which is entirely sourced from low income women’s cooperatives across sub-Saharan Africa but it’s marketed to the Crème de la Mer customer. You guys won’t know what I’m talking about but a very high end skin cream. I think those opportunities to basically connect people who are living in rural areas who don’t have a lot of skills… In our case, it’s women who are wild harvesting a certain type of shea butter directly into global markets and then making sure that they benefit from the sales of those items, I think that’s the future. I think that if every entrepreneur thought about how to include things like that in the supply chain or sourced their t-shirts from a fair trade company or just a company that makes a difference in the lives of the poor that way, I think we could address some of these issues.
The second solution, for people who have no productive capacity is direct cash transfers. Again this does not win me favour in the US, but there’s a lot of data now which shows that direct cash transfers which is essentially giving small amount of money to very poor people is a really effective way of getting people out of poverty, more effective than reaching them through microfinance. There’s an organisation called GiveDirectly. I highly recommend that you check out their website, you can even give on a monthly basis. It’s a bunch of development economists that figured this out. They figured out how to identify families who make less than 60 cents a day, families that have very little opportunity to be productive. Certainly, they wouldn’t have family members go could do Sama work, it’s unlikely that anybody would be educated past primary school. They found that by giving these people very small amounts of cash with no restrictions, that the families make investments in health and education that then lead them to be productive members of the economy after that. The problem then is that then moves them to $2.50 a day and you still need to move them beyond that. That’s maybe where Sama comes in.
Phil, you’re easy to spot in your loud sports jacket.
Phil Libin: I think you’ve just touched on this briefly, this is a very interesting point. You’ve talked about three models of charity, there’s the traditional model where you’re giving people stuff –mosquito nets or chickens or whatever. There’s the model where you’re giving people work and there’s the model where you’re giving people money. What are your thoughts on when each is appropriate and not? How should we think about each of those three?
Leila Janah: Interestingly, even in the models where we’re giving people stuff, often the way that’s funded… One example of stuff is malaria medication… There was a big movement called Advanced Market Commitments. Is anyone here a development economist just so I know that I’m not embarrassing myself? I’m not, okay. I can talk freely about this. Advanced market commitments was an idea that was developed by an economist named Michael Kremer at Harvard. He realised that one of the biggest challenges to innovating for diseases of the poor was that there was no market for those types of innovations. As a result, pharma companies spend a lot of money developing Lipitor and other drugs for rich people and no money developing drugs that kill hundreds of millions of people in the developing world because there’s no market for them.
The approach, typically for traditional charity, is for donors to pony up the money and then to distribute malaria drugs to poor people. Yet the problem even with something like Advanced Market Commitments where donors say to a pharma company, “Hey, we’re willing to give you a $1 million if you come up with a vaccine that meets these specifications,” is that then you’ve got all these vaccines that don’t actually get to the people who need them. You’ve got a last mile problem because nobody has a profit incentive to get the drug to the end user, even if the donor has ponied up the money. That’s one of the best, smartest examples of a big organisation trying to deliver a thing to poor people.
I would argue that it would be better to enrich the poor people directly so that they would create not an artificial market but a real market for those types of drugs which would then solve the last mile problem because somebody would be incentivised to build a pharmacy in their community and distribute a drug. You still might need large scale funding for things like R&D. Poor people in the shorter term might not have enough money through something like a direct cash transfer to fund R&D for a malaria vaccine but you could certainly ensure that a lot of the steps in the chain that need to be there for this kind of intervention to work would be there on the ground and then you’d fund the R&D if that makes sense.
I think the same is true in many cases where we’ve given stuff away for free. In fact, we’ve found that giving something away for free devalues the item for low income people. People are less likely to follow a course of medication or less likely to use something if it’s given away for free because the perceived value is lower. I think it’s more effective to give people money and then to use those extra charitable donors to do things like R&D and possibly public service announcements which health agencies do to remind people to use their money to buy things like condoms or whatever else. I think very often we have to challenge ourselves to not do the thing which makes us feel good, which is giving away stuff which may not result in the outcome which we want.
On the direct cash transfers piece, giving people cash, it hasn’t been as effective for people who are middle income and who are not living in extreme poverty. The most reliable data I’ve seen in the field of development economics is that direct cash transfers work best on families that are living in extreme poverty for whom a loan wouldn’t be used for any productive ends. If you gave them a microloan, if you have them $200 and said, “Pay it back,” they would use it for really basic household expenditures. They wouldn’t be using it to build a business because they need to worry about feeding themselves. When you give them the money to feed themselves and to cover the basics then you can use additional money beyond that in a more productive capacity.
Male: Thank you for a very interesting talk. How do the indigenous governments in the developing countries view your activities? For example, I can see two very extreme points of view. One could be, what’s this external western organisation doing messing around in our country? The other extreme may be, great, they’re letting us off the hook, we should be providing work for our people but they’re providing it for us.
Leila Janah: I’m in one of the few industries where being a brown woman is probably advantageous. Pitching our model to Kenya, we’ve never been accused of economic colonialism. Partly because we tend to go to places where we’re asked to go by local entrepreneurs. The centre where these people do work are typically owned by local entrepreneurs, the computer centres. Our first was in Nairobi and was an internet café that was owned by a guy who was 25 at the time. He realised that the internet café model was not making money in Nairobi because nobody had disposable income to spend a dollar an hour on the internet. He and a bunch of other entrepreneurs banded together and helped us raise the money to get set up by telling people in Kenya that this model could make Kenyans rich, that this could be for Kenya what outsourcing was for India. Because we’ve had a lot of local support, we’ve typically been welcomed with open arms by the government. That’s not to say that they’ve actually done anything productive for us but they certainly haven’t tried to stop us. We had the Minister of ICT in Kenya come to one of our opening ceremonies.
In Uganda, the government has been really excited about digital work and they’ve actually written it into their plans until 2020. They have this big plan to employ a large number of high school youth in the digital economy. I’ve been surprised by how much this has been embraced. In fact the hardest government we’ve found to work with has been the US government at the state level. We’ve had states that have made commitments… We went into Arkansas a couple of years ago, which is the state where Bill Clinton is from and we had some connections through the Clintons to the state government. We got a commitment from the governor and we still have not received the funding even though we started the programme and paid out of our own pocket to do that for the last year and a half. They should follow the Kenyan lead.
Female: Just one more now.
Leila: This is tough, I’ll chose the woman.
Female: Thank you for a really insightful talk. My question is around partnerships because you seem to be such a unique position to be in demand by both employers and governments but also international organisations. I previously worked at the ILO, the International Labour Organisation which had a programme with the IFC called the Better Work Programme and it seems to me that you would be really well positioned to help organizations like that scale. How do you see yourself choosing partnerships going forward as well as preserving a sense of independence and being able to select your projects meaningfully?
Leila Janah: We’ve really benefitted from being in Silicon Valley, partly because of the philosophy that we’ve derived from Silicon Valley Culture. One of the elements of that philosophy has been focus which has been extremely hard to do because we’re pulled in so many different directions by funders, which is the topic of a whole other talk on non-profit funding. We’ve been asked to partner with the UN, with the World Food Programme, with all of these big institutions and one of the things I learnt early on is that the cost of exploratory conversations to those institutions is much, much lower than the cost of those same conversations to us. So we typically do not engage with any big partners unless there’s a real deal on the table where we can see an outcome that’s part of our strategic plan.
Actually UN aids came back to us, they kept coming to us and we were like, “We can’t do anything with you.” Finally, they said, “We have 20,000 HIV positive women in Liberia, they all have access to computers and we are going to pay you to train them using your Sama School model.” It ticked off many more boxes to us than previous partnerships. That’s how we’ve explored it. I think it is a lesson to social entrepreneurs that you can very quickly burn your resources talking to these big institutions. I’ve heard an analogue of this happens with small start-ups in Silicon Valley who end up in corporate development conversations with big companies for years often before anything leads anywhere. They have to give us cash for us to listen.
Thank you so much.
Female: We’ve run out of time but I’d just like to thank Leila so much for a really brilliant talk and really brilliant work. Thanks for sharing your insights. It’s been fascinating. Thank you Leila.