Three takeaways, from Leilah Janah’s Give Work, that explains her work providing digital work to the poor and marginalized.
1. Have a great product, no matter how great your social mission. (yup, the customer is still king)
I visited Samasource website and was surprised how difficult it was to find their social mission. The homepage is all about value proposition:
"25% of the Fortune 50 trust Samasource to deliver turnkey, high-quality training data and validation for the world's leading AI technologies. From pilots to multi-year projects, Samasource securely trains and validates computer vision and NLP models." (Samasource site)
Where's the social mission about eradicating poverty? About giving work? The social mission isn’t hidden, but it’s not easy to find. (Go see if you can find it) In the early days, she emphasized the social mission before the digital work value proposition, but found potential customers skeptical of quality. So she flipped the script, putting product quality first in all their messaging. As Janah says: “We do a great job and you can help move people out of poverty, why wouldn’t you want to work with us?”
2. The humility to listen, watch and learn about local needs is fundamental.
Paradoxically, the "social mission" of Samasource at first put peoples lives at risk.
In digital work, one requires electricity, a computer and an internet connection. Logically, one might imagine supplying these things directly to one’s home. However, as word would spread about the valuable electronics and components in their home, Janah found out that to do so could put the person’s property—and even their life—in danger. Moreover, there can be stigmas around working and earning an income.
So as to not stand out too much and to avoid the security concerns of having valuables in their home, the workers much preferred walking to a work center that had all the equipment on site.
3. To really serve the poor will take more and different kinds of effort than you can imagine.
To get started, Janah partnered with local entrepreneurs, such as in Kenya, who already provided computer training. But the entrepreneurs were usually middle class and she said “if you are aiming to benefit the poor and right away the first major beneficiary is the middle class, you are already behind.”
You might think: to help the poor, give them jobs. But what if they aren't looking (or don't know how), aren't skilled enough to hold down a job, or aren't familiar with organized work? In the end, she learned that to really help the most destitute required less complex work and more training--and their own work centers.
Most of the poor Janah wanted to employ were not equipped to apply for jobs or even look for jobs. So they needed to partner with organizations providing basic job hunting skills, a basic step she had never considered. And they needed to create the concept of "micro work", breaking down large digital projects like digitizing documents into small tasks that an individual with limited English and computer skills could complete.
Leilah Janah is founder and CEO of Samasource, Samaschool and LXMI, organizations that apply her “give work” philosophy to serving and empowering low-income people around the world. Her website says she uses “cutting edge enterprise models in AI/machine learning, digital freelancing, and clean skincare."