“Work is at the core of human dignity.” These are the words Leila Janah used to describe her life’s work and passion. A pioneering social entrepreneur, Janah set out on a new path to helping the impoverished through her problem solving skills. Her work received recognition and praise from all corners of the planet, and today, her humanitarian efforts continue. Sadly, Janah passed away in 2020, but her legacy and commitment to human rights live on in the companies and philanthropies she founded. Many of today’s business leaders can learn from her example and strive to improve the world through their own efforts to help others.
Learn more about her fight to end global poverty through innovation and how she continues to inspire millions of people, including current leaders, throughout the world.
Many great leaders and visionaries have humble beginnings, and Leila Janah is no exception. Born on October 9, 1982, in upstate New York, Janah would move to California early on. Her parents were Indian immigrants who worked hard to support the family. Janah took on many jobs as well to help out. Janah’s parents taught her from an early age to believe in herself and the promise of the future. In an interview with Wired, she explained why she’s always had an idealistic view of the world: “I grew up believing in meritocracy and the American dream. My parents came here from India. They had no connections. My brother and I went to public schools, and both of us succeeded.”
Leila Janah discovered her passion for helping the less fortunate through her education. She first went to the California Academy of Mathematics and Science. Janah received a six-month scholarship in her senior year, which allowed her to go to Ghana and teach English. While working with mostly blind students in Ghana, she experienced what it was like to work closely with people who possessed a great deal of talent and work ethic but couldn’t find high-paying jobs. The problem as she saw it? They had no way to reach those jobs due to geographic isolation.
Janah would return to the United States and continue her education at Harvard University, where she created her own African Development Studies degree. She also participated in the Harvard Model UN and World Model UN and even found time to work at the World Bank as part of the Development Research Group. All the while, she continued to think about the problems she witnessed in Africa and how best to address them.
Janah started her career in 2007 as a professional consultant for Katzenbach Partners, where she worked as a manager at a call center located in Mumbai. While working there, she had another experience that reinforced the problems related to geographic isolation. As a call center manager, she discovered that a young man who worked there had to commute to work via rickshaw every day, traveling from the slums into the city. This gave Leila Janah the idea that maybe instead of putting the call center in the city, it would benefit people more if the call center were in the slums. In that way, she could make work more accessible to people who wanted it. This idea stuck with her over the next year before striking out on her own with a new venture.
Leila Janah’s Entrepreneurial Efforts
The idea eventually took flight in 2008 as Samasource (now just Sama, which means “equal” in Sanskrit), a new company with the belief that “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” In an article for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, she explained that the traditional approaches to helping people in poverty were not effective enough.
Handouts couldn’t get people out of the slums, but teaching people the right skills could. Samasource, founded in Nairobi, Kenya, looked to provide impoverished people with digital skills such as impact sources, image annotation, and photo tagging—skills that had actual demand in the world. Employees at Samasource used their skills to generate data for companies involved in software development and the creation of self-driving cars. The company gives employees a living wage and places emphasis on hiring women.
According to the company, the model Leila Janah developed has helped tens of thousands of people overcome the challenges of poverty. Sama also provides programs to help workers develop their skills in their personal and professional lives. Some of the programs include a scholarship program, health and wellness education, and a program giving entrepreneurs microloans and a mentor. Sama has gone on to real success, with some of its clients including Google, Microsoft, and Walmart. It even raised nearly 15 million dollars in Series A funding in 2019.
Leila Janah found success with Samasource, but she knew there were other ways to help people. In 2013, she founded Samaschool, which provided additional digital training and connections to jobs found on the internet. The goal was to move people out of poverty by putting their skills to use. Some of the courses the school provided include freelancing and digital literacy. Samaschool would close in 2020, but the core of the program continues on as the Leila Janah Foundation.
Janah wouldn’t let her efforts rest there. She would go on to co-found LXMI in 2015. The luxury skincare company focuses on organic products and ethical, fair trade. Janah got the idea as she looked for ways to provide better economic opportunities for women in Uganda. She saw that a botanical called Nilotica, which grows near the Nile River, held a lot of potential for use in skincare products. With that idea, she created a company that would utilize the skills of local women to develop high-quality products while giving impoverished people a chance to succeed and grow. LXMI initially employed women in the Nile Valley but has since expanded into South Africa, Kenya, and Suriname.
Awards and Accomplishments
Over the years, Leila Janah received numerous awards for her humanitarian efforts. Her fight to end poverty drew recognition from organizations and charities across the world. Here are just a few of the many awards and accomplishments she achieved in the span of fewer than two decades:
- TED Fellow
- Club de Madrid Young Leadership Award
- Fortune: Most Promising Entrepreneurs
- Heinz Award (the youngest person ever to win it)
- Director of CARE USA
- Visiting Scholar for Stanford Program on Global Justice
- Visiting Scholar for Australian National University’s Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics
- Founding Director of Incentives for Global Health
- Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum
- 2012 TechFellow
- Secretary’s Innovation Award for the Empowerment of Women and Girls
Leila Janah met Tassilo Festetics through mutual friends back in 2017, and the two would later marry. They traveled the world, going to far-flung locations like Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico. Tassilo brought a daughter, Mia (from a previous relationship), to the marriage. As a family, they shared adventures and exploration, seeking to experience the world’s beauty.
A Lasting Legacy
Leila Janah passed away on January 24, 2020, after suffering from complications from epithelioid sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She was first diagnosed in the spring of 2019 but continued to bring hope to people worldwide. Janah even worked closely with Research to the People, a biomedical research initiative, which looked at ways to develop new treatments for other rare cancers. She leaves behind not only a loving family but a legacy of outreach, service, and leadership. As she once described, “True leadership isn’t about having an idea. It’s about having an idea and recruiting other people to execute on this vision.” Those closest to her continue to follow through on her vision to provide opportunities to those who need it the most.
Today’s leaders can follow that example as well as they lead their organizations into the future. Think about what type of legacy you would like to leave the world. How will it impact those around you? What would you need to change in your life to match your ideals? As you seek out your true purpose and guide others, you too will be following in the footsteps of Leila Janah and helping so many other people along the way.
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