This 34-year-old female tech CEO now competes with Chanel – and lifts thousands out of poverty

Leila Janah, LXMI Co-founder and CEO and Samasource Founder and CEO.
Photo: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images for TIME

“I already ordered a burger”, Leila Janah says in the restaurant downstairs from her office in the Dutch city of The Hague. “I used to be vegan. Now I eat meat twice a week. When you travel a lot sometimes meat is unavoidable. And I need the protein.”

In the past few years Janah was widely praised as a leader for social change. The New York Times Style Magazine named her one of the 5 Visionary Tech Entrepreneurs Who are Changing The World, and she was profiled as one of Fortune’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs in 2013.

The 34-year-old entrepreneur was born in New York as a child of Indian immigrants, grew up in California, and graduated from Harvard University with a degree in African Development Studies. In 2008 she launched the not-for-profit tech company Samasource. Seven years later she started the luxury skin care brand LXMI, which incubated at Samasource.

Sama Group has its headquarters in San Francisco, California. But in February this year the organization opened a European headquarters in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Janah travels a lot and has a packed schedule. “I slept two hours”, she explains at our meeting. “This morning I was in Paris to learn more about the luxury industry. We want to launch our new brand in France.”

The organizations Janah runs are not set up to maximize profits for shareholders, but that does not mean they do not make money. Running a non-for-profit business as if it were a regular company is actually fundamental to how Janah operates.

Out of poverty

“The idea of Samasource and LXMI is that the product is of high quality and can compete with ‘normal’ companies in the private sector. At the same time, our employees are largely people who are trying to escape from poverty”, she says.

Janah sees people from poor countries not as people in need, but as humans whose talents are not properly applied. That’s fundamentally different from the classic idea of charity, where foundations provide things like food, housing, or education. ‘To give work’, is the slogan of Sama Group.

“A lot of the people in the areas where we are active have a school diploma, but no job”, Janah says. “When you are able to get a diploma while living in a slum village, you have great potential. It would be stupid to not use the cognitive capacities of millions of people who want to work.”

Luxury skin care made in Uganda

Janah couples economic demand in richer countries with the workforce in developing countries. Samasource aims to train people and provide them with a job. In stark contrast to most outsourcers, after a few years Janah is able in increase worker salaries about fourfold. Most workers were earning about 2 dollars a day before joining Samasource. That’s how Janah is able to lift people out of poverty.

Janah’s latest project is LXMI, a luxury skin care brand based on Nilotica, ”a rare form of soft, delicately scented, luxurious Shea Butter that is underutilized in the cosmetic market”, according to the website. Nilotica is harvested from 20-year-old trees at the source of the Nile river in Africa. The harvesters are woman in Uganda earning at least three times the local wages.

In september 2015 LXMI raised seed capital, and in 2016 the company started operating. “We are now for sale in 300 stores in the US.”

With LXMI Janah targets consumers in the luxury segment. “I want women who look up to Kim Kardashian to buy the product – just because it’s cool. Not because it has a social impact. It must be a superior product.”

Organic and fair trade brands in the cosmetics industry usually don’t target the top of the market. “Most of them have brown packaging and don’t look very luxurious”, Janah explains. “Women who normally buy Chanel or Dior won’t buy a product that doesn’t appeal to their sense of luxury.”

LXMI has to be that kind of product, and seems to be well on its way. CNBC recently named the brand the ‘Chanel of social impact’, although that message hardly features prominently in the marketing campaign. But Janah says this is deliberate: “It’s okay if the social impact part is a little bit of a secret.”

Samasource works for Silicon Valley

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde (L) joins John Chambers (R), Chairman of the Board, Cisco Systems and Leila Janah (C) Founder and CEO of Sama and Laxmi talk at a seminar. Photo: IMF Staff Photo/Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images

Janah-style social entrepreneurship – a competitive product made for a salary that lifts people out of extreme poverty – already was successful at Samasource.

Janah started Samacource when she was 25 years old. Currently about 1.200 people from the poorest neighborhoods in Kenya, Uganda, India and Haïti are working for Samasource. Where LXMI targets luxury consumers, Samasource works for companies in Silicon Valley.

According to Samasource data, the organization lifted more than 8000 people structurally out of poverty. Structurally, since 84 percent of the digital agents get a ‘normal’ job in the IT sector after leaving the company – thanks to the combination of education and work experience.

Firms like Google, Wal-Mart and eBay are hiring Samasource for projects. The idea is to break down large digital projects into smaller, easily trainable tasks for workers to complete, so called microwork.

Social entrepreneurship

From the money Samasource gets from its clients, the organization not only pays an above-average salary to their digital workers, but also finances educations so these people can carry out more sophisticated tasks.

If Samasource would have started as a privately owned for-profit company, Janah already could have been quite rich, she admits: “I think about that when I rent out my apartment on Airbnb to pay my mortgage,” she laughs.

Still, she likes pioneering with social entrepreneurship. “Just like Muhammad Yunus [the pioneer of the concept of microcredit, ed] I want to live in a world where extreme poverty is only to be seen in musea.”

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