Leila Janah

CEO, Sama and Laxmi

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON May 06, 2016

Discussion

Leila Janah@leila_janah
I'm Leila Janah, founder and CEO of Sama and Laxmi - two companies (one non-profit, one venture-backed) with a common mission to give work as a means to end global poverty. In addition to sharing my experiences as an entrepreneur, I can also offer advice on how to fundraise, how to get PR, how to measure social impact, and how to manage your time to enjoy life while you change the world. Looking forward to your questions!
Jim Kleiber@jimkleiber · Tools for emotion
Leila, it seems that you may be interacting with groups of people at two very different ends of the economic spectrum. What is one thing that you have learned about working with those two populations?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@jimkleiber This is the hardest part of my job, going from a village in rural Uganda to Davos and trying to maintain grace and optimism along the way. The most important thing is non-judgment. It's so easy to put people in boxes, but doing so deprives another person of her humanity, whether she's rich or poor. So I try to be open minded and to learn something from every interaction. I fail a lot, but it's the trying that matters.
Corey Hubbard@corey_hubbard · Founder - DreamHighr
What was the toughest decision you had to make during your startup's pre-revenue stage?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@corey_hubbard We started Sama with a $30K contract, so we weren't really ever pre-revenue because I had no money to get started. This doesn't work for every startup though -- Laxmi had an R&D phase that lasted about 6 months before we could ship product and earn revenue. The toughest decision then was about who to put on our team, and whether to use agencies vs. in-house people for key functions like design, web development, and product development. My recommendation for startups is to be very cost-conscious with agencies even after you've raised a nice chunk of cash, because it's very easy to spend more than you think you're signing up for.
Loic Le Meur@deleted-200821 · Founder, Leade.rs
How do you balance your professional and personal life? You're doing so much!
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@loic I fail at this all the time. But I think family is the most important thing in the world, and everything else should come second. :)
Loic Le Meur@deleted-200821 · Founder, Leade.rs
@leila_janah :-) :-) :-)
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
Hi Leila, How can people in the US and other 'first world' countries make impactful contributions to end global poverty besides donating money to charities and non-profits?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@tomstocklein it's simple: #givework. Giving poor people free goods and services is disempowering. The only long-run solution is to give them income, which you can do with cash transfers (direct payments in cash, either in exchange for certain actions like enrolling kids in school, or without strings attached) or, preferably, with a job. So the best thing to do is to purchase from fair trade or social enterprises that give work to low-income people. Check out Fair Trade USA for a list of organizations that give work -- we're also working on a Give Work Guide that will feature companies that share our mission. Thanks!
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
What are your ideas for how the biggest tech companies in the valley could make bigger and better contributions to help end global poverty?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@tomstocklein I have so many ideas. Most of them revolve around giving work. First, we'd love for every company here to take a #GiveWork pledge to hire people from marginalized backgrounds -- starting with 1% of their budget in a category like suppliers/vendors or help desk support. We can help them implement this locally by partnering with orgs like our own Samaschool or YearUp, or globally by partnering with social enterprises like Samasource that perform data services with a nontraditional workforce of people previously living in poverty. A second solution is direct cash transfers through an org like GiveDirectly, but to me this is less of a sustainable solution than giving work. It's more complicated to give work than to simply write a check from a corporate foundation. But it's the only way to solve global and domestic poverty at the root.
neeharika sinha@neeeharika · Google, Threadchannel
Leila, its great to meet you here. I would love to know how Laxmi's idea originated. As PR is expensive, what is the best strategy to get your product in front of a larger audience. I have built a fashion App and am trying to get in front of my target demographic. Thanks!
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@neeeharika Thanks for asking! I came across the raw ingredient behind our line, Nilotica, at a market in Northern Uganda. It had never been exported before because the area was in a civil war for 20 years. So I thought, why doesn't someone market this as a luxury product? I saw the chance to develop a #givework business model around this ingredient, and that became Laxmi. In terms of audience for your product, it's basically about hustling. We sent samples to every retailer we had a connection to, and then found creative ways to present the product, even making truffles out of it that we served in a business meeting. That got attention and was memorable. PR is about relationships -- so think about being memorable and forming relationships with the people you want to tell your story.
neeharika sinha@neeeharika · Google, Threadchannel
@leila_janah Thanks a lot for your response. I have just ordered some Laxmi products. Would love to connect with you offline and talk more about your entrepreneurial journey.
V.S.VIVEK@vsvivek93 · Unoccupied
In India , a new law has been passed asking conglomerates to spend a percentage of their profits in CSR and companies are squandering these opportunities as it is not their core competency. What do you think we can do make this spending more impact full in the true sense?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@vsvivek93 We've been trying to figure this out at Sama. I think the best way to use these funds is to #givework to local communities and pay living wages. So instead of donating to build a school or hospital, the company can put the funds into a training program for marginalized workers, which will enable them to fund their own schools and clinics down the line.
Alan G@alan_g · Red Panda
Some very rookie questions, I'm sure other rookies are asking themselves: 1) If I have a great idea that I've seen a worldwide potential for (mobile app, and for a community I closely work with so I know it's need and value), do I need to be(or learn to be) a coder to get it off the ground? or is it just the same to hire a team to build it($$) 2) I have $3000 livelihood expenditures per month, most of which are student loans. How do I find financial backing, and how do you recommend I deal with my personal debt so that I am not putting about $1500 every month into loan payments which is cutting into the funds I can use for the Start-up. Or are my personal finances separate from what I need to raise for the start-up? 3) How do I go about finding developers or help or investors, without jeopardizing my idea being stolen by someone else. (My skills: Extremely creative, agile with technology, great designer, graphics, some web, in the limited classes I took on programming I understood it very well, Digital Marketing by trade) Thank you!
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@alan_g Hi Alan, 1. You don't need to be a coder to build a tech company, but you should find someone you trust who can advise you in the hiring process and judge candidates based on what they've developed in the past. I had a technical friend of mine do final interviews for many of our early engineering candidates at Sama. 2. That's hard, and I relate. I had three jobs in college and believe it or not was paying off my undergraduate debt until last year. I'd recommend raising some seed funds for your startup - check out steve blank's website for the essentials of a pitch deck and fundraising advice. 3. Ideas are a dime a dozen; execution is what's hard. I'd be careful to filter who you share your idea with to only serious candidates, and then share with them in depth what you're building to understand whether they'd be a fit as an investor/engineer/team mate. I've shared tons with others and we've even had companies rip language off of our website and directly copy us -- it doesn't matter if you execute well and move fast.
Mahathi Choudhry@mahathi_choudhry · Applications engineer
Leila, it was an awesome opportunity to listen to you at watermark. I would love to discuss a new opportunity with you in person/phone. Having grown up educated by a Christian institution back at home in India, I had the good fortune of being exposed to a bigger picture in terms of poverty. And with the help of my teachers, I was motivated to change the world around me. However, I could see how my teachers had dedicated their entire lives towards human service. After listening to you speak at watermark and also reading your blog, it's a new perspective to see how a similar service could be measurable, quantified and run like a business model. Congratulations on achieving this, this early in your life.
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@mahathi_choudhry Thanks! Let's chat offline :)
Mahathi Choudhry@mahathi_choudhry · Applications engineer
@leila_janah thank you much ! Would love to chat with you offline!!
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
What are your thoughts on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? What are they getting right? In what areas could they improve their work in your opinion?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@tomstocklein They're getting tons of stuff right. I think their focus on health, education, and poverty is wonderful. However, I think they're still adhering to an older generation's model of philanthropy -- I'd love to see them address health, education, and poverty at the root by investing in social enterprise models that provide employment, and thus income, to enable poor people to purchase the goods and services that are right for them. Think about it: all these problems are better solved at the root, by helping very poor people generate income, rather than further downstream by building a free health clinic or distributing mosquito nets. I also think that giant foundations create perverse incentives (as does any bureaucracy) to grow the organization rather than push as much capital as possible to the poor. I would love to see the Gates Foundation operate very leanly, with a focus on moving as many people out of poverty as possible each year.
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
Was there a key moment or specific experience that made you decide to focus your life's work on ending global poverty?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@tomstocklein Yes! I went to Ghana when I was 17 on a scholarship from a big tobacco company (true story). And I stayed in a village where everyone was living on $2 a day or less, and it shocked me how much human talent was going to waste. I saw so much avoidable tragedy -- little kids sick with malaria and unable to go to school, people who were blind because they had lacked basic medical care as children, women who had to give birth in the village and risk their lives -- and all of this was linked to the simple fact that there were no jobs and real income-generating opportunities. I thought, if I can fix this at the root, all these health problems will go away because people will be able to afford to go to a better clinic. And so I resolved then and there to work on this. I've been so lucky to get support from so many amazing foundations and clients at Sama to enable us to grow as we have.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey Leila! What's something you used to believe that you now see as fundamentally misguided?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@eriktorenberg That being busy and working many many hours in a day equates to being productive, and that face time matters -- what really matters is results and outcomes.
Amrith Shanbhag@amrith · Community at Product Hunt & Feathrd
It's amazing how you've created a brand with a serious social motive. Thank you for doing this :) How do you think a social venture can become sustainable by all means? How to overcome the phase where you're desperately trying to figure out different ways to grow?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@ambonium I think every nonprofit needs an earned income strategy. Samasource, our international division, will break even this year off our earned revenue if we maintain our current pace. This is a huge moment for a nonprofit under 10 years old. It has helped us immensely to have sales revenue to supplement the cash we've raised from grants and donations, and it has enabled us to continue our work where the funding has dried up, in places like rural Arkansas. I'd take a look at Aravind Eye Clinic, VisionSpring, Benetech, and Grameen Bank for great examples of earned revenue models in the nonprofit and social enterprise space. They use methods like differential pricing to earn revenue while ensuring their product or service gets to those with the most need.
Amrith Shanbhag@amrith · Community at Product Hunt & Feathrd
@leila_janah Woah! Thanks a lot :) Will keep in mind.. Congratulations to your success :D
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Hi Leila thanks so much for being here today! What are your top tips to new founders on how to approach fundraising?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@ems_hodge I did a Facebook Live on this a while back: https://www.facebook.com/leilaja... Fundraising, sales, and PR are all about relationships. There's a saying that if you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money. I think the basis of this adage is that people don't like to feel like they're being pitched all the time. If you're wealthy or you work at a VC or foundation, you're always being approached, and it's exhausting and demoralizing -- the same way that asking for money is exhausting and demoralizing. So I start with really getting to know someone and trying to have empathy for them -- what does he or she really want? Most funders are looking for amazing investment opportunities, and so if you have a great product, they will probably want to learn more. Then it's about sharing what you do in a way that doesn't feel immediately transactional or pitchy, and following up promptly but respectfully. It's also important, once you've established that the person is interested, to ask for what you want. I've heard that if you're not hearing no 80% of the time, you're not asking enough. To maintain relationships with people that say no, be kind, courteous and open to feedback -- I've had people who originally say no come back a few years later and say yes because I kept them in the loop and handled the initial rejection gracefully. Lastly: never, ever take rejection personally. Take whatever feedback you can, smile, and move on. There are always other fish in the sea.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Is there anything that you wish you had known back when you first launched your first business?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@ems_hodge I wish I'd known to be more self confident and stick to my gut more. I made several key decisions early on because a senior advisor or board member told me the way to go, and instead of pushing back I acted immediately on the feedback. The person who knows the most about a startup is the founder and the early team. External advisors can help, but they never know more than you do. It's really important especially for women founders to know this -- we are so often made to feel like we know less about our business than an outside "expert." It took me many years before I felt legit -- and I still struggle with Impostor Syndrome. Here's a video I did on it: https://www.facebook.com/leilaja...
Andre Jacobovitz@jacobovitza · Product Manager at Amazon
Given you balance so much, any tips on time management and work/life balance?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@jacobovitza I don't believe in work/life balance, because you only have one life! So everything needs to integrate. :) That's why I think it's totally fine if someone on our team wants to leave in the middle of the day to do a yoga class (I sometimes take an afternoon to kitesurf) because when people feel excited and energized in their lives they will do better work, and vice-versa. That said, I spend a lot of hours writing emails, doing calls and meetings with our team, and selling our various products and services, and I rely on a lot of great products to help me. My favorites are: Evernote (for storing everything - receipts, todo lists, journal entries), Paper (for sketching everything - wireframes, ideas, new products), Google Docs/Gmail, Asana for To-Do lists, Zenfriend for logging my meditation hours, and Slack which has changed my life in terms of team communication.
Amrith Shanbhag@amrith · Community at Product Hunt & Feathrd
Marco Tuttolomondo@marcus0990 · Consultant, KPMG
Hi Leila. I admire the work you do everyday. In particular I admire the mission of your companies: both committed to social fairness. Concerning Laxmi, I was wondering if: a) you are willing to enter also the European Markets with your product portfolios; b) if yes, which markets are you considering? thank you and good luck!
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@marcus0990 Hi Marco, thank you! Yes, we'd love to enter Europe but first we have to focus on getting widespread distribution here in the US and really penetrating our home market. Our hope is that if we do this well with our fall 2016 launch, we will expand to Europe next year. Fingers crossed, because I'd love to share our brand story with Europeans who care about great products that #givework :)
Marco Tuttolomondo@marcus0990 · Consultant, KPMG
@leila_janah Here in Europe, welfare state was one of the things we were most proud of. But now things are changed. Unfortunately, State financials have no more room for the same welfare state we were used to in the past. Today is time for companies to provide support (almost at 360°) to their most important stakeholders (i.e. employees). Companies like yours will be welcome and supported here in the "Old Continent"...at least by me ;-). #Forza e #Coraggio (i.e.: #Bestrong and #bebrave)
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
What are the first tabs you open on your computer/phone every morning?
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@jacqvon Zenfriend, a meditation app/timer that I love, and then Spotify to listen to my upbeat playlist while I get ready. If I'm lucky, YogaGlo to take a quick morning class. Then it's Slack, Evernote, and Gmail -- usually in that order.
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
What are the 3 resources that have most improved your life? (blogs, books, movies, advisors, etc)
Leila Janah@leila_janah
@jacqvon I have a long list of my favorite books, speeches, and artwork here: https://medium.com/@leilajanah/1... I guess my favorite three are: Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus's account of how he started Grameen Bank -- it's equally inspiring and practical for getting started as a social entrepreneur; Workers, a photo series by Sebastiao Salgado showing what people do for work around the world; and The Noon Day Demon, by Andrew Solomon, about depression and mental health -- something so many entrepreneurs struggle with in silence.