It’s a brave person that helms a nascent non-profit in this economic climate, but Samasource, a San Francisco-based company that matches small businesses with skilled workers in developing countries, is in good hands.
Samasource was founded in 2008 by Leila Chirayath Janah, a Harvard graduate with a degree in African Development Studies. During high school, Chirayath Janah taught at a blind school in Uganda and developed an interest in addressing root causes of poverty through ethical outsourcing. “What struck me then was the amount of untapped skill and talent that gets ignored. We focus on educating the poorest of the poor, but once they’re educated there aren’t any jobs to absorb them—what do they do?”
That question is at the heart of Samasource. Unlike organizations that focus on providing much needed aid and education, Samasource is interested in the next step; building sustainable economies in which talented individuals are not dead-ended by lack of opportunity. “Youth get into trouble in poor economies because there are no productive things to do,” Chirayath Janah says. “We’ve seen it all over Africa; a lot of rebel groups recruit from the male population of 18-25. If there are things for talented men and women to do which engage them, I think we would see a reduction in a lot of ills of the world related to poverty.”
It was with this idea in mind that Chirayath Janah decided to start in Kenya, a country with a high population of unemployed English-speaking high school and college graduates (Chirayath Janah points out that the infrastructure requirements are minimal; a working computer with an Internet connection is the main necessity.) Samasource has since expanded to partner with organizations in Uganda, Camaroon, and Ghana, and has recently launched pilot programs in Pakistan and rural India.
What exactly does Samasource do? Outsourcing has become a dirty word in recent times, but Chirayath Janah sees her clients’ work as something different. “Our tactic is: give work not aid. Our mission is to empower poor people through Internet-based training and work. Some people will consider that outsourcing. But if I buy a fair-trade handbag from Ten Thousand Villages, that’s outsourcing the production of the handbag to poor women in the middle of rural India. Would anybody argue that that’s bad for America?
No—you’re giving people with much more disadvantage than you could imagine, a chance to compete in the global market. Calling that outsourcing and likening that to what’s happening on the multi-national level is just not accurate.”
Samasource partners with non-profit technology training institutes, small businesses, and virtual teams of freelancers local to the different countries to tap into the skilled workforce. Quality is a priority, as well as making sure the capital gained stays in the country. In partner organizations 45% to 80% of the revenue goes back to its employees, either by training or salaries—not to shareholders.
Occupying as it does the gray area between charity and business, (“Samasource is set up to be a functional business, just with very low profit margins,”) the largest challenge has been funding, particularly in today’s economy. “There’s a lot of talk about money for social businesses, but organizations like mine, which are outside the traditional domain of charities, are not very well accommodated by funding mechanisms in the US. Foundations are wary of supporting you, because it might seem like they’re supporting a business, and business planning competitions and investors are a little bit less receptive to you, because you’re investing in a market that’s very high-risk, and that has low returns,” says Chirayath Janah. Thus, most of Samasource’s funding comes from individual donations, though it received initial seed money from winning Stanford’s Social E-Challenge competition in 2007.
Despite setbacks, Samasource’s initial funding of $35,000 created more than $140,000 in work for the 500 people working for partner organizations. Chirayath Janah is hopeful about the future of Samasource despite the grim economic climate. In fact, she is looking to scale up their efforts. This year, she hopes to raise $350,000, which will provide hundreds more jobs that will sustain entire families. “Coming from a background where I had access to opportunity and I was able to choose the path I did,” she says, “it’s frustrating to me that there are people out there who are more talented than I am sitting and wasting their talents in poor countries, just based on the luck of the draw.”
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|