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Leila, the Risk-Taker

Leila Janah
Leila Janah, a Californian lured by the spirit of the African wilderness came down to Kenya and founded Samasource PHOTO | COURTESY 

Ten years ago, Leila Janah, an American lured by the spirit of the African wilderness came to Kenya and founded Samasource. It is an artificial intelligence company focused on reducing poverty by outsourcing digital work to unemployed people in impoverished countries.

They now serve Microsoft, Google and XYZ Auto Company. A former director of Care USA, she is the youngest person to win a Heinz Award in 2014. Her company employs close to 2,000 people in Kenya and Uganda. She met JACKSON BIKO for a chat.

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What made you say, “I’m going to start a business in a city in East Africa?”

I have an amazing friend who went to university with me. His father was the dean at JKUAT. First time here, I — together with some college friends — came to Maasai Mara. I started talking to his dad about entrepreneurship in Africa and he was intrigued and said, ‘hey, when are you starting the business here?.’ ‘I’ll help you.’ So he introduced me to a lot of connections that opened my eyes up to the possibility of Kenya as a destination for social universe.

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What do you find yourself struggling with currently?

I have the DNA of an entrepreneur. It’s in my bones. Everywhere I look I see business opportunities. It gets very distracting. For example, I have been spending time in Watamu and there’s a huge number of coconuts that goes to waste. Coconut milk sells for ridiculous prices in the US because a lot of people are moving away from animal foods to plant-based foods. There are million opportunities to create healthy foods. I keep thinking about them (Laughs). All the mangoes that go to waste could be dried and the coconut made into powder. It gets overwhelming, even for me.

What’s the one business that you saw somebody do that you thought,” I should have done that.”

(Laughs) They are so many! Well, first of all I’m obsessed with marketplaces for artisan goods. I’ve been wanting to start one since I started working in Africa since I was 17. I worked in Ghana, and back then I was living in a village that was very famous for wood carving. These woodcarvers would sell their products to middlemen who then sell them to tourists for $30 or $40 a mask while they made 50 cents. It’s unfair. Then, businesses that are dual marketplace models for artisan goods sprang up that I found interesting because the producer gets more of the revenue and the customer gets to support a social mission which is creating a job for someone.

When was the last time you tried doing something that made you question your capabilities?

It happens to me everyday (Laughs). I am learning to become a pilot now and my dream is to fly an old dusty bush plane and live somewhere in a tent upcountry and just fly into Nairobi from there. (Laughs) I have a passion for wilderness, it is the most precious asset and increasingly rare.

I am at my best when I am surrounded by nature. Kenya has some of the most incredible wilderness in the world which I hope is well preserved. Where else in the world can you wake up in the morning and see a pride of lions in Nairobi National Park and then go have a business meeting at 9am and talk about machine learning with really bright people?

So you plan to eventually move here permanently?

My fiancée and I love Africa. We are both drawn to the idea of being in a place where there are a lot of opportunities. The future is in Africa.

What’s your fascination with adventure sports, is it the adrenaline or the adventure?

A bit of both. I love kitesurfing, it’s my number one sport to do in Watamu. I want to set a record kitesurfing across Lake Victoria. There are a lot of hazards like rocks and hippos, but I think it can be done and would call attention to the sport in East Africa.

My hope is that in the next year or two, I will be able to set a kitesurfing record. I also want to surf from Comoros to Tanzania. I don’t know of anyone who has ever done it yet.

I learnt to paraglide last year — an amazing sport that requires you to be 100 percent focused on what you’re doing. If you don’t you drown.

What space should anyone trying to leave formal employment and into business occupy?

That’s a great question to ask any entrepreneur because it is scary and the fears are warranted because it is very likely that a start-up may fail. I cannot tell how hard it was for me. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I saved. I ate cheaply.

I slept on my ex-boyfriend's couch because I didn’t have enough money to move out. I racked up huge credit card bills.

It was challenging and I ended up doing tutoring jobs on the side and all kinds of things to make money. If you really want something badly enough, if you’re really willing to put everything you have into it, you will wheel it into existence. When I started this company I was 25, I had no responsibilities other than taking care of myself. I was a visiting scholar at Stanford University, they didn’t pay me but there were parties that you could go to where people could have free food. I recommend to people that they consider starting something else as a side hustle, but keep their day job, keep earning money, and have some savings before quitting.

What do you feed your brain?

(Pause) First, I eat a healthy diet. I’m vegan now. So I mostly I feed my brain with plant-based foods and I feel a million times better and I have more energy. I barely need to drink coffee. I can survive purely on home-made plants.

I read all the time, non-stop. I just read an interesting book, Jane Goodall’s The “Seeds of Hope:” It’s about plants and plant medicine, she references the late Wangari Maathai. I read about five books in a month. Ok, I skim a lot and I read fast.

What animal are you?

I love South American panthers. I actually have a panther ring from Mexico. They are solitary and they are a bit like explorers. They adapt to hunters but are a bit shy, at the same time they are not as bold as lions.

I think it’s more aspirational, I wish I could be as cool as a panther, and practice more like a monkey, fooling around and constantly getting involved in new activities and not always focused as I would like. (Laughs)

What is the biggest motivation to start a business for you?

Climate change is a really big thing for humanity. We are already seeing some serious global catastrophe if we don’t take action. To me the most exciting businesses are the ones that are solving this problem. And there are so many opportunities to do that. So one of the best ways is to reduce a problem by cutting the consumption of animal products. Life is too short, when you’re 100 years old, and you’re sitting on your deathbed and you’re telling your great grandchildren about what you did, do you want to tell them you just made a lot of money? They’re not going to be very proud of you for that. I think the most exciting thing to do are the things which we are going to be proud of when were very old. Nobody says they wish they had another billion in their bank account.

But money is also good, no?

Yeah, but I know many people who made massive wealth and are thinking, ‘great I have this money but what am I gonna buy with this?’ A lot of the people I know who have wealth are much more interested in giving it away and in figuring out how to stop major problems because once your basic needs are met, your attention turns to those worthwhile things. So it’s been an interesting lesson to me, I actually know a lot of miserable very rich people because they feel like they have no meaning or purpose in their lives, believe it or not. That might sound funny. (Laughs)

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