Social entrepreneur Leila Janah died on Thursday from complications of Epithelioid Sarcoma, a very rare cancer with which she was diagnosed in April 2019. Janah, the child of Indian immigrants, was an Africa expert who founded two non-profits and one for-profit company, all with the aim of improving life for very poor people in Africa — by giving them reasonably paid work. She was a young global leader of the World Economic Forum, and had appeared on the cover of Inc.’s sister publication Fast Company.
Janah’s company Samasource is changing the world because of one simple and brilliant insight: Poor people in African nations are not just in need of philanthropic help, they can also be a resource for companies needing remote work, particularly data input for training AI. Samasource hires people in areas with little opportunity, trains them in AI data input and other computer tasks, and then provides their services to a list of global companies that includes Google, Microsoft, and Walmart among many others. In November, the company announced it had raised a $14.8 million Series A round of funding for Samasource’s for-profit AI business. Janah also founded Samaschool, which provides digital training, Samahope, a crowd-funding platform for doctors treating women and children in poor areas, and LXMI, a luxury skin care brand that employs women from poor communities in the Nile Valley to harvest its products.
From $1 a day to a U.S. community college.
Samasource has provided reasonably paid work to more than 50,000 people. In the introduction to her 2017 book Give Work, Janah described one of them, a Kenyan woman named Vanessa Lucky Kanyi who had previously been working for $1 a day — not enough to live on even in Nairobi. Samasource gave her work doing transcriptions for Tim Ferriss, and then work as a virtual assistant for a Canadian client, and then leadership roles within Samasource itself. Eventually, Kanyi had the opportunity to travel to the U.S., decided she wanted to study here, and obtained a scholarship to Santa Monica Community College where she studied engineering.
In a video for Inc.com, Janah confessed to the emotional toll it took on her to work with people in conditions of extreme poverty — and then travel to Davos or go to dinner with former Google chairman Eric Schmidt. But in the last blog post she published, months before her cancer diagnosis, Janah wrote eloquently about the importance of “planting your own garden,” that is finding your own values and passions and returning to those whenever the outside world becomes overwhelming.
If you don’t stack up to your own values, well — guess what? Everything prior to this moment is over, and everything after this moment is yet unwritten in your life’s great story, and you are the sole author and arbiter of what takes place in your garden. There are no excuses; there can be no bitterness towards an unjust world, because in your garden, there is only beauty and light and good, fertilized by the decisions you choose to make.
It’s always tragic when someone dies so young, especially someone as brilliant and creative and dedicated as Janah was, with as much to offer as she had. But even in her short life, Janah was able to leave the world a much better place than she found it. That’s something we can all aspire to.