OCTOBER 9, 1982 - JANUARY 24, 2020
Leila Janah, social entrepreneur, activist, adventurer and founder of Sama and LXMI, passed away on January 24, 2020 due to complications from Epithelioid Sarcoma. She was 37 years old.
Leila was a pioneer in the field of impact sourcing, and will be best remembered for the innovations she brought to the work of eradicating poverty. She believed that “the greatest challenge of the next 50 years will be to create dignified work for everyone.”
Leila founded Sama (formerly Samasource) in 2008 with the mission of giving work, not aid, by hiring workers in impoverished areas, training them in AI data annotation, and providing the technology to plug their skills into the global digital economy where they could earn living wages.
Since its founding, Sama has impacted the lives of over 50,000 people in developing countries around the world by providing them the tools to become competitive laborers in the digital age.
Leila, a child of Indian immigrants, was born in upstate New York, and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles. She attended the California Academy of Mathematics and Science where, during her senior year, she was awarded a six month scholarship to teach English in Ghana. There she witnessed what would become the singular motivation of her life’s work: the tragedy of talented and hard-working people struggling in poverty solely due to geographical isolation from well-paying jobs.
This experience inspired Leila to create her own degree in African Development Studies at Harvard University. As an undergraduate she was a Secretariat leader for Harvard Model UN and World Model UN; a researcher and writer for Let’s Go’s travel guides to Brazil, Mozambique, and Borneo; and took time between academics to work at the World Bank in the Development Research Group.
Upon graduating, Leila joined Katzenbach Partners (now Booz & Co.) as a management consultant. While on one of her first professional assignments, working as a manager for a call center in Mumbai, she learned that one of her employees commuted to work from his home in the slums every day by rickshaw. “I thought, ‘What if we could locate the call center in the slums?’” she told The Christian Science Monitor in 2014, crediting this moment with sparking the idea for Sama.
Sama, which in 2019 raised a $14.8 million Series A round of funding, now hires people from East Africa and India, trains them in data skills for AI and broader digital work, then offers solutions that combine human judgment with technology to a host of global companies including Microsoft, Walmart, and others encompassing 25% of the Fortune 100.
In a piece on Leila’s passing, TechCrunch noted that “Janah and her company were well ahead of their time, as issues related to bias in [Machine Learning] models have become top-of-mind for many product leaders in Silicon Valley today.”
“I founded Samasource because I was frustrated by traditional approaches to poverty alleviation,” she wrote in 2012. “Even those approaches focused on jobs often equip poor people with skills for which there is little market demand.”
The list of her achievements is remarkable. Leila was a Visiting Scholar with the Stanford Program on Global Justice and with Australian National University’s Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. She was a founding Director of Incentives for Global Health, and a Director of CARE USA. She was a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, a 2012 TechFellow, a TED Fellow, and recipient of the inaugural Club de Madrid Young Leadership Award. In 2014 Leila was the youngest person to win a Heinz Award, and that year was named one of Fortune’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs. She was the subject of cover stories in Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Conscious Company Magazines.
In 2013, Leila launched Samaschool, a non-profit focused on reskilling for the new economy. The aim was to bridge the digital divide in the United States by raising the level of technological know-how in underserved local communities. “She flipped the equation,” Maria Konnikova wrote in Pacific Standard. “Rather than teach specific skills geared at concrete jobs, she would train potential workers in basic computer and digital literacy skills that could then be translated into any number of jobs online.”
In 2015 Leila founded LXMI, an ethical fair-trade, organic skincare company, after a period of travel through Uganda. It began as a way to create economic opportunities for Ugandan women by leveraging the local beauty secret of Nilotica, a wild botanical that grows along the Nile. The business, which was selected as part of Sephora’s Accelerate Cohort designed for female founders, quickly expanded to support local economies in Suriname, Kenya, and South Africa. Most recently, LXMI secured a major partnership with Conservation International to preserve 235,000 hectares of wildland in the Amazon where many of the traditional medicinals that are LXMI product ingredients are sourced.
In 2019, Leila re-established Sama as a for-profit tech company, with the original nonprofit entity as the company’s largest shareholder. The shift provides Sama with access to the external capital required for scale while ensuring that social impact remains embedded in the core DNA of the business. Samasource CEO Wendy Gonzalez, who has spent five years working closely alongside Leila to build the firm’s vision and strategy, is now at the helm as the company’s CEO.
Leila’s efforts were motivated by the same guiding principle - that in providing dignity through work, we can eliminate world poverty - and over the years she found new ways to fulfill that mandate.
Diagnosed with Epithelioid Sarcoma (ES) in the Spring of 2019, Leila was characteristically courageous in her last months. Despite her declining health she continued to read stories to her stepdaughter and her godchildren, tucking them in at night and blowing out birthday candles together. In lieu of far-flung travel and salsa dancing, Leila took up painting and taught herself to play the ukulele. As well-wishes poured in from around the globe, and as dear friends ensured she always had loving company at her bedside, she expressed that she had rarely felt as loved as she did during those months, joking that “aside from cancer, this is one of the best times of my life.”
As her cancer progressed, Leila began working with Research to the People, a non-profit biomedical research initiative, to accelerate research into this rare sarcoma and to identify potential treatments outside the standard of care. Two weeks ago, the group convened a summit of over 50 experts in oncology, molecular biology, bioinformatics, and software engineering to analyze the data of Leila’s case. The 3-day medical hackathon included in-depth research on ES and its genetic mutations in an attempt to identify new therapeutic approaches to combating this aggressive disease. In hopes of advancing ES research as a whole, Leila conducted a genome sequencing of her cancer, and her tissue sample analysis continues to provide a meaningful scientific opportunity. The research is ongoing, and its findings will be shared with the cancer community for the benefit of future ES patients, as was Leila’s wish.
Leila was introduced to her husband, Tassilo Festetics, by mutual friends in 2017. Together they were consummate adventurers, exploring cenotes in Mexico, studying plant life in Indonesia, observing wildlife in Kenya, and kitesurfing in Brazil. Leila loved the ocean and dreamed of a second career as a marine biologist. In addition to kitesurfing, she was an avid scuba diver and a practiced performance freediver, and she loved paddleboarding through the mangrove forests behind the home in Kenya that she and Tassilo shared.
Leila leaves behind her family — her beloved husband, her adoring stepdaughter Mia, her godchildren, and friends who loved her dearly.