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Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. An idea that I hold close to my heart is the fact that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And we’ve recently begun working with Sama Group, an organization whose mission is to fight global poverty through technology. If you’ve ever wondered what part you might play in helping make the world a more equitable place, my guest today will show you how.
Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of Sama Group, and an award winning social entrepreneur. Prior to founding the Sama Group, Leila was a visiting scholar with the Stanford program on global justice and Australian University National Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. The concept of Sama, the root word for equality or fairness in many languages, is the guiding principle behind the family of impact enterprises Janah founded and runs. The first of these is SamaSource, an award winning nonprofit business that connects women and youth living in poverty to microwork: computer based tasks that build skills and generate life changing income, now part of the broader field of impact sourcing. SamaSource has moved 20 thousand people over the poverty line and spun out a domestic program: SamaUSA. In 2011 Leila cofounded SamaHope, a crowdfunding site for medical treatments in developing countries. Janah’s work with Sama Group Enterprises has been featured widely in the press, with features in publications including The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, and Fast Company. She received a BA from Harvard and lives in San Francisco.
Leila, thank you so much for coming out to MarieTV. I really appreciate it.
It’s my great pleasure. I’m so happy to be here.
So we love you guys, we love working with the Sama Group, and I was wondering if you can take us back to when you started or back to when you were in Mumbai and you started to recognize that outsourcing was providing millions of jobs, yet it wasn’t reaching the poorest populations. How did that experience inspire you and did that lead to the creation of the Sama Group?
Sure. Well, at the time I was living in New York, actually, in the financial district. I had just finished college and I had my first corporate job and I was working 24/7 and pulling all nighters. And my manager, knowing that I had some foreign experience, said, “Why don’t we send you on this project to India?” So I was… I was basically thrown in head first into a project working directly with the CEO of a big outsourcing company. And this was the year that Thomas Friedman had written The World is Flat and the national discourse on outsourcing was very negative and coming from a place of concern that Americans were losing jobs overseas, that we were becoming less competitive. And so I, you know, being someone interested in social justice was very reluctant to take on this project and even though I’m of Indian origin I didn’t really think it was a good thing that we were, you know, partnering with these companies to lower our costs and shift jobs. So I came in with that mindset. And one day in the call center that I was working in I met a young man who came from Dharavi, which is south Asia’s largest slum where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed and the kind of place where there are cholera outbreaks and children playing in open sewers and just really horrible living conditions. They look almost post-apocalyptic. It doesn’t seem like anyone in twenty… 2005 or now 2015 could be living that way. And so when it dawned on me that someone from that environment was capable of picking up a phone and answering customer service questions for a woman in the UK, you know, about her plane ticket, I realized that our understanding of poverty is very shallow, that there’s a very large number of people around the world, people who we would consider to be living in extreme poverty, making less than 2 dollars a day, unable to meet their basic human needs for food, water, shelter, and education, who are capable of working in the new economy, working in the digital economy. And that lightbulb is what inspired Sama, the idea that this business model of outsourcing, which has created now billions of dollars and several billionaires, that we could take some of those billions of dollars and… and shift the model so that they went directly into the pockets of people we would otherwise consider charity cases, like this young man. And that was the origin of the idea.
And so when you had that idea, take me from idea to then the first whether it was project or you actually leaving your job and then making Sama real.
It took about 2 years. I mentioned the idea to my boss and as a tribute to that firm, you know, he really believed in personal development and he knew that this was my passion. So he said, “I think we should fund you to do more research on this idea and maybe it’ll benefit the firm in some way.” So our company actually gave me, like, a thousand dollar travel stipend to go and do some more research on this in Africa. And my idea was to take the outsourcing model and figure out how we could turn it into a social enterprise, much like if people are familiar with microfinance, much like Muhammad Yunus did with the banking industry. He thought, “Here’s this great industry that’s provided access to capital for billions of people globally but has left out the poor,” and he adapted the model to fit the needs of the poor. So I thought maybe we could do something similar with outsourcing. And from that moment in… in late 2005, I started working on a business plan on my nights and weekends to start a company that would only hire people like that young man I met at the call center. So the threshold for new workers would be, of course, you have to want to work hard and be capable and have basic skills like reading and writing English. So high school graduates. But you also have to come from a very poor background, and we would actually screen out people who came from wealthier backgrounds who might otherwise get a job. So I worked on the business plan for about a year and a half and I submitted it to a competition online in the Netherlands for this new category of social venture. And lo and behold they sent me an email several months later saying, “Congratulations. You’ve made it to the semifinals. Come to Amsterdam.” And I had kind of forgotten at that point that I’d even sent this out. It was really a pipedream. And… and I went to Amsterdam and they gave me I think it was the first runner up prize, so I had, like, 25 thousand dollars that they gave me. And that was enough to convince me that I could quit my job and survive for long enough to do this. And it wasn’t easy. My parents don’t make much money, I’ve loaned money to my parents in the past, I don’t come from a wealthy family, I still am paying off my undergraduate student loans at the age of 32. So it was a pretty big decision for me to do that, but it just gave me that… that push. And I had a lot of friends who were willing to, you know, let me sleep on their couches and such for a while.
And what did you do with that first 25 thousand? Like, how did you figure out what you wanted to spend that on? I know you had your business plan, but it was like do I need to hire someone first? How did you… what did you do with that money?
So I realized that it wasn’t going to be very much money to hire anyone, even back in 2008, the year that I ended up launching the business. So my first step was to go to Kenya where I knew I wanted to launch based on demographics. Kenya is a former British colony, much like India, that has a large youth population that is both somewhat educated and dramatically unemployed. So you will find young people living in the slums who can read and write English, who’ve gone to a rural school, and, you know, paid their school fees their whole life and really wanna work hard but are… just happen to have drawn the… the wrong ticket in life’s birth lottery and happened to be living in a slum. So looking at the demographic trends across sub-saharan Africa, the world’s poorest continent where we thought we could make the biggest difference, I identified Kenya and I used part of the money to go there initially, stay in the cheapest hotel I could find, and interview local entrepreneurs who could partner with me. And my idea was I saw all of these internet cafes around the world in low income areas and I thought, “What if I could convince the internet cafe owners to make part of their business an outsourcing business? What if I could convince them to hire local youth, use their computers, and complete small projects?” And initially my first instinct was data entry. Something very simple. I had a lot of friends who were entrepreneurs or involved in startups in Silicon Valley that needed basic data processing like, you know, we’ve collected all these receipts and we need them scanned and entered into a spreadsheet, that sort of thing.
And so it’s straightforward enough that I could actually be the person to secure the work and do the quality assurance. So the first money I spent going to Kenya, identifying that partner. I came back to the US, I rented a tiny office space, I paid myself 400 dollars a month for the first 9 months or so of the operation until I literally could not do that anymore and… and then I got to work. So I spent the money also on software. I found a software platform that would let me load these projects and manage them myself, and then I went around to every entrepreneur I knew who might need these types of services, I made a brochure on my Mac, printed it out at Kinko’s…
…and I got our first contract in September of 2008, which is the month we started officially the business. A friend of mine who is running a large nonprofit in the Bay Area said, “We have this project for blind readers.” He operates the largest online library for blind readers called BookShare.org and it’s an audio library. And so he had a need for people to review transcripts of books to make them really perfect before he put them into his audio software. And so we loved the idea of working with a social venture and having our first project be, you know, be beneficial for… for disabled people around the world. And… and he was willing to give us a… a 30 thousand dollar contract to start. And… and so I personally guaranteed him in the meeting that I would… I would take personal responsibility for the quality of the work, which meant many, many late nights, you know, poring through transcripts of audio books for middle school aged kids. And… and that’s kind of what got us on our way. And the next year we ended up doing about 200 thousand dollars in sales revenue from those types of projects all initially secured by me and then I found someone on Craigslist to help me with sales who remains a friend.
How incredible is that? You’re just such an inspiration. I love this story and I haven’t… I’ve done so much research and I love what you do and I haven’t heard that, so genius. Talk to us about impact sourcing. What it means and why it’s important.
I’m so glad that you brought that up, Marie. Impact sourcing is a new term that refers to making sourcing decisions in your business, or at least part of them, based around social impact in addition to quality. So the idea is, you know, we have all of these problems around the world, global poverty and domestic poverty being one of them. One way to solve those problems is to deliberately work with enterprises that have a social or environmental mission. And thus you can use the… the budget that you have allocated in your business to address these social problems rather than trying to maximize your profit and then donating it at the end to a charity. And this is a way of thinking that actually has a long history here in the United States. One of my favorite examples is Goodwill Industries. Most people think of Goodwill as a nice charity and they donate their clothes. Goodwill actually earns 3 billion dollars globally in store revenue from all of their stores globally. And all of that store revenue comes from employing marginalized people in the store in addition to recycling donated clothing. And Goodwill also offers services for offices that want to… that want to move and have a large number of items they need picked up and recycled, or I think they also offer setup services for corporate events. So if you are the procurement manager in a company or you’re running an event, you have a choice as to what vendors you choose. And the idea of impact sourcing is that you… you deliberately choose vendors, and maybe not for everything that you, you know, need to source, but maybe for some percentage of your sourcing needs, that have an overt social mission. And the other idea of impact sourcing is that you needn’t compromise on quality to have that social impact. So I was just on a panel yesterday with the CEO of Glass Door, which is a technology company that lets employees rate their employers and provide more transparency in the workplace. They now have about 600 employees. And I met him just before the panel, 30 minutes before, and he said, “I had no idea that SamaSource was a nonprofit.” I was telling him about some of the fundraising challenges I had. And he was kind of blown away and he said, “We’ve been working with you…” they now have about 85 workers who are SamaSource workers globally. He said, “We’ve been working with you for over a year and nobody on my team ever said, ‘These guys are a nonprofit.’ I just thought you were the best quality service we could find.” And so… so that’s a wonderful story and I do wanna tell people we’re a nonprofit because I think it helps them understand that if we do ever make a profit on this kind of work it will all be reinvested in our work and none of us are doing this for personal gain. We can’t, by law. And I think the model of impact sourcing that’s so interesting is that by hiring SamaSource, Glass Door is directly contributing to the same kind of poverty alleviation that we would normally be paying for with aid or charitable dollars. So, you know, in the prior model, Americans work hard, we get taxed, some percentage of our income through that tax goes to USAID, our agency for international development, and then that organization hires people to administer programs overseas that theoretically help the people that we’re helping on this project.
And, you know, and I think these agencies do a lot of good but I think it’s really interesting to imagine other ways of addressing that same population and if we can marshall the capital that’s available to us in the private sector, we have so much more resource to tackle these problems.
The thing I love about impact sourcing, you know, I hadn’t heard that turn of phrase before, but through my lens it’s bringing consciousness and a sense of intention to every aspect of your business and looking at how every piece of what you do can touch another human soul in a positive way beyond the traditional ways that we’re thinking of it. And that’s why I’m so not only inspired by what you guys do, but I love that we’re working together now and I can’t wait to do more with you because it is, it’s using the power of entrepreneurship and thinking about how do we tackle these global issues in a really smart, effective way not just in the developing world but here in the United States as well. One of the things that I love is the strong focus you have on outcomes. What are some of the most important metrics you guys track through your work? And I know that’s not an easy thing to do. And how do you do it?
I’m so glad that you asked that because I think one of the challenges that the nonprofit sector faces is the perception that we’re not efficient. And coming from the private sector myself I also had that bias when I came in. I saw lots of aid organizations on the ground in Africa and Asia and I was always the person to eyeroll and think, “Wow, if this were done by the private sector it would be so much more efficient.” I think part of the challenge is that in the private sector we have this unifying measure of success, which is profit measured in dollars. And everybody agrees that that’s a measure of success and we can, you know, we have accounting standards for reporting it and we can look at a company’s PNL and we can look at their, you know, their filed statements and understand how successful that company is. In the social sector we lack, unfortunately, such a unifying metric. You know, if you’re working in animal care or animal services, you’re measuring, you know, the cost of… of saving an animal’s life. Right? The cost of spaying and neutering animals so more don’t get created that we then have to euthanize later. Right? I mean, so that’s one set of metrics. If you’re working in the environmental arena you might be looking at the long run impact of your program on something like climate change or, you know, forestry. So there are so many different metrics that it’s very difficult for a donor to determine impact. It’s always like comparing apples to oranges to pineapples. And… and this is a very deep problem. That said, we have relied for too long on what we call in the nonprofit sector, the tyranny of overhead as a measure of nonprofit effectiveness. So we shouldn’t use the challenge of measuring impact across these different sectors as an excuse to look at the easiest thing, which is what percentage of my gift goes to fundraising and marketing versus program related expense, which is typically how impact is seen. And that measure really starves nonprofits of the agency and capital they need to produce good outcomes. So I’m a huge fan of this new movement, Peter Singer calls it effective altruism, many people just call it, you know, strategic giving or venture philanthropy. This new movement around thinking about impact in terms of outcomes for dollars spent. Just like we would in, say, clinical drug trials. We would think, “Ok, if you’ve got a new drug that’s, you know, being tested for fighting diabetes. We wanna look at, you know, how much it costs to purchase the drug versus what kind of outcome you have on people who have diabetes. And, of course, the outcomes are gonna be different depending on what the drug intervention is, but you don’t really care how the drug company is spending their money to produce the intended effect. You care about dollars in versus total impact out. So with that lens, we in our field being focused on poverty alleviation decided to form an organization that would measure how many people we moved over the poverty line and by how much and at what rough cost to donors, you know, per person impacted. And so now 7 years in we can say that internationally we’ve moved 7 thousand people… actually, right now it’s like 6,974. Something like that. But roughly 7 thousand people from a baseline income of less than 2 dollars a day to 3 years after starting our program a baseline income of 4 times that.
And we can then track the investments that those people are making with that additional income in households expenditures like education, like health care for their children, we see a lot of improved, you know, consumption in terms of food. Our workers literally start buying more protein for the first time and fresh vegetables. So you can then track that 4x income increase across all of these other indicators in terms of quality of life. But we’re really focused on reporting outcomes. And we tell people, “You can look at how much we spend on fundraising or travel or any number of things, but that’s not gonna give you a good sense of whether we’re effective at what we do, which is moving people out of poverty.” And I will mention to your viewers that there’s a great website called GiveWell.org that helps people understand where their gifts could be most effective. They don’t have the capacity to evaluate every organization, but that lens, that way of thinking, for, you know, any smart person who’s looking at making a charitable donation, that lens that they use could be applied to their giving. And a few questions asked of the non profit that they might wanna give to could probably yield answers as to how those nonprofits view outcome tracking.
Speaking of outcomes, one of the things that made myself and everyone on our team cry was a beautiful video that you guys have of a young woman named Martha. And numbers are awesome and as businesspeople and entrepreneurs and creatives, it’s… it’s something we need to pay attention to. But for us and for me, you know, I love the stories and I think we all do and loving the ability to see even one individual’s life completely transformed by the dignity of work and the possibility of independence in creating a better life for himself or herself. Are there any stories, I know Martha is a favorite, we’ll put a link to that below, whether you wanna tell Martha’s story or any other story. You’ve done so much work in the field and seen so many lives change. Anyone come to mind?
Sure. Well, I can give a refresh on the Martha story.
We produced that video back in 2012 for a gala that we ran, 2012 or 2013. And Martha came to us, she was a young woman living in an orphanage in Nairobi run by an amazing Catholic charity in the slums. And she had been orphaned at age 10 and then moved to this orphanage and at age 18 as is common both in the developing world and even here in the US if we look at the foster care program, kids at age 18 age out of the system. And yet if you have no job training, no family members to support you, no, you know, emotional infrastructure of any kind, and, in addition to that, many of these youth have trauma, as Martha did, from just any number of things that can happen to you in that vulnerable situation, how could you possibly be expected to make a living for yourself? And Martha was reported to us, her orphanage actually had a partnership with one of our recruiting centers. And so we heard from the recruiting center that the sisters at her orphanage said that Martha was routinely the top student, she was extremely bright, she was very humble, and she was the kind of person in the background helping all of the other young girls in her orphanage succeed. And so they took a real shining to her at our recruiting center and even though I think she lacked some of our criteria, she had her… I think she had some difficulties with high school, she ended up getting recruited to join a SamaSource center. And then after she got her first job she was able over time to move out of the slum that she was living in, to escape the reality for many women in urban African environments that don’t have a lot of money, which is getting involved in prostitution out of absolute necessity because it’s the only way that they might make an income and sustain themselves. So she… she told us that that was really her only other choice was to go on the streets. She got this job, she… when we first met her would only wear baggy clothes and look at her feet and she had, I think, internalized this… this message that a lot of people from very poor backgrounds feel which is that I don’t… I don’t really belong, I don’t have any value to add in the world, I’m a nobody. Now I just saw her 2 and a half weeks ago in Nairobi. She stopped working for SamaSource about a year ago and she got a job working as a customer service rep for a local travel company in Kenya. And she was just beaming with pride because they love her so much that she started getting involved in social media, she’s a very beautiful young woman and she’s finally able… I think she feels so much pride in being able to buy clothing that fits her and do her hair and she was wearing makeup when I met her and she was extremely poised and she told me that she really wants to get more involved in media and marketing for that industry, for the travel industry. And the idea that a young girl from a slum, you know, who would be continuing to toil away in that slum, you know, doing some kind of informal labor at best, the idea that she is now this poised, mature woman living outside of the slum who really has come into her own, I mean, that’s what we’re all about. And Martha now serves as an inspiration to our other workers, we have about 700 active workers in east Africa and Asia alone. And many of them have heard her story because we play the video for our workers as well to show them that they might also have an outcome like Martha, and it’s just incredible. So I think there’s a… a psychological ripple effect that comes with the dignity of work and with other people observing that in her community and seeing what’s possible, that those girls don’t have to go into prostitution, that there are other paths. And… and I think so much of what we offer is just hope, hope that there’s a better future.
And a lot of that hope needs to come right here in the US. And that was another reason why we were so thrilled to find you guys. On our team it’s always been an internal discussion. You know, where do we want to start to channel things and our resources of how we can make a bigger impact? And I was so thrilled to know that you guys also do work here in the US. You want to tell us about that?
Sure. And I think for us the story is coming at a good time because with the presidential debates happening, I think there’s a lot of concern about threats from afar, from outside of the US, whether they’re foreign workers or whether they’re immigrants, illegal or legal immigrants, and I think the important thing to consider is that at the end of the day we’re all human beings, whether we live in Timbuktu or Tennessee, and for us we… we think we have as much of a moral duty to people here as we do to people overseas. And we also think it’s not an either or. It’s not like because we’re helping someone in Kenya we can’t also help someone here.
And I think that’s a traditional dichotomy. “Oh, there are international poverty groups and international charities and then there are domestic groups.” And I think so often the strategies that we employ to fight poverty overseas have equal application here. So we kind of think of ourselves as… as sort of transnational in that way. And our work here started a couple of years ago. It was actually inspired by negative feedback we’d received from a guy in Ohio who saw an ad that we’d run on Hulu, the web TV service, and the ad featured a refugee, who we’re still in touch with, who was doing work for us from a refugee camp. And this is one of the most destitute camps I’ve ever seen. It’s the Dadaab refugee camp on the border of Somalia, about 800 thousand people. So we really thought that this would be non controversial, that nobody would think these refugees are stealing our jobs and we should be really concerned about it, especially because the nature of the work that he was doing. It was very basic. But this guy from Ohio wrote in and told me that I was ruining America and that I should be ashamed of myself for calling myself a nonprofit… calling our organization a nonprofit. And it came at a time that was a very tough time for me. I was really in debt from Sama. Started it as a nonprofit so I have no equity in it, I’m never gonna get rich out of this, and it really demoralized me. And I initially, you know, wrote this email that was… that shut him down. And then I didn’t send the email and the next morning I woke up and I read it again and I just Googled unemployment in Ohio. And it turned out that this guy was from a community that had just had a huge set of factory closures and unemployment was soaring and people there had no hope. And so he was coming from a place of hopelessness and desperation and I think that’s where so many of these fears are bubbling up. I mean, people aren’t being mean or angry because they wanna be. They’re… they’re scared. They’re deeply scared and we have to address that. Especially if we’re gonna be working overseas, we have to address that at home. And so instead I wrote back and I asked him if he had ideas and that kernel led us to start our US program 2 years later, which is called SamaSchool. And we started with a model of adapting what we had overseas, which is we know how to train low income people to be successful in the digital economy in fields like data entry, social media, and a number of different things that you can do online without being co-located with the business…
…that’s giving the work. So we realized that there was a unique opportunity in the US because we now have all of these new platforms where you can exchange your services online. There’s a website called UpWork.
It used to be oDesk and eLance.
And UpWork has paid out billions of dollars to… actually, just over a billion dollars, to contractors in the last 7 or 8 years and it is a fast growing marketplace. Whether you look at UpWork or you look at even offline market places or market places for offline work that are mediated online like TaskRabbit or Care.com if you’re looking for a babysitter or an elder care specialist. I mean, there… the number of these sites has just exploded. And the digital economy is not something that our job training infrastructure in the US is prepared to handle. I was even listening to the Republican debate last night and there was a lot of concern about jobs but nobody was talking about the threat to jobs from automation and technology and the way we can mitigate that by training people to succeed in the new economy. And not just training people to write code, but training people to think first about applying online for a job or putting up a profile and how to navigate that to get the most bang for their buck.
And how to market and sell themselves online in an effective way. I mean, it… it’s something that we talk about a lot in our company because we’re a virtual company and often times the folks that we hire we’ve never met before and you have to be able to represent yourself and interact and put your best foot forward online in a way that makes sense now.
Absolutely. And you guys would probably be a great case study and the kind of company that would hire a SamaSchool graduate in the USA.
We have a woman, I’ll just tell you one story about one of our sites. So we… we started in California and then we got funding to expand to different pilot sites around the country and we just got funded to expand into New York City with the Robin Hood Foundation.
This quarter. So we’ll be… we’ll be your neighbors soon.
And one of the sites that we piloted, which is one of the hardest places I’ve ever seen in the US to work is Dumas, Arkansas. It’s a little town in the Mississippi River Delta Region of Arkansas and it is an extremely challenging place to do anti-poverty work. There are a number of organizations that have worked in the Delta for years and have tried to reduce the endemic poverty in the region, but because of a number of things from the decline in our agricultural production as a country to the legacy of slavery and racial injustice that continues in that region, there’s a pocket of poverty there that has been really hard to tackle. And we started there working with people who were in many ways more similar to our African workforce than anything I’ve seen in the US in terms of their skill level and workforce readiness. They had very few skills and very little access to technology. Many of them had never used a computer outside of our one recruiting partner. Most of them had had jobs working at places like gas stations or the local McDonalds. There were no, you know, white collar jobs available. So my favorite story is of a woman named Stacy, who’s a single mom, who was a gas station attendant part time for 3 years before she found Sama. And we got her into our training, it’s a 10 week boot camp. It’s designed for people who have existing care commitments at home or existing jobs. So it’s night… it’s a night and weekend program. And it’s designed to be fast and to get you making money as soon as possible. So she stuck with it, she finished the program, and now she’s making several thousand dollars a month as a customer service rep and she found the job… or, I should say. Not customer service. Social media marketing. She… she found the job through UpWork after going through our training. And so she is managing social media accounts for different companies, small businesses around the country. She loves the work. She’s very outgoing and well spoken due to her, you know, gas station training. She had talked to a lot of people and she’s personable. And so you think about that and you think, “Wow, how many people around the country are sitting at home hopeless because they haven’t had success in the traditional job market who might well be able to earn a living through this kind of an approach. And Stacy is a perfect example of that and I think… I think there are millions of Americans who could benefit from this kind of program.
I agree 100%. One question I have for you, it’s something that will keep me up at night. I’ll read articles online, I’ll watch videos, I’ll read books and my heart breaks and I live here in New York City, I spend time in Los Angeles, and I feel so blessed to be able to be exposed to things that I never dreamed were possible. I grew up in New Jersey and did not come from a lot of money either, and so I find myself sometimes going like, “Woah, what have I created? This is amazing, I’m so grateful for it. But there’s so many millions, billions, of people that have so little.” How do you manage the emotional part of what you do as a leader, seeing the extremes of humanity?
Oh, God. It is so overwhelming and I think one of the refreshing things about what you just said is that it still bothers you.
All the time.
Because I think it’s so easy to develop a callous layer over our hearts to be able to deal with that more easily. And there’s this great quote by an amazing writer name Arundhati Roy about how the trick of remaining human as you progress through life is to always get upset when you see injustice and for it to always affect you and for you to be, you know, emotionally… in a bit of emotional turmoil when you see it. And that just confirms that you’re still human.
And… and it’s so important for us to continue that because as we progress and, you know, in the case of Sama, I had no idea that we would even be around as a… I thought it was just gonna be me with Steve Muthei, my guy, my internet cafe guy in Kenya, the guy I hired off of Craigslist, Jess McCarter, to do our initial sales, and I just had never imagined that we would get to the scale that we are now. And so for me the trick is to continue to be upset because that… that fuels so much of our programming and I think without empathy, without a feeling of solidarity with the people we’re trying to help, we, you know, we lose the most important thing in guiding our decisions, which is… which is human empathy. It’s been a huge struggle for me, that said. I mean, I… I have been engaged before, I’ve had a lot of personal turmoil as a result I think of committing myself so fully to this work, and it’s very difficult for a partner to… and I have so much respect for people who’ve been my partners. It’s so hard to support someone who’s constantly, like, up and going to rural Uganda and without a clear return date.
Or having to cancel things at the last minute to go and fundraise. But I think there too, that empathy really helps. And I feel very lucky, I think the only thing that can sustain, you know, people who are in this kind of field is having a really strong network of supportive friends and family around them who… who get it and who can listen to the stories and who can, you know, sit there when I’m crying on the phone about having checked in with Martha and I’m so depressed that I can’t do more for her.
You know, who can sit there and console me. And… and at some level I think faith also helps. I’ve been really impressed with Pope Francis and I’m not a lapsed Catholic because I never was a Catholic, but my father grew up Jesuit and went to Catholic school and raised us with those kinds of values and… and I really think that faith in those times of turmoil can be an anchor for us and it’s so inspiring to have a moral leader like Pope Francis who’s willing to be bold and talk about poverty and the importance of caring for our fellow human being as the highest calling.
Yeah, I… my heart always breaks open any time I watch the news and I start to see, from faith based communities, the opening up and the inclusion of everyone, and I’m just… I sit there and I do my Jersey fist pump and I get so excited. Speaking of family, you know, there was a bit that you said about the best advice that you’d ever received when your parents fresh from India were signing their first mortgage here in the US and they were nervous. And your grandmother, a Belgian who hitchhiked around the world before meeting your grandfather in Calcutta, she told them, “Don’t worry so much. Trust the world. It’s a vast, beautiful, wondrous place.” How does this notion serve you today? How does it impact who you are and how you show up?
My grandmother, Crissann, was just the most amazing character even just in terms of her style with these grand caftans she would wear. And I think what impressed me most about her was that as a young woman coming out of World War II, they had to… they had to flee Belgium when the Nazis came, that she could still retain her sense of openness and possibility and… and a positive lens on humanity. And I think it is so easy to be cynical. The temptation is always there to see the worst in the people around us and to assume that their intentions are the worst, and I fall into that trap all the time. And I think her lesson is really that, you know, we have a choice to either trust the world or to hole ourselves in and to assume that everyone else is out to get us. And those decisions that are fear based, that are based on that idea that everyone is out to get us and we need to hunker down and protect ourselves against this horrible world, I… I think that never leads us to a good outcome. And I feel like the most incredible movements in history and the smallest acts of kindness every day that make us feel better about ourselves and that build a better world are grounded in that sense of positivity and optimism about human nature. And… and I really do think that’s choice. I don’t think there are facts that prove one way or the other that humans are inherently bad or humans are inherently good or humans are inherently untrustworthy or trustworthy. We are all of those things. Right?
And we have to wrestle with it. And I think… I think if we choose every morning when we wake up to see the positive, to trust the world, even if traumatic things happen, even if we witness, you know, tragedy in front of us, as so many people do, that optimism is ultimately what’s gonna guide us through life. You know? And I think it’s the only way to leave a better world than the one that we were born into.
If anyone wants to get involved with Sama, tell us where we should go and what… because our audience is full of enthusiastic action takers, which I love. So where would you direct people and what can they do to get involved with you?
Great. Well, first of all, we’re spreading the word about SamaSchool. Our goal is to enroll 10 thousand students by the end of the year. It’s a free online work program. So if anyone that you know is looking for work, struggling with unemployment, looking just to boost their skills and figure out how to make the most of the online economy, SamaSchool.org is a great place to start. And then I will mention 2 other things. We have a crowdfunding site for medical treatments that raises money for people who can’t afford basic medical treatments, both domestically and abroad. And so if you’re passionate about providing healthcare you can make a direct donation and 100% of the gift goes to one of our doctors to perform lifesaving medical treatment. And then as a donor you get a report back on exactly where your money went. And, lastly, if you’re more interested in larger strategic philanthropy, we are raising a new investment in Sama to expand our work domestically and overseas on the job creation front. And we’re doing it through a loan called a program related investment that donors can be part of. And so if they’re interested in… in participating in that you can go to our website at SamaGroup.co and leave us a message or email us at [email protected]
Leila, thank you so much. This was such a beautiful conversation. You are an incredible human being. I’m so thrilled that we’re connected and I can’t wait to work with you for years and years and years to come. Thank you.
Likewise, thank you so much.
Now Leila and I would love to hear from you. From everything we discussed today, what was the most significant thing that you’re taking away and why? As always, the best discussions happen after the episode, so go on over to MarieForleo.com and leave a comment now.
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