Leila Janah

NexThought Monday – My ‘big bet’ is equal economic opportunity for everyone

Bill and Melinda Gates recently released their 2015 annual letter to share their vision for the future, predicting that the next 15 years will see the lives of people living in poverty improve faster than at any other time in history. They outline four “big bets” – eradicating four diseases and reducing maternal and child deaths, food security in Africa, mobile banking for 2 billion people, and innovation in online learning to close the gender gap in literacy. It seems everyone around me has been talking about these ambitious goals. As I read the reactions from others online, I saw a good opportunity to reflect with my team about our approach to poverty alleviation.

These bets will no doubt improve the lives of poor people. But time and again we’ve seen that reducing poverty comes down to economic opportunity – not just connecting the poor to services like banking, but ensuring they can be producers on fair terms in the global economy.

Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not. At Sama Group, we’ve made two of our own “big bets” to change this – using the Internet to train and connect marginalized people to jobs of the future (what we call “impact sourcing”) and funding medical treatments via the crowd.

Impact Sourcing

My journey with Sama Group began in 2008. Betting on a big dream, I quit my job, traded my New York apartment for a friend’s futon in Palo Alto, and launched a nonprofit called Samasource. We were the first organization to bring digital work to East Africa as a way to create jobs for youth from slums and rural areas.

Today our efforts are part of a brand new industry called impact sourcing – outsourcing that benefits low-income people. Through contracts with leading companies like Google, Microsoft and eBay, Samasource has increased the household income of more than 26,000 people. Seventy-five percent of the workers who go through our program move out to higher education or up to higher-paying work within the year, and on average they triple their incomes after working with us for six months.

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Giving work is more than just a paycheck. It gives hope, dignity and purpose through the mechanism of the market, and it teaches people who’ve been left out that they have something valuable to offer the world as producers, not merely consumers or recipients of aid. Our vision is to get 1 percent of the global outsourcing budget – over $500 billion – committed to impact sourcing.

A critical component of impact sourcing is training – not just on how to use computers, but how to leverage all the new platforms for finding work that the Internet makes available. Programs like Khan Academy, Code.org, Coursera and Udemy have all made it easy for anyone to learn to code and tap into the growing number of coding jobs available. But right now, there are over 80 online work platforms – including Elance-oDesk and TaskRabbit – that post millions of jobs per year in areas that don’t require coding.

To take advantage of these opportunities, we need to teach people how to be digital entrepreneurs. Last year in the U.S., postings for online work grew by over 22 percent on Elance-oDesk, compared to 3 percent growth in offline jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today there are 57 million freelancers in the U.S., and experts predict that they will make up half of the American workforce by 2020. Skills like digital literacy (how to navigate the Internet), job readiness (skill assessment and job matching) and how to build a professional online presence will all be required to get a job in the new economy.

We can’t just give people tablets and access to education and expect to create change. We need to go one step further – to show them how to use these tools to supplement their incomes in the short term. Sama Group’s contribution to this is a program called SamaUSA, which aims to increase the income of more than 25,000 people in the next three years via the Internet.

SamaUSA is a 10-week crash course in how to use the Internet to earn money as a freelancer. We teach people who’ve been left out – sex trafficking victims, people who’ve been incarcerated or homeless, and people from low-income communities – how to set up profiles on job sites like Elance-oDesk and Care.com. These course materials are delivered online, with projects and work simulations facilitated by an in-person instructor. Our graduates, 70 percent of whom were unemployed upon entering the program, have secured online freelancing work at rates averaging above $13/hour. They are able to tap into job opportunities beyond their immediate surroundings at sustainable wages.

Crowdfunding Medical Treatments

UNICEF data show that from 1990 to 2013, the number of women who died in childbirth or from complications in pregnancy went down by 45 percent – to 210 deaths per 100,000 live births. Bill and Melinda Gates predict that we will see that number decline by another two-thirds by 2030.

Still, more than 350,000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth annually. That’s almost 40 times the number of people who have died from the current Ebola outbreak – every year. Most of these complications involve severe bleeding, infections and obstructed labor – all issues we could avoid with access to proper care and basic supplies.

On top of this, the poorest third of humanity get only 3.5 percent of all surgeries. Dr. Paul Farmer calls global surgery the “neglected stepchild of global health.” These treatable conditions aren’t given enough money by the global health community because they aren’t sexy to big donors. The cost per year of life saved or improved with a surgery like fistula repair is just too high for many of the institutions that fund global health.

But there’s a clear moral rationale for funding treatments, even if the narrow lens of “return on investment” doesn’t seem compelling to big donors. The second big bet we made at Sama Group was to use a crowdfunding model to raise funds for lifesaving medical treatments. We were the first to do this, in 2011, after being inspired by the work of a doctor performing fistula surgeries in Sierra Leone.

For $5, Samahope can provide a birth kit with sterile tools and medicine to prevent severe bleeding and make safe delivery possible for a woman who otherwise wouldn’t have access to care. For less than $400, we can fund surgeries to fix debilitating birth injuries like obstetric fistula (a hole in the birth canal). More than 2 million women in the developing world live with this treatable condition. For these women, economic opportunity begins with knowing that treatment exists – a sign of hope. We’ve already funded 1,200 patients with the support of 8,000 donors including luminaries in philanthropy and tech like Laura Arrillaga, Xochi Birch, Randi Zuckerberg and Julia Hartz.

Our goal is to fund 1 million treatments in the next five years.

Bill and Melinda Gates’ bets for the future are big, hairy and audacious. Naysayers might say they’re unfounded. But I’m optimistic. As Steven Pinker points out, every day humanity is getting a little kinder, less violent and more empathetic.

Sama Group’s founding principle is that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, and for the first time in history technology can unlock human potential that’s been overlooked. Every human being wants the same things – dignified work, freedom to make her own choices about how she spends the fruits of her labor, and access to basic resources and care. This is true whether we’re talking about a young mother in rural Nepal, a low-income student in Arkansas or a CEO in Silicon Valley. I’m certain that in the next 15 years, we’ll see an end to the kinds of problems these “big bets” are aiming to solve as we come closer to realizing our common humanity.

Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of Sama Group.

Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Education, Technology
employment, skill development