I recently had the pleasure of spending some time speaking to Leila Chirayath, founder and CEO of Samasource (previously Market for Change), an organization that promotes socially responsible outsourcing to fight?"the waste of talent" around the world.
This first part covers Leila's background, the experiences that led her to become an entrepreneur and identify outsourcing as a vehicle for positive social change. The second part of the interview explores Samasource's business model, and its perspectives in more detail.
I hope you enjoy learning about this story, as I very much did.Francisco Noguera:
Leila, what is your background and how did you become a social entrepreneur?
Leila Chirayath: I'll start with a story on why I care about development to begin with, and why I think that waste of talent is the biggest challenge in development that we have yet to tackle.
In my senior year of high school I got a scholarship to go and volunteer in Ghana; I graduated early and went there for six months to volunteer as an English teacher in a small province north of the Capital, which had no electricity, no running water and one telephone for a whole village.
This was my first exposure to how the rest of the world lives, and it raised some questions. I was teaching at a school for blind children, and my students were incredibly smart. I had some that would stay after class and ask me which books they should read, which were the best sources of news. They were really up to speed in current events. That experience challenged many myths I'd heard about poverty in developing countries, like "people are poor because they're not willing to work hard enough," or "there are intrinsic differences between them and us..." If you really push most of people that's what you get to, because that's the only way you can feel comfortable living in a world where opportunity is so unequally distributed.
In Ghana I realized that people contradicted all of these notions. They were really bright people, incredibly entrepreneurial, and none of the excuses you usually hear seemed to hold for me. At that point I realized that there is a lot of talent going to waste. That's an economic loss to the world when you think about the fact that the next Einstein could be sitting around somewhere in Africa.
It's also one of the biggest moral problems of our time. For decades we've told people in these countries that their only way out is education, so then they spend all of their resources trying to attain an education and once they emerge with, say a masters degree, there are just no opportunities on the ground.
FN: How did this experience influence your plans at the time you were going into college?
LC: Ghana became a catalyst for a career in development and now social enterprise. I ended up going to Harvard, where there were no opportunities to pursue African Studies at the time. So I designed a special concentration in African Development Studies. I also spent a lot of time in the continent. I co-founded a project to study the Gacaca tribunals in Rwanda after the genocide, did cultural preservation work in Senegal and took six months off to work for the World Bank as an undergrad.
But many of these experiences frustrated me, as did the solutions that I saw being proposed. The common thread amongst all of them is that they weren't really needs-driven. I now think that the reason people advocate for cultivating SMEs in developing countries is that if you pursue that route, you have a needs driven model; ultimately, in a market, suppliers respond to consumer demand.
The problem that I saw with development, especially at the World Bank, was that the people in charge --the suppliers-- were so removed from the consumers and their needs, spending at best one week in a development mission really talking to people on the ground. I saw this big disconnect and decided that the traditional development sector wasn't for me. So I decided not to pursue an opportunity I had there and went into management consulting instead.
FN: So how did this transition into the private sector fit with your interest in development?
LC: It so happened that my first client at Katzenbach Partners as a consultant was an Indian outsourcing company, and when I went to Mumbai to work with their executive team I ended up meeting a group of young people working at call centers.
I started talking to them during my off hours and found that some of them commuted to the job from Dharavi, one of South Asia's biggest slums. I thought this was an interesting story that didn't seem to get told when discussing outsourcing and then through informal interviews with more and more of them during my time here, I discovered this was a huge development issue. All of these young people were the first in their families to be employed in an office, and many of them were going on to pursue higher education or other high-skilled job after an initial time working for an outsourcing firm.
So that's what planted the seed... this idea that if outsourcing could be harnessed in a socially responsible way, it could add to development and have a significant social impact, especially in places where there is high unemployment amongst skilled workers. I thought it was fascinating.
I then convinced Katzenbach to let me study the outsourcing subject in more detail in Mauritius. So I went there for three weeks on a fact-finding mission with the initial goal of starting a call center in Sub-saharan Africa and cater to the emerging European language market. I happened to work with one of the founders of Digital Divide Data (DDD), Tim Keller, who had joined Katzenbach as a senior associate. He shared DDD's model with me and that was really inspiring.
Then I realized that the real need was for a broker of outsourcing services. There were all sorts of orgs like DDD starting up all over the world, often by people from those regions that had lived in the US or Europe and had then gone back to their home countries to create opportunities locally. I met many of these people in Mauritius, but the real watershed moment happened a few months later when I went to Kenya on vacation.
This was in November 2006, and I met many people that had returned to Kenya to start outsourcing firms. I started chatting with them, stumbling upon a huge problem. When I asked them about their challenges scaling up, wanting to see what had happened in India happening there, surprisingly it was not what you would think.
They told me, "it's not bandwidth, talent nor lack of capital...we've been able to set up our companies and find good people to work for us. We're really struggling because we can't afford the cost of flying someone over to the US and doing client development rounds every few months, which is really essential if you want to build a solid pipeline of work for the future. So they said "can you help us, this is our biggest need..."
So I went back to the US and started fleshing out a brokerage model that would treat these firms fairly - many of them told me shocking things about for-profit brokers in this space, stories of people going into Kenya and demanding huge upfront fees with promises of clients and then just disappearing. I found this to be a consistent problem in Kenya and when I started asking smaller outsourcing companies elsewhere --including Drishtee in India, which is running a BPO program.
I found that the client development issue was far and away their biggest challenge, and one that I was in a unique position to address, as someone who traveled often between the US and the developing world. So I decided in November last year to quit my job at Katzenbach and do this full time. Market for Change (now Samasource) was born.?
FN: What have been Samasource's major accomplishments so far?
LC: In December that year we won the BiD Challenge (2nd place), which gave us some seed funding. Then Joy Sun, our current COO came to me through Seth Green from Americans for Informed Democracy. Joy joined and we've had a number of interns and volunteers, as well as a small staff in Kenya.
Since BiD, we were finalists in GSVC, are currently finalists in the Stanford Social E Challenge (Editor's note: Samasource has already won the 2nd prize in Stanford's Social E Challenge), which are some big milestones. We launched our pilot in Nairobi in late March.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, in which Leila shares the details of Samaource's current pilot project and her vision for the future of the organization.