Some people start a business to make money or create a product, but Leila Janah has bigger things in mind. At her company, Samasource, she is helping people in poverty find dignified work online.
Their goal is to impact 120,000 women, youth and dependents by 2016 throughout East Africa and South Asia. A lofty goal, surely, but Leila and her team work hard every day to make it happen. And that's only one of three projects that are trying to make the world a better place. We caught up with Leila to learn about how she manages it all.
Current Gig: CEO of the Sama Group (Samasource, Samahope, and SamaUSA) One word that best describes how you work: Intense Current mobile device: iPhone 5, battered iPad mini, Kindle Current computer: MacBook Air
What apps/software/tools can't you live without? Why?
1. Paper by 53 and the Pogo Connect. I've kept journals since I was eight and draw everything, from site mockups to ideas for our next mini-documentary. I came up with some of the ideas behind Samahope's new interface using Paper on a plane ride back home from Africa last year:
2. My giant TUMI tote bag. Last year I spent 150 days on the road, all of them with a ridiculous Mary Poppins-worthy bag that carries everything from makeup to my yellow fever card and passport (don't leave home without them).
3. The Kindle app. It feeds my only healthy addiction. I buy books like most women buy shoes.
4. Evernote. It mirrors the parallel processing of my own brain, but in a way that lets me find stuff easily.
5. Magnets attached to the metal beam in my office. I guess I like real-life pinning. Being close to the field (Haiti, India, Kenya, and Uganda) is very important to me, but hard on my personal life -- it takes 30 hours to get to rural Uganda from San Francisco. So I try to bring the field to me whenever I can. My magnets hold up things that inspire me: pictures of my favourite moments with workers in Africa and the U.S., bits of fabric collected from my travels around the world (these inspired our latest office redesign), a Victory Magazine cover with a young boxer from an urban neighbourhood (I used to teach girls boxing a few years ago), and a fading article about the Mississippi Delta, where we just launched a new program for SamaUSA.
What's your workspace setup like?
I do most of my meetings walking around the Mission neighbourhood in San Francisco dodging entertaining obstacles -- our office is at 16th and Mission. The neighbourhood feeds my interest in social justice and makes it impossible for me to come up with good ideas sitting down. Our work around the world is informed by many of the scenes I see daily on my walk to and from work -- homeless people who have been left behind the area's economic upswing, and local shopkeepers who are trying to build a new version of the American Dream. Being in motion also keeps my mind moving -- I engineered the restructuring of our organisation over the course of several weeks of long walks from my office to nearby Dolores Park. Even the giant mural by my friend Jon Matas in our office entryway was inspired by a walk I took through Clarion Alley, an art-filled street just around the corner. I couldn't imagine doing what I do from a typical office in a bland building somewhere.
What's your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
1. Gmail shortcuts and the Mailbox app for iPhone have changed my life. I started getting more efficient managing email when I retired my Blackberry, one of the more traumatic moments of my 20s (I was a management consultant glued to my Blackberry for several years). Now I spend a lot less time looking at and reading email and reduce my processing time to chunks during the day when I can efficiently churn out responses.
2. Meditating and doing yoga a few times a week. I try to do 30 minutes to an hour of meditation every morning, and 3-4 2-hour long yoga classes a week at Urban Flow in SF or online at YogaGlo. When I skip these routines, the effects are noticeable. I used to be a sceptic until I read several books on the neurological and psychological benefits of meditation and yoga. Both help to create distance between my emotions and reactions. Like most entrepreneurs, I'm a passionate person with a lot of energy -- it helps to know how to harness this energy and focus it on a particular problem, rather than letting it run amok.
3. Not caring that much about possessions (see #2). When I stopped being mad about losing things when I travel, getting my car scuffed up in my outdoor parking lot, or ruining my favourite pair of boots trudging through the mud in Uganda, I gained all the time I used to lose pining for broken, damaged, or missing stuff and applied it to better friendships and relationships. I tend to be happier going on a trip with friends, for example, than spending the same amount of money on a really nice watch. I think this is especially true for my generation, the Millennials, who participate so readily in the sharing economy.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
Evernote! I create to-do lists like it's my job. I also throw every document that comes my way into the app, from receipts to health records to photographs. A friend of mine taught me to record sounds and add drawings and handwritten notes using Penultimate, a companion app that works with the Pogo Connect stylus. There was a recent study that showed that people's brains work differently when they write with a pen and paper -- something about the process of composing the characters on the page stimulates creativity. I find this to be true, but I so detest lugging around an extra notebook that I started using Penultimate as a compromise. So far, so good.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
It's a tie between my dance shoes and my iPad mini. The latter is my drawing pad, library, Scrabble board, camera, and channel to the outside world. The former is my therapy. I danced ballet for ten years, until it was clear I wasn't going to be any good professionally, and then started taking salsa classes. I learned to dance samba in Rio and Salvador when I lived in Brazil, and danced in the San Francisco Carnaval parade a few years ago with my troupe from ODC, a local dance studio in the Mission. I don't know what I'd do if I had to stop dancing.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Being hopeful about human nature. I think we can solve global poverty problem in our lifetimes. I don't have a secret to this hopefulness other than some amazing mentors and influences. Howard Schultz learned about Samasource at a conference a few months ago and recommended some books that helped me greatly, including Endurance (about the heroic Trans-Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton). Earlier in my career, I worked with the moral philosopher Thomas Pogge, who introduced me to the concept of global justice. His book World Poverty And Human Rights profoundly changed my understanding of our moral duty to help people in need.
What do you listen to while you work?
What are you currently reading?
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
Maybe both. I love people more than anything else, but I get exhausted without alone time every day. Meditation helps.
What's your sleep routine like?
I get it when I can, where I can. I aspire to use my Fitbit as a sleep monitor. Which would require setting up said Fitbit and actually wearing it. I was a night owl in college (the "leil" in my name means "night" in Arabic and Hebrew, so this is fitting), but after starting Sama I began waking up early to work before the onslaught of meetings crowded out my calendar. I love waking with the sun, having coffee, and then meditating or having breakfast with my beau.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Howard Schultz. He managed to create an enormously successful company by inspiring customers and his own staff, then came back and resurrected it after he left and it waned. To do that requires a tremendous level of grit and humility. I'm curious how he structures his time.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
On the day they signed their first mortgage in the US, my fresh-from-India parents were nervous. My grandmother, a Belgian who hitchhiked around the world before meeting my grandfather in Calcutta in 1948, leaned in and told my dad, "Don't worry so much. Trust the world. It's a vast, beautiful, wondrous place." Isn't that magical?
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
Whenever you need inspiration, watch this guy:
We've asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we'll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.