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Big Omaha Backstage Pass – Leila Janah: Being useful in the world

This summer, you heard their speeches in our Big Omaha Video Series. Now, in partnership with our photography and moving images partner Malone & Company, we’re giving you exclusive access to backstage interviews with the entrepreneurs and innovators who presented at our Big Omaha event in May.

For one week only, the Big Omaha Backstage Pass will feature 10 of our Big Omaha speakers in 15 previously unreleased video interviews. We hope these interviews, with topics ranging from the importance of mentoring to the quest to change the world, will engage, encourage, enlighten and excite you to follow your passion, a message at the core of Big Omaha. 

Our fifth backstage interview is with Leila Janah, the founder and CEO of Samasource

Imagining ways we could do better


It’s funny, I don’t really consider myself that ambitious. I think I’m just frustrated by the way things are, and I think I’m constantly imagining ways that we could do better.

I first got interested in poverty alleviation in Africa when I was a student in high school when I was 16, and ever since then I’ve kind of become extremely frustrated with the big development agencies and the way that we approach poverty alleviation. I think we’ve become kind of hopeless that there are any new good solutions out there. And so my ambition is to change the status quo on the way that we think about alleviating poverty for the four billion people who live on less than $3 a day.

And I think the answers are not going to come from governments or big institutions. I think they’re going to come from entrepreneurs. And so I’m really excited about this new trend of social entrepreneurship — the idea that we can be as aggressive and as innovative as we are in the for-profit sector in the non-profit and social sector — and I think that kind of innovation and drive is sorely needed.

Being useful in the world


The kernel of the defining moment was planted when I was a student and went to Africa for the first time, but I didn’t really have the courage to launch Samasource and think of this social entrepreneurship thing as a career until I got really frustrated at my management consulting job.

So I remember being on a hospital floor, serving this giant, nonprofit hospital client of ours, and we were trying to increase their profit margins. I remember actually distinctly, they refused to translate any signage into Spanish because it might compromise their margins — this was in the days before we were having the conversation about charity care requirements in hospitals.

And I remember thinking, you know, “This is not making me happy, and I feel like there is a different way and there’s a different path and there’s a different way that I can be useful in the world.” And everybody kind of told me that it was a stupid idea to quit two months before bonuses rolled out — probably was — but I just, I couldn’t take it any more. And so I quit the firm, and I moved out to Silicon Valley, and I slept on a friend’s futon for several months and started this nonprofit.

To watch Janah’s Big Omaha presentation, see our post: “Big Omaha Video Series: Leila Janah of Samasource.”

About Big Omaha and Thinc Iowa, our two premier events:

Big Omaha, a Silicon Prairie News premier event, is held each May to inspire, educate and connect entrepreneurs, especially those with an interest in the tech industry. Visit BigOmaha.com to learn more.

Thinc Iowa, a Silicon Prairie News premier event, will take place for the first time October 20-21 in Des Moines, Iowa. Its mission: Provide a common ground for startups and corporations to explore partnerships, examine innovation and share lessons learned. Visit ThincIowa.com to learn more (tickets still available).

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