Social entrepreneur Leila Janah.
Leila Janah with organic hibiscus Africana harvesters in Jinja, Uganda, in 2016. Hibiscus is one of three botanicals in LXMI’s debut Crème du Nil formula.
Photo: Courtesy of LXMI
As the QVC cameras roll, a young woman, dressed in a festive frock, with glowing complexion and lustrous ebony locks, uncaps a jar of thick-as-butter anti-aging cream made from wild shea nuts grown deep in the Nile River Valley. As she enthusiastically touts its versatility as a moisturizer, overnight mask, cuticle mender, lip balm and even split-end treatment, you would be forgiven for assuming she was just another beauty maven.
In truth, Leila Janah is so much more than that. Harvard-educated, driven by circumstances to be self-reliant from an early age, and adroit enough to be equally comfortable presenting a TED talk or navigating through the slums of Ghana, Janah is a unique entrepreneur out to change the world, one job and one jar of anti-aging cream at a time. At 34, she is not only the founder of a luxury beauty line, but the creator of a social impact nonprofit that has already helped elevate 35,000 workers and their dependents out of poverty, the vast majority of them in Kenya, Uganda, India and Haiti. Her earnest belief that even a beauty product can be a conduit for social change is part and parcel of a philosophy that connects our deepest global inequities with personal empowerment and change.
To that end, last fall Janah launched her San Francisco-based skincare brand, LXMI, complete with a rollout on QVC, where more than 1,000 jars were snapped up six minutes into the livestream broadcast.
Pronounced “lux-me,” it is named for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, whose four hands symbolize prosperity, liberation, morality and love. The hands act in concert—one pair to give, the other to receive. In much the same way, LXMI was founded to do just that. It creates jobs for indigent women in Uganda, paying them three times the going wage to harvest and process a rare type of shea nut. But that is only a fraction of the story. Janah donated one-third of her founding equity in LXMI to her nonprofit Sama Group, also headquartered in San Francisco, and which she started when she was only 25. That means that once LXMI is profitable, it will help in sustaining Sama’s work in training low-income people around the world in digital skills. Sama’s aim is to make these people, some of whom have never used a computer, more employable with global corporations such as eBay and Google. It is a canny reinterpretation of the age-old “give a man a fish” proverb, but for the high-tech era. “My goal is to get 100,000 people moved out of poverty as soon as possible,” says Janah, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District. “I want to shift the role of philanthropy from giving away stuff to people to giving them jobs. Work is a much more powerful thing to give.”
Janah has witnessed this truth firsthand. When she was in Kenya in 2009, doing her first training sessions for Sama, she met Paul Parach, a refugee, who was one of the original Lost Boys, a group of 20,000 Sudanese boys orphaned or displaced by civil war in their own country. At age 11, Parach fled with only the clothes on his back and walked across the desert for weeks without food to seek safety in Kenya. At 22, he was living in a scorching, overcrowded, “post-apocalyptic-like” refugee camp in a rural part of Kenya, says Janah. Even so, he showed up at her first meeting, early, outfitted in perfectly pressed shirt and pants, with a real eagerness to learn. Although he had never touched a computer before, within days, he was proficient in Google searches, and soon started coding tasks for Microsoft. He became one of her best data-entry workers in the camp. It made Janah realize that while talent can be found anywhere, opportunities are not. “Why is Paul stuck in this godforsaken place,” she wondered, “whereas, if he were in Silicon Valley, he would be a huge success?”
His story stayed with her, and propelled her—so much so, that when she recounted it to an early group of potential Sama investors, one partner in the seed-stage venture firm First Round Capital, Bill Trenchard, wrote her a check for $50,000 on the spot. Venture capitalists Shervin Pishevar, an early investor in Uber, and Bill Unger, former managing partner of the Mayfield Fund and a longtime board member of anti-poverty organizations, soon followed suit, readily opening their wallets as well.
Joshua Cohen is not surprised at Janah’s moxie. A political theorist, Cohen is the former director of the Stanford Program on Global Justice, a program he started to explore issues about the fair distribution of resources worldwide. He invited Janah to be a visiting scholar with the program when she was first getting Sama off the ground eight years ago, hoping that Stanford’s affiliation would afford her legitimacy, guidance and a valuable network of potential investors. “She has a very sharp, analytical mind. And she is a charismatic person who can get people to do things,” Cohen says. “I thought that her project was very valuable and important. I like the idea of trying to figure out ways to get people work. It was different from what other people were doing, who were giving cash or in-kind assistance.”
As Janah talks about Sama, which in Sanskrit means “equal,” she is effortlessly poised, articulate and confident. Slender, leggy, of Indian heritage, with a cool-girl sama tattoo etched onto her right wrist and an Apple Watch strapped around the other, she exudes the image of a privileged upbringing, what with the Ivy League degree and an Indian-born father who is a structural engineer. But the real picture couldn’t be farther from that.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., she grew up in a volatile, transient household, her family moving a dozen times during her childhood. Her father and her mother—who possessed an English literature degree from India that was all but worthless in the United States, where she ended up working at a Wendy’s—fought bitterly, nonstop, before divorcing when Janah was 17. Janah was so miserable that, at one point, she considered moving out and declaring herself an emancipated minor. “We had no money, even though both my parents worked,” she says. “We lived paycheck to paycheck. My parents even dealt with homelessness periodically after I left for college. They were not financially savvy. They would rent a place they really couldn’t afford just so we could go to a better public school.”
Janah and her younger brother, who is now a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford and works at NASA, realized early on that if they intended to go to college, they would have to make it happen themselves. At 12, Janah started babysitting. At 15, she worked as a legal secretary. A serious child, she found solace in school, particularly in the library, where she would spend hours reading up on issues and studying math and science. “I had a sense of hustle at a young age. I was always so worried about money,” she says. “But you become resilient. You know the worst that can happen.”
Ironically, it was a $10,000 scholarship she received as a high school student, from a tobacco company, that led to her epiphany. Feeling rather uneasy and even guilty about making use of cigarette money, Janah wanted to do some good with it. Inheriting the wanderlust genes of her grandmother who hitchhiked around the world after World War II, Janah wanted to experience another side of life. So when she was 17, she used part of that money to spend half of her senior year volunteering at a school for the blind in Ghana. She lived in a rural village void of phones. Her host family’s house had running water, but most others did not. She thought she would teach the students English; but they ended up teaching her a far more meaningful lesson. “I felt very righteous. You go over there with a hero or savior complex that gets obliterated fast,” she says. “Disabled kids are stigmatized there. When I got there, I learned they could recite parts of Bill Clinton’s speeches. They listened to NPR. They spoke beautiful King’s English. They were poor materialistically, but rich in knowledge. It changed my perspective on why poor people are poor. That’s what put me on this path.”
In considering colleges, she applied for every scholarship available. As a result, Harvard surprisingly turned out to be her least expensive option. To support herself, she often worked three jobs—cleaning bathrooms, ushering at a theater, serving drinks as a barmaid, tutoring students for the SAT, as a research assistant for professors and correcting essays online for a Korean company. She created her own major in international development with a focus on Africa. After graduating, she worked as a management consultant to help pay back student loans, even though she felt regret, she says, “working for the man.” What she really longed to do was start a social enterprise. She mustered the courage to do so, quitting her job after two years when she received $35,000 in funding from the Stanford Social Enterprise Challenge and the International Business in Development Challenge, a business plan competition. “It was really hard. I had never fundraised or run a business before,” she says. “I was broke and slept on my ex-boyfriend’s futon for months. I ate a lot of free food at Silicon Valley receptions. In 2008, you could do that. Back then, it was all nerds who didn’t have a lot of money. It was paradise to me. And the timing was right.”
Today, Sama Group comprises both Samaschool, a training program; and Samasource, a job program. The free training program has enrolled more than 20,000 in its online curriculum and thousands for its in-person sessions in San Francisco; Oakland; East Palo Alto; Merced; New York City; and Dumas, Ark. It also operates the Samasource Training Program in Nairobi, Kenya. Once they have acquired proficient digital skills, trainees get linked to jobs, everything from tagging photos for Getty Images to categorizing catalogue merchandise for Walmart. These companies pay a fee to Sama, which, in turn, pays its overseas employees a living wage that’s above minimum wage adjusted for each region. Globally, overall, Sama increases a worker’s wage by four times what they were earning previously, Janah says. In Nairobi, Sama also provides health care, child care, food and transportation for its workers. Already, Sama, which has a staff of 120, has amassed enough steady clients that it was able to fully cover its operating costs last year.
Glassdoor, a jobs and recruiting site headquartered in Mill Valley, has been a Sama client for more than a year and a half. It has hired more than 50 Sama-trained workers based in Nairobi to do data gathering and research for a number of technical projects, according to Nick Boeka, Glassdoor’s associate director of jobs and search operations. Boeka says he’s been impressed by the quality of their work, which has enabled Glassdoor to scale its operations more quickly. “I feel positive about being able to bring them work and to help them get a livable wage,” he says. “It makes me feel that we made the right decision in extending our work force beyond just our own walls.”
The practice of outsourcing jobs overseas, though, is a loaded one, especially in this current political climate. For every winner, it can be argued, there is a loser. “A challenge of the global economy is that one person’s ceiling is another’s floor,” says Steven Hill, a former senior fellow with the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers. “Leila’s goal of empowering women has a lot of merit. But it also comes at a price with U.S. companies hiring people who are not in the United States.”
Paul Oyer, Stanford University economics professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, doesn’t believe making foreigners more employable by U.S. companies is necessarily a detriment. “It gives American companies more options with more productive workers at a reasonable cost while giving people in these countries a better living,” he says. “It’s very similar to global trade. Despite the bad rap that it gets, it tends to be a good thing on balance.”
Janah has heard the concerns. In fact, she started Sama’s U.S. program in 2012 after receiving an email from a critic who rebuked her for “ruining America.” With its United States program, Sama doesn’t employ its workers directly; instead, the companies themselves do so. The types of jobs also differ here, running the gamut from telemarketing to address verification assistance. She hopes one day to open an office in a rural part of the United States, especially hit hard by factory closings, to do call-center work. “It’s not ‘Either you help someone in the U.S. or you just help someone in Africa,’” Janah says. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”
Janah is unafraid to take bold stands. After all, this is a woman who put a spoonful of her own LXMI face cream into her mouth and ate it at a pitch meeting for QVC to demonstrate just how pure and safe it is. She even provides a recipe for chocolate truffles made with the face cream on the LXMI site. She never expected to leap into the hypercompetitive $62 billion U.S. beauty industry, the largest in the world. But a chance discovery made her realize that a luxury beauty product also could help vanquish poverty. It was while browsing a Ugandan marketplace that she learned about a specific type of shea butter made from nilotica tree nuts that local women used as a moisturizer. With her own skin parched from her frequent traveling, Janah immediately found a salve in the nilotica, which has 25 percent more fatty acids than typical shea butter, and is abundant in vitamins A and E. Previously, little nilotica had been exported, Janah says, because it grows in a remote part of the Nile River Valley in Uganda, a country wracked by conflict and violence.
To get LXMI off the ground in 2015, Janah raised $2 million in seed funding from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and former Yahoo! CEO Tim Koogle. Certified organic and fair trade, the nilotica nuts are hand-harvested, then cold-pressed into a smooth butter in Uganda before being packaged in a certified lab in the United States. LXMI launched with two products: Crème du Nil (or “cream of the Nile”; 1.2 ounces for $58), a lightweight moisturizer made with nilotica, hibiscus, vanilla and aloe; and Pure Nilotica Melt (1 ounce for $64), which, as the name implies, contains only nilotica, pressed into a dense butter that sinks into the skin after being patted or rubbed in. The products sold out in a week after debuting on the LXMI site. (LXMI products have another unusual feature—a unique harvest number printed on the inside of each product box. Plug it into the LXMI site to reveal the date the nilotica nuts were harvested, when the cream was jarred and the total wages paid to harvesters.)
After launching in all 300 Sephora stores, the Crème du Nil sold so quickly that it was immediately reordered within a week. Sephora even selected Janah as one of eight fellows in its inaugural Sephora Accelerate 2016, a cohort that mentors female beauty industry entrepreneurs. At a time when Sephora customers are demanding a greater social consciousness from brands, “LXMI is a wonderful example of how a brand can push the boundaries,” says Corrie Conrad, head of social impact for Sephora. “LXMI takes a stance of being beautiful from within. You can love not only the product itself, but also how it was sourced and the work and wages it’s provided to all of those involved.”
Brigid Angira, 27 of Nairobi, is grateful for what Janah’s grit and determination has wrought. Following the death of her parents, Angira was left orphaned at age 10, and shuffled between relatives. The youngest of five siblings, she was so broke that she sold juice and waitressed to try to make ends meet. After completing Sama’s training program, she was hired by Sama to be a team leader. She now manages a team of 25 people who do data work on the night shift for Sama clients. Angira not only makes four times what she used to, but is now studying business administration at a local university with hopes of doing humanitarian work in the future. “I’m a respectable person now,” a beaming Angira says via a Skype call. “People respect that I’m working. My family respects that I can help out with the shopping, and help pay the electricity and school fees for my nephew. I cannot believe how this has changed my life in such a big way.”
All it took to bring about this metamorphosis, says Janah, was a fair paycheck, an opportunity and an unstoppable dream. “The greatest satisfaction I get is seeing the transformation in giving work to someone. To see it is proof that this model is not pie in the sky,” Janah says, “but actually works in the here and the now.”
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley