Slumdogs and Millionaires

Greetings from Nairobi!

I just recorded my first Facebook Live from Kibera slum this morning. It was pretty crazy — Kibera is an informal settlement with nearly a million people living beside open sewers and giant trash heaps.

But it’s also a magnet for talent. Since we began recruiting here, we’ve trained almost 500 youth from the slum to do digital work, and placed about 60% in jobs.

Some of them now earn 10X what they made before, support a dozen people on their salary, and have moved up and out. Some are Kenyan Shilling millionaires.

All of this happened because we figured out how to grow our Samasource Nairobi operations to 700 people, giving work to young people from marginalized backgrounds all over this giant city.

Getting to scale in a social enterprise is really, really hard. Most don’t make it. I’m still surprised we did. In thinking about how we got here, I guess it comes down to a few factors:

  1. A solid business model. So many social ventures have their hearts in the right place, but no way to earn real money. I think social business is much more helpful in the long run than the traditional charity approach of giving stuff away, but it’s hard. In our case, we settled on digital work early on, and now sell into the enormous market for technology-enabled services like image tagging, data verification, and content creation.

  2. Insanely talented people. Good startup teams are made up of athletes. They have to have the know-how to do their jobs, but more importantly they need stamina and purpose to drive them to do the impossible. I think social ventures have an edge, because the stakes are so much higher. If you fail at your job, you’re not just hurting the company or your team, but you’re hurting the people you’re trying to help. That’s really motivating.

  3. Timing and luck. Life is hard. Most things are out of your control — all you can do is respond as best you can. I got lucky in picking Nairobi as our first location, because soon after we started, Kenya got its first fiber optic cable. There has been no major political instability. We got lucky getting started here.

The story is still unfolding for Samasource. The Kenyan elections this summer might impact our operations. Automation could threaten our business. But I’m more confident than ever that we’ll figure it out. A lot of young people in the slums depend on it.

This was originally published to a newsletter I send occasionally.