From Cleaning Toilets to CEO, Leila Janah on How Rejection Is Inevitable & the Key to Success & Grit | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "From Cleaning Toilets to CEO, Leila Janah on How Rejection Is Inevitable & the Key to Success & Grit".
Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.
And so I think grit was part of my upbringing and I'm actually really grateful for that because I think as an entrepreneur probably the most important attribute is not quitting and getting through just rejection after rejection. Hey everybody, welcome to Impact Theory. Today's episode is a re-release of one of our first guests that we were lucky enough to cross paths with, Leila Janna. Leila lost her battle to a rare form of cancer earlier this year leaving behind a legacy of long lasting impact. Leila dedicated her life's work to not only advancing her own unlimited potential but inciting others to do the same. For the nearly one year commemoration of her untimely passing, we want to take this time now to honor Leila Janna. Thank you for being here. It's awesome to be a guest on this show. Thank you so much for having me. Oh man, absolutely my pleasure. Man, going into your world, you're really a vanguard for something really new that's happening in entrepreneurship which I've felt. I've been sort of that transitional generation where I wasn't as like clicked into things as you were right from the jump. I went through the chasing money phase and all of that to find how sort of desperate and horrific that ended up being emotionally before I found something that was more about like what's the ultimate impact.
Personal Journey And Coping Mechanisms
Overcoming Painful Childhood To Success (01:20)
But walk us through so I know that things didn't start out necessarily easy for you. Walk us through the dark times that you had in your 20s and how you ended up creating a social movement that's also financially powerful. Sure. Well, my parents are immigrants. They came here in 1978 with two suitcases. I literally feel like I lived the American dream. My brother and I went to public schools. We had jobs. I started working when I was 12. I started babysitting in the neighborhood. And I always had to hustle and I watched my parents do it as soon as they got here. My mom had a degree in English literature from India. Nobody would recognize it. So her first job here was chopping onions at the local Wendy's and they had to struggle. And so I think grit was part of my upbringing and I'm actually really grateful for that because I think as an entrepreneur probably the most important attribute is not quitting and getting through just rejection after rejection. And most of the really successful entrepreneurs I know will tell me just how many people rejected them along the way. So if you can have a thick skin around that, it's actually a huge asset. For me, it was tough. As a child, I was always kind of an outcast. We never had enough money to shop at normal clothing stores. We didn't have TV at home, so I was kind of a weirdo on the playground. I was a big nerd. I read books all the time and did science fair competitions. And I really found my refuge in academics and was really passionate about school. And so got lucky enough to get into Harvard but didn't really have the money to attend. So I would cobble together different jobs. I did in fact clean toilets for our campus. We call it dorm crew, but it's like a janitorial service run by students. So it's funny to imagine that at one point I was literally like scrubbing the shit off of the rich kids' toilets. However, I do think that a lot of that kind of work is truly character building. I remember that summer, I would literally calculate the value of everything I purchased. According to how many toilets it would take me to clean to purchase that. And I think it gave me this frugality and discipline which I then brought into my entrepreneurial career. It's really interesting because my dad used to make me take hard labor jobs. And either as the family, so before I could work legally, we used to go on these wood chopping expeditions. We would literally drive them to the mountains growing up into coma. I don't know if you could do this or you just did it, but we would go and find fallen trees and you cut them up and stack wood. And you'd spend all day doing that and you'd do that several times of the summer. And then when I was 12, I had to work in a door factory. And you can't imagine the rage that filled me with.
Lee Strasberg (04:02)
I was so angry with my parents. And I used to have to carry lacquered trim. And I was getting arm hair by that point. And it would stick in your arm hair. And there's no way to get it out. I would be so angry at that. Going it out and my dad kept saying, "This is going to build character. This is going to build character." And I totally agree with you and that has served me immeasurably in my entrepreneurial journey.
Building Grit and Resilience From Adversity (04:25)
Why is that? What is one thing you don't think people understand? They're about to start their first company. What do they not see coming for them? And how can they, if they didn't have parents, that somehow put them to this poor hard knocks? How do they toughen up? That's such a good question. I know there's a new book out on grit. There's all these new studies on adverse childhood experiences different from, you know, in the case of your parents or mine. You know, adverse childhood experiences are worse. That's if you had trauma or some kind of abuse in your background. What they find is that people who have endured hardship in some way can build grit and resilience from it. Sheryl Sandberg talks about this in her book, Option B, about this idea of post-traumatic growth. And using something that's tough as a growth experience. And so I find this fascinating because I think for me, you know, I too hated my parents for forcing me to do some of that. And also just was frustrated. I mean, I remember feeling surrounded by the rich kids and feeling like I was never going to fit in. I think if you didn't have that kind of a background, one of the ways that you can push yourself to get beyond your comfort zone, I think it's to read about failure and try to immerse yourself in more case studies that show you how failure can profoundly shape you. And it's hard. I mean, in the early days of a startup, I think rejection is inevitable. So there's an element of just getting back up again when you've been punched so many times that you feel like you can't. And I don't know what it is in us that creates that sort of tipping point when you decide to get up again. But it's among all the entrepreneurs I know who are successful. That is the single biggest factor. It's not quitting. You talked about having scar tissue from growing up and you maybe downplayed it a little bit here in your book. And in some of your talks you've talked a lot about, like not having the TV, parents with accents, always being because your parents were moving. You moved like an insane number of times. Yeah, 12 times. So moving around so much to stay in essentially wealthy neighborhoods so that you could go to the best public schools and that, you know, kids can be really, really cruel. So going through that and then coming out of it, I think that breaks most people. Why didn't it break you? What were you saying to yourself mentally? Because I'm sure at the time you weren't thinking, "Oh, this is really going to make me a great entrepreneur." You know, you're just trying to get through it. But what were you telling yourself to get through it? So it's interesting you brought that up and there was abuse in my family and I've kind of come through a lot of that in recent years and also understood how it shaped me. And I think for me, my refuge was in helping other people. I started doing community service in high school and for me it was this refuge. Maybe seeing people who had it even worse than me put my own suffering and context. Maybe it made me feel like I could somehow transform hurt and pain that I was feeling into something positive in the world. You know, looking back on it, I feel like maybe that was the original impetus for me to do this work. I ended up going to Ghana when I was 17, which was so random. I got a scholarship from a big tobacco company of all places. So big tobacco did something great for me, which was to fund my travel to West Africa and this volunteer program, which I could have never afforded to do. I didn't have a trust fund. Most people assume, by the way, that folks who work in social impact have like, you know, million-air parents who just can write them checks to go to Africa. That is so not my story. I mean, I was like hustling for my own checks. I actually literally had that as a part of your intro at one point. Like, if you think this was a trust fund, you think we're sad and mistaken. So the opposite of a trust fund. So I use this money to go to Ghana and a lot of people that my parents knew and even people in my school were like, "This is completely insane. Why would you do that?
Responding to tragedy Combats Depression: 4 Dear Process & Therapy Meditation (08:10)
This is dangerous. You're going to be by yourself as a young American woman in the middle of this, you know, West African country." And I think I never would have done that had I not been propelled out of my comfort zone by what had happened to me as a child. And I think it creates a sense, for me at least, of openness and receptivity and maybe vulnerability that I might not have had otherwise. Do you have magic words for somebody who's going through something similar, but their response is to close down? It's not to open up. They're not being propelled forward. They're being held back. Because I've met people that they fall into both camps, like really similar circumstances, but just diametrically opposed responses. Like, do you have the magic sense that, you know, would help somebody jump from closing down to opening up? The only real power we have in the world is choosing our response. We can't choose what happens to us. We can get stuck into situations where we are abused, where we are not treated fairly, where any number of bad things can happen. And so the only choice we can make is how to respond. And I find that that knowledge gives me so much freedom. Because if something bad is happening to me that I can say is beyond my control, I can say, well, at least, you know, I have the power in my response to show the world what kind of person I am. And I can't tell you the number of really interesting examples of post-traumatic growth that we're now cataloging. People who've lost everything, people who've had their kids murdered in front of them, people who've had just every manner of hardship who are able to choose their response. And rather than shutting down and, you know, getting more and more depressed, which is something that you have to get through, but the choice to take that painful experience and mold it into something positive for the world is I think the deepest kind of healing we can have as humans. And for me, I think part of what got me through those tough times, eventually as I matured, was the knowledge that I had transformed that into something good for the world. When you say that we're cataloging, do you mean humanity or are you talking about psalmistores? Humanity. Okay. I was like, wow. Because the stories in the book are unbelievable stories of transformation. Like reading them is cathartic in and of itself. Like you get so excited, or at least I do. I got so excited about like the possibility and what you're doing with some hope and like the ability to fund the surgery and see how directly you're impacting somebody. I mean, it's pretty incredible. And so really fast connect two things for me. So you said in your 20s that you went through some pretty horrific depression and you said it got so bad at one point, I wasn't sure I was going to make it out. Which obviously is pretty scary given especially what you've gone on to do with your life. And then how much of the catharsis from that comes from the like individual stories of the people that you've touched. I did struggle with pretty severe depression in my 20s. I had a year in college when both my aunt and one of my best friends committed suicide. And that came at the same time. She was my roommate. She was my block mate. We were in the same like rooming group. And we had very similar backgrounds and very similar relationships with our parents. And so, and both my aunt and this young woman were incredibly beautiful, incredibly bright. Like the least, you know, you would imagine the least likely to take their own lives. And so it was such a huge burden to carry that. And at the time, you know, therapy and counseling wasn't as known, maybe as it is now. And there weren't very many resources so I didn't seek that out. And at the same time that that was going on, I was undergoing tremendous financial pressure. My parents had gotten a divorce and couldn't pay for school at all. So I was working three jobs and always trying to hustle to make ends meet with a full course load. And then maybe to add to that, I would go and spend time in Africa. So I did research in Rwanda, literally working on this project with victims of the genocide. Who'd had, you know, I'd go there and interview people with like machete wounds on their head from this horrific genocide, talking about having seen their children murdered in front of them. And so I didn't even understand the concept of PTSD and, you know, how if you're exposed to people who've undergone serious trauma, you yourself can take that on. So it was just a hot mess after these few years. And then I graduated and I moved to New York City. I took a management consulting job just to be able to pay the bills and hopefully learn about business. I knew I wanted to create a business that would help people. And ideally a business that would hire poor people and move them out of poverty. But it was tough times. I was alone, often as a consultant, getting up at four in the morning on a Monday to fly to some random city and spent most of my time alone in hotel rooms. So it kind of all added up and at one point just exploded. And I went through some very dark times. Anyone who's been through depression knows what I mean. And I guess what got me out of it was I feel very blessed to have found a career that nourishes me spiritually. I feel like when your core spiritual values or your morality are aligned with what you spend the majority of your time doing, it creates this, I don't know, this unity in your soul. And I feel like having that has been such a cornerstone of my life.
TED, Young Global Leader, Oprah...BUT How Accepting Common Places Compassion (13:32)
It's what I often go back to when I'm really struggling or when I'm feeling depressed. I feel like I really like go back and read. I have a file in my Gmail of inspirational stories from our workers. Stories that people will send me about their own transformation or stories that managers of our centers will send me. And whenever I'm feeling depressed, I'll go back and read those just to ground me. I also think that connecting with other people who are suffering, there's all this research that empathizing with someone else who maybe has it even worse than you can relieve your own burden. And so as much as possible when I was in those states, I would try to immerse myself in issues around global poverty or understand what life was like for someone who had it even worse. You know, who might be struggling with depression but living on $2 a day and also struggling with HIV or some other problem. And that would help bring me out of it. You said that you have a four tiered process to dealing with things. I'm putting those words, but it was a four set process. One of them was meditation. Walkers to the four that would be really fascinating. But the one that I found super interesting was your brother's an astrophysicist. Which is crazy. Totally crazy. And he said thinking about nature, thinking about space, like thinking about something bigger than the human problems that I'm struggling with is alleviates that. It's really interesting to see that sort of reflected both at the human level, even just finding somebody that's struggling bigger than you and then even stepping outside of that and seeing how small we are. And he said you used to look through the telescope at Saturn and it gave you the sense of it would lower your stress and pressure. So what is that four step process? Sure. I think I might have forgotten I wrote this up. I know there was meditation in mindfulness. The zooming out and contemplating nature is so helpful. And there's now all this new evidence that shows that when we spend time in the wilderness, the Japanese call it forest bathing. There's a term for it. There are actually, you know, documentable neuroscience benefits to that. Your brain chemistry changes when you're exposed to wilderness. My own view is that we become conscious of our smallness and how irrelevant these petty concerns are day to day. You know, like you'll be annoyed about, you know, I often get annoyed about something. Somebody said to me at the office or some political thing that's going on, you know, in my friend group or some other issue. I'm stuck in traffic and I will forget, wait a minute, okay, at the end of the day, I come from Stardust. I will return to being Stardust. None of this matters at all. The only real thing that matters is love, you know, loving people and being loved yourself. And I think everything else is kind of gravy. So it's helpful to remind ourselves of that in contemplating vast expanses in space or for me, it's really the ocean.
Barefoot, Gandhi & Introspection;"Through Space" (16:21)
I spend a lot of time in the ocean as much as possible. I'm such a California person at heart. That really helps center me and remind me how petty my concerns are actually. I also talk about exercise. For me, various forms of exercise are totally cathartic. I'm really tightly wired and a little bit manic. And so I'm like a little hamster. If I don't get my hamster wheel energy, it's probably going to get scattered all over the place.
Therapy and Coaching (16:45)
So I kite surf, I do yoga. I'm really into dance. And rhythmic activity really helps and can be really soothing and therapeutic. And then I don't know if I talk about this in that piece, but for me, therapy and coaching have been hugely helpful. I don't think we talk enough about therapy. I think that if we're willing to hire a coach for better sports performance, why wouldn't we hire a coach to have better emotional performance and deepen and improve our relationships? What are some key things that you've gotten out of coaching? Like if somebody watching right now was going to take away a few key things, what would they be? The biggest one for me being like a hot, blooded, passionate entrepreneur is the concept of the pause.
The Pause (17:25)
So inserting a pause before you respond is probably the most helpful thing, at least for my relationships with my colleagues, with my partner, with my friends. I'm tempted always to run a mile a minute and to respond immediately. When I hear something, I'm pretty quick-witted. I like thinking on my feet. I have that entrepreneurial hustle, and so I'm very tempted to just respond immediately. The worst decisions I've made, the worst comments I've made, the most damage I've done to relationships or in my companies has been when I've responded that way and not taken a pause. It's really interesting. You actually have a great story about this with a guy that wrote in and said, "You're destroying America. You're outsourcing all of our jobs to India. Essentially shame on you." You wrote him the vicious email that you didn't send it, and then what happens from there? I'm so happy that you brought that up. I will never forget Joe from Ohio. He wrote this email because he saw a PSA that we'd done on Hulu. I literally taken this footage on my phone of these refugees who we'd trained in this horrific refugee camp called Dadaab in Kenya, where people are literally living in the most avoidable suffering. It's just tragic to see it. We'd shown these refugees how to do digital work, and they were doing a pilot program with Microsoft, which I thought was the most inspiring thing. Hear these people who are helping themselves not rely on aid or charity. We run this ad, and I get this email as soon as the ad started running. I got it in the middle of a really tough day. We had been rejected from another funder. I at the time was sleeping on my ex-boyfriend's futon because I had no money. My plus's heart remains a good friend. I get this email and the email subject line was, "You are ruining America." I felt so slammed by that because here I am trying to help people. It's a nonprofit. I'm never going to be a millionaire or billionaire out of this business. My immediate response was to dash off a nasty, "How dare you?" kind of accuse me. Email, and then I slept on it, and I didn't send it. Best advice. Pause. This morning, I woke up feeling really different, and I did a quick Google search of Ohio unemployment statistics and found that Ohio had been very hard hit by the recession. This was back in 2009. I thought, "Let me respond with compassion." I wrote to Joe, and I was like, "Dear Joe, I'm sorry you feel this way. Maybe you have a point. Do you have any ideas on how we might adapt our digital work model for here in the US? I would love to help communities like yours." His response to my email was night and day. He wrote back, and he said, "Thank you so much for your kind response. I'm really sorry that I said what I said. I'm just really frustrated. I lost my job recently. I live in a community where a lot of the factory work has gone overseas, and we're struggling." Eventually, he kind of dropped off the map, but it did inspire me to go to my board at SamaSource and say, "What could we do to fight domestic poverty? How can we be an organization that's not just siloed into attacking this issue at the international level, but maybe is more thoughtful and creative about applying it here?" Yeah, I was really surprised by that. I knew that you were doing things internationally, but I had no idea that you had started, and it's in rural Arkansas right now, right along the Mississippi Delta.
We started there, and we eventually shut down that branch of the program because it wasn't working, and I can tell you all about that. It operates now in San Francisco and New York. It's called Sama School. So what is Sama School now then? The idea behind Sama School is if you look at the American economy, it's very different from the economy of say Kenya or Uganda. The model that we have working overseas doesn't exactly work here. It's a different flavor here. Here, all net employment growth in the last decade has happened in the independent work economy. This is contracting, basically. Everything from gig economy jobs like Lyft and Uber and TaskRabbit and FieldNation to contract work for companies, right? And that has just exploded partially because younger workers want more flexibility in the jobs they have. They don't necessarily want to work in nine to five for 40 years and then get a pension at the end of it. Those jobs have gone away. So we developed the first gig economy training for low-income Americans. And what we're trying to do is help modernize our workforce training in this country, which is so out of date. We're training people to do jobs that went away a decade ago and are not coming back. So our philosophy is why I try to oppose the trend. Let's understand this is what's happening and so how can we make the most vulnerable people in our society successful on these platforms? Wow, that's incredible. What do you say to people that say you're a saint? They don't know me well. Definitely not a saint. I just tell them also talk to my colleagues and they'll be schooled. I have a passion for doing this kind of work. It's almost a selfish passion because it makes me feel really good. Maybe it's the feeling that other people get when they go to church or they do volunteer work. For me, this is like my soul food. How did people respond? You gave an amazing speech, which I'd love you to recapture the court thesis, but you gave a speech about how MLK, Gandhi, they're not saints. They're real people and as you walked through that, you led the speech off by saying, "I'm about to get a lot of haters for what I'm about to say." And then you said some, I thought it made them more interesting. What was your thesis in that? Just that when we put people on pedestals as saints, we sort of turn them into an other. We turn them into, you know, we think of ourselves as us and lowly and we think of them as these saintly people who are just somehow different from us. And therefore, we don't have a moral obligation to do the things they're doing because they're uniquely equipped. Let's remind ourselves that some of the most famous and prominent social leaders were not flawless. MLK was a known, you know, cheater. He cheated on his wife regularly, unfortunately. Gandhi, it's well known in India, was really, really cool to his wife. There's even a play that I watched about it, which was kind of shocking. And I guess the moral of the story is that no one is a saint, you know, even when they're canonized. There's a whole book that criticizes Mother Teresa's work. And I'm not saying this to take down our heroes. I think that what all three of those folks have done is truly heroic and great and should be celebrated. I see this because it's important that we don't absolve ourselves of a moral duty to act. We all have that duty to act. You don't have to be flawless. These people are not, you know, genetically different. And I think that's another problem with this pedestal issue is that when we put people on pedestals, we then start nitpicking and saying, "Oh, well, if he or she wears a nice dress and she can't possibly care about poverty because she's too consumed with her own appearance." Or in MLK's case, you know, he was -- many people tried to take him down because he had such great -- I think a great sense of style.
Being honest about self-interest (24:17)
Those two things are not incompatible. You can have an interest in fashion and a desire to make aesthetic choices that fit your taste. And at the same time, find poverty to be morally objectionable and want to do something about it. People who do work in service of humanity do not need to be saints. We do not need to put them on pedestals. They don't have to, you know, take vows of poverty. I think when we say that and do that, it makes ordinary people feel like they could never enter this field. And that's part of the problem. Yeah, I love that. And that's one consistent theme that I've seen through everything that you've written, that you've talked about. Interviews that you've done is like, "Look, I want to do good in the world and I also want to be a badass chick." So, right? Like, I want to roll up and do something amazing. And you said, "Oh, God, you were talking about humility and you said, 'Look, is Elon Musk overly humble? No. And do we want him to be? Like, what judged me by my results, not by my attitude? That's not the word you used, but it was like, that was where you were going with that. What are your thoughts around humility, how we can leverage a little bit of bravado to draw attention to important causes?" I think it's so important. And I think, again, it's that pedestal problem because when we put someone on a pedestal, we expect them to behave, you know, like not human, right? We expect them to behave like characters in the Bible or something. And as a result, we get extremely demoralized, or, you know, our whole image of them is taken down when we hear that they spent, you know, some amount of money on an outfit, or that there have been so many takedowns of social entrepreneurs in the media or nonprofit, you know, do gooders. For some reason, maybe it's because people assume that if you're doing good in the world that you are a little bit self-righteous and you're putting down others, there's sort of a takedown desire people have. And I just feel like that's unfortunate. I think like there are so many examples of truly corrupt, solely profit-seeking entrepreneurs who've done far worse, I think, who are under far less scrutiny than relatively good social entrepreneurs who, you know, are flawed humans like we all are. And I guess my takeaway from that is to try to be a little bit more balanced in our assessments and look at the bigger picture. Yeah, it's interesting. I like that notion of looking at the bigger picture of really starting to assess. And in fact, this is at the core of how you want your nonprofit to be judged is what's the impact for the dollar spent. So you've said, like, people will see a nonprofit or a lavish party and they're like, "Oh, my God, that's so scummy. Like, how can you be doing that?" But what if in doing that they draw, like, people that just pour millions of dollars into something and it has a massively disproportionate effect? I think that's a really powerful way to look at that. And I see, I'm actually interested to hear your details, but you have moved at least with LuxMe into a for-profit. I've worked on the board of the X-prize, talked to Peter Diamandis, who I know you know, and about the frustrations of the nonprofit world. And I have chosen, so I like to think that what we're doing at Impact Theory will ultimately have a lot of social good. But for me, it is absolutely like, I wouldn't even do it if I couldn't turn a profit. And I'm just being honest, right? Like, you say whatever you want about me, I don't give a shit. Like, I want to have lasting impact. I want it to be interesting for me and I want it to be, I want to touch the lives of hundreds of millions if not north of a billion people, it'd be absolutely incredible. But I'm driven by both, right? And so it's a pretend that I'm not driven by one. Seems crazy. Also, there's so much power in being able to be self-sustaining, to not have to ask anybody for anything, quite frankly, let alone money.
For profits & social costs (28:00)
What made you transition into the for-profit world with LuxMe, since it's still so socially driven? Like, what does that look like? It's so interesting. I think part of the problem is that, especially here in the United States, we have a very bifurcated view of nonprofit versus for-profit, right? Okay, for-profit means you're profit maximizing at the expense of everything else, which means that if it's going to make you more money, you will pollute the stream, you will use slaves in the supply chain, you will, you know, do any number of things that are bad for the world, right? And so we think, okay, the job of a business is to make as much money as possible, and then maybe there's going to be, you know, excesses that can get donated at the end of the day, and then they get donated over here to these nonprofits, which are generally cash-starved, reliant only on grants and donations, and the whims of very wealthy people, to solve all the problems that are being created by these, you know, profit maximizing companies here. That is such a flawed system, right? The real answers lie in the middle. The real answers lie in businesses that actively try to solve a social or environmental problem and do so sustainably. And there is a whole range of these businesses, and we're starting to see them crop up both on the nonprofit side and on the for-profit side. If you think about it, like the Girl Scouts sells hundreds of millions of dollars of cookies each year, that's a very viable business, right? Organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army support a huge part of their operations by giving work to low-income people in their stores, which amount to hundreds of millions, I think Goodwill is actually multi-billion dollars in terms of sales in their stores. And we don't think about that as social enterprise, but that is where all the most exciting things in social impact will happen. Then I think about for-profit companies like Patagonia or Method, Patagonia is one of my favorite examples. For-profit company that has taken a huge environmental stand, protected tons of acres of wild lands, donated, you know, more than probably most companies have to environmental groups, and that's a for-profit company. So I think that this bifurcated view we have of nonprofit versus for-profit is a little bit old school, and again, it's the conversions that's most exciting.
Best business advice (30:06)
All right, so abstracting it for a second from the social angle, just in general about entrepreneurship, what have you learned over the last ten years, which I imagine is pretty legion? So, best piece of advice I ever heard is from Ben Horowitz, "Don't punk out and quit." I have the tattoo, I have the psalma tattoo on my right hand, but I almost feel like that should be the other tattoo, because I think the most worthwhile, worthy things in life are just a result of a lot of, you know, painful, enduring failure. And so that's the first. The second, I think, is I found that the pause, the like not making rash decisions, and I'm always very tempted to make rash decisions. I have a million business ideas a minute, I have like a hundred domain names I own, like many entrepreneurial people, I've constantly get inspired by things I see, and being able to pause and breathe before I make decisions has probably, you know, saved me a lot of heartache. And then the third is, you know, I get a lot of PR and a lot of the fame and glory for building psalma, but really everything that we've achieved has been because of the people that took the leap to join me. I mean, I can't tell you how risky it was for our first employees to like quit their normal paying jobs and come work for me. I just saw one of them today at a book reading, she was the person who opened up our East Africa office, and Jen, you know, would call me in the middle of the night to tell me things like, "Oh, by the way, a ship dropped its anchor on the internet." I mean, the internet cable heading into East Africa, so the internet is down for the foreseeable future, we're an internet based company. I mean, crazy things like that would happen, and if I hadn't had Jen on the ground in East Africa, we wouldn't have succeeded as a business. So, the team is everything. I mean, the idea is great. Having a founder who can go out and raise money and can be charismatic is wonderful, but you need to have the team that can operate the business day to day and sort of keep you in check. I've been very fortunate to have the most amazing people who are willing to quit much better paying jobs and opportunities and come work for us. And what do you look for specifically when you're hiring? Are there like certain traits, characteristics?
Career Growth And Mentoring
What you need to look for when hiring someone (32:14)
I'd say, so the first is, you know, competence, so I think that can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but usually it's pretty easy for me to tell whether someone knows what they're talking about. They don't need to have slides, they don't need to have a fancy resume, but I kind of get into the nitty gritty very quickly often. What kind of metrics do you look for to know if you're succeeding in whatever you're doing? What would, you know, what did you do at your prior company that you're most proud of? What was the biggest struggle you had? So I ask questions that try to quickly get to whether someone's competent to do that job. Number one, attribute. The second I find for social mission companies is to understand someone's core motivation. What do you find that? I find that like most people who come to work in social enterprise had a transformational life experience. I can't tell how many people will say, I had a parent who died or somebody close to me became really ill or I struggled with an illness or I battled depression. I had some kind of traumatic or serious life event that called into question how I was spending my time and that basically made plain that I wasn't able to do that. I wasn't able to implement my value system in my job and that created this disharmony. And so many of our best people who've been with us the longest are the people who had those kinds of transformational life events and decided to quit the job and do something meaningful and invest themselves fully. And it can be so hard. I think often with social environmental impact companies you're running the same race as everybody else, but you're like deliberately handicapping yourself by putting these additional constraints on your business. So to get through that can just be so hard. It means you're often not getting enough sleep because you're dealing with some worker issue in Nairobi that a normal company wouldn't have because a normal company wouldn't hire people who come from slums and who deal with all these other issues. And so you really do need to find people who are exceptionally committed above and beyond just the excitement of doing their job, exceptionally committed to the mission. And when you find those people who are basically like missionaries for what you do, I think the most satisfying thing for me has been seeing people invest as much or even more than I have in the company. And that was a real turning point is seeing people who are willing to care more about some of them than I was at a certain time.
Accessing relevant mentors/information. (34:33)
And as an entrepreneur that's maybe the most satisfying feeling. What did that first, I'll call it the first year, but it's really before the company existed when you were trying to get people on board. Because one of the number one things I get asked is like what's that first step? How do I get started? I don't know anybody. I don't have money. Like what do I do? How did you overcome that? Like tactically. Yeah, I mean, I think another good piece of advice is the side hustle. So I started the business plan for some of source when I was working as a management consultant. And I started working on it at nights and weekends and just really because I was bored with my consulting job and I wanted to do something more meaningful. I knew I wanted to build a social enterprise of some kind. And so I read every book I could. I read every case study I could get my hands on. I learned about Muhammad Unis and the microfinance movement. He remains an inspiration to so many of us in the field. I went out and I watched speeches done by other social entrepreneurs. And in this learning put together this business plan and applied for competitions online. I just sent out the business plan to there was a social business challenge in Amsterdam that I found on the internet and I like submitted the application. And lo and behold, they called me. I went to this at my finals and I got one of those big checks. I got 22,000 euros from that competition. And around that time, I thought, okay, I should quit my job and do this full time. The next funding we got was from another business plan competition. I didn't place first in either of them. And that was another like $14,000. And I cobbled that together and made that stretch for over a year in building in building zamaswurst at the very beginning.
How did you decide what books to read? What internet searches are you doing? I literally think people, they go, okay, I've heard Lila said I need to go see, I need to read books, but what books? What speeches? Where do they start? Yeah, well, Amazon recommendations are actually pretty good. Really? Yeah, so when you... These you'd already read. I personally found inspiration from entrepreneurs. I read a lot of books about entrepreneurship and the journey that people have taken. I actually published a book list on my medium account. If anyone's curious with my 108 life changing books, pieces of art, and I think I even have some podcasts and music on there. Nice, alright, we'll have to check that out. In fact, where just drop your name into medium and then pop up? Yeah, and it'll pop up. Alright, perfect. So you're reading, reading, reading, taking in information, but you don't stop there. You actually put it into action. Do you remember what that first real tangible thing was that you did? Yeah, I mean, I was no stranger to the hustle, right? So I think one benefit of having immigrant parents is you're just kind of used to taking action all the time. And I think almost to a fault I have this paranoia about one day being out on the street and not having enough money and not being able to survive. And so I've just always been doing things and hustling. So when I had this consulting job, I knew I wanted to start a social enterprise. I had no idea how I was going to afford it. And then I figured, well, if I get the money from these business plan competitions and I start winning some contracts and I really economize and cut down on my expenses and maybe I take a side tutoring job. That's what I did in the first year of Sama to keep things going, then I can at least have some semblance of a business. So I put this plan in place. I remember asking a professor friend I'd worked with if I could get some sort of access to the university that he was teaching in. He was teaching at Stanford. And I was like, look, I'm not going to go to grad school, but could I get like, could you make me a visiting scholar or something? So I have some semblance of an official title. So I don't seem to everyone like I'm just loony tunes and I've left my job and I'm starting this crazy nonprofit. So he gave me a library card. I became a visiting scholar at the Stanford program on Global Justice, basically because I asked and because he's a very generous person, didn't come with any money. But I think it did help to be part of that Stanford community. Even from an emotional perspective, this was before the days of co-working. So it was quite lonely to start something on your own. And at the time, all my friends were joining Facebook as early employees. And it was hard. It was like being homeschooled when all your friends are part of the cool high school.
F remove complacency and do real shit. (38:53)
Want me to do that? That had to be tough. As your friends or early employees at Facebook, they're making dash. Like, how did you deal with that comparison? So there was no, like, that wasn't part of the emotionally hard part of starting, seeing people start to make money, even though it hadn't cracked and become what we think of today. But I imagine that wouldn't be too easy as you're struggling to get the thing off the ground. You're struggling to make ends meet. People are writing to you telling you you're destroying America when none of this is for money. To like, what advice do you have for somebody that's in the middle of that path and they're looking at somebody that took the more traditional path? Easier, maybe they've had kids and they can support the family. Like, what would you tell them to hold on to? It was so hard. At one point, my best friend who works in finance took a month off between jobs and moved out to San Francisco just to be near me because I think it was so worried. This was like in my low point in my 20s that depression I referred to. For me, what really helped was again going back to the stories of the people we were helping because it just provided this sustenance. I got one email one year around Christmas time from one of the people who managed our work center that was working with mostly women who came from slums. She said, "I just want to tell you the story of this woman who is a single mom and what she's been able to do for her kids. You may not see it, but I'm here in Nairobi. I see this every day. I cannot tell you what a difference that you personally have made in the lives of all these people. I'm so grateful. It was just a simple Christmas card and I wept when I read that. I'm so needed to hear that at that moment. I pinned it to my wall. I still refer to those letters all the time. To me, that's worth so much more than money. I think some people live their whole lives and don't get that satisfaction from their jobs. I feel tremendously lucky and grateful that I've been able to build a career in this. I think it's worth a lot of compensation. I know Joe. One of the most interesting things to me in your story is actually back when you were 17 when you go to Ghana, I believe. Walk us through that. One time I was doing a live broadcast and people asked questions and I answered them in real time. Somebody said, "I want to do something with my life. What do I do? I've been reading. I've been all this. I just lost my shit." I was like, "Just fucking act. For the love of God, just go do something." I said, "If you've always been thinking about going to Africa and doing some good, book a ticket right now today and go tonight. Stop thinking about it. Just go." Of course, the criticism was, "Are you out of your fucking mind? You can't tell people to just book a flight to Africa. You need immunizations if nothing else. This is crazy town." I thought, "Okay, for sure, but at the same time, I would actually rather that person roll the dice and take a risk and go, then spend the rest of their life stuck in paralysis." You're 17. You roll up not having any connections, not knowing where you're going or what you're doing. How did you make that work? How did you find the courage? What was that all about?
Rural Ghana (41:58)
First of all, it's funny because everybody was telling my parents, "Oh my God, your negligent, your daughter's going to get hurt." Rural Ghana is probably the safest place on Earth, far safer than urban Los Angeles. My neighbors, as soon as I moved in, were just always taking care of me. Their first objective was to fatten me up because I said I was way too skinny. I would never find a husband if I continued that way. They would bring me excess cassava and stuff from the farms. Remember the first day I got there, this little girl came running over with this plastic cup. I looked at my host mom. I was staying with these grandparents, actually, who did this work for fun. Basically, they hosted these foreign volunteers. This girl comes with this cup and she's got eggs in the cup and she says something I don't understand and looks at me expectantly with this cup. I'm like, "Why is she giving me eggs?" My host mother explains, "Well, eggs are a very precious commodity here. These chickens often don't lay many eggs because they don't have enough nutrition. She's giving you the most valuable thing that her family has to welcome you." There was this incredible welcoming and generosity and it made it so easy. In fact, my hardest thing was coming back home. I had culture shock, reverse culture shock, going to Harvard from Ghana, where everyone was super friendly and smiling all the time and then get to Harvard where it was much colder and harder to survive and a much more dog eat dog atmosphere. That is really interesting. In fact, you have an awesome quote and I'm almost certain that I have the exact quote here. "I have molded my life around the fact that work is the best way to move people out of poverty and that work is at the core of human dignity, but it's not all that there is." In the context of what you just said, that was jarring for me just to hear you describe it about the human warmth, the human connection and then to go to a place like Harvard in western civilization and to feel more distant, more disconnected and ultimately then that becomes the beginning of the emotional distress that you go through. How do we reconcile that? What are your thoughts around the disconnect of the traditional western lifestyle and the beauties that are in these rural villages that you're trying to really help? You're trying to help them with these western ideals that's pretty fascinating. I know and it's such an odd juxtaposition because I find that some of my happiest moments are when I have very little and I'm in a place like rural Ghana or one of the places I love most in the world is rural northern Uganda, which is just stunning, it's pristine. I've had so many amazing experiences of just deep connection with the land but also with people and I think there's a certain vulnerability that comes from not having a lot of stuff. When you're poor, you depend on each other. You depend on your relationship with your neighbor and your family because if you don't have that, you have nothing and when an accident happens, there's this social capital that helps people get through that. It's tough because on the one hand, I think a lot of the traditional values or a lot of the values that I see in poor communities are values that we want to perpetuate and that are important and on the flip side, there are things like really avoidable suffering in healthcare, for example. I remember talking to a doctor in Kampala who would tell me that he would watch people routinely die in his hospital because the hospital didn't have enough sutures. People would come in from an accident on the street and they would literally die from hemorrhage because the hospital did not have stitches. So that's the kind of thing that just should never happen in 2017, not on our watch. I also think that we're learning more and more that more money after a certain level does not equate to more happiness or more fulfilled life.
Untapped Potential (45:51)
This is one thing that I want to talk about before we get to my final question and that is your notion of untapped potential. So I've literally accidentally, I can take exactly zero credit for this. In fact, the only back to your notion of sometimes being selfish ends up with really great results. To get extra credit, I started working in the inner cities around USC. So they say, "Hey, who wants extra credit?" I was like a total freak for getting good grades. And so I raise my hand. They send me into school in South Central to first teach. I was teaching oceanography and then I got asked again who wanted to do extra credit me and they did one on ones. And that one on one relationship that I entered into with this little kid named Rashawn turned into an eight and a half year relationship just because I made him a promise that I'd helped me this homework. And so it turns into this whole thing and I don't at the time have no concept of this kid is changing me as a human being. Like just at a deep and fundamental level, right? But I don't understand that. I'm 19, whatever. But it leaves this indelible mark on my life. And then I go on my crazy entrepreneurial journey going through the periods of me realizing, "Okay, I've been chasing money." And for me, maybe not for everybody, but for me, I just was soul-crushing. And so I needed to connect to something again, humanity, people, something like when you were talking about that juxtaposition of being in rural Ghana and then coming to Harvard, like that's how I felt in the business world chasing money versus actually connecting with people and I wanted to connect. And so that ends up we create quest nutrition out of that desire to connect and bring value and all of that. But then again, unintentionally I find myself in the inner cities because that's where you can afford the real estate. That's where manufacturing happens because it's zoned for that. And then B, you can get hundreds of thousands of square feet. So of course you're drawing from a local population. And here I am again with these incredible people and I used to say, "I'm mining for astronauts." And I don't know why that was just like to me as a kid, like an astronaut, like, "You could never be an astronaut." That was like the unattainable dream. And I just thought these guys they could be. They're just as smart as me and I'll define smart as the ability to process raw data at a given speed. Right? They could do it just as fast as I could. So I was like, it's purely my opportunities, my mindset that differentiates me. And you've talked about that. You said the problem isn't potential. The problem is opportunity. Walk us through that. And then what awaits us on the other side when these people get to express their potential? Sure. It's just as you said, talent is equally distributed and opportunity is not. And we live in a world where more than two billion people live on less than $3 a day. And that number is adjusted for purchasing power. So that's what $3 buy you in a U.S. city in modern times. So just imagine what that means. I mean, it means that you were living in a constant state of scarcity. We now know there's a very interesting book out called "Scarcity" which talks about how scarcity reshapes your brain. They took fortune, like I think fortune, 500 CEOs and had a few of them volunteer for a study where they were basically voluntarily starved for a week. And these guys stopped being able to make good long-term decisions universally because your brain chemistry is focused on finding food. It's focused on whatever is scarce. And so when people are living in a constant state of scarcity, they cannot possibly make what we would think of as good decisions. They are locked into a state of suffering and not achieving their full human potential that is just tragic. And it's tragic not just at the individual level. It's tragic in a sense of this is the greatest natural resource we have in the world. More important than going to Mars, more important than finding the next oil reserve or the next diamond mine, is figuring out how we can mine the talent of the bottom billions of people who've been left to fester. And I think it's a tremendous loss to the world. And so for me, I think it's so exciting to be able to go to places like Nairobi or Uganda and see people shine. See people who could easily be astrophysicists if they had only had the opportunity and hopefully get them on the path where they can achieve more of their human potential. And it is the most personally satisfying job I could ever imagine having. And I think as a society when we do this, we feel more satisfied collectively as well. Yeah, it's interesting. I used to tell people I'm looking for the next 100, 1000 Elon Musk's, right? And what does the world look like? We have that many people that can play at that level. So I totally, totally get that. Alright, before I ask the last question, where can these guys find you online? LilaJana.com. I'm on Facebook at LilaJana and then give work.org where I talk about psalmistorse and LuxMe. Perfect. And we'll drop that all in the show notes. Alright, final question.
Impact on the World (50:46)
This is a big one for you and it's come out clearly in the interview. But what is the impact that you want to have on the world? The world's largest 2000 companies spend $12 trillion annually in goods and services. That's dwarfing the budgets of international aid and charity. If we could direct even a little bit of that money to sourcing from social enterprises that give work, we could move millions of people out of poverty very quickly without even changing corporate business models. I think there's so much potential in giving work, not just at the individual level, not just us choosing brands that do good in the world, but in companies choosing to source for goods and services from these types of vendors. And that is, I think, the next evolution of our mission. I love it. Thank you so much Lila for being on the show. Guys, you're going to want to check out this book. It is absolutely incredible. The whole concept of being able to end poverty one job at a time and giving work instead of giving handouts is absolutely incredible. But what you're really going to love about diving into her world is that she talks about that fascinating balance that she mentioned earlier between really wanting to do good, being who you are, bring the full weight of your personality, understanding what's working in for-profit businesses, and bringing it and making the demand that we can do it in service of a greater good, and that there is no compromise. You're not giving something up by doing that. And that was the thing that drew me into her world. If you know me, you know my whole thing is results, baby, and that is it. That is the only thing that you should be focused on. And from the jump, that's what she talks about. You need to be looking at the result that people are getting out of these. It doesn't matter if they're an NGO. It doesn't matter if they're a nonprofit or a profit. You need to be looking at the results that they deliver. How many people are they helping? What are they able to do with a dollar? And that's what's amazing to me. So she's lighting the world on fire in two ways. One, she's creating best-in-class companies. And that is something that I did not ask her nearly enough about. When you dive in, you're going to see she creates products that people actually want products that people actually want. She solves problems and she does it in a way that is humanity plus. And that's it, man. It is a new way of doing business. And I think she's a vanguard. Jump into it and see what it's all about because it's really fucking good. Alright guys, if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe. And until next time, my friends, be legendary. Take care. Thank you. That was awesome.