When Leila Janah was very young she wanted to be an ocean explorer. Her hero was Jacques Cousteau and the exploits of the famed French undersea explorer on board The Calypso captivated her. Fascinated by the ocean and the creatures who lived in it she decided to volunteered at the local aquarium in southern California near where she lived. The touch tank was her favourite part of her new vocation. It was here where she got to engage with excited and apprehensive little kids who would touch sea anemones and the starfish. With great enthusiasm she would explain what these animals did. “I always thought that I would end up being a marine biologist,” says Leila, ‘but then I visited Africa and got side-tracked by this whole idea of saving the world.”
Leila humbly acknowledges this is a bold quest that she “will never be able to accomplish,” but it is also what motivates her. Leila is what in my new book I call a quester leader. Quester leaders are leaders on quests to make a meaningful difference within the world they influence. Quester leaders do things differently and these our research shows is based around three leadership qualities.
The first quality of quester leaders is to deliver meaningfulness, so rather than ask how can I launch a product or a service that will make lots of money they continually ask a powerful question: “What problems can I solve?” Believing that “work is at the core or human dignity,” the problem Leila wanted to solve was: How could people, living in the slums of Africa, earn a living wage from doing a dignified job? Leila wanted to create job opportunities in some of the poorest communities in the world. From her quest sprang the idea of using the power of business enabled by the internet to bring work to women and young people struggling in the squalor of slum-life.
To achieve her quest Leila launched the social enterprise Sama, which translates to “equal” in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. Sama, Leila explains, is a “different kind of technology company, “that builds tools to connect the world’s poorest people with projects being run by the world’s richest companies.” In an interview with Toms shoes, Leila confessed that when she started Sama, “people laughed out loud when I said I would employ people doing digital work from slums in Kenya. I was told things like, ‘Women from slums couldn’t possibly do this work, they need clean water before they can be economically productive. You’ll never teach them to use computers, the quality will be terrible.’”
Here’s the second quality that defines quester leaders. The more people say what they want to achieve is impossible, the more it fuels and propels their committed to proving the impossible, possible.
Leveraging two concepts Leila created called “impact sourcing” and “micro-work” she has proven her doubters wrong. “The least of our concerns at Sama Group is the quality of the work that comes from very low income people” she says. “It’s been a really pleasant surprise to see that some of the initial people that I approached for advice, who laughed at me, have now also embraced this new movement of impact sourcing, and have acknowledged that people on the other side of the world have these sorts of capabilities. We have a number of big companies, companies like Microsoft, and Google, and eBay, and LinkedIn, who tell us that they are shocked by the high quality of work that comes out of some of the most unlikely places.”
The third quality of a quester leader is having a crystal clear outcome-focused inspirational destination. Leila’s quest is to “create good jobs for marginalised women and youth via the Internet.” This quest drives her, fellow questers and investors. Since 2008 when Sama was launched the Group – Sama now consists of three organisations: Samasource, offering online outsourcing; Samahope offering medical treatments and Samaschool delivering online digital skills training – has transformed the lives of 40,904 people around the world by connecting people in poverty to dignified work.
Leila Janah is a leader who understands that delivering meaningfulness in work and life changes the recipe for success. “The future of business,” says Leila “will be driven by businesses that put social good and social impact at or above profit margin in terms of the company’s goals.” Sama guarantees to pay a minimum of three times the average wage for the regions where they operate. And, the impact of her quest has been staggering. “I think that consumers are hungry for meaning, not just in the work they do themselves, but also in the products that they buy,” she concludes.
Here is what is exciting about the 21st Century. We have huge, at times seemingly insurmountable challenges – poverty, climate warming, inequality, terrorism, wars; but equally there is a growing band of leaders who do not know the meaning of the world “impossible” and who are focused on delivering meaningfulness. These quester leaders are not only changing the world one problem at a time but also changing how we think about business and the role it plays in society.
“I guess my biggest hope for the world” says Leila, “is that we create some sort of a universal baseline income or floor below which no human being has to live. I’m not so worried about income inequality. It’s awesome if we have more billionaires, good for them. I’m more worried about a large number of people falling below a floor that we should not allow any human to live below. I do think that that’s going to change in our lifetimes.”
Our research shows that quester leaders like Leila Janah are redefining the rules for success and emerging time after time as market leaders of their various industries with unprecedented speed. We need more quester leaders though, every organisation that cares about having a meaningful impact can become a quester organisation. If you want to learn more contact the team at TomorrowToday we have a range of presentations, workshops and consulting engagements that explore further the power of the leaders’ quest.
Watch his TEDx video here
Download the epilogue of his book here