The Pilot Program

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
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Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

Dumas, Arkansas. (Photo: Aaron Turner)

How can the rural poor be brought into the digital economy? Maria Konnikova profiles an Arkansas program that is giving people routine access to the Internet and the skills to benefit from everything it promises.

Konnikova's Pacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, November o9. Until then, an excerpt:

Samasource was founded in 2008 by a 25-year-old entrepreneur just three years out of college named Leila Janah, a first-generation American in a family that had emigrated from Bombay. Her father was an engineer; her mother, who had a degree in English, found work at a Wendy’s. The family moved a lot, eventually settling in Southern California. They weren’t poor, exactly, but they didn’t fit in.

When Leila arrived at her new elementary school, she found she was the only brown girl among the students. She wore Salvation Army or home-sewn clothes; they wore cute Gap and Guess sweater sets. When she got on her bike to go home, they surrounded her in a tight circle, taunting her in a made-up language. But she was eventually admitted to a magnet school that stressed math and science; she graduated early and, before entering Harvard, went to Ghana on a scholarship provided by a tobacco company to teach blind students English.

Samasource was conceived almost as an extension of Janah’s post-high school trip, and was based initially on the concept of microwork. In this case, that meant partnering with businesses that had a need for a particular online job, such as geotagging images, and training workers in the necessary skills. In remote parts of Africa, where few or no jobs exist, bits of microwork could add up to a real income.

The idea was not immediately popular. In 2008, as the financial crisis unfolded, an organization focused on taking jobs abroad rather than creating them inside the United States seemed out of step. When Samasource ran an ad on Hulu about a Kenyan refugee camp, the backlash was swift: What about the people who need help here? “I thought it would be non-controversial to give employment to some of the poorest people in the world,” Janah recalls. “And then I get an email from this guy in Ohio who says, ‘You’re ruining America, taking our jobs overseas.’” How could he object to what she was doing? She’d maxed out her credit cards and gone into debt, living on a friend’s futon for months to keep Samasource afloat. But donors were skeptical. Prompted by the backlash, she began looking at the statistics on domestic poverty, an area that, in her studies, she’d largely ignored. Her critics, she realized, had a point. In some ways, many parts of the U.S. more closely resembled subsistence-farming African villages than the suburbs of Los Angeles.

In 2009, Janah applied to a Facebook incubator program, which provided networking opportunities and the assistance of engineers to promising start-ups. Samasource was selected as one of two non-profits. The company finally had the backing it needed. Janah quickly found funders: Google.org, Google’s non-profit arm; the MasterCard Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation. At last, Samasource was on the right radars. Janah soon had programs operating in Africa, India, and Haiti, and had helped raise, according to the organization’s estimates, some 7,000 people out of poverty, increasing their pre-Sama-training income by 370 percent over a three-year period. Helene Gayle, the former CEO of CARE, the international humanitarian organization dedicated to alleviating poverty and spurring development in poorer regions around the world, was impressed enough by Janah’s work that she supported her in becoming the organization’s youngest board member. “She is somebody coming up in a different generation, with a different sense of what’s possible,” Gayle says. “She brings a sense of hope and possibility and incredible passion into the mission of Sama.”

Could a similar program be useful in this country? Janah realized that she would have to refine her model so that it could appeal to domestic businesses as it had to international ones. It wasn’t economically feasible to follow the precise microwork structure of Samasource: The minimum wages required to lift someone out of poverty in Uganda could never accomplish the same in America. So she flipped the equation. Rather than teach specific skills geared at concrete jobs, she would train potential workers in basic computer and digital literacy skills that could then be translated into any number of jobs online.

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