How Poverty can teach Resiliency

I’ve been running the same run since I moved back to San Francisco in 2015. There have been variations in the route, longer and shorter distances but the main route to the waterfall right underneath the Park Presidio and back has been the mainstay, the core of the run. I reflected during a most recent run how my life has evolved during each run. The original runs with my Golden Retriever (Jinx), the next set of runs with my oldest (Addie) learning how to ride her bike, with my youngest (Audra) reading books loudly in the stroller, with both my kids on bikes and me frantically trying to keep up, and now ones with my new puppy (Soda) who only runs in certain weather conditions. When I’m solo, I think a lot during my runs, and it’s truly a helpful release. Today I thought about my most recent experience, visiting Kenya.

I joined Sama (then Samasource) during the pandemic, so in office visits were not a thing let alone hopping on a plane to East Africa. After working almost 2 yrs at a company, I finally visited our offices in Kenya and saw first hand the impact Sama makes. I speak constantly to customers on the importance of data accuracy in models, how a dedicated workforce is essential for scaling and how you can do all of this in an ethical way, but seeing the work first hand was eye opening on so many levels. To connect the world’s most innovative Computer Vision work that’s happening all around us today with meaningful, digital work with people in the slums of East Africa is quite the mental model to jump through. Yet it exists! Every time you put on a Oculus to experience Virtual Reality, use social media filters on Instagram using Augmented Reality, are exposed to Smart Robots that are revolutionizing farming or vacuuming your floors, or Autonomous vehicles that are just starting to ride driverless, you’re experiencing the work product from people that have been, in Sama’s case, provided a unique opportunity to transform themselves by getting meaningful work in communities where opportunities are not as plentiful. I knew when I visited Kenya I would gain more context on this perspective, but I wasn’t ready for the perspective I actually experienced.

Walking down a mud road during my visit to Kibera neighborhood

One of the first things that altered my perspective was that Sama is a massive company! So many people work on amazing projects for our customers. I had gotten caught up in my own expanding bubble of close to 200 folks that make up the US / EU team, I wasn’t ready to see thousands of people getting to work because of the business our clients give us. Incredibly fulfilling to see this first hand, our customer’s data on screens being annotated. It made me feel connected in a different way to folks that share such a different story than my own that live across the globe but are somehow connected in the same journey together. Powerful.

Movie theater in Kibera

I took a tour of Kibera, Kenya, (the largest slum in Africa and largest neighborhood in Nairobi) where Sama sources the majority of our workforce, and what I experienced was much different than I thought I’d experience. I saw poverty, no doubt, but it was different from the poverty I’ve been exposed to in the US. There was an infectious vibe to this community and an incredible resourcefulness that was inspiring. There wasn’t any evidence of drug use or depression but instead, everyone had an incredibly positive outlook and were thankful for any gains they’ve received. When people heard I worked at Sama, I instantly felt the gratitude in return and it was completely genuine.They had an entrepreneurial spirit to them that inspired me to employ a similar perspective in my own life, and I’m a pretty positive spirit. 

I was wrong about the level of impact Sama makes. I was under the impression that when Sama “Gives Work”, it’s lifting / rescuing individuals out of the slum and putting them into a lifestyle I’m more familiar with. Yet the more I asked, the more I gained a perspective that in providing Digital Work above living wage, this allowed young individuals to make a difference in their own community. They referenced the old generation in their community being lazy and not seizing the opportunities to make their community thrive, but with digital work that we provide, this new generation is investing back into their community and making it better. When giving someone opportunity, it’s essentially giving them the consistency to live they way they want, and what I witnessed was that these people chose to invest in their community. Instead of moving away from poverty, these incredible individuals are instead seeking to improve living conditions, roads, water, electricity along with their families living conditions within the community.

Kibera is called “chocolate” city because of the mud and the rusted tin roofs

So when I reflected on this during my last run, I thought about a company’s own “runs” through different economic conditions, and in Sama’s case: non-profit to for-profit, Series A to Series B, B Corp certification, a pandemic that forced us to adopt a new WFH model and actually house people in luxurious hotels. The run is the mission and if the mission is strong enough, the central route shouldn’t change even though there will be obstacles that force you to weave toward the destination. Yet the main lesson I gained was by Giving Work, you provide individuals in communities limitless options on how to make their own footprint, their own impact. Isn’t that the entire point of living? To make your difference how you choose? To make your footprint in the areas you want to be remembered. 

Inspiring to think of what my home town of San Francisco could be if everyone adopted the same mentality as the people who live in Kibera. Giving work unlocks opportunity, which in turn can make a community thrive, but that’s your choice as an individual as to what impact you make, where your footprint stands and who you impact along your own journey.

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