NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION
Leila Janah, GIVE WORK
FROM THE GROUND UP
WHEN MY BROTHER AND I WERE YOUNG AND WE’D ASK MY FATHER for an allowance or spending money, he would raise his voice to oratorical heights and recite a line by the Roman poet Juvenal: “My children, ‘luxury is more ruthless than war.’ ” It was his way of teaching us the concept of jugaad, which is a Hindi word that means “resourcefulness.” He wanted us to be strong and scrappy. It might also have been his way of avoiding having to spell out the truth, which was that he probably had little money to give.
The first stepping-stones in my path to Samasource and this book were laid long ago, before I was even born. My parents emigrated from Bombay to Buffalo, New York, in 1978. The Rust Belt city was a brutal adjustment for this artistic, worldly couple; my mother’s ancestral home in Kolkata was such a hub for the Indian literati it had been dubbed “an incubator of souls.” And then there was the weather. In the winter of 1981–82, nine months before I was born, Buffalo recorded 112 inches of snow. A few years later, desperate to escape the region’s frigid winters, my tropical parents followed the sun to Arizona, moving multiple times before finally settling the four of us— by this time my brother, Ved, had been born— in Southern California. Although we were never poor by most standards, my family was incredibly money- conscious. We shopped exclusively at discount and thrift stores, we rarely ate out, and our tightly budgeted vacations took place in campgrounds and national parks. Our biggest expense was our home, which my parents rented in a neighborhood beyond what they could comfortably afford to ensure that their children attended good public schools. As little as we had, we made do. My only inkling of what true poverty might look like came from an anecdote my mother shared when her children didn’t finish their plates, the one about the time she threw a piece of bread onto her Kolkata street for the local stray dog, and a street kid rushed over, pushed the animal away, and gobbled it up.
That story often made me wonder, why was I so lucky when there were so many children in the world who were not? Along with the words of Roman poets, my father also passed down to his children a deep sense of social justice, a legacy, perhaps, of his Jesuit education in the Catholic schools of Jamshedpur, about 140 miles west of Kolkata. We were expected to notice the inequities in the world and try to make things better. I took the lessons to heart and did what I could. In middle school I joined my local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When I was about fifteen I won first place at the state science fair for a marine microbiology project that addressed the issue of world hunger by testing the possibility of growing food from chemosynthetic bacteria (bacteria that don’t need sunlight to create energy). I started my high school’s chapter of Amnesty International. As I got older, however, I came to the conclusion that merely making things better was not sufficient. There was an underlying problem fueling most of the injustices these organizations were created to address, a root cause that needed to be fixed. Fortunately, I come from a long line of passionate, determined people who showed me through example that every individual has the power to instigate change. In fact, if my maternal great- grandfather hadn’t believed it, that street child could easily have been me.
A FAMILY RISES
My great-grandfather’s name was Sharat Chandra Janah, and he did something exceedingly rare for a boy from a low- caste Indian family: he rose. Born in a poor fishing village in West Bengal, his intelligence attracted the attention of the nuns in his Catholic school. With their encouragement he went on to university and law school, becoming one of the top trial lawyers of Kolkata. Yet he never forgot how he had been forced to sit at a separate table from his schoolmates because of his low caste, and he always chafed against any system that barred people from opportunity by virtue of their station in life. He made it a point to take pro bono cases of tribal people who were being discriminated against and had no prayer of finding representation. My mother had memories of strangers staying at the family compound for days while they waited for their court appointments.
Her parents met because, like my great- grandfather, my grandmother Christiane, a beautiful Belgian redhead, took an opportunity to change her destiny. I know this story because Christiane documented her amazing journey in a book called Le tour du monde avec cinq dollars, which translates to Around the World with Five Dollars. Her family, the Zeebroeks, fled Belgium in 1940 to escape the Nazi occupation. When she was twenty- five years old, craving adventure and fed up with the stifling secretarial job she had landed in Paris after finishing university, Christiane joined a group of friends planning to travel the world spreading a postwar message of peace. They called themselves Les Messagers (The Messengers). Starting out with nothing more than five dollars, some packs, and a few tents, the four boys and two girls hitchhiked across Europe down to Italy. From there, the merry band crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa and continued across the Middle East, until finally arriving in Kolkata.
My great-uncle Sunil, my grandfather’s brother, was a prominent Bengali photographer who was known for his coverage of the Indian independence movement and the human rights abuses committed by the British during that period. He happened to attend one of Christiane’s lectures at the University of Kolkata, and, intrigued by the group’s story, he invited them to stay at the family home. And so Les Messagers trooped over to 57 Rashbehari Avenue, which was also the headquarters for Chandra Janah’s law practice, and set up their tents on the terrace. That evening, as legend has it, my grandfather, Ashis, was coming up to see what all the fun was about as my grandmother was coming down the stairs. He saw her standing above him with the moonlight illuminating her red hair. He fell madly in love. She wasn’t so sure. Shortly afterward she continued on her journey, crisscrossing Asia and traveling by boat to the United States before returning to Europe. Hearing that she was back in Paris, my grandfather tracked Christiane down and enrolled at the Sorbonne, taking the last option they had left, a ceramics course, just so he could be near her. She must have come around because they married in Paris within the year, and my mother was born a few years later at her mother’s family home in Nice.
Unsurprisingly, Christiane did not settle into typical domestic married life. Instead, she and my grandfather returned to Kolkata and opened India’s first art ceramics studio. Though she lived in a city famous in the West for Mother Teresa and child prostitutes, my mother was educated at private schools and raised in a rare sliver of Indian society, middle-class intellectuals who were neither poor nor particularly rich. She grew up steeped in an incredible melting pot of artists and cultural leaders whom her parents frequently socialized with and entertained. She was also often left alone to fend for herself.
Awkward and isolated at school as well— biracial students were still unusual, and the strange stories she told of things she’d seen in France as a child alienated her from her classmates— she turned inward, finding solace in caring for animals. In a city plagued with acute poverty, strays and injured creatures were the lowest priority. Even as a young girl my mother, who never studied anatomy or medicine, became known for her uncanny healing powers. With no animal shelters in Kolkata, people would leave wounded animals on the doorstep of 57 Rashbehari. She mended a squirrel’s broken bone, and after that he never left her side, happily riding around in her pocket on the bus.
My mother found it hard to warm up to people, but she was incredible with animals. My brother and I would groan every time she’d pull over to see if she could resuscitate what looked to us like roadkill, chalking up her behavior as just one more reason our odd family would never fit into the Southern California suburbs. Yet through her grace toward wounded creatures she gave us a powerful connection to nature and a sense of duty toward the suffering. In her own way, too, she showed me that individuals can make a difference even when situations appear hopeless.
My father, Sahadev Chirayath, grew up in a middle-class family from Kerala, where generations of men in his family had worked for Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, the Pittsburgh of South Asia. Around the age of nineteen, my dad transferred to Bombay to finish his studies at that branch of the Indian Institute for Technology after narrowly escaping expulsion from the IIT Kanpur campus for staging a play in the nude on a rooftop (it was after all the 1970s). A polymath who loved poetry, spoke multiple Indian languages, played classical Indian music, and loved James Joyce, he was not your typical structural engineer. It was in Bombay where he met my mother, who was pursuing a degree in English literature. She was eighteen.
Like thousands of other young, educated Indian graduates in the mid-1970s, my father realized his future was abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, India’s economy was still mostly agricultural, and there just weren’t enough jobs around to absorb the waves of newly minted technical talent. So my father moved to the United States after finding work as a civil engineer in Buffalo, New York. A few months later, he proposed to my mother in a letter. She accepted with a two-word telegram- “I will.” They were married shortly afterward in a civil ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, where my father’s brother was a professor.
Like most immigrants, they came to the United States with little more than the clothes on their backs and the skills in their heads and hands, which, in my father’s case, were in great demand. My mother was less lucky. An English literature degree from India would not be particularly marketable in the United States now, much less in 1977 Buffalo. She was so talented and smart— she could recite long passages from Macbeth from memory— yet the only job she could get was chopping onions at the local Wendy’s near their apartment in Grand Island, a suburb just south of Niagara Falls. To this day, I see her in the many immigrant cabdrivers, restaurant workers, and other low-wage employees I encounter who were doctors, lawyers, and white- collar job holders in other countries, but whose educational or professional credentials aren’t recognized to allow them to practice here in the States. As if that weren’t demoralizing enough, neighbors would remark in amazement, “Wow, you speak such good English!” and she would have to explain again and again that English was the official language of India and that she had been speaking it, along with several other languages, since she could talk. Some people said uglier things, like “Go back to India,” or asked her, “Did you live with monkeys?” They had no concept of an intellectual class in India. This is the core challenge that Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie refers to in her TED Talk on the “danger of a single story”— so often, immigrants in America are given a single narrative: they’re either desperate and poor, or lazy and ungrateful. Life was not easy, and the financial pressure and social isolation were hard on my parents’ marriage. But they did their best. I was born four years after they arrived.
After we moved to Arizona my mother started fresh, enrolling at Pima Community College in Tucson and taking computer science courses, which she thought would be more bankable than her English degree. She also ran a plant nursery and later got a job at United Airlines as a contractor. As she was able to excel, my mother’s confidence and sense of self returned. Upon receiving her computer degree she started working in IT and learned how to write BASIC software. My father continued his engineering career.
When I was seven, my dad got a job in Southern California. My parents scraped together everything they had to move us into a neighborhood zoned to one of the highest-ranked schools in the area. Bookish and passionate about science— one of my favorite experiments was setting fire to things in the backyard to see which items would burn the fastest— I started school with enthusiasm. But by the third grade it became clear that there were rules for survival and fitting in, and I didn’t know them. The school was affluent, and the kids were merciless. This was long before the days of Mindy Kaling and Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra, and South Asians were invisible in mainstream culture. I was the only person of color in my grade and I felt it. My ashy skin and hairy legs, not to mention my clothes, handmade by my mother or bought at the Pic ’n Save, made me an easy target for the mean girls in the Guess sweater sets. When I’d get on my bike to go home, they would surround me, blocking my way and jeering at me in their own form of pig Latin. I retreated into books. Things got marginally better once I moved to a less affluent school, but still, I’d have done anything to trade in my straight black hair for a cascade of blond permed curls and rename myself Rebecca.
I was pretty miserable until high school, when I was accepted into a math and science magnet program called CAMS, the California Academy of Math and Science. Drawing from ten different school districts around the L.A. area, its mission is to expose more women and minorities to the STEM fields. Finally, I had found all the other Southern California nerdy misfits from lower-income backgrounds. The universe opened up for me.
AN INTRODUCTION TO WORK
Around this time my home life became extremely difficult as my parents’ marriage, frayed since the beginning, began to seriously unravel. School and work became my escapes. I joined every extracurricular activity I could, falling in love with dance, and did odd jobs around the neighborhood. I launched a babysitting business. Fanned by my father’s emphasis on jugaad, I learned early that if I wanted something badly enough, I was going to have to figure out how to earn it myself. But work also helped me understand what I was good at. And unlike school, I got paid on the basis of how well I overcame challenges. That was a real revelation, that I brought value to the world that was worth someone else’s money. It gave me confidence, which I sorely needed when things were so unstable at home.
I did everything I could to stay out of the house, even participating in extracurricular activities that I hated, like water polo. And I worked. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I took a job as a junior legal secretary, commuting from San Pedro to a downtown law firm located in one of the big skyscrapers that spiked the skyline. The bus left once an hour, and I had to transfer to the Red Line in Inglewood, so I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to be in the office by 8:30. It was eye-opening to see how full those buses were so early in the morning. I felt privileged. Though I was only fourteen, I was going to a white- collar office job, while most of the people around me were on their way to clean houses or cook food. Everyone was tired and quiet. Some people would fall asleep. Many carried their lunch in their hands.
That job revved my self-esteem. Even though I’d purchased my clothes from thrift stores, I felt a profound sense of pride when I dressed up in my suits and pantyhose every morning. I was a working woman, and I took myself a little too seriously. I even wore little scarves around my neck.
The head legal secretary, a woman named Liz Dempsey, who seemed like she came straight out of the movie Working Girl, with her coiffed hair and perfect acrylic nails, was a master at creating order from chaos. She taught me how to use Outlook and Excel, manage the calendars of half a dozen lawyers, and graciously greet the weirdos who’d come into the office to be deposed.
I made about a thousand dollars that summer, which was a fortune compared to the money I’d previously earned from babysitting and the other odd jobs I’d found. I knew I was low on the totem pole, but I loved the feeling of being absorbed in something bigger than myself. Whatever concerns I had about my family life or school fell away when I was at the office. Even then, it was clear that work brought out my best self.
I also started to think deeply about what people needed from work. My mother was active in picket lines and protesting for workers’ rights in the factories of L.A., and sometimes I’d go with her to see what they were fighting for. The experience always left a bad taste in my mouth. So often the protests were completely disconnected from action or results of any kind; the protesters themselves were disorganized and didn’t know what they wanted. I felt like our time would have been much better spent in a courtroom fighting for their rights or, better yet, building a business that paid them living wages and gave them access to training and other job benefits, and showed consumers a real alternative.
I resolved to try to align my form of protest with real results, measurable improvement that combined the scientific method I’d studied in high school with the social justice orientation I learned from my parents.
With this new view, the world seemed limitless. With a year and a half’s worth of college credit already complete (my school was on a Cal State campus, which meant I could take college classes for free), and eager to get away from home, where my parents were embroiled in a bitter divorce, I started making plans to graduate early. I applied for every scholarship I could. Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I won a ten-thousand-dollar “Teen Helping Influence People” award for community service. What I hadn’t noticed when applying was that the award was sponsored by the Lorillard Tobacco Company. Now I was caught in an ethical dilemma. I had little interest in supporting or promoting Big Tobacco, and I was relatively sure that neither of the two progressive organizations to which I had given my heart and soul would approve. What was I going to do? I had a very patient guidance counselor who had already spent many hours talking to me about my options for leaving home. With his help, I came up with a plan: instead of using the money for my education, I would use the money to do something educational. Preferably someplace far, far away. I wanted to serve, I wanted to escape the havoc at home, and, like my grandmother Christiane when she was young, I craved adventure and wanted to see the world. There had to be something bigger out there for a teenager than worrying about SAT scores and college applications. I was disappointed to learn that I was too young to join the Peace Corps, but an online search led me to another program, the American Field Service (AFS), which managed study abroad programs for high school kids and had just launched a service program in Ghana.
And that’s how in January 2000, three months after my seventeenth birthday, during what would have been my second semester of high school, I left suburban Los Angeles and moved to Apirede, a village in the southern part of rural Ghana. My friends’ parents were horrified that I’d been allowed to leave home at such a young age to live in what surely had to be a dangerous country. But my parents gave me their blessing. They understood that freedom was a powerful teacher, and were sure I would be fine. As it turned out, rural Africa is probably a hundred times safer than most big American cities, provided you avoid mosquito bites and have access to healthy food.
AFS didn’t offer any formal teaching training; they simply arranged the trip and teaching position, and paid my host family a stipend to cover my room and board. After that I was pretty much on my own. My assignment was to teach English to blind kids. I had no teaching experience and no knowledge of Braille (I started studying it as soon as I arrived). The village, home to about 250 people, was in a remote part of the country about thirty miles north of the capital city of Accra. There was only sporadic electricity and no phone; to make a long- distance call I’d have to walk to the neighboring village.
My host family’s son had left Africa to find work and fulfill his ambitions. He had made it as a doctor in the United States and periodically sent them money, but they had chosen to stay in Apirede. Their home, the only house in the village, was small but had several comfortably furnished rooms, a veranda, and a solid tin roof. During the monsoon the fattest drops of rain I’ve ever seen would drum to a deafening crescendo on that roof. An immaculate Toyota Camry sat parked out in front, a gift their son had somehow shipped to them from the States. To my knowledge no one ever drove it; it didn’t budge the entire time I lived there. The family was extremely warm and kind. My host mother made it her mission to fatten me up and marry me off before I left Ghana.
Like many Americans volunteering abroad, I assumed my destitute charges at the West African School for the Blind, where I was assigned, would speak terrible English and depend on me to get them through the basics. A small part of me assumed something else: that I’d help my students— and, by extension, their families— become less poor by teaching them to value education and giving them the confidence to work hard. Somewhere along the way, despite my involvement with poor and marginalized communities in California, even I had internalized the somewhat racist myth I’d commonly heard in the media and would continue to hear, even in the halls of Harvard— that people without means might be in their predicament because they were not willing to work hard enough or had not developed the right personal or family values, or that certain regions had become poor because they were not “culturally oriented” toward working hard and creating wealth.
It was a shock, then, when I realized that no one could have worked harder than my new neighbors. The people I met in my village in Ghana would leave early in the morning for their fields, where they would cultivate several staple crops, like maize, bananas, plantains, cassava, beans, and pumpkins. If the villagers were lucky they would bring home enough food to feed their families. If they were unlucky, they might be forced to watch their children and loved ones suffer from malnutrition or illness.
It’s difficult for people who live in relative wealth to fathom what it is like to try to survive on the other end of the spectrum. I thought my extensive reading, my volunteer work, and my experiences in the United States had given me a greater- than- average understanding of what poverty looked like, but I could not conceive of the deprivation I saw in Ghana. In the United States, poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than about $23,000 a year. This is a very low number, and not nearly enough to make ends meet in the richest country in the world. But extreme poverty is on a different level. Extreme poverty is currently defined as living under $1.90 a day, and half the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives there. You might think that in a country like Ghana, that amount would buy you plenty more food and basic goods than here in the United States. But what most people don’t understand is that these figures, when reported by the World Bank, are already adjusted for purchasing power. We’re not talking about actually living on about $2 a day, but on what about $2 would buy you in a day in an average American city in 2011.
Think about that.
There were mangoes and avocados everywhere, but protein was expensive and hard to get. The first week I arrived, a tiny little girl came running to our house carrying a plastic cup the size of one of the 7- Eleven Big Gulps my friends and I would buy in high school, handling it as though the contents were liquid gold. She proudly presented me with the cup. Inside were three eggs, two with a crusty feather still stuck to their sides. She grinned. I didn’t get it. My host mother patiently explained that the little girl was from one of Apirede’s poorer families, and as a gesture of hospitality, her parents had sent her over with their most precious gift— three eggs from a chicken that didn’t lay many— to greet the new Obruni. Obruni means “white man” or “foreigner” in Twi, the language of the Ashanti people of southern Ghana. One of the great things about travel is getting out of your comfort zone and being forced to feel like an “other,” especially if that’s not your default mode. Still, it felt extraordinarily strange for this brown girl to be lumped into the same category as the white men who also colonized her parents’ homeland. One of the things I learned in Ghana is how fluid ethnic identity can be— one country’s “white man” is another’s “brown girl.” It’s all relative, which means the lines that divide us can’t be that significant.
Lives were often cut short savagely by avoidable causes. Families in Apirede were so poor that they couldn’t afford the most basic health care. One young boy died during the time I was there because his parents couldn’t afford a four- dollar malaria medication. This was just after I recovered from a bout of malaria myself, after suspending my Lariam tablets because they were giving me vivid, hallucinatory nightmares that made me too afraid to sleep. I quickly contracted the disease, developed high fever, and felt like I was going to die. My Obruni friends in Ghana chuckled and told me to go to the clinic and get a package of Fansidar. I bought it for four dollars, and quickly got better. The idea that a child in my village could die so easily was deeply upsetting. I cried for days wishing I’d known he was ill so I could have done something. This kind of avoidable tragedy was a daily fact of life in Ghana. People died because they didn’t have the money to give birth in a hospital, from hemorrhaging because they couldn’t afford to get stitches after an auto accident, from infections because they couldn’t pay for antibiotics. The kids in my classes were often blind from causes that could have been addressed in their infancy or in utero, had they been detected and treated early enough. That fate had led me to be born in a hospital in upstate New York, with the facilities to stop my mother from hemorrhaging during a very difficult twenty- four- hour labor, and led other kids in Ghana to lose mothers under the same circumstances, made me sick. I became deeply depressed, despite the many joyful aspects of life in Ashanti land: a rich tradition of fashion and sculpture, dance, music, and close families and communities.
Everywhere in Ghana I saw people working at the limits of their physical capacity, but not earning enough to live decent lives. How could they still be so poor? It didn’t add up. I had grown up in the States and believed in meritocracy because it had worked for my parents. I knew not all schools were equal— as an intern with the ACLU I’d worked on a case against the California State Board of Education on behalf of a school where students were demanding access to at least one Advanced Placement class, even as their more affluent peers in the neighboring school district could choose from almost fifty. I had also read Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities, about how inequality is perpetuated in the American public school system because of the way schools are funded through local property taxes, which favors wealthy districts with higher property values. But still I believed that if you could get a basic education and worked diligently, you should be able to earn enough money to live with dignity. My understanding of jugaad was based on the underlying assumption that hard work inevitably reaps rewards.
After I had spent two months in Ghana, a young boy named Femi Abass shattered this way of thinking. My students ranged in age from nine to twenty- five. Many were just getting their primary education. In this country with few resources for people with disabilities, some families, ashamed of the stigma, hid their children until they could send them away to this school, the Akropong School for the Blind. Established in 1945, it was the oldest school for the blind in West Africa. The one- room library was filled with moldy books. The materials I had to use to teach my young charges were laughably bad and boring, Braille texts donated by Queen Elizabeth to support a 1950s curriculum developed for Western schoolchildren whose life experiences allowed them to comprehend sentences like “Penny wore her red cloak to the market when it snowed.” I was appalled. I’d learn that the colonial educational system in developing countries enforced a sort of inferiority complex on students. Even in the year 2000, the materials still drew from Western countries that had little bearing on life in a place like West Africa, rather than drawing from the children’s own cultures. Ghanaian kids learned more about life in England than about their own rich traditions. It seemed like much of the colonial education system had been set up to build a sense of loyalty to the mother country, not to the colony.
Later, in college, I would study the political movement behind the repatriation of art that was taken during colonial times from sub- Saharan Africa and remained housed in European museums. Unlike art owned by Jews and stolen by the Nazis, much of which had been returned, this plundered art remained in the hands of those who took it. And that meant that millions of African schoolchildren were deprived of the chance to see what their ancestors had created. For too long, schoolchildren in developing countries have been taught, explicitly or implicitly, to deny their own heritage. In addition, historians like Samuel Huntington, who posited that poor regions were poor because they “lack the Protestant work ethic,” would point to the complex artistic works in places like Rome and Alexandria as evidence of Western superiority. But just as being poor does not correlate with a lack of work ethic— one only has to spend a little time with someone earning less than two dollars a day to see that she works harder than any person behind a desk receiving benefits— the amount of art developed by a civilization does not correlate with greatness. Besides, poor countries in Africa did produce complex artistic works; they had just been plundered by colonialists. The two largest collections of Nigerian art are housed outside Nigeria, in Europe. (I wrote my senior paper on the movement to bring back two iconic ivory hip masks depicting a famous Benin Empire queen, Idia, from the Met and the British Museum, where they are part of the permanent collections.) How could a young historian in Africa grow up feeling pride in his culture’s contributions when so much of the evidence of those contributions remained on another continent?
Yet Femi Abass was proud. Femi was a ten- year- old student whose eyes had acquired a milky- white coating in early childhood from a preventable condition his mother could not afford to treat, which I’d later realize was probably cataracts. His single mother had fled fighting in her Nigerian hometown to find refuge in Ghana, where she had wanted her son to go to the best school she could find. He’d stay after school almost every day and loved to talk about the books he was reading, especially Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Femi had the kind of raw talent that can evolve into genius under the right mentors. It was Femi who inspired me to trash the standard rote curriculum in favor of Harlem Renaissance poems I picked up from the American embassy library in Accra, one of the crown jewels of our presence in West Africa, a library I’d heard about from a friend and then visited in weekly pilgrimages to collect new reading and writing material. I transcribed the poems into Braille using a stylus that punched little holes into paper, then used a Braille printer called a Thermaform machine to make copies. Shamelessly stealing my high school teachers’ lesson plans, I led the students through riveting discussions about the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. And so their rhythmic verses, influenced by the African roots of blues and jazz music, flowed through the school hallways and captivated kids who, I felt, had an extra developed sense of sound and rhythm owing to their underdeveloped eyesight. My students reveled in the idea that learning could be fun, pursued just for the sheer joy of it. They were fascinated to learn about the African diaspora and to discover that they shared common ancestors with African Americans. In fact, for more than a century, Ghana was the hub of the European slave trade, and it was fewer than a hundred miles away that millions of slaves were warehoused in the dungeons of the infamous Cape Coast slave castle before being loaded onto ships that would transport them to the Americas, unless they died at sea during the Middle Passage.
I launched a creative writing program, and the work my students produced was poignant, insightful, and wise. I had stumbled into a pool of incredible talent. These were smart kids who listened to Voice of America and BBC, who could name U.S. senators and had opinions on Bill Clinton’s last speech. Led by Femi, a handful of students stayed after class each afternoon to pepper me with questions about poetry, life in America, and their future in Ghana. One wanted to be a doctor, another a teacher, a third a journalist. They were so hungry for knowledge. All asked me to help them move to the United States because they thought our country was a place of opportunity.
It was not hard to see that I had landed in America and they’d landed in Apirede by an accident of birth, and that our fates were, statistically speaking, tied tightly to this accident. Femi would have smoked me in fourth grade had he not been born to a single mother in a country where the average daily income was equivalent to two American dollars in 2005. The disparity made me sick. At least once a week, I wept alone in my room and tried to imagine what I could do to make Femi’s life better. In retrospect, it’s clear that Femi planted the small seed of frustration that forced me, years later, to become a social entrepreneur. His talent made plain the fact that any success I enjoyed had less to do with my work ethic than with my birthplace in the richest country in the world.
It’s so easy when you’re living in a middle-class suburb with good schools and enough food on your plate to think that there’s some reason why some people make it and others don’t, that our fate is entirely dictated by how hard we work. I had subconsciously bought into the myth that poor people are poor because they didn’t want to better themselves, because they squandered opportunities and wasted their talents. It had never occurred to me before that there were places where there simply were no opportunities. Over the years I would learn more about how that lack of opportunity is internalized and affects the human psyche. In their book Scarcity, professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain how the brain changes when operating under conditions of extreme scarcity, shifting its focus to short- term survival. Through a series of novel experiments, the authors found this to be true even for people who were once wealthy. Deprive a successful CEO of food for long enough, and her ability to make long- term plans, concentrate on abstract tasks or higher- level projects, and avoid obsessive thinking about food falls dramatically. This is the predicament that more than 2 billion people find themselves in daily, and it severely curtails their ability to enjoy the fruits of being human— making plans for the future, learning, or playing games or sports, for example. If we think about extreme poverty as akin to enforced scarcity, we start to see its debilitating impacts on the brain and on communities and entire societies. How can a country “develop” if more than a quarter of its citizens’ brains are obsessed with thoughts of food almost constantly?
My blind students had the same big dreams as anyone else, but the likelihood that they would achieve them was slim. There just weren’t enough jobs to go around to everyone who wanted one, and certainly not for a blind child with no connections. The realization was heartbreaking. If you truly believe that all humans are created equal, then you can’t sit back and watch people live lives of utter desperation and suffering for no reason but the circumstances of their birth and do nothing about it.
One thing that did help me feel like I was making an immediate difference was the work I did conducting reproductive- health surveys for Planned Parenthood. At the time, Ghana had one of the lowest rates of HIV/AIDS in Africa, which many people attributed to the high adoption of condom use. This was Planned Parenthood’s central program, and it was remarkable. They had only local staff and ran a lean operation: peer educators strapped boxes of condoms marked “USAID” to the backs of motorcycles to take into villages that were inaccessible by road. I learned that part of the program’s success was that it was set up as a social enterprise. Rather than give the condoms away, peer educators would sell them at a very low price, a few cents in U.S. dollars, and thus make a bit of money to incentivize them to distribute more condoms. At the same time, the population that bought condoms valued them more than if they’d been given out for free. I was fascinated by how this kind of hybrid thinking had resulted in an improved outcome. It seemed counter to most of what I saw in the NGO world, where goods and services were doled out for free, often with devastating consequences for the local economy. I would confirm the reasons behind the program’s success over the following years as I studied the causes of poverty and the often counterproductive effects of aid and charity: even health interventions are most powerful when they are market driven— when local people have enough money to purchase the services they need (or to be taxed, and thus contribute to funding services at the government level).
Eventually my time in Apirede came to an end. Ultimately, the only “danger” I encountered during my entire seven months in Ghana, other than contracting malaria, was getting my camera stolen during a visit to Akropong’s main craft market. While haggling with a sculptor in one of the stalls, I had put my Nikon down, and left without it, not realizing my mistake until a few hours later. I went back to the vendor, who denied that I left it until I started lecturing him about being a good Christian. Sheepishly, he retreated to the back of his shop and pulled my camera out from below a pile of wood shavings. He apologized profusely and offered to give me a refund for what I had bought from him. Overall, I had extraordinarily positive experiences. Taxi drivers in Accra, the capital city, would often refuse to let me pay my fare once they heard I was volunteering in a school for blind kids. Shopkeepers would give me and my two Obruni friends, Coralie and Manuela, from Belgium and Switzerland, respectively, free Fantas in exchange for our stories and to show us their gratitude for volunteering in Ghana. When I’d ride the tro- tros— packed minibuses similar to the modes of transportation seemingly found everywhere in the developing world, from Jeepneys in Manila to matatus in Nairobi— and tell people I was American, passengers would eagerly talk about Bill Clinton, still excited about his visit two years earlier, when he’d been the first U.S. president to visit their country. I felt welcomed everywhere I went.
When the semester was over I backpacked around the country with Coralie and Manuela. We talked endlessly about the differences between our respective countries, and I learned a great deal about European social policy from them. For example, in their native Belgium and Switzerland, it was unthinkable that someone would go without health care because they couldn’t afford it, and it was accepted that a portion of people’s tax dollars should be allotted to international relief efforts. By contrast, in the United States, where we pay significantly lower taxes than Europeans do, many people believe we should reduce our aid spending to less than 1 percent of the budget, wholly unaware that, in fact, we already spend less than a tenth of that.
We all agreed that our time in Ghana had been transformative. The idea of a gap year to volunteer overseas is very common in Europe, but mostly still foreign in the United States. And yet it’s one of the best things a young person can do for herself. A friend of mine even started an organization to promote a new version of the concept— Global Citizen Year— after seeing the data that shows that people who do service learning trips at a young age, especially when they are on their own and not in a highly structured group environment, improve their job prospects and tend to make more compassionate choices as they get older and progress in their careers. Indeed, in my surveys of people in “do-good”–type careers like mine, I found that most could point to some sort of catalytic moment they experienced when they were working in a poor community that made it impossible for them to ignore social issues in their future careers. After the injustice I’d seen, it would have been impossible for me to go home and not devote my life to trying to fix it. Samasource is a direct result of the time I spent with the families of Apirede.
Most people think that you have to have a trust fund to volunteer in Africa. That’s bullshit. Anyone can find a way, whether by saving money from a summer job or by convincing local businesses to sponsor you. And you aren’t limited to international service or the Peace Corps. The proposed 2017 federal budget threatens its funding, but as of the writing of this book we have our very own domestic version in AmeriCorps, which could match you with any number of projects in focus areas like disaster services, economic opportunity, or education, to name a few.
There’s been a backlash against Western volunteers abroad in recent years. In early 2016, Courtney Martin wrote a brilliant essay decrying the white, Western savior mentality that leads so many well- meaning young people to travel abroad to volunteer. Ignorant of the complexities surrounding the social problems in non- Western countries, they think it will be easier to make a difference there than in their home countries, a trend Martin calls “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems.” But in criticizing white— or any— young people for trying to help the poor in developing countries, authors of this new wave of anti- NGO press commit the very sin they’re trying to avoid: they “otherize” the brown and black people with whom they want to stand in solidarity. There are better targets for our vitriol than would- be do- gooders just getting started in life. Only by learning just how complicated the world’s problems are will they be inspired to come up with real solutions.
Six months after I’d arrived in Ghana, I boarded a plane to return to the States. My experience had left me ecstatic, but also a little overwhelmed and depressed. Colors were a bit less vivid and music less joyful when I thought about the masses of people sharing the planet with me who couldn’t enjoy the same things I could. It was a burden that I’d carry forever, one that I know I share with many who have had similarly eye-opening experiences and have devoted themselves, even for a short time, to focusing on the problems of poverty and social injustice. I now knew I wanted to address the issue of global poverty, but I had no idea how. I arrived home, however, to something that would give me a shot of optimism: boxes of pale blue aerograms. My former students had asked for my address so we could remain pen pals, and their friends and relatives had sent me letters asking for help. “Dear Sister Leila, please send me a box of crayons.” “Dear Madam Leila, I would be grateful for drinking water.” One actually said, “Show me the money.”
Someone else might have been offended or disappointed. Six months studying creative writing together, and all I get are requests for handouts from my students’ relatives? But I saw something else. It takes a lot of effort to write a letter in rural Ghana. You have to find a pen, which isn’t a cheap item there. You have to buy the paper. And then there was the fact that these were long letters that had taken quite a bit of time and effort to write. Anyone willing to go to such effort to compose a letter asking for something that costs less than $2.50 is doing it because it’s the only thing he can do. In an environment where high school and college graduates face 70 percent unemployment, asking for handouts is the best use of their resources. If they or their parents could have worked to earn those crayons or bottles of water, they would have. I had talked at length to my students and their families to better understand their economic situations. Most people in countries like Ghana make their living in the informal economy, doing jobs like selling snacks by the side of the road, bringing produce to the weekly market, or tailoring. These jobs are unregulated and don’t pay living wages. People usually have to work several of them at once to make enough money to get by (taking what’s called a “portfolio approach” to income). What my students really wanted more than anything else was good work, and the chance to earn enough money to experience the kind of freedom, adventure, and independence that I took for granted. If these tough, smart kids were given a fair shot to make a living, how far could they go? They had skills and they had potential. All they needed were jobs.
I never saw Femi again, and I don’t know what happened to him. We exchanged a few letters after I left Ghana, but in those pre-Facebook days, when connectivity could be found only in a few Internet cafés in downtown Accra, it was tough to keep in touch with people in rural Africa. But I think about him every time I meet people whose lives have been transformed by work— not because they are more intelligent, or more determined, or have more hustle, than anyone else, but because they got a shot at the kind of opportunity that Femi and his classmates so desperately wanted.
For example, Janet, a worker in the Samasource Super Center at Gulu University in Uganda, used her income to support her sister and cover her school tuition, clear her father’s medical bills, and pay off some of her own school fees. A stunning woman, Janet has a quiet, dignified presence and speaks in low, soothing tones. Since joining in 2012, she has proven to be one of Samasource’s most capable workers, rising from data- entry agent to quality analyst to team leader. When asked to describe the impact employment has had on her community, she replied, “It has helped us develop ourselves and develop our families.” She added that she especially appreciated the new skills she learned, in particular effective communication. “I was a shy person, but now I’m confident and I can speak in front of everyone without fear.”
Martha lives in Nairobi, Kenya, but shares a similarly triumphant story. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she was raised by her grandmother and then sent to live in a slum with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle often came home drunk and abused her, making enough of a ruckus to alert the neighbors. “It was emotionally tormenting. It was a very hard life.” After her aunt died, her uncle kicked her out of the house. Eventually she was sent to live in an orphanage, but when she graduated from high school and aged out, she was faced with desperate uncertainty: though the nuns running the rescue center would help her pay for college, where she planned to get a marketing degree, she had no way to support herself and nowhere to live. Then Martha heard from a trainer at her college that Samasource was hiring. She dressed up and went for an interview, assuming she would never get a callback. But several days later she was offered a job— her first job ever. “That was my happiest day.” She started working the shift that runs from 2:00 p.m. to midnight so she could attend school in the mornings. With her earnings, Martha was able to rent, for the first time, her own tiny room. The door is broken, but it has a secure lock. In a small kitchen hang a few pots; her bedroom holds only a bed and a tidy pile of clothes. But it’s all hers. Finally, she is realizing her dream “to have my own place, pay for my rent, buy my own food, [and] be independent.” She still pays visits to the orphanage; her salary allows her to bring sweets and toys for the children.
Janet and Martha came from environments as equally challenging as that of my students in Ghana. But by the time I met these young women, I no longer felt helpless and inadequate. By then I had developed the tools to connect people to meaningful work, and the women’s success proved that our strategy could make all the difference.
The tools were not the ones I originally thought I’d use. A generous scholarship allowed me to spend the next few years after Ghana at Harvard, where I initially majored in government because I thought that would best prepare me to tackle the issue of poverty, before switching to a major I designed myself that combined international economic development with a focus on Africa. I studied French and Portuguese, the continent’s two other major colonial languages. And I took a class with Kiaran Honderich, a visiting professor who exposed us to what were, in 2003, pretty heretical teachings that ran counter to those of Samuel Huntington and so many of the old white men who peddled economics and history orthodoxy. Honderich and a professor named Caroline Elkins, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, showed me a new way of thinking about Africa from the perspective of Africans, rather than that of the colonial powers. I learned how Caroline tirelessly interviewed hundreds of octogenarian Kenyans, asking them detailed questions about the colonial period and the Mau Mau rebellion, a resistance movement against the British in the 1950s. It’s this kind of listening that’s so rare in the world of foreign aid and development. True listening requires a sense of solidarity with the speaker, a belief in the other person’s inherent worth and dignity. And true listening is what turned me on to the idea of giving work.
It was in Honderich’s class that I read ethics professor Thomas Pogge’s most famous book, World Poverty and Human Rights. This book would be one of the greatest influences on my thinking about development and aid, and crystallized why I should care about poor people on the other side of the world. Then a professor of ethics at Yale, Pogge linked the basic ideas that moral and political philosopher John Rawls popularized in his seminal theory about social justice— the idea that in a truly just society, policy makers would make laws and design institutions behind a “veil of ignorance” about where they might land in the hierarchy, so they’d be motivated to design a system they’d be happy with regardless of whether they were born into a poor family or a rich one. Rawls’s theory of justice became a staple of moral philosophy, but Pogge argued that it was wrong in one key way: it applied only to citizens of one country. Pogge deftly summarized the main problem with globalization: that because capital and goods move easily across borders, but people can’t, global consumers are complicit in a system that keeps some people poor and allows others to grow rich. Social policy isn’t designed from behind a veil of ignorance locally, and even less so globally, since there is no global governance. Thus, Pogge argued, we have a “positive moral duty” to help the poor. A positive moral duty is a duty not just to avoid harming someone (this is what philosophers call a “negative moral duty”)— it’s a duty to help. And this duty is a consequence of our involvement in a system that oppresses people.
Anytime I put gas in my car, buy something made with parts, minerals, or labor from overseas, or otherwise participate in the global economic system, I’m part of it. And as a part of it, I’m therefore responsible in some way for the other people in the system. This is the cornerstone of the school of global justice in moral philosophy. For the first time, Pogge gave legitimacy to something I’d felt in my heart but had never been able to rationalize in my head: that I had a moral duty to help people who were far away from me physically, yet victimized by a system in which I was complicit.
Despite a full course load and a custom major, I worked, because even with a scholarship, life in Cambridge was expensive. At one point I held three part- time jobs: barmaid at the local theater, tutor to a child with mild autism from a wealthy family, and research assistant at a firm in Waltham. One summer I saved money for another trip to Africa by joining dorm crew, Harvard’s euphemistically named janitorial service. This involved literally cleaning the shit off the wealthier students’ toilets. I found the work bizarrely satisfying. I began to calculate purchases by the number of toilets it took to afford them, and honed my discount shopping skills. I bonded with my crewmates and discovered one of them had a father who taught in the neuroscience department. Mine weren’t the only parents who believed that hard work was character building.
I raised enough money in grants to allow me to spend many summers and a full semester working for nongovernmental organizations, doing field research, and traveling to developing countries like Rwanda, Mozambique, and Senegal so I could understand the root causes of poverty. In 2002, I worked in India for the social entrepreneur network and incubator Ashoka on their nascent Law for All Initiative. My efforts scored me a research gig at the mecca of international development and a leader in the fight against poverty, the World Bank.
I took a semester off so I could work there under two different professors, Michael Woolcock, whose class I’d taken at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and senior economist Varun Gauri. They didn’t have roles for undergraduates, but I weaseled my way in by offering to work for a very meager contractor salary, an option because a friend offered me a free place to stay in D.C. It should have been a dream job. Though still an undergrad, I worked with the Development Research Group, a bit like a mini think tank, and did research to support the 2006 World Development Report on Equity, as well as a paper on social and economic rights. For a while I thought I might go for an academic or policy career and travel the world studying these kinds of macro issues. But though the World Bank was populated by incredible, committed people, it was also bogged down with red tape and complicated hierarchies. And I thought the bank’s approach to addressing poverty at the time was misguided. We were focused on job creation via foreign investment in big infrastructure projects and large companies, the kind of trickledown policy that ended up helping wealthy entrepreneurs in developing countries, but not the worst-off, lowest-income people. For all these reasons, I feared innovation might be difficult within this setting, and I had begun to realize that only innovative entrepreneurial thinking was going to get to the heart of the problem I wanted to solve. Which was why after graduating from Harvard I made a calculated move: rather than head back to another NGO or set my sights on getting a Ph.D., I took a job offer at Katzenbach Partners LLC (which we all called KPL then; now it’s Booz & Company), a consulting firm in New York City. I was recruited by the firm’s cofounder, Niko Canner, who asked me the first time I met him what I would do to reduce global poverty if I had a billion dollars. I loved his way of thinking about big hairy problems, and thought that working for KPL would prepare me to make better contributions afterward in the international development sector, which badly needed the kind of business thinking in which consulting firms specialized. I also needed to pay off my school debt. I took the job knowing I would leave it. It would be a stepping- stone, a place where I could acquire the business skills I’d need to one day launch my own company that would create jobs for poor people.
It was an emotionally difficult time. I felt like I was working for The Man in my client work for big companies, which was uninspiring for someone who had figured out that her purpose was to fight poverty. Yet KPL was a great, progressive company that sponsored many social initiatives. I loved much of my time there, and I was given a lot of autonomy to work on interesting projects outside of day- to- day work. I hosted Susan Davis, a leader at Ashoka, for a discussion at the firm. I signed up to consult to KIPP, the award- winning charter school network that was making waves by proving that with access to the right kind of schools, poor inner- city kids could make it into Ivy League colleges and successful careers. It was also during that time that I read Banker to the Poor, a memoir by economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, about how he founded Grameen Bank, which did what no other bank would do: offer small loans— microcredit— to the rural poor of Bangladesh. As of December 2015, Grameen has disbursed $18 billion worth of collateral- free loans to about 9 million borrowers, 97 percent of them women, giving them the capital they need to start businesses or finish their education and build a future.
Professor Yunus structured Grameen as “a non-loss, non-dividend” company. The structure of this social business, as he would call it, was intended to blend the best of both the for- profit and nonprofit worlds. Profit was encouraged, but not at the expense of the social mission and always reinvested back into the company. Eliminating the private profit motive would protect the mission of the business should it come under pressure to put profit ahead of social impact, as so often happens. There may be some new exceptions to this rule with novel company structures, but a nonloss, nondividend company is a self- sustaining enterprise that’s not dependent on donations, with leadership that retains pride of ownership yet has no incentive to profit from the labor of the end beneficiary.
I was utterly inspired, and began to think about possible models for my own business. When I hosted David Bornstein, the New York Times writer who’d authored a book on social entrepreneurs, for a KPL lunch-and-learn event, he told me about a number of other companies using the same model, such as VisionSpring (then led by Neil Blumenthal, now a cofounder of Warby Parker). I wanted to spend my time on this kind of work, not what I was then doing, which was driven by KPL’s business needs to help our clients become more successful and increase their profit margins.
On my first project, Katzenbach Partners sent me to Mumbai to help take a large Indian outsourcing company public. Their call center was housed in a sleek, modern building, where young people answered phones and handled customer service transactions for airlines and credit card companies in an enormous room lined with tables divided by hundreds of three- sided cubicles. Humming with voices, this call center represented just one of the thousands across Asia that were contributing to the tremendous outsourcing market. At the time I was reading a book about globalization that heavily featured this industry— The World Is Flat, by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Thomas Friedman. The title refers to his assertion that the rise in cheap access to connectivity and hardware in developing countries was flattening the global playing field, making it possible for them to compete for the knowledge work that had previously been the exclusive domain of a few wealthy countries, namely, the United States. He explains how outsourcing was transforming poverty in countries like India, where more than 2 million young people worked in call centers or business process outsourcing firms (BPOs) completing back- office work for multinational corporations. The book marked a turning point in Americans’ perceptions of India; people had begun to see the subcontinent as an economic powerhouse and, more contentiously, as a competitor for white- collar jobs, and no longer exclusively as a country racked by extreme poverty.
The extreme poverty still existed, of course. When I first traveled to Mumbai in 2003, through my student work at Ashoka, I’d seen it up close. Now, as a management consultant, I could have avoided it. My comfortable corporate housing and the call center were both located in the pastoral suburbs of the city, and my corporate American Express card allowed me to travel by private car or cab. Elites never traveled by train. But I was loath to remove myself completely from the reality of daily living in an Indian city, and I was still searching for meaning and a way to connect the work I had done in Ghana with what I was doing now. So I traveled by auto rickshaw instead of by cab to visit the company’s call centers, and I traveled on the train, jammed shoulder to shoulder among the rest of the city’s lower- income residents. The train meandered through some of the nicest and the poorest neighborhoods in Mumbai. That’s India— the best and the worst of everything exists side by side. It was the same inside the train. Maybe there have been some upgrades since, but at the time there were no doors on the train cars, so inside the women’s- only compartment, the smell of talcum powder and tuberoses braided through the women’s hair mingled with the stench of open sewers that announced our arrival near the slums.
Those train rides were uncomfortable, but they allowed me to see the country, especially its crushing poverty. And they gave me ample opportunity to ponder the turns of fate that had led to my being born in the United States to a life that was now filled with every luxury imaginable, even as so many young women in India were confined to lives of relative misery. I thought about my roots as a Bengali, known for our rebellious streak and argumentative nature, and how those traits had manifested themselves in a family dedicated to social justice, from my great- grandfather defending peasants pro bono to my photographer great- uncle Sunil documenting India’s struggle for independence and the horrific 1943 Bengal famine and to my mother, who protested for factory workers’ rights in Los Angeles. And here I was, a member of the global elite, in a position to really do something to help the poor, yet not quite sure where to begin.
In addition to steeping myself in daily Indian life, I did my best to talk to as many people as I could. It was while talking to some company employees that I discovered that though most came from the educated, middle- class Indian families that typically staffed these kinds of businesses, a few did not. In fact, I found out that one worker traveled to the call center every day from Dharavi, one of South Asia’s biggest slums. I’d seen it from a distance. The slum was only about three miles from Bandra, a trendy neighborhood full of cafés and restaurants, and impossible to miss during my treks on the trains. You might be familiar with Dharavi— it served as the setting for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. It is a desperate place, filled with refuse and raw sewage, a place where children die far too young from preventable diseases. And when I heard about this worker, I immediately saw the starting point I’d been searching for.
The World Is Flat didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know— it was describing a trend that had existed in India for quite some time already. But Friedman made it click for me. He connected the dots between what was happening with technology infrastructure, the rise of cheap broadband, and the fact that millions of educated young people in the developing world now spoke English and could do work via computers. The biggest barrier to economic development is the fact that masses of people are constrained by geography due to a lack of resources, and yet capital can move freely across borders. Digital work circumvents this. It frees workers to find jobs in the richest countries, even if they can’t ever physically leave their slum. And this direct connection between a poor person and a job that pays well was completely unprecedented at that time.
With the book fresh in my head, my work at the outsourcing company revealed to me a whole new possibility. Friedman had concentrated his analysis on how outsourcing was affecting job creation for middle-class and low-income countries. But I thought what Muhammad Yunus did for microfinance, I could do with outsourcing. The drawback to microfinance, however, is that the customer base is the same as the entrepreneur base. When everyone is making less than two dollars per day, there is no wealth transfer. I envisioned a marriage between Muhammad Yunus’s social business concept and a totally new model for creating work for the poor, one that didn’t rely on a local customer base of people who were also poor. In this case, customers could be anywhere. Through global trade, real wealth transfers occur when poor people exchange with rich people. I thought of all the disposable income of my Harvard classmates who came from wealthy families. Imagine if they could easily hire a tutor for their kids from Senegal or Ghana, someone who could work remotely and earn twenty times the local wage doing satisfying work that was skill building and leveraged their education. What if low- income people could participate virtually in the supply chains of the future? At that time, I was often thinking about how technology was widening our circles of empathy. Facebook launched on my college campus while I was a senior. I was among the first two thousand people to join before it expanded rapidly around the country. It was clear even back then that the connective tissue that bound communities together would soon bind people across nations and continents, even as massive inequality in rich countries would drive internal political divisions and threaten the global compact (a temporary reaction that will ease as soon as we’re able to find better solutions to job losses that result from automation— more on that later).
This employee and his cousin came from one of the most destitute places in the world. Upon learning where these men lived, most upper- class people would have dismissed them out of hand as surely too uneducated or too ignorant of basic office protocols to be able to handle desk work. And yet because they were lucky enough to work for a meritocratic firm that rewarded hardworking, ambitious employees with a lot of opportunities for advancement no matter where they were from, these men— who had likely started out as entry- level workers like tea servers (chai- wallahs) or janitors— were now answering calls on behalf of a major airline company. I was seeing with my own eyes the embodiment of what Thomas Friedman had documented in his book. The Internet was not just a way to share information; it could be a work superhighway connecting the poorest people in the world to the global economy. It had given rise to companies and platforms that necessitated the creation of digital jobs to handle work that had never existed before, like image tagging, data entry, and content creation. Large companies needed this work done, and there was no reason why young, literate poor people, people like Femi Abass in Ghana or the slum dwellers of Dharavi, couldn’t do it as long as we could get them connected to the Internet. I returned to New York and to my management consultant job, but I started working nights and weekends researching and developing my idea for a start- up that would hire only people like them. Outsourcing was a billion- dollar industry, and I was going to find a way for the poor to get a piece of it.
In his book The Hypomanic Edge, psychologist John Gartner posits the theory that the reason America produces such a high number of entrepreneurs is because so many of us are descended from immigrants. The thinking goes that anyone willing to leave behind everything they’ve ever known to build a new life in a strange, foreign country might be genetically programmed with a higher- than- average tolerance for risk. Perhaps it’s true. I’m the great- granddaughter of a man who defied the limits of his caste, the granddaughter of a woman who would not settle, the daughter of a mother who could heal what had been left to die, and a father willing to sacrifice everything for a better future. I’m shaped by the legacy of three generations of people who would not be constrained by circumstances. I took my fancy New York City job because it was the practical thing to do, but in the end it brought me full circle to the country of my ancestors, where I confirmed what I had discovered in Ghana, which is that where there is opportunity there is the potential for every human being to do as my family members did— and as most immigrants and marginalized people dream of doing: to rise, and to decide for themselves what is possible.