TechInAfrica — A serial entrepreneur Leila Janah, who was the CEO and founder of machine learning training data company Samasource, passed away at the age of 37 due to complications from epithelioid sarcoma, a form of cancer, according to a statement from the startup.
Janah focused her career on social and ethical entrepreneurship with the goal of ending global poverty, founding three distinct organizations over her career spanning the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.
She was most notable for Samasource, which was founded about a decade ago to help machine learning specialists develop better ML models through more complete and ethical training data sets.
The company is known for delivering AI-driven services to Fortune 100 companies with a global workforce of data specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.
Janah and her company were well ahead of their time, as issues related to bias in ML models have become top-of-mind for many product leaders in Silicon Valley today.
The company has 2,900 staff worldwide and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, Janah said.
She talked about taking Samasource, and its mainly African workforce, from nonprofit to for-profit status. “As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” she said.
Janah shared her view that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa. “I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she added.
“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”
In the announcement on Janah’s passing, Samasource said, “We are all committed to continuing Leila’s work, and to ensure her legacy and vision is carried out for years to come. To accomplish this, Wendy Gonzalez, a longtime business partner, and friend to Leila will take the helm as interim CEO of Samasource. Previously the organization’s COO, Wendy has spent the past five years working alongside Leila to craft Samasource’s vision and strategy.”
Aside from Samasource, Janah founded SF-based Samaschool, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income workers learn critical freelancing skills by helping them negotiate the changing dynamics in the freelance economy. The organization has built partnerships with groups like Goodwill to empower them to offer additional curricular resources within their own existing programs and initiatives.
Janah also founded LXMI, a skin-care brand that emphasized organic and fair-trade ingredients, with a focus on sourcing from low-income women’s cooperatives in East Africa. Founded in 2017, the company raised a seed round from the likes of NEA, Sherpa, and Reid Hoffman.
In all of her initiatives, Janah consistently put the concerns of under-represented people at the forefront, and designed organizations to empower such people in their daily lives. Her entrepreneurial spirit, commitment, and integrity will be sorely missed in the startup community.
Janah’s legacy will continue through the AI data-training specialists the company she founded, Samasource, trains, and employs. In late 2019, Samasource increased staff in Uganda to 90 people, with plans to grow that by 150% in 2020 as a part of its latest Series A.