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Leila Janah on Knowing When to Let Go

Leila Janah on Knowing When to Let Go

Leila Janah is a celebrated social entrepreneur who uses technology and lean business methods to promote social and economic justice. Named one of Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs” in 2013, Leila is the founder of the Sama Group and LXMI, two companies recently highlighted on Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” list, that share a common social mission to end global poverty by giving work to people in need. Leila speaks with knowledge and passion on social entrepreneurship and how to harness the digital revolution to fight to end poverty. The New York Times recently spoke with Leila on her upbringing, business approach, and leadership methods:

Q. Tell me about your early years.

A. I was born in upstate New York. My parents came here in the late ’70s from Mumbai, but my mom is half-Belgian. They were liberal intellectuals in India before they came here with nothing.

But they had an education and a dream. My father had gone to a top engineering school. My mom had a degree in English literature, but back then, a degree from an Indian university wasn’t recognized by employers or even grad schools, so she was chopping onions at Wendy’s as her first job.

And this is a woman who could recite passages from “Macbeth” verbatim, and people would ask her how she spoke such good English. It was kind of frustrating for her.

My mother ended up going into computer science. She was very nontraditional. In some ways, it was helpful to see an example of someone who broke the mold. She always told me that the most important thing in life is to follow your passion and not to worry too much about convention and whether you’re married or not married.

But my parents ended up divorcing. I did not have a very stable family life. We moved 12 times when I was growing up.

That’s a lot of moving.

The most important thing to my parents was that we went to good schools, and we never had the money for private schools. So my mom would research the best public schools, and we’d move to those neighborhoods.

But those were often wealthier neighborhoods that we really couldn’t afford to live in. So I would get my clothes from thrift stores. Kids can be really cruel, and if you’re the only brown kid, you’re wearing weird clothes, you don’t have TV at home and your parents have funny accents, then you’re always an outcast.

So how did you deal with that?

It did create scar tissue. I didn’t have a rosy childhood. But there’s a lot of new work on adverse childhood experiences that shows they can affect you in one of two ways.

I think it made me very resilient. There were moments when life just seemed so hard emotionally when I was a kid. But I think that gives you a level of resilience that helps you power through during the inevitable lows of being an entrepreneur.

The biggest reason for success in entrepreneurship is not brilliance. It’s not creative genius. It’s the simple ability to not quit when things are really bad.

How does your background influence how you lead?

I think many children who have faced issues at home have a tough time. They operate in a mode of hypervigilance, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs, especially, operate in this mode. You’re constantly worried about trusting other people, and you’re expecting the worst to happen all the time. That can be really good, but it can also be really destructive to close relationships with staff.

And in many ways, as a C.E.O., your job is to really build an alternate family, to build a place where people feel comfortable taking risks, where they feel like they’re not going to be punished and where they feel like they can speak out. For me, it’s been a real evolution and a huge learning process.

Other leadership lessons?

There’s an extreme tendency to take things personally as an entrepreneur, which is very separate, I think, from being hired as a C.E.O. As an entrepreneur, your mark is on every aspect of the company, from the first rug you buy to the email signatures.

You feel like everything the company does is an extension of you. So if something happens that doesn’t work, especially if you’re a perfectionist — Type A child of Asian immigrants — you’re likely to constantly blame yourself and take everything really personally, which is also just bad for employee morale, because the great people you hire have their own ways of doing things and are not extensions of you.

You have to get good at ceding control and not taking things personally. I think even the best entrepreneurs have really struggled with that. For me, it’s about not taking the failures personally and also not taking the successes personally, and realizing that the successes are the product of other people coming in and infusing their own life into ideas.

How do you hire?

It depends on the stage of the company. In the early stages, I’m really looking for a sense of ownership. Are they going to sweat all of the details as much as I do? Are they going to put in the crazy outsize effort to make something work, which often means doing the work of three or four people in the early stages?

That shifts as a company matures, but that sense of ownership, especially in key management hires, is still vital. To me, that will compensate for a lack of experience or specific skills, which can often be learned, especially if it’s about learning a new industry or something. You can teach yourself virtually anything on the internet now.

So how do you test for that?

Reference checking is one of the most important things you can do. We also have people essentially come up with a business plan for their area. You can tell by the way someone thinks about an issue whether they’re going to take ownership or expect you to give them a plan.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

You have to be willing to embrace the struggle. If you want anything great in life, you have to be willing to go through the very dark and painful moments of building something. Nothing great has ever come out of a lot of easy days. We’re in a world where so many things are available at the touch of a button. We forget that only through struggle is our character really tested.

Adam Bryant/New York Times/April, 2017