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Dorka Keehn | Photo: Jeff Singer | November 30, 2012
They don’t necessarily come from money. They don’t have famous last names. They aren’t fixtures on the gala circuit. They’re just fabulously innovative, hardworking, and hungry for change. And boy, are they getting things done. Eleven women who exemplify the power—economic and otherwise—of social entrepreneurship, Bay Area style.
Leila Janah, 30, founder and CEO of Samasource.
The big idea: Helps poor women and teens in Africa earn money by doing outsourced “microwork” for tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, using an innovative assembly-line model that breaks down big digital projects into small, repetitive, easy-to-learn tasks.
Bio: Indian-Belgian by way of Southern California; Harvard BA; worked at the World Bank and as a freelance travel writer for the Let’s Go books.
Aha moment(s): Teaching English to blind kids in Ghana at age 17, Janah realized that lack of economic opportunity, not lack of education, was the biggest problem facing impoverished West Africans; Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat helped her envision a way out. “In places that lack physical infrastructure, all you need to employ people are a satellite hookup, a laptop, and a power source.”
The San Francisco difference: “When I talked about this idea in New York or Washington, D.C., people said, ‘You don’t have the right credentials, you don’t have any power, you can’t do that.’ Whereas in San Francisco, people say, ‘Really? That’s awesome. Tell me more.’”
Next up: SamaUSA, a pilot program to train low-income community college students in Bayview and other parts of Northern California to do digital work.
On the side: Samahope.org, a crowdfunding site that funds surgeons who perform simple but lifesaving medical procedures in Africa.
Alison Carlson, 56, cofounder of the Passport Foundation and founder and president of the Forsythia Foundation.
The big idea: Provides strategic funding in the environmental health field (in Forsythia’s case, this includes green chemistry solutions to toxic chemical contributors to disease).
Bio: The Stanford-educated Carlson spent many years as an athlete, coach, and advocate for women in sports, then worked at Stanford’s business school before shifting her focus to toxic issues.
Aha moment(s): As a young woman, Carlson worked as a tennis coach in New York’s Hudson River Valley, near a petroleum company that was later discovered to have buried barrels of PCBs. Once married, she struggled with infertility and wondered whether PCBs, which had been associated with a higher risk of reproductive problems, might be to blame. “But doctors get almost no environmental health training,” she says, “so they were essentially clueless about how to address my concerns.”
The San Francisco difference: “Compared to the East Coast, people here are more nimble and less encumbered by history, and that extends to how they solve problems.”
The gender thing: “In my field, women get the issues right away because we are the habitats that gestate children.”
Carla Javits, 57, president of REDF (aka the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund).
The big idea: Creates jobs and employment opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work by providing grants and business assistance to nonprofits that launch or expand social enterprises.
Bio: Started in the bookstore and restaurant businesses, earned a public policy degree at Berkeley, then worked for the city and the state as an analyst specializing in low-income communities before joining the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing.
Aha moment(s): Witnessing the connections between the AIDS and crack epidemics and homelessness made her see the need for systemic change, starting with housing and economic opportunities for people at the margins.
The San Francisco difference: “In the Bay Area, there’s been more of an openness than in other places [to meld] business thinking with social good. For a lot of the problems we care about, we haven’t really moved the needle on solving them despite all the money we’ve spent. So there’s a new focus on impacts—who do we really help, what really works, how do we measure that and improve it.”
Xochi Birch, 40, angel investor for the nonprofit charity: water.
The big idea: Brings safe drinking water to developing countries, with 100 percent of donations going directly to fund water projects. Birch and her husband, Michael, have invested more than $4 million toward the nonprofit’s infrastructure.
Bio: Started out as a computer programmer; met her husband in London; with him, founded the social networking website Bebo (sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008).
Aha moment(s): After the sale, “I finally had more time and began looking for a cause that had meaning for me,” says the mom of three. “Water is an issue that aff ects everyone, but women and children the most.”
The San Francisco difference: Whether giving money or making it, “entrepreneurs here take a business-minded approach—we want to leverage our [resources] and time.”
On the side: Cofounded the Monkey Inferno, a startup incubator in SoMa.