The Positive Leadership Podcast

Changing the world (with Dr. Iffat Zafar, Wendy Gonzalez and Emmanuel Ekwueme)

January 18, 2022 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 2 Episode 6
The Positive Leadership Podcast
Changing the world (with Dr. Iffat Zafar, Wendy Gonzalez and Emmanuel Ekwueme)
Show Notes Transcript
Our final English episode of Season 2 features a big surprise: JP is speaking to not just one, but three incredible guests! 

Say hello to Dr. Iffat Zafar (co-founder and COO of Sehat Kahani), Wendy Gonzalez (CEO of Sama) and Emmanuel Ekwueme (CEO of ICE Commercial Power). 

While they all have very different lives and backgrounds, they are united by the fact that they have dedicated themselves to making the world a better place as social entrepreneurs. 

Learn more in this special season finale of the Positive Leadership Podcast.

JEAN PHILIPPE: Well, welcome to the latest episode of the Positive Leadership podcast, and thank you to all my listeners for your great feedback and your suggestions. Please keep sharing that feedback. Today I’m trying something very different actually. I’m excited to be joined by three guests, yeah, three. The one thing that we all have in common is they’re all changing the world for the better through social entrepreneurship. They’re truly what I’ve been calling as positive leaders shaping the future of society. So let me introduce Dr. Iffat Zafar of Sehat Kahani is Urdu for Health Story, and Dr. Iffat and her co-founder have created a network of over 5,000 female physicians to provide support for typically underserved low income communities in Pakistan. Very welcome, Iffat.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: Hello, everybody. Really excited to be on this show and looking forward to spreading positivity today.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Thank you so much, Iffat. Next, let me introduce Wendy Gonzalez, who is the CEO of Sama, a company providing data to train machine learning systems. Sama believes in connecting people to dignified digital work and paying them living wages. So this in turn can solve actually some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from reducing poverty to empowering women, to fighting climate change as well. So welcome, Wendy, to this podcast conversation.

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Thank you, I’m delighted to be here, and really looking forward to the conversation.

 

EMMANUEL: Thank you, JP.  It’s really a pleasure to be here with you. Looking forward to this experience.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Thank you so much for all of you, so, you know, I described all of you in my introduction as social entrepreneurs. It’s a title I’ve used and word I’ve been using in Positive Leadership podcasts before and actually in Season 3 I’ll be talking with Bill Drayton, who maybe I’m sure many of you may know, he is the founder and chair of Ashoka, who is credited for really popularizing the term back in 1980s of social entrepreneurs, really one of the founders of the social entrepreneurs community.  So just for all the listeners who may not be familiar with social entrepreneurs, by the way, the simple definition, because we could go on and on and add a lot of words to that, the simple definition is a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or affecting social change, so I’m going to ask actually to each one of you, is this the way you see yourselves?  How do you describe yourself when you meet people for the first time?  So let me go first to you, Iffat, as you introduce yourself to new people you meet in Karachi or somewhere in the world?

 

IFFAT ZAFAR:  When I talk about social entrepreneurship, I like to describe it in a way that it’s a business which helps you do social good while also creating money so that you’re not dependent on external funds for a longer time, so you’re working while doing something which solves a major social problem, but you’re also working on creating a platform which is sustainable, so that’s what social entrepreneurship is in my mind.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love it, love it, super clear. Let me go to you, Wendy, now. What is your own definition or introduction of yourself?

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Well, if I were to describe myself, I’d probably first describe myself as a mom of three, an avid skier, somebody who loves wine would probably be my first introduction, but my second would be ultimately that I’m a technology executive who believes that business is a force for social change and social good, and that really my objective is to operate with the passion and the values that I believe in.  We bring our best selves to work when we bring our whole selves to work, which means that you don’t have to separate sort of what you believe in from the sort of business value that you can create in the world.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Excellent. And, by the way, I’ve got also something in common with you.  I love wine too, Wendy.

 

WENDY GONZALEZ:  That’s wonderful.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: So hopefully, Wendy, we can have a glass of wine together somewhere in the world when we meet physically. Let’s go to you, Emmanuel.  What about you?

 

EMMANUEL:  Yeah, so I think the easiest way for me to describe it is with social ventures, there’s really a double bottom line approach, so what that means is with a typical business, whatever the motivation is or the goal to make a profit, with a social venture you have to not only make that profit, but also elicit that change that you’re looking for. So it’s almost kind of measured the exact same way, so how much money did you make today, it’s almost how much impact did you have today. And that really translates everything down from the board to the executives down to managers and people with boots on the ground is really about change, right? So change makers, and that’s kind of like a term we throw around with our group is really we’re trying to inspire that next group of change makers as a day to day thing.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love that as well, Emmanuel. And I think, I mean, all of you, the three of you, and I’m including myself, by the way, the four of us, I guess. I’ve been feeling the same for a little while, and I think what’s exciting is to see that the world is opening to this double approach as well increasingly. I don’t know if you see the same, but I see the same.  Interestingly enough, there were a number of studies recently.  Last one I’ve seen which was interesting from Edelman which is doing every year a barometer of opinions and trust across the public opinion between companies, states, and so on and so forth, and it was a very specific set of questions about millennials and Gen Zs, and what’s interesting is one of the biggest reasons, the top reasons why people, employees are leaving a company is because they are not aligned with the values and the beliefs of their companies.  It’s actually 61%. It’s a number never reached before, super high, which I think is sending a strong signal about not just employees. You see the same with consumers, as you know, voting with their wallets on the products that they believe in terms of respect, in terms of safety, in terms of, of course, environmental issues, etcetera, and of course the same even with investors increasingly, so, anyway, I’m an optimist as you can feel in my statements. Now, I like to start with one of you about—really about your childhood and when you were teenagers or even after being a teenager, because I think at some points what I found out talking to amazing guys on the podcast is somehow, somewhat, somewhere something happened to them in their lives, as a special moment of their lives, right, and it could have been a huge personal challenge, could have been a failure, could have been an unplanned event, could be also about people who’ve been role modeling new attitudes for you, new behaviors,  could be your parents, your friends, others, but something that triggered the change in yourselves, so I’d like to get to each one of you and really ask you a personal question about your personal why, why did you decide to do what you do today and give the best of yourself, of course, and so let me start with you, Wendy. What was the trigger for you to end up leading a B Corp company with your late founder Lila was a pioneer in the field of impact sourcing, and I knew you joined this company I think six years ago, but what happened and why for you, Wendy?

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Yeah, I appreciate that question. I’ll maybe start kind of from the beginning and then sort of what brought me here to Sama, but I grew up as a first generation Chinese immigrant up in Seattle, so not too far away from the steps of Microsoft, kind of the first family of our kind in the area, and we all made it there, because my dad went to go work for Boeing, and it really changed the kind of trajectory of our entire family’s lives, as I’m sure many folks can relate to. And there I met my husband at work. He’s a zero-generation immigrant from Mexico whose parents dropped out of school at sixth grade. He grew up in the projects.  He was the first person in his family ever to go to college, and we found ourselves here in the Silicon Valley, down in the bay area of California. We kind of felt incredibly fortunate, but firsthand we really understood the transformative power of work. Work is so much more than the money in your pocket. It’s the future of a potential. It’s just so much in your life, you go from looking kind of 500 feet ahead to being able to look a mile ahead. And as our very young children were growing up and we were trying to sort of show them, especially in what I’d consider to be a bubble here in the bay area, we wanted to really live and demonstrate our values to say, hey, you can’t solve a problem from the sidelines.  We’ve seen so much firsthand that really at the end of the day people need and want not necessarily aid but financial independence, jobs, you know, it’s such a core thing.  So, at that point in time, ultimately I’d co-founded a startup actually that was based in Seattle, typical SaaS company, and I was like what am I doing?  This is not what I want to be doing.  This is not really tied to so much of what we’ve been trying to do kind of on the weekends and the evenings, so I left that.  I came to Sama Source as a nonprofit, that’s what we were called about seven, eight years ago, and it was my first position in the nonprofit field, but what made it so exciting is that it completely aligned with my values, and it was all the things that we were really trying to do, which is, at the end of the day, it all is about purposeful action, and I could not sort of separate kind of my heart from my mind when it came to work anymore, so that was really what brought me here, and it’s been an incredible experience, and one of the things that’s been very exciting is that I do believe that business can be a force for social change.  I love the descriptions that Emmanuel and if I’d described as far as having a double bottom line business, and so we moved ourselves and transformed from a nonprofit into a for profit and got our B Corp certification to really give ourselves the sort of capital and financial resources to grow just like any other business, and I certainly hope that, you know, as we grow, that we can be a proof point, just like my colleagues here, that social business is better business.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Fantastic, thanks for sharing that, Wendy.  And particularly the work you’ve been doing to evolve from a nonprofit to a for profit and a B Corp, which movement is growing actually in the U.S. and globally, which is exciting.  Now, let me go to you, Emmanuel, and can you tell us or listen to us what is the story behind connecting the unconnected, okay, with ICE Commercial Power in Nigeria.  What is it and what was that pass for you?

 

EMMANUEL:  So it really goes back to the beginning.  I was born in Nigeria, and my family moved to the States at a young age for me, seven, and I ended up going to school in the States, studied engineering.  So just growing up, I’ve had this passion for tech and engineering, and then I guess the traumatic experience was being in Nigeria at a young age, seeing what it was like, and then having that transition to the States and seeing what that was like.  It was just kind of like, all right, that was just kind of like glaring, and that stuck with me throughout.  So as I’ve gone to school, at the back of my mind, every time I’d see something, it’s like, okay, I wonder how this would work in Nigeria, that kind of thinking, so everything really came together after I got my PhD and I was doing a post-doc in Boston, and at that point got together with a couple of friends and essentially started working on a project to really electrify some businesses in a couple communities, and, from that, that really just kind of grew into a really major grassroots approach where it kind of goes back to working with young people, so that was really the quickest way to connect the unconnected was really by connecting with youth and really kind of training them and equipping them to be change makers within their community, so that was like a big shift for us where we thought we were going to do solar, but we actually like ended up empowering youth to help us do solar, which was actually the best business to do on that way.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love that. I’m sure we’ll come back to that later on, Emmanuel, to talk about the story behind the story, because behind the business you talk about the solar grid, there’s actually a bigger purpose. I think you just mentioned briefly, so we’ll come back to that.  Iffat, love to hear from you as well your personal journey. What triggered your personal transformation from a female doctor to being a bold, inspiring entrepreneur in Pakistan? Not necessarily obvious when I just state that question. So tell us about that journey as well.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR:  So I think like all of you, I’ve had an interesting journey, and I think our journeys make us stronger, so I come from a broken family, and my parents were divorced when I was growing up as a child, so, you know, when you come from a family like this, especially if you’re a female in a majorly patriarchal country like Pakistan, there’s a lot that you want to prove as you’re growing up, and you want to achieve so much, and there’s so much that you want to do. So since my childhood I remember that I always wanted to become a doctor.  Doctors come with their own sense of respect and prestige, even in our part of the world, so, you know, if you’re a doctor, it’s like, oh my god, you’ve just conquered the world kind of feeling.  So when I was growing up, I wanted to become a doctor.  But when I did become a doctor, like many doctors in Pakistan, what I saw was that as a female doctor, you don’t practice.  You don’t have so many work opportunities. There is a phenomenon, there is a very interesting phenomenon called the Doctor Bright phenomenon in Pakistan.  There are some intelligent girls from my class dropping out, because of the social responsibilities, expectations from the family, so everyone wants their daughter to become a doctor. People want to get married to a doctor, but, when it comes to them working, they’re not very supportive. And in instances where they are supportive, I feel in Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for working doctors. But I think I was lucky, I was working in the pharma sector after becoming a doctor. My family’s very supportive.  My husband has been very supportive. But what happened was that we ended up losing our first baby in a premature birth, and, while no one asked me to quit work, the next time when I conceived, I just instantly quit my job, because there’s so much cultural I would say, you know, noise in our minds which kind of pollutes it that, oh my god, maybe I was working, that’s why this happened. So I think that’s how the roots of Sehat Kahani began, and we’ll talk about it later also, but this is my personal story.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Very inspiring. Very inspiring as well to hear your family I guess in the background, the kids who are supporting you as a mom as well.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR:  They would watch here till I start speaking.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: I don’t see them, but it’s actually really great to hear them. It’s a great bridge into talking about the organization you are leading altogether, and, you know, I’d like now that you tell to the listeners the way you personally live the missions of your organization, because each one of you have created and shaped a special mission for what you do, for what the people and communities you come to work together do every day, and I’d like you to tell a story about what you are the most proud of. It could be a little story, a big story, doesn’t matter. But it’s got to be personal, so let me start with you, Emmanuel, this time, and then we’ll go to you, Iffat and Wendy.

 

EMMANUEL: Yeah, so my absolute favorite part of what we do is the work we do with youth.  So we learned very early on that the problem to electrifying a lot of the underserved communities that we were targeting wasn’t just bring solar and power is there. It was way more than that.  And then, as we started to do the work, we realized several bottlenecks, and I eventually moved back to Nigeria fulltime, and that was when really everything came together for us that, okay, the best way to do this is really just to start over and take a grassroots approach, right, so we were doing a lot of work with youth already within our company, but it really forced us to just focus and say, all right, well, what’s the biggest bottleneck and how do we get through that?  And it just kind of worked out that the better or the more we work with youth, the better our results were like for actually doing solar. So unless we put those two together and obviously the partnership with Microsoft was really, really big for us, and we really started to leverage a lot of like the Azure resources, and we just took everything to the next level where, okay, if we actually just shift our focus a bit and actually focused on empowering youth, they’re going to actually help us empower their communities, which is essentially what we were trying to do.  And once that clicked, everything really just started going on the up and up, so that by far has been my favorite part of really just leveraging really cool technologies to work with youth, which ultimately leads to powering businesses.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: And if you can add maybe just for us, Emmanuel, any particular story of one kid or one teenager or one of those youth community in one village that you feel really proud about what they’ve achieved through the change you are leading with your company.

 

EMMANUEL:  Yeah, definitely. So this was about three years ago, we had just gotten an award, a grant from the United States African Development Foundation and an impact investment company that’s funded by Shell All On, to essentially power some small businesses in the Niger Delta region, and I remember part of the work was we had to actually meet with the small businesses, you know, get their buy in.  There was a lot of engagement work, and I think we had I believe it was like 14 different micro grids to do in a small amount of time, so, you know, me being the engineer, put my had on and everything, I get on the ground, I was, okay, let’s go talk to all these communities.  And I was like, wait, I’m only one person, I’ve got my partners, three of us.  How are we going to get to 14 different micro grids?  And that was when, you know, one of my partners was like, well, there’s a couple youth interns that we can work with, and we kind of just tell them and train them on how to engage with some of these customers and so on and so forth.  And, honestly, that was like my best weekend in Nigeria, just because it just clicked for us like they all had cellphones, smartphones, which made it really, really easy to leverage that technology and collect that data. So I mean this was actually like a real example of how we were able to leverage the work we were doing with the youth.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love it. So they became part of the team basically, right?  One team coming together, yeah.  Wonderful. Let’s go to you, Iffat, and maybe share with us a story as well of what has been really driving you all those years.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: So I think that I’ll share a very interesting story which happened during COVID. So in a nutshell, Sehat Kahani what it does is that it provides access to people using a telemedicine platform. We have nurses to telemedicine clinics and communities, while for the more urban market, we have a mobile app.  And during COVID, the mobile app’s consumption really grew, and the way you—many of you have Christmas, we have Eid, and I remember this is a night, one night before Eid, and there’s a divorcee woman who calls up and who is suicidal, and she had all those thoughts, and she calls up and gets connected to a physician, and she’s like tomorrow’s Eid, and it’s COVID, and I’m just having such a bad time, and I think I’ll just do it today. And the counselor kept on speaking to her, started to take information, and, at the back end, we started tracking and getting hold of one family member, so that someone would be there, just making sure that she wouldn’t do it, and I think that one night, one online nurse, one online psychologist and just technology probably saved that person, so I think that’s something that I’ll always remember, that we were actually able to make a difference in some one person’s life.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: That’s fantastic. You think about all those touches you have and impact you can have with just that one story, one life, but there’s so many others I’m sure that you’re touching through those technical situations and people taking care of those communities.  That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing. Wendy, what about you? What is your kind of story over the past few years?

 

WENDY GONZALEZ:  I’ll also actually touch on a story in COVID that was really interesting, so a bit about our model, so we have almost 4,000 employees in East Africa, all focused on purposely hiring people from underserved communities, so less than $2.00 a day of household income, and we hire them and employ them and train them, and so just given the nature of the workforce, we bring people into the office. Before COVID that was a thing, working in the office, to train, and do work, and of course, as COVID happened, we had to move pretty much immediately into virtualization. But with the workforce that we hire, so, for example, in northern Uganda, people are living in traditional huts, so reliable power, so speaking of power, reliable power, internet are not things that we can rely on, so we had to think fast about how could we deliver a—you know, keep the continuity for our clients, which is very important, keep our workers safe and employed, right? I mean, the pandemic hits underserved communities the most, and so we had this thing we called Sama Home, and we basically worked with local resorts, so like the hotel that I stay in when I go to Gulu, Uganda, or in Nairobi, and we rented out these large resorts so that people could have stable power, individual rooms, three meals a day. We put doctors on site, medical care, so that we could have proper safe sort of housing and work environments. It was of course all on a voluntary basis, like would you like to come in, because we would take care of our workforce regardless. What was amazing is that 99.99%, so this is thousands of people actually ended up taking this option. They were able to work safely. We were able to keep continuity for our clients, and that happened for a couple months, but what we did in parallel is that we worked with all the local ISPs, the internet service providers.  So, for example, in Nairobi, most of our workforce lives in Kibera slums and the Mathare slums, so Kibera is the large slum in sub-Saharan Africa, and we ended up rolling out over 55 kilometers of fiber to these neighborhoods that had never been connected before, so that was something that we were able to make the transition from the sort of temporary Sama Home back to the home, and what was really amazing about that is once that happened, you know, we were able to get fiber to the slums and generators and laptops so that people could work effectively, but it brought internet connectivity to peoples’ homes, so we did some pretty interesting—you know, we did some surveys.  We were very heavy on kind of impact data and data collection.  We have kind of a dedicated M&E team. We did an internet survey, and we found that of course people and families were using it for virtual learning, for things that you might expect, but what was really interesting, especially in these communities, is also to buy bread at the lowest cost, so they would have buy bread, for example, online and have it delivered to their home, so we thought that was a pretty neat thing about the connectivity.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Thank you so much, Wendy, for sharing, again, this very inspiring story.  You know, just listening to the three of you, I could actually even come up with some strong collaboration between all of you, think about connecting the unconnected, right?  You just talked about that actually, Wendy, with Emmanuel.  I’m sure he can be smart helping some of your workers, and I’m sure that Iffat can provide some telehealth care for your workers.  Well, anyway, I stop there, because I always love brainstorming connecting people together, but I think there’s so much power actually in bringing social innovative solutions together, using the power of your creativity, so thanks for sharing all of that.  Now I’d like to really shift gears now and talk more about your personal leadership style, okay, because there’s no accident if you’re in those roles what you do.  I don’t think it’s an accident.  And like to really understand actually the way you’ve been growing, developing, learning, adjusting, whatever, your leadership style, who you are today, the way you lead your teams, your communities, your volunteers and all the parties you involve in doing what you do. So I’d like to start with you, Iffat.  You were just talking before about the famous Doctor Bride phenomenon, right, in Pakistan, and I’m sure in a few other countries, by the way, for sure, the same, in helping bringing female physicians back into the workforce. So what did it take for you, right?  Again, as a female physician to basically tackle this daunting societal change, right?  It’s not just about something trivial.  What did you do and how do you do that as a leader in your organization?

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: So I think a very interesting question. When you’re someone who comes from comparatively a different background, for example, a doctor who wants to now lead an organization, development organization, I think first you need to have that mindset. You need to really understand that when you now are running an organization, you are responsible for everything in that organization, so from learning how do finances happen, how do you manage accounts, even to very smaller things, for example, today water’s not available in my office. My electricity bill needs to be paid for the office building, so from very small, trivial things to even large things like fundraising, reaching out to the owners, reaching out to investors, creating organizational valuation, so I think the first thing was that we started to realize that it’s not that we need to learn, so we started to participate in an order of programs, which would help us build our capacity.  So, for example, I remember the first accelerators, first of the few accelerators we were a part of included Invest to Innovate. It included Spring Accelerator. This was backed by Nike Foundation and USAID, DFAT, so I got to learn a lot by that exposure, meeting other entrepreneurs, meeting people who were trainers. For example, a human-centered approach.  Then I got the opportunity to attend the MIT entrepreneurship development course also, so I think that really helped change the mindset, and I think as a leader, I think I have a very collaborator or a team player kind of an approach, and I’ve learned over time that I think best leaders are the ones who are sitting with their team, who build a product with their team, who learn with them, and who don’t shy away from accepting their mistakes or accepting their shortcomings and who grow over time. And I think a growth mindset is very important.  You have to let go of your ego, and you have to keep on learning new things and keep on understanding the fact that how as an individual and an organization you can grow, so I think that has always been my strategy that, you know, how will I grow as an individual which will help the organization grow?  So I think that has really helped.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Thanks so much, Iffat, for sharing the same passion we have, I have personally as well for growth mindset in this Positive Leadership community that’s a key tenant of all positive leaders.  I’d like to go back to Wendy now.  And, Wendy, at the beginning of this podcast dialogue, you discussed about your early start careers in different types of companies, so I’d like to understand actually the way you’ve been kind of shaping your—or evolving your own leadership style as the head of the very special company, Sama, which is quite different from the SaaS company I think you started a few years back.

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Yeah, so my leadership style I think similar to Iffat has always been a servant leadership style, so working with my teams, kind of leading from behind and in the trenches.  What I’ve probably had to evolve the most honestly in this position is that I’ve had to be out in front more, honestly. Being in a social enterprise, double bottom line businesses, I would find especially when it comes to things like investment, it’s more difficult to understand than your traditional business, and it’s very interesting going through this process, the fundraise process, the first in series A, you know, with the founder and I, so two minority women going out trying to raise in the Silicon Valley, that was interesting. You really have to be out there in front, kind of own who you are, be extremely kind of sort of vocal and bold, which honestly my MO before was to lead by example and just let my actions kind of show how I lead and model and put others out front, and I think in particular I had to transfer to be out a bit more in front, and just go around leading the ‘be’ that’s just something we had to really modify a bit.  At the end of the day, I still go to my core tenants, which is hire people smarter than you, and work to get the blockers out of their way.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Yeah, that’s a great common reflection on the way you’ve been evolving and adjusting and certainly learning on your leadership style, Wendy, thanks for that.  I’d like to continue clearly, and I love the fact that you both—I mean, all of you kind of talked about, in a way, a positivity in the way you lead your people, community, being on the front as well, and it’s something I’ve been discussing a lot with many guys, including my own manager, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, who, as you may know, believes that leadership is not just a privilege.  Actually, leadership is not a position or a title.  It is really—and I believe that deeply, it’s really about having a positive mindset to bring the very best of others in everything you do every day, inside your company, outside of the company, the same.  And I also interviewed Kevin Johnson, CEO and president of Starbucks, another neighbor in Seattle as well, so a lot of folks in Washington State.  And he’s talking about himself as a servant leader as well, just like you, Wendy. So I’m using that bridge to go back to you, Emmanuel, and ICE, and you discussed about the way you’ve been empowering communities in Africa, you in particular with renewable energies.  Can you really share the insights you have on the emerging leadership patterns you see in the use that you are empowering in Africa? So it goes beyond your own leadership. Of course it starts with that, but the way you are connecting your own personal leadership style and what you’re learning and giving back as well to that use in Nigeria to make a difference in their communities and lives.

 

EMMANUEL: Yeah, definitely.  As I had mentioned earlier, we keyed in very early on that a lot of the work we were doing essentially was kind of hedged on a grassroots approach, and that couldn’t be more true.  With my background, like I left graduate school, I was in a post-doc, so I had a lot of mentoring, right, with professors or advisors, and then also undergraduate students and even fellow graduate students that I would work with, and then other grad students when I was a post-doc. So I’ve always, I guess, you know, in the last 10 or so years had that approach of, okay, once you learn something, you always have to mentor and coach something else.  I had that mentorship mentality. So it was really kind of easy for me to translate that into the company, and then I think it was almost kind of serendipitous in a way that still having that mentality and even being familiar with working with youth in American schools and in grad schools and all that stuff really made it very easy for I guess for us to connect with the youth that we’re working with in Nigeria. So that was really, really big for us, because essentially it became clear that if we empower them, right, meaning if we gave them the right resources, the right tools, gave them the right skills, you know, proper up skilling, they’re actually going to excel and exceed most of our expectations. And that’s like really a common theme in a lot of these underserved communities is that there’s like an untapped potential with youth, and just a little bit of tech, a little bit of empowering and motivation, you can see a lot of change.

 


JEAN PHILIPPE: Yeah.  I love that reference you made as well of this kind of reverse mother ship, the fact you can be a great mentee and a great mentor as well, and you need to do both ways actually to learn and give and get on both sides, which I love. I think it’s something that I keep enjoying doing myself on both ends, so thanks for reminding us of that great practice.  You know, it’s interesting that all of you, the three of you are really not just talking, you’re actually doing a lot of work related to some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the famous UNDP SDG goals that all of you know so well.  Some of our listeners are not that familiar, I would say, but it’s okay.  They got to know, and I’m sure many of them know that those are actually 17 very critical goals for the world to be a better place for all inhabitants of the planet by 2030, and really if you think about the big divide that’s been happening with COP26 environment lately, and I think now, which is great, the vast majority of people I think does not deny it anymore.  I think they embrace the reality, which is good.  But the sad reality is that the E of environment is just one of the issues.  It’s a huge one.  I’m not going to downplay that one, it’s a huge one.  But what I love about the work you all do and many of your peers across the world is the way you are going in a very, very specific surgical way about some responses to some of the 17 UN SDG goals, and recently I just actually interviewed on my podcast someone you may know, very famous serial social entrepreneur, Jeroo Billimoria. Jeroo Billimoria is someone who’s been one of the most effective change makers in the world.  She’s a great practitioner of systems change.  And I know all of you are deep into systems change, and I will remind not you but all of the listeners what Jeroo talked about.  She talks about the five C’s of the system change.  Convene, convene every party to democratize the play field.  Co-create with every party that you want to involve. Connect the different players. Celebrate their success and the collective success, and calibrate the price you’re making.  I love those five C’s, and the way I believe that really I like what it takes to bring the big village together to make those changes happen beyond your companies. So I really love to reflect on that.  Anyway, kind of elevate the discussion in a way, Emmanuel, and talk about, wow, renewable energy in Africa, that’s a big one. That’s a big and a bold one, right?  We tend to talk about renewable energies in western countries in the U.S.  But tell us about that bold, daunting challenge in Africa, what it’s going to take, and see a world with others to come together and make a difference by 2030, hopefully before maybe.

 

EMMANUEL: Definitely.  Yes, the energy gap is a major problem, especially in Africa.  So, for example, in Nigeria alone, you’ve got a population of over 200 million people.  Almost half of that population essentially is living in darkness, so, on a good day, they’re getting three, maybe four hours of electricity a day.  So, yes, that is a huge problem, and, as I kind of alluded to earlier, I guess we were naively thinking, oh, okay, go put solar on roofs.  It’s more than that, right?  You do have to take a very community-focused approach.  It’s a community effort, like all hands-on deck type of approach, but what we found was that the catalyst for all of this is actually a grassroots youth approach, which really was really kind of mind boggling for me in the beginning, because it was as simple as like, wait, youth?  But, no, no, it’s actually like for these interventions to work, that grassroots component has to be there, because the infrastructure is not there.  There is no Google Maps or Yelp per se like Nigeria, or at least not effective where you can just have a database of all the information you need to do what you have to do, so that first level, and what we identify, that’s what we’re doing with youth and that grassroots is really what kind of like is the catalyst for all the other tech players, partners, whether it’s DFIs, banking partners to actually come in and do something, because without data coming from the ground, essentially you’re going in blind, and investors do not like to go in blind. So like what we realized was just early on was, okay, we can actually work with youth and kill two birds with one stone, kind of have that double bottom line approach where, okay, we’re going to get access to high level information and also upscale essentially the next generation of data scientists, AI engineers, ML engineers, so on and so forth. So, yeah, there’s a lot of players in the ecosystem, but what we’ve identified, at least for energy and some of these utilities in general that surprisingly youth might actually be the catalyst.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: That’s a fantastic in a way insight which is not a big surprise to me.  I believe so much that youth should be the catalyst for change in most parts of the world, if not every part of the world, so it would be great to continue to hear from you, Emmanuel, not just now, but in the coming minutes and be on that podcast in the way you are enabling that community to come together, because I think there’s the youth at the center, but there’s so many other parties, I’m sure you are bringing together along your sides, not justICE, but many other forms of providers, of technology, of financing, education, skilling. I mean, you’re touching about, wow, a whole set of issues.

 

EMMANUEL:  The entire selection.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Yes, no, that’s wonderful. That’s really what system change is all about. Now, I’d like to turn to you, Wendy.  Your company Sama employs both for fulltime workers, but thousands as well of annotators, right, to provide annotations to images and data points, which I think is what is called supervised learning, data models, right, and since inception of the company, you’ve been driven by your mission of giving work, not aid, by hiring workers in impoverished areas, training them in AI data annotation and providing technology to plug their skills into the global digital economy, where they could earn living wages and live with dignity, as your founder would say, I think, Leila, right, late Leila.  So, as you reflect, Wendy, on the skills scarcity, particularly in the poorest countries in the world, so in a way this connection is what Emmanuel was talking about as well.  What would you advocate and do as a systems change maker with Sama and yourself?

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Yeah, I appreciate that, and also appreciate, Emmanuel, your focus on youth.  That’s been a focus area for us as well, women and youth.  We have a hiring policy of youth and at least 50% women, because these are the populations that have the greatest barriers to employment.  But, yes, you’re absolutely right.  I mean, skills development is critical. Our company is really founded on the belief that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not, and we’re taking the purposeful action to help build those skills, so our whole theory of change is basically on using work to create sort of tangible technical and soft skills that are market demanded, so that really is a core part of our thesis, and the best way that you can not just learn is to actually be employed and to put those skillsets to work, so that really is our focus, to be a bridge employer, and that is part of the sort of systems change making, because, if you deploy training, that’s nice, that’s helpful.  But for somebody to continue to get a job and to kind of permanently break the poverty cycle, they need to have skills, tangible skills, and a CV or resume, you know, an actual work experience that allows them to get to the next job, so that has been a core focus of our company is providing both personal and continued professional development, and one of the things that we track is what happens to people after they leave Sama, so certainly you have a pathway to promote people internally, and we have some labelers who have gone on to be project managers and marketers and IT people within our teams, but that’s kind of one portion of the pathway.  The other is basically to, of course, go back to school or go onto higher paying jobs.  We found ourselves at a little over an 80+% positive outcome rate, which means people are leaving and going to higher paying jobs or university, because most of our youth can’t afford university.  That’s kind of the situation for most, but what is ultimately critical about it is that the skills that were built during their employment are the key things that allow them to get the next job, so that is everybody from, you know, for somebody who comes from the informal economy and has not had professional experience, it’s everything from soft skills all the way to the technical skills, so over 50% of the people that work in our company end up staying in ICT.  So, at the end of the day, providing those skills I think are critical in the training and the resources to train people on market demanding skillsets, but probably equivalently important is the work experience, because that translates into future work.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Yeah, I love the way you think about your role, Wendy, and your company’s role in terms of not just paying, of course, decent wages to people, but truly skilling them for the next steps of their lives and giving them a big help in getting to the next level and taking care of others as well, so wonderful to hear the impact you’re having across those communities across the world.  But I’d like to go back to you, Iffat, of course, and talk about your focus on telemedicine.  You had this wonderful story you talk about with this one life happening during COVID, and you mentioned, in fact, you create an app, right, that runs actually on Azure Cloud platform as well.  Thank you for that.  I’ve heard you talking about the way—and I think your co-founder as well, the way you want to position Pakistan as a leading e-health provider for the benefit of millions of patients in the world, so not just in Karachi but maybe in Nigeria as well, Emmanuel, so, again, she can help you there. So how do you get there with others and across countries to offer that health access the people who need the most across the planet, that’s a bold vision and a bold change as well.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: Yeah, thank you so much for asking this question.  I think one thing that has always been a part of our vision is that both me and my co-founder, Sara, we’re very ambitious people, and we believe that healthcare should not be bounded by boundaries and countries and places, and healthcare is something which is supposed to be there for everyone, and, when we talk about healthcare, and we talk about this mobile application, I think we were lucky that we found amazing partners, like Microsoft, who have also helped us progress in our journey. We’re built in Azure. We were part of the Amplify program at Microsoft as well. And I think now when we look at healthcare and the future of healthcare, we want it to be really automated, so when we look at the future of healthcare, I assume that when a patient comes into our app platform, the patient based on his history can quickly identify, and the physician can really identify that, oh my god, it seems that this patient might develop diabetes in the next four or five years, this patient might be progressing towards the cardiovascular ailment or something of that sort, and we started working in those lines. You mentioned Azure. I’d also like to talk about Power BI. So our analytics dashboard is built on Power BI. And I think an amazing tool when we built it for our partners, for our corporations, as well as for ourselves, that we get a daily instrument analysis of what geography used our service most, which gender, which disease. And data is beautiful.  Data is amazing, the kind of insights about the patients that you can get. So one thing that we’re really looking forward to is automating it, integrating machine learning, AI in the future as much as we can, really enhancing the patient journey. But if I talk about removing country-wise boundaries, I think during COVID also, we saw that a lot of people accessed our service, they got consultations, while they were based in other parts of the world, from U.S., UK, interestingly even Paris, Philippines, Nigeria.  We actually got consultations from all of those countries. It was exciting how just when technology tool can solve a healthcare problem, we want to scale into countries with similar healthcare problems, so a couple of countries that are right now on our radar include Nepal, for example, Bangladesh, so we really want to be the e-health leader, especially in the Asian sector when I talk about South Asia, especially, so that’s the future.  Right now we have around 6,000 doctors on the platform, but we want to take this to around 50,000 doctors, and, you know, I like to say that it becomes a household name, at least in our part of the world, everyone should have a Sehat Kahani app in their phone, so when they want to talk to a doctor, all they need to do is just click.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love it, love it. And I’m sure I’m going to use some of your services one day soon, Iffat, as well, to get that consultation from Karachi. No, I mean, I’m getting we’re coming almost to an end, but of course before asking you kind of a last one, two questions, I would tell you, I’m getting so much energy just listening to the three of you and your stories and what you convey through the stories and what you do, and, you know, I believe there’s so much that leaders like you can bring to the more established corporate world, kind of the big company’s world, right? And I believe there’s a lot we could do, and certainly in my own position, I can help among many others to support this kind of reverse mentorship that Emmanuel is talking about between social entrepreneurs and corporate leaders who are trying to achieve a number of changes in the world but who could benefit from each other I think in a strong way, in a better way, so looking for any feedback even beyond this podcast I’m sure for all of you to entertain that community. You know, the recent podcast, I also spoke to another, Dr. Barbara Frederickson, who is, as you know, one of the researchers of the sense of positivity, positive psychology, and I love that discussion we had, and because she talked a lot about the way we can in a way rewire or retrain our brain, right, to have the more positive view of the world of our lives, not to be naïve about the world, but to actually have a positive mindset energy when you get engaged in everything you do, so my final question to each one of you is really about that positivity.  How do you stay positive every day?  Because I’m sure that every day you hit some pretty big challenges, sometimes some tragic stories as well, I’m sure, of human lives.  In fact, you talked about that.  I’m sure all of you have been confronted with that as well. So I’d love to hear the way you ignite that positivity, you manage it, and you drive it through your days and your teams and communities, so let’s start with you, Iffat, and then we’ll go to Wendy, Emmanuel.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: I think I have somewhat been lucky, because, as a person, I have been an optimistic person, but I think I’ve always believed that the sky is the limit, and all you need to do is you need to create that big vision or that big dream in your mind and then strive and aspire to achieve it, and, if you do, you can actually achieve quite a bit of that, and, you know, as Steve Jobs once said that the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who can actually do it.  I actually really totally believe in it, so my motto always has been that, you know, aspire big, dream big, and you’re actually going to be able to achieve it.  It also, you know, comes down to the fact that create the right team, have the right partners.  I think me and my co-founder, if you ever get a chance to speak to her, we’re very different as people, but I think that has been the best thing, that we’re really complimenting each other, and when you have the right partner or the right team, leadership is a bit of a lonely journey, so you really need the right people there with whom you can fight, but you still know that those are those people you can always rely on.  You can come back to them the other day without being judged, without the fear of being called out if you fail, you know, so I think every day is a new day and a new start.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love it, thanks, Iffat.  Wendy, what about you?

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Yeah, I love what Iffat said.  I couldn’t agree more.  I always tell my teams, you know, it’s who you’re in the trenches with, and that’s really what matters at the end of the day, but just to tack onto what she’s saying, it’s about celebrating the wins.  When you’re trying to solve something like poverty or access to healthcare or energy, these are big, big problems to solve, and I think what is exciting about being in a social enterprise is that sort of the responsibility and passion, I mean, you know, there’s no way I’m not going to do this.  Like every day I wake up and say basically who can we impact in the world.  It’s literally what drives I think every one of our employees, and in this kind of space where maybe people don’t understand as well, there can be a lot of no’s, a lot of projections, but then you’ve got the wins, so it’s the rolling out the fiber to the homes.  It’s seeing somebody who’s supporting 11 different family members off of the income they make.  It’s those stories and wins that keep me very, very excited and with every one of those wins, we feel kind of empowered and one step closer to our objective.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Love it, thank you so much, Wendy.  Emmanuel, get the pleasure to kind of close, inspiring positivity statements.

 

EMMANUEL: I feel special. Thank you, JP. So for us really, as Wendy mentioned, the problems we’re trying to solve are so big, but I find that like, honestly, that’s the first place to start.  It just hits different when you’re there and you are in darkness. It’s just like you hear about it, you know it’s bad, you know what it’ll be without electricity, but when you’re there and you’re just like, wow, this is really not fun, that hits different, so there’s a lot of empathy that goes into just like making sure you don’t forget that when, okay, you don’t get this grant or the investment didn’t come through or whatever the case may be. It’s just kind of saying like, all right, this is more than me, this is about me and my team, the people in the trenches with you, so having that knowledge, that empathy of what’s going on really drives you, gives you a lot of grit, and I can’t stress enough really what Wendy said, those small wins, those are everything.  Those are everything for us. You need those. You really need to celebrate those, and, yeah, that’s just been everything for us.

 

JEAN PHILIPPE: Thank you so much, Iffat, Emmanuel, Wendy, for this inspiring and fulfilling conversation, really very exciting for me to not just hear all the stories but the way you’re going to drive the change with your communities and organizations. As you may know for now, I’m an optimist myself.  But you make me even more optimist after this call in the way you’re going to bring that change again, so allow me, which I’m trying to do for every call, to share with you my three takeaways, so it’s always a hard exercise to pick three things from our conversations and your wonderful quotes as well. You know, we probably start with what Wendy said about work is so much more than the money in your pocket.  It’s about your future potential.  Love that. I love the way she’s been reflecting on that. I love the way you, Emmanuel, talked about youth being the catalyst for change and the way the mentorship mentality can help you get there as well using this reverse mentorship, and Iffat suddenly as you talked about your bold vision about that female bride phenomenon physician in Pakistan and the way you’re going to really work on that, you talk about create the vision, reach for the sky, and create the right team, so that you can keep dreaming big, so that’s my selection. And, again, apologize for missing many others, because there were a lot of nuggets of wisdom, of positivity in that conversation, and I’d like, again, to thank all of our listeners in the podcast joining us and get the feedback coming. The next episode would be actually a French language episode this time around, because I’m doing both in English and French with my friend Jacques Attali. And Season 3 will kick off in early March, so see you all very soon. Thank you so much for tuning in and spending the time with our wonderful guests today, Iffat, Emmanuel, and Wendy.  Thank you to all of you.

 

IFFAT ZAFAR: Thank you so much for having us on board.

 

EMMANUEL: Yeah, it’s been awesome, thanks.

 

WENDY GONZALEZ: Lot of fun, thank you.