Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. This big idea is driving innovative technology entrepreneurs to create new markets in impoverished areas where opportunity did not previously exist. Clayton Christensen, and his coauthors Karen Dillon and Efosa Ojomo, lay this out in their book "The Prosperity Paradox" and highlight the role of innovators in developing prosperity in emerging economies. The best of altruistic intentions — and billions of dollars in aid — haven’t lifted many countries out of poverty. Instead, Christensen advocates market-creating innovation as the key. One such innovative entrepreneur is Wendy Gonzalez, CEO of Sama, who leads a company founded on this powerful idea. In this episode, originally recorded during the October 2021 VMworld event, Wendy shares how Sama, an AI training data company, has helped over 56,000 people lift themselves out of poverty while creating tremendous value for their clients. In this conversation, she explains how great talent is everywhere, how diversity creates a greater product, and what a difference it would make if every company had a strong social mission.
Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. This big idea is driving innovative technology entrepreneurs to create new markets in impoverished areas where opportunity did not previously exist. Clayton Christensen, and his coauthors Karen Dillon and Efosa Ojomo, lay this out in their book "The Prosperity Paradox" and highlight the role of innovators in developing prosperity in emerging economies. The best of altruistic intentions — and billions of dollars in aid — haven’t lifted many countries out of poverty. Instead, Christensen advocates market-creating innovation as the key. One such innovative entrepreneur is Wendy Gonzalez, CEO of Sama, who leads a company founded on this powerful idea.
In this episode, originally recorded during the October 2021 VMworld event, Wendy shares how Sama, an AI training data company, has helped over 56,000 people lift themselves out of poverty while creating tremendous value for their clients. In this conversation, she explains how great talent is everywhere, how diversity creates a greater product, and what a difference it would make if every company had a strong social mission.
Wendy Gonzalez on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wendy-gonzalez-a319788/
Nicola Acutt on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolaacutt/
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Wendy Gonzalez (00:02):
The key I think in all of this, is just make purposeful and conscious decisions and when you do that, you can drive an incredible amount of innovation. And for us growing the business, means growing impact and so they're fundamentally tied together.
Yadin Porter de Leon (00:16):
Welcome to the CIO Exchange Podcast, where we talk about what's working, what's not and what's next? I'm Yadin Porter de Leon. Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. This big idea is driving innovative technology entrepreneurs to create new markets in impoverished areas where opportunity did not previously exist. Clayton Christensen and his co-authors Karen Dillon, and Efoso Ojomo, lay this out in their book, The Prosperity Paradox, and highlight the role of innovators in developing prosperity in emerging economies. The best of altruistic intentions and billions of dollars in aid, haven't lifted many countries out of poverty.
Yadin Porter de Leon (00:51):
Instead, Christensen advocates market creating innovation as the key. One such innovative entrepreneur is Wendy Gonzalez, CEO of Sama, who leads a company founded this powerful idea. In this episode, originally recorded during the October, 2021 VM World Event, Wendy shares how Sama, an AI training data company has helped over 56,000 people lift themselves out of poverty, while creating tremendous value for their clients. In this conversation, she explains how great talent is everywhere, how diversity creates a greater product and what a difference it would make if every company had a strong social mission?
Nicola Acutt (01:26):
Hello and welcome. I'm Nicola Acutt, I'm Vice President for Environmental Social Governance here at VMware in the office of the CTO. I'm thrilled that you all could tune in today to join me and our special guest, Wendy Gonzales, the CEO of Sama, for a really timely and important conversation about leading change at the nexus of business technology and human ingenuity. So with that, let's dive in. Wendy, first of all, welcome. Great to have you with us.
Wendy Gonzalez (01:59):
Thank you, Nicola. I really appreciate it.
Nicola Acutt (02:01):
One of the things I find so compelling about Sama, is that it was founded on this principle, that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. That's a really big idea. I'd love for you to just talk to us about what's behind that principle and how has it shaped the mission of Sama and the company?
Wendy Gonzalez (02:27):
That's a great question, Nicola. So first off, Sama means equal in Sanskrit, and it's really, the foundation of our mission is, that people are born with an equivalent, an amazing amount of talent, and that we are not harnessing the untapped human capital. And that ultimately, if you're born into a wealth area, like where we are right now, your opportunities for success can be great. But if you happen to not win the birth lottery and are, for example, born in the slums of Nairobi, the opportunities you have to be successful and leverage that talent, are quite challenged.
Wendy Gonzalez (02:57):
And so our objective is really to think about a way in which how can you really solve poverty? You can solve poverty by giving aid, or you can solve poverty by giving work. And that is the idea, is that with talent being distributed equally, Sama takes a purposeful hiring approach to hire women and youth in underserved communities. People are making less than $2 a day in their household income, and really giving them the opportunity to really showcase their human capital, in an environment where they wouldn't otherwise have the network access because they lack the credentials or lack the connection.
Nicola Acutt (03:32):
That is so inspiring, Wendy, this idea of giving work, not giving aid and building a business, and building a business model around this idea of talent and tying that to technology. So talk to us a little bit about Sama? And perhaps for folks who are not familiar with the company, talk to us a little bit about what you do and the technological changes and innovation that Sama is driving?
Wendy Gonzalez (03:57):
Absolutely. So to touch on a little bit about why we do, our purpose is to give work. Just an interesting side note, Nicola, in particular, in Sub-Saharan Africa, did you know that over a trillion dollars of aid is poured in to Sub-Saharan Africa?
Nicola Acutt (04:11):
A trillion dollars?
Wendy Gonzalez (04:12):
A trillion dollars with a T, since the 1960s, yet the GDP has not changed at all. And so we really found out on this notion, if you can create financial independence and the best way to create financial independence is by giving work. So we really operate as a bridge employer where we provide both digital skills training and actually hire people at living wages. So that's not ghost workers or crowd sources, this is full-time employment with benefits at a living wage. And you're able to provide not only the digital skills training, but the actual work experience. And if you can do so through the digital economy and through a platform into demanded skills, then jobs be get jobs. And you've permanently broken the poverty cycle because that person can then go on because they have a set of skills that are demanded in the marketplace. So that brings me to the, what do we actually do?
Wendy Gonzalez (04:59):
So, given that we have a purposeful hiring model, when we first launched all the way back in 2008, we really focus on what are those things that a human can do? And so it lent itself to human judgment. So everything back in the days from transcription to sentiment analysis, but ultimately over the years, there was this thing called AI machine learning, that was starting to develop. And interestingly enough, if you think about the genesis of AI, which is what you're trying to do, is you're trying to get machines to replicate human behavior. So we decided to focus in that area in particular, and really what we developed over the course of the last several years, is a training data platform. Training data is sort of the new code. Right? Before a self-driving car can drive itself, it has to recognize pedestrians, objects, vehicles. And so we've developed a platform that really enables AI application development through training data.
Nicola Acutt (05:49):
Maybe you can tell a little bit of the background story to how you got to where you are? It's fascinating that Sama started as a nonprofit and you are now today, a for profit business.
Wendy Gonzalez (06:01):
Yeah. I love this question Nicola, because my fundamental belief is that impactful businesses actually make better businesses. We harness how our mission is to drive business value. So I'll maybe take it back to how we started and then tie it back to, well, how does our mission actually directly tie to creating business value for our client? So yes, we started as a nonprofit because back in the day, the mission that I shared with you, there were some skeptical eyes. You want to do what? You want to hire people from the slums of East Africa to do work for tech giants? That doesn't seem to make sense. So we ended up getting launched as a nonprofit through a grant with the same concept, but the entire concept is not to have a nonprofit on grants, it was to generate business value.
Wendy Gonzalez (06:43):
So how can we help clients solve their problems, solve their digital problems with a workforce that's underrepresented and underserved and how can we bring that talent to bear? That's really how the entire business got launched. And what happened was, in around 2015, we saw this wave of activity happening around machine learning and training data. Focused our energies there and before we knew it in 2017, we're working with companies like Microsoft and Walmart and they aren't selecting us because we have a mission, it's because we're solving their challenges. We've got one of the world's largest digital catalogs and people need to find their products, we need to have structured data to be able to do that. So lo and behold, we found ourselves to be a profitable nonprofit. In 2017 as a tech company in the Valley, we're like, "Oh, this is kind of interesting."
Wendy Gonzalez (07:30):
And we ultimately, did make decision to transition to for profit, because it really allowed us an opportunity to get access to a large variety of capital and for us growing the business, means growing impact and so they're fundamentally tied together. We transitioned to a for profit, we became venture backed, so we raised our series A and in parallel to that, we became the first AIB Corp in the world, which is a very exciting thing. And just actually a couple weeks ago, we received an award for Best in the World. So we scored in the top five of all B Corps globally, for our depth of social impact.
Nicola Acutt (08:04):
That's fascinating. That whole evolution is an incredible story. I don't want the audience to miss the part about being the first AI company to be certified B Corp. And perhaps for folks who've never heard that before, can you talk about what is the B Corp and why does that matter?
Wendy Gonzalez (08:22):
Yeah, that is a great question. So B Corp is basically the world recognized standard for companies that have both a growth and profit mission, but also a social mission and purpose. And they have a very, very extensive set of formal questionnaires, rubrics and measurements. And so it's really centered around, of course, you've got a much deeper expertise than I do, in terms of sustainability, but also social impacting governance, as well. Beyond being certified, what it really does is, it really showcases that this is a company or your company has both purposes. And one of the things that we've always felt really strongly about is that we've been measuring our impact from day one. So we used to have something we called the earnings quarterly and the learnings quarterly. The earnings quarterly was to talk about our financial performance, the learnings quarterly was to talk about our impact.
Wendy Gonzalez (09:09):
And when you take the same fidelity, the same structure, the same scrutiny to say, is what you're doing is a business creating impact and you measure it, we've had that in our DNA since day one. In fact, actually, just three months ago, we completed a three year counterfactual study with MIT and Poverty Action Lab, that studied the efficacy of our impact mission for over three years. People who had been with Sama, left Sama, those in the same control group. And basically the idea is that, we need to know for sure, is our intervention making a difference and how do we measure that every quarter to understand what else can we do to tweak and create depth of impact? So one of the reasons we chose B Corp, is that it's an incredible certification globally, to put it another way, to keep everybody honest. Right?
Nicola Acutt (09:53):
Wendy Gonzalez (09:53):
So you score yourself, you build a plan for how you can improve that score and it puts the right level of focus on both the profit component, which always gets a lot of interest and attention, as well as the impact component.
Nicola Acutt (10:05):
Of course. And I love that story and the way that you've approached the challenge so rigorously. And I think Sama demonstrates that myth is a false dichotomy, that it is very possible and in fact, there's huge opportunity in the world to drive value, drive business value and drive impact at the same time. And I think you pointed to, you have to measure, we see around the world, all of the challenges that we're facing. And I think the example that you set, really shines a light on how to start to shift and bring those things together. So, let's talk a little bit about how you measure impact from a customer perspective? Any successful business and as a CEO, the first thing is your customer. Are you driving value for your customers and are you delighting customers? So talk to us about your engagement with customers and what they're getting out of their engagement with you, besides solving their technical challenges?
Wendy Gonzalez (11:06):
At the end of the day, we're here to delight the customer. We measure ourselves on NPS, net revenue retention, all the things that you can do to really solve a client's problems. But maybe I can tie it back together about why you can have a double bottom line business and why it's actually really great. As an example, what we do, is we are helping create more representative data sets for our clients to build AI. And we don't want AI to work for one segment of the population or one use case, you want it to work in all use cases. So we are helping accelerate the AI development process. So they rely on this critical training data to continue building their models. That's the problem we're solving, we're reducing friction in the development process. But I'll give you an example of COVID and a tie back to our impact mission. So we provide meaningful jobs at living wages. As a result of that, we have an annualized voluntary attrition of 4%.
Nicola Acutt (11:57):
Did you say 4%?
Wendy Gonzalez (11:59):
Nicola Acutt (11:59):
Wendy Gonzalez (11:59):
4% of the areas that we work with and these are meaningful jobs being paid at living wages. Many companies who have to rely on training data, there are crowds that serve a revolving door of people. And so what's happened because we have an impact mission and while it may seem counterintuitive, "Wow, you want to pay more to employ people? You want to invest more in training?" Well, what ends up happening, is we end up having data labeling experts who actually provide more informed, more accurate training data. In fact, they help train our own AI models. And so you then take another, as an example, the COVID situation where we have a mission, we particularly employ people in underserved communities and that includes the slums of Nairobi, where we purposely hire at least 50% women, because they have the greatest barriers to employment in this area and youth, who also have barriers to employment.
Wendy Gonzalez (12:45):
Well, they live in informal settlements, that's where the vast majority of our team is, where there isn't necessarily reliable power, there isn't necessarily reliable internet. During the course of the pandemic, we could have forgotten about our people, but instead what we did, was we doubled down. So I provided an option to our workforce in Nairobi and in Uganda, in Nepal and Gulu and said, "Hey, we will take care of you no matter what, but if you'd like to continue to come into work, then we are going to give you an option to go into what we'll call the Sama home." And the Sama home were resorts that we rented out basically. I'm very familiar, I stayed at most of these places, but hotels and resorts, to where people could work safely as an individual, in the midst of the pandemic, have reliable power, have reliable internet.
Wendy Gonzalez (13:27):
And we could deliver mission critical data to our clients who were relying on us, regardless of what was happening in the pandemic. Well, lo and behold, 99.99% of people said, "Yeah, we'd love to come into work." So not only were we able to sustain employment, but deliver continuity for our clients during that timeframe. We then also, worked with the internet, five different ISPs in the area, and we're able to get 34 miles of fiber to the slums rolled out. So we rolled out literally a 34 plus miles of fiber in conjunction with these ISPs.
Wendy Gonzalez (13:58):
So here's where we are. At the end of the day, the business value is that our clients got continuity for mission critical work that allowed them to keep delivering value to their clients. We were able to employ, sustain our workforce, which is the ones who get affected the most in a pandemic, are people at the bottom of the pyramid. And then beyond that, we're able to bring internet to the home, to where entire families who never had access to the internet, now can shop, go to school, et cetera. So it's a very long story, but it's just one way to illustrate that you can have both, you can create incredible business value and do the right thing.
Nicola Acutt (14:33):
That is an incredible story, Wendy, and kudos to you and the team for having the courage to respond in that way to the pandemic and we're still living through it. Right? But I think perhaps we can all agree that this has taught us a lot about resilience and a mindset of grit and resilience and problem solving. And your story really speaks to that human ingenuity. Again, both in solving the problem, responding to a crisis and at the end of the day, driving triple value for the employees, for the local economy and of course, for your customers. Being able to provide those outcomes is really a great story. And it makes me think about something else. Your comments a minute ago about the work that your team does and the expertise they've built up in training these AI models.
Nicola Acutt (15:27):
That brings me to the question around diversity and inclusion and clearly your company is founded on this ethic of equity, hence the name of the company. And it's hard to get away from any tech conference and any conversation without talking about this macro challenge we have of, I will say, not just diversity or representation and inclusion, but also equity. And a lot of the conversations are about what you're doing in the workplace and recruiting diverse talent. And I'm really interested in your story and particularly around how you think about and bring that lens to the software that you're developing in the first place, that intentionality. Can you share with us, maybe a little deeper under the covers of the process around, we've got a lot of developers, a lot of technical folks in the audience, who'd be really curious about the software development process and how you bring equity into that?
Wendy Gonzalez (16:22):
I just fundamentally believe that diversity breeds interesting, incredible, and more innovative ideas. I don't necessarily want a group think, I want to have a diversity of the opinion because when you have that challenge. Even in fact, I really appreciate what you said a second ago, Nicola, which is innovation. It isn't just innovation in technology, innovation can occur when you have multiple constraints put on you. And so people with different backgrounds and different perspectives can really bring a whole set of ideas fundamentally to bear, which I think creates better business decisions, so that's the first. The second is then, if you think about what we do and I'll kind of tie it back to the fact that we're basically, AI infrastructure, we are creating data sets. Well, imagine if you were the person who's developing that software and you only have one perspective. So the example I like to use is, can you imagine if self-driving cars were programmed by dogs? Then there probably would not be any cats left on the streets. Right?
Nicola Acutt (17:17):
If it was my dog who was programming it, absolutely not. No cats or no squirrels.
Wendy Gonzalez (17:21):
I was going to say, no cats or squirrels would exist on the streets. And so fundamentally, when you're able to bring a more diverse set of experiences, because we're all really a combination of our experiences, really opens up a different way of thinking. So when I say at the outset, I think great adversity creates a greater product. It's not about checking a box, it's about bringing a different and representative set of experiences, so you can really look at the full picture. The second way I look at it that's really interesting, is that, so we're building this software with a representative group of people and it's something we continue to strive towards and I think we can do better, we're going to continue to push ourselves in that direction.
Wendy Gonzalez (17:57):
But you're building software to identify, do you have complete and representative data sets? And can you manage that through the AI development life cycle? When you need to think about it beyond that, the humans in Lulu who need to annotate that, well they're also representative. So we do 50% women and 50% men. And so the way I think about it is that, we're trying to build technology, but not technology for one set of people or one set of use cases, it's really technology for everybody. And having a diverse workforce that goes from the leadership all the way down to the people who are doing the human labeling, I think is absolutely paramount to creating representative AI. And if you can, why not change a life at a time while you're doing it? So that's the way I look at it.
Nicola Acutt (18:38):
I love that. I love that, change one life in the process and that creates the ripple effect, all while generating revenue and value. So again, really appreciate the work that you're doing and the model that you're building, I think is a testament and something many of us can learn from. And the challenges continue, Wendy? I think it would be remiss for us not to take a second to recognize the moment that we're in, in the world.
Nicola Acutt (19:05):
We're here at this amazing technology conference. We're talking a lot about digital future and building that digital infrastructure for what comes next, whether that's autonomous vehicles or you name it, the business models are changing around the world and the world is changing around us. We just have to acknowledge for a second, the pandemic that we're all still experiencing. At this point, there's hardly a person around the world that hasn't been impacted in some way by some climate related extreme weather event. We have macro inequities across the world in our economy. And many folks in this community are constantly facing this threat of cyber attacks, not to mention political instability. We can go on and on and on, almost.
Wendy Gonzalez (19:54):
More than a few things going on, aren't there?
Nicola Acutt (19:55):
Yes, it feels like a lot. For us at VMware, we take our role in the world very seriously, while driving our mission and our vision to support our customers and their transformation and doing it all the while, our sight on what matters in the future. So we've set ourselves goals, 30 ambitious goals to accomplish by 2030, focused on outcomes of sustainability, equity and trust. And I think some of it resonates with what you've talked to us about today. For us, it's understanding what our core competency is and how we can add value to create the digital transformation of the future that is sustainable for our customers, as well as our supply chain.
Nicola Acutt (20:38):
From an equity perspective, really resonates with what you said earlier, around committing to a future that is inclusive and accessible and meeting people where they are, and in our case, enabling this distributed workforce of the future. And then of course, owning trust all the way through our products, security around our products, whether that's in how people engage with us as a company and our transparency around what we're doing. So big goals, I like to look at the glass half full. So Wendy, I'm curious for you, when you look up and out to the next 10 years, what do you see for Sama and for the broader tech community around this digitally inclusive and equitable possibility?
Wendy Gonzalez (21:22):
Well, that's an amazing question. I think the possibilities are just nearly limitless, but the way that I look at it and the thing that gets me really excited, imagine what things look like in the next 10 years is that, I think that business is the force for social good. I truly do. And I think that the biggest and most successful companies around the world, where those most successful companies in the world are also affecting social change, whether it be environmental, whether it be financial inclusion or otherwise. We have incredible governments and researchers who can set the tone on policy, but its businesses that can really take that forward.
Wendy Gonzalez (21:58):
And if you think about the trillions of dollars that flow through commerce, when VMware makes a commitment, when many of the amazing companies that you have here at the conference, choose to make purposeful decisions, to move the needle on sustainability, to hire inclusively or to select partners or vendors, who have a social impact criteria, we can move millions, if not billions, of tons of carbon out of our environment. And this is really what it's going to take to, I think, affect the world. So my goal in the next 10 years would be to be a proof point. If we can just be the biggest proof point to really show that you can create business value and social change, I'd retire a very happy person
Nicola Acutt (22:38):
That's is so inspiring and I have absolute full confidence that you will, and you already are. You're setting that model for which many of us can learn and I share that belief and maybe it's all obvious, the passion. Because I think you're right, this really is business and commerce and the economy is the platform to drive the changes needed in the world. And yes, it can be overwhelming, the challenges, but in challenge, there's always opportunity. And I think the work that you're doing and the leadership that you are bringing to Sama, is a great inspiration. So thank you for sharing that with us.
Wendy Gonzalez (23:13):
The key, I think in all of this, is just make purposeful and conscious decisions and when you do that, you can drive an incredible amount of innovation. I would've never thought sitting here, I've been here now, gosh, six and a half, seven years. You would've gone from a nonprofit, employing a handful of people in East Africa, to having impacted over 55,000 lives and working with incredible companies, building the world's leading technology, powered by an innovative impact workforce. If that can happen, lots can happen. So I think there's a pretty incredible future and opportunity yet.
Nicola Acutt (23:46):
Thank you, Wendy. It's been such a pleasure to have you with us and we wish you and the team all the best on your continued journey and we will continue to follow your success.
Wendy Gonzalez (23:56):
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for the opportunity to share a little bit more about the story, about what we do and I'm very thankful. Thank you.
Nicola Acutt (24:03):
Thank you, Wendy.
Yadin Porter de Leon (24:05):
Thank you for listening to this latest episode. Please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more insights from technology leaders, as well as global research on key topics, visit vmware.com/cio.