How Samasource’s CEO helped turn a non-profit into a fully sustaining for-profit

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I had been planning to meet this week with Wendy Gonzalez, president of Samasource, the company that hires workers in developing countries to perform tasks for tech-industry clients. Instead we spoke on the phone from our respective homes. The subject was work, and we both were carrying on with it despite the circumstances.

Gonzalez joined Samasource in 2015 when it was a non-profit tasked with “moving from a grant-funded startup to a fully sustaining for-profit.” The outfit’s founder, Leila Janah, had initially been unable to raise money for what felt to venture capitalists like a philanthropic effort. Gonzalez became interim CEO in January when Janah died at age 37 of cancer.

As we all ponder what the world will look like a few months out, Samasource provides some hints. It hires exclusively in places where workers earn less than $2 a day, including Kenya and Uganda. Its primary focus is on machine-learning training data—in other words, using humans to tag data that train computers. Facial-recognition attributes for Microsoft’s laptops and visual search cues for Walmart’s online store are two examples of where it’s provided its work. Gonzalez says e-commerce and biotech are two promising areas of expansion. Samasource also has helped Getty Images identify information to accompany photos.

What started as a do-good project is doing rather well.
Samasource had revenues of $25 million last year. It employs more than 3,000
people, including 200 staff members in places like San Francisco, Montreal, New
York, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands. (The “agents” who do the work for
clients are full-time employees.) It raised nearly $15 million a year ago.

I asked Gonzalez if Samasource competes against the big IT
outsourcing businesses. It does, and also against “crowdsourcing” tools that conglomerate
user feedback to train computers. Samasource, she says, benefits from focus.
“This is what we do,” she says, compared with the many tasks of the
outsourcers.

Every conversation these days turns to the coronavirus. She
says the countries where Samasource operates are hyper-attuned to infectious
diseases because of past crises. Incidences have been low, and she hopes they don’t
rise.

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A thought exercise: When a CEO horribly bungles their job and everyone knows it, the board fires the executive. If there were some way for Mitt Romney, to choose one well-qualified example, to become the Republican nominee in 2020, would businesspeople support his candidacy over the incumbent?

Adam Lashinsky

@adamlashinsky

adam.lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.