Monday, 3 October 2016

Sama School - the visit and the adventure

Sama School

San Francisco HQ


2017 Mission St., Suite 301

San Francisco, CA 949110


(800) 521-6717 or +1 (415) 552-5090

20 September 2016

I caught the train up from Palo Alto to San Francisco – a number of changes required in both directions.

I arrived at the train stop and took the stairs to the street. The streetscape was quite confronting with older men and women sitting in various states of alertness and capacities. The noise level was high, the density of people was high, the socio economic status of the people was clearly very low – all in all I was very alert to all that was going on around me.

Where was the school? I couldn’t see it anywhere.

So what to do? I went into the Wells Fargo Bank branch that was right there. ‘ Can I help you sir?’ was the immediate enquiry from one of the bank employees that greeted me as I entered.

I am not here to bank but I would like some help please’ was my response.

‘Certainly sir.’

‘Have you heard of the Sama School?’  

‘The what school?’

‘Sama School’

‘How do you spell it?’

‘S.A.M.A. school’


‘No – S.A for apple.M.A for apple’

‘Oh – S. AYE.M.AYE’

I just had my first lesson in American vs Australian pronunciation.

Let’s look it up the bank officer said. (I had not enabled data on my phone and so I had lost that capability). He whipped out his phone and a quick search led to these directions.

‘It's in that building there’ he gestured to the same building that I had been circumnavigating prior to entering the bank. ‘Its definitely that building.’

‘OK,’ I said. I thanked him for his assistance and went back out into ‘the street.’

Well, again I circumnavigated the building but could find no sign indicating Sama School. There was one door though – glass, locked and each of the apartments needed an access code. I looked inside. A long white corridor was all I could see and a man, standing with the aid of a walking frame at the end – he was wet with sweat.

I stood there – looking helpless. The man began to walk slowly toward me – he inched the frame forward and then his legs followed. It took him some minutes to get to the door. He opened it.

‘I am looking for the Sama School’, I said.

‘I don’t know it,’ he said. I proceeded to tell him of my attempts to find the school thus far.

I just went to the gym he said, its down the back up the lift and on the top floor. I can let you in but that’s the best I can do,’ he said.

‘OK, thanks.’

He let me in. He walked out. Now what?

I proceeded down the back of the building. No signs on any of the doors. Each door I tried was locked. Up to the first floor – again all doors locked.

Finally a door that I tried was open. I opened it and went in. I was now standing in a ‘tech space.’ Polished floor, meeting room on the left, workstations arranged in pods, plenty of natural light – a few people. It felt safe here – was this Sama School?

No one lifted their eyes from their machines. It seemed a bit odd.

I approached one fellow.

‘Excuse me ,‘I said. He looked up. ‘I am looking for Sama School. Is this Sama School?’

‘No,’ he said; I lost a little hope, ‘but I know where it is.’ Hope returned.

He proceeded to tell me that I needed to go back out onto the street, turn right and at the door on the left; there should be a security guard there. Tell the security guard that you have an appointment at Sama School and he will let you in.

‘Between the building and the fruit market?’ I enquired so that I could confirm exactly where he meant. I had seen the security guard a couple of times but he seemed to be walking around rather than stationary.

He confirmed that that was correct.
‘What’s this place?’ I asked.

One degree is a website that allows users to search for thousands of social services in the neighbourhood. Users can create a free account to find, save, and review resources for healthcare, food, jobs, housing and more.

The approach was a real empowerer of the community that I had left on the street. Located right in the middle of the challenging environment they were helping those less fortunate in the community to connect with the range of services designed to support them.

So, following the direction given, speaking to the security guard accordingly, entering through the ‘right’ door and taking the lift to the third floor I arrived at Sama School.

Sama School was established by Leila Janah following her initial venture Sama Source. 

Sama Source was established to help poor communities in Kenya, India and the Philippines. It was established as an answer to the question ‘what if we bring work not aid?’

Sama is a nonprofit a social enterprise that helps people lift themselves out of poverty through digital work. 

Sama was named one of Fast Company's most innovative companies in 2016.

In a nutshell, Sama Source bids for contracts/projects. If they win those contracts (typically the requirements of bid for projects are along the lines of data entry etc), they place those projects in these targeted communities. They then recruit locals to work on the projects and train them in the kills that they need to fulfill the requirements of the projects. Whilst this model requires a time delay in delivering the projects there is a wage cost benefit that balances that and allows the bids for projects to be successful.

Sama School was then born as the requirements for the skills training associated with the projects began to be greater and the model began to scale.

Sama School in San Francisco exists as a stand alone school – not spun from a successful project bid.

Sama School in San Francisco exists in response to the growing ‘gig economy.’ The ‘gig economy,’ (a term that they needed to explain to me) is that economy that exists as a result of platforms such as TaskRabbit and AirTasker (I’d used AirTasker before but hadn’t heard it being referred to as the ‘gig economy’). These platforms allow people with tasks/projects to be done to place those jobs/tasks on these platforms and then other users can bid for those projects.

To be successful bidding you need a profile. As you complete jobs/tasks etc you get feedback ratings – these ratings then assist future job posters to assess the quality of bidders. Its like Airbnb in that regard. The barrier for the people that Sama is looking to assist is that they don’t possess the skills that participation on such platforms assumes that you have:

  • ·      Keyboarding
  • ·      Job search skills
  • ·      Social media familiarity
  • ·      How to build a profile on platforms such as LinkedIn etc.
  • ·      Etc

These are the skills that Sama School teaches.

From a standing start Sama School in San Francisco now has 4 FTE staff as well as 2 instructors. 280 students use their services each year. They also have a second site established in New York.

I met with Caleb Jonas. Caleb had been with Sama School for a number of years (but not from the start). He acknowledged the vision and strength of those that established the school.

That journey of growth brought with it lots of lessons. Caleb shared some of these with me:

  •       Pivots are required in response to the specific characteristics of the community within which you operate. In a number of instances Sama School went to establish itself in some rural communities, believing that that was what that community needed. The model failed. Those communities needed to have their more basic needs met first and so needed an income – the school pivoted to a Sama Source model and then added the education component. In San Franciso and New York it as the school that was needed because of the proliferation of the ‘gig economy.’
  •       Early growth is hard to sustain.  Like other start ups, early growth is build off enthusiasm and passion. The longer an organization exists that passion and enthusiasm can reduce thus impacting the ‘norms’ that exist across the organization. If we fail to recognize this and work out what our sustainable level of activity is then we run the risk of burnout.
  •       We need to diagnose what it is about the program that we offer that actually works – it can’t just be about energy and enthusiasm. Sam School employs 2 instructors to go ot to the community and deliver their programs where the students are. These instructors are experienced educators. Sam acknowledges their wisdom and experience and gives them license therefore to respond to the needs of the students that they are working with. That said however, there is a core of content that is required to be delivered – that is what they have identified as being the successful nucleus of the program. Flexibility with some required elements are the instructors brief. This approach keeps the delivery relevant to the students but also acknowledges those elements that are their success – they true to this.

Sama School regard themselves as 'nimble'. They are constantly reflecting on their programs and reshaping the curriculum accordingly.

Their instructors are given permission to make mistakes. Being learner centred and with the flexibility that the instructors have – they might get it wrong on occasions. That’s acknowledged and accepted. The trust that underpins this is clear and necessary.

The core content approach outlined above is a key element of the risk management approach that Sam takes in recognition of the fact that mistakes will occur.

Sama School is funded through grants distributed by philanthropic foundations. These foundations Sama regard as partners. These partnership relationships have matured over time and with that maturity has come a different definition of success.

Early in the journey, Return on Investment (ROI) was the measure for success that was employed. This affected culture. Now Sam School measures success by much more human measures: platform use (Air Rabbit and LinkedIn etc); income levels of graduates after the completion of the program.

Sama School exists in a confronting part of San Francisco. And while it is confronting it is home to many people – it is their neighborhood. That neighbourhood is under threat. Gentrification is encroaching on these areas right across the city. 2 blocks away I was told, condominiums are being bought and sold for increasingly high values, restaurants are being run where a lunch will cost upwards of $20. A collision is occurring ( as has happened in many other parts and areas of the US). What the future will be for many in this community is uncertain.

The world too is changing, thankfully Sama School is empowering their students to at least have the skills to ‘have a go’ in these new markets.

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