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

March 20, 2020, 12:41 PM UTC

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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.

NEWSWORTHY

I would be complex. Even Elon Musk bowed to the coronavirus outbreak, closing Tesla's U.S. car factory in Fremont, Calif., on Thursday after days of resisting political pressure and trying to remain open.

I would be cool. Fear and disruption of the coronavirus outbreak are roiling the economy. A Fortune poll finds 63% of Americans are worried they won't have enough money to pay bills and 82% think a recession is likely in the next year.

Make me more of a boss to you. While some parts of the economy suffer, others are making gains. Slack said it added 7,000 new customers in the past 47 days, 40% more than it had added in the entire preceding quarter. Slack's stock price gained 17% on Thursday, leaving it still down 7% in 2020. Microsoft says its competing Teams app has over 44 million daily active users, up 12 million from a week ago.

If I was a man. Former Uber self-driving vehicle engineer Anthony Levandowski on Thursday pled guilty to one criminal count of stealing trade secrets from Google, where he'd worked earlier in his career. In return, prosecutors dropped 32 more counts. Levandowski faces a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison. In other bad news for the autonomous vehicle market, five-year-old startup Starsky Robotics is closing down.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As mentioned yesterday, Apple announced upgrades to its iPad Pro and MacBook Air product lines via press release. The quiet releases followed news that Apple's annual developer conference, WWDC, would be held online instead of in person this year. Fortune's own Robert Hackett explores the implications of the company's inability to hold large gatherings to promote new products at this time. He spoke with Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist for software startup Canva and a former Apple marketing executive.

“In the good old days, it would be Steve Jobs and standing ovations and throngs of believers, and worshippers would fall to the ground in amazement,” Kawasaki says of Apple’s events. “We can wistfully remember those days, but those days are gone.” It’s going take a new kind of way to introduce products, given the exigencies of the pandemic and other major societal changes underway, he adds.

“Many companies will realize, ‘Why are we renting these spaces and buying hundreds of bottles of wine and thousands of pounds of shrimp and cheese and prosciutto and grapes?’ We should just go digital all the time,” Kawasaki continues. “We may look back and say this was a turning point for climate change, when people realized they didn’t have to go fly someplace.”

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few long reads that I came across this week:

What the hell happened to Mint? (Fast Company)
In 2009, personal-finance behemoth Intuit bought Mint, an impressive startup. And then it let its $170 million acquisition wither on the vine.

The Tamagotchi Hacking Community’s Quest to Cheat Death (OneZero)
To keep their digital pets alive just a little bit longer, Tamagotchi hackers get creative.

The Art World’s Mini-Madoff and Me (New York)
Boozy nights and high-stakes art trades with Inigo Philbrick.

Capitalism’s Favorite Drug (The Atlantic)
The dark history of how coffee took over the world.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Uber’s CEO to investors: The coronavirus won’t kill our business By Danielle Abril

Don’t get cut off by the coronavirus. Here are (mostly) free tech tools for work, education, and fun By Don Reisinger

Monetizing fear? The future of anti-rape technology—and its decade of failure By Jesse McHugh

Filmmakers must make a choice as coronavirus forces festivals online By Aric Jenkins

How working parents are navigating childcare during the coronavirus pandemic By Emma Hinchliffe

Hong Kong launches massive surveillance operation to track suspected coronavirus patients By Eamon Barrett

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

I have a two-for-one for you this morning. You're cooped up at home looking for entertainment. And you're doing more cooking at home. You're in luck. PBS has put every episode of Julia Child's still-amazing cooking show, The French Chef, online. PBS members can access every show via PBS Living and a few choice episodes are available to everyone. Bon appétit!

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com