Powerful women speakers: Leila Janah

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Written by

Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D.

Leila Janah was a powerful speaker who could capture and hold the attention of her audience.

During speeches and while writing on her blog, she’d often share her immigrant story and the events in her life that made her to want to change the world.

Unfortunately, the world lost Leila Janah early in career due to complications from a rare form of cancer. We’re honoring her memory by making her the focus of our first post in a new series of powerful women speakers.

At the 2018 TNW Conference (The Next Web) Technology Conference in the Netherlands, Janah spoke about transforming the workplace and used a few key communication strategies to strike a nerve in her audience.

Janah was an exceptional storyteller who knew how to make data stick by making data familiar and meaningful, and by making data human. Here we take a deeper look at some of these strategies, along with her general use of story.

If you have the opportunity to speak to a crowd and want your ideas to motivate your audience, you can embrace some of the same communication strategies that Janah used so well.

Use story to engage your audience

Janah used storytelling to get buy in from her audiences and to help make meaning out of her data.

When she spoke at the 2018 TNW Conference, Janah used narrative elements to introduce the audience to two of the companies she founded: Samasource and LXMI. Both are for-profit companies that continue to provide work for people all over the world with the goal of empowering them and lifting them out of poverty.

To exemplify her vision, she told the story of Ken Kihara. Kihara is an educated man from Mathari—a Uganda slum plagued by war and child soldiers. Even though he graduated from a top boarding school, at the time he was barely surviving, working for a mere $1 a day.

With the introduction of fiber cable—a data center—and with the help of Samasource, Kihara was eventually lifted out of poverty through his new job. Janah shared that she hoped he might one day run for office in Kenya.

Janah used Ken’s story to help people understand the success of her vision, proving that businesses can both make a profit and provide work.

Humanize the data

In her presentation, Janah used a strategy that we call humanizing the data.

Humanizing data, or making data human, is a strategy discussed in the book DataStory by Nancy Duarte. According to DataStory, to make data human we have to acknowledge the role humans play within data.


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“Some data has nothing to do with humans, but most does. Most organizational data wouldn’t exist without humans generating it. We are buying and selling goods, clicking on links, wearing devices, undergoing medical tests, selling homes, etc. You can find life experiences within the data” (p. 159).

Janah used a variety of humanizing data examples. Such as when she told Ken Kihara’s story and used his character to humanize her company’s data. Kihara was presented literally and figuratively as the human behind the data—after all, he does work at data center.

In DataStory, we are reminded that the people behind our data are import. Duarte calls these people the “heroes or adversaries in your data” (p. 159).

Kihara’s heroicism was fully articulated as Janah shared his journey from being an educated man out of work in a slum, to becoming empowered by the opportunity of meaningful work, in effect, moving him and his family out of poverty and becoming one of her company’s biggest advocates.

Janah also humanized data when she shared stories about the women behind her beauty company, LXMI.

In her speech, she shared that she wanted to showcase the people at the base of the supply chain. She printed numbers on all of her launch products so that consumers could type in the number on her website and “meet the women who harvested the nuts” that go into the beauty products.

She championed the ability to include and share stories of those at the base of the supply chain—those who she felt were “so often invisible.”

Marvel at the magnitude

Another strategy that we embrace here at Duarte is to marvel at the magnitude of numbers.

In DataStory, we learn that in order to understand data, we need to attach it to something relatable (p. 143). Sometimes this can be done by developing a sense of scale and finding an approximate comparison to make things familiar and relatable.

In her presentation, Janah marveled at the magnitude of the 10,500 miles of fiber optic cable- the cable that helped lay the infrastructure for the company Kihara went on to work for in Uganda. It’s difficult to imagine the magnitude of the fiber, so she took a picture of herself standing next to it.

Janah also marveled at the magnitude of data when she shared how Samasource transformed peoples lives by raising their income by over 5x.

She communicated what a pay increase translated into for her over 10,000 workers. She pointed out that a pay increase of 5x isn’t just a dollar figure. An increased salary also translated into access to health insurance, education, dignified housing, and positive change for both workers and their family.

In our first of hopefully many tributes to powerful women speakers, Leila Janah proves an exceptional example of someone who used data and story to educate others and spark positive change in the world.




Illustrated by Trami Truong

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