Leila Janah is a woman of many talents. At 35, she’s a Harvard alum and the founder of two companies. But one thing that she’s always held close to her heart is her passion for giving back. “One of the things I love doing is connecting social justice to the market economy and being a consumer,” says Janah. “I think so many of us think of social justice as something we do on nights and weekends; it’s our non-profit hat.” But she has shown that it’s possible to do work that aligns with moral values – and shouldn’t that be the ultimate definition of luxury?
Janah spent much of her youth travelling to East Africa, from teaching English to the underprivileged to conducting field work in various African countries while also consulting and authoring papers for the World Bank. She developed a love for Africa and made it her mission to combat poverty, but in an impactful way. “We often think of charities as the solution, but it’s often disempowering. When we go give free stuff to those in need, it’s a very one- way relationship that doesn’t value their contribution and ultimately doesn’t lead to long-term benefits.”
She elaborates: “When I began looking into poverty reduction, I found the most effective way is to give work to people, especially women who reinvest 90 per cent of their salary in their family.” So she started Samasource, a company that outsources digital work to local African employees. It’s now the biggest digital firm in East Africa, working with US tech giants such as Google and Facebook.
One day, Janah came across a creamy, luxurious butter from a local Ugandan market. She was amazed at how this butter transformed her dry, dull skin. After some research, she found that it came from nilotica, a bean that takes 20 years to mature and only grows along the Nile River. Local women have been using it on their skin for ages; it’s an organic and natural source of skincare that doesn’t need any of the crazy additives we find in big-name products.
Enter LXMI (pronounced luxe-me), Janah’s organic, all-natural luxury skincare brand, named after the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Her four hands – two for giving and two for receiving – represent prosperity, liberation, morality and love. The company employs local Ugandan women and pays them three times the local average wage for harvests. “I want people to feel like they don’t have to compromise for a beautiful experience – packaging, aesthetic and product – while achieving social impact with a natural product.” Ultimately, Janah wants to source more rare botanicals and build the biggest sustainable luxury brand based around the benefits. Each product from the brand’s line features a unique serial number. You can enter it on the website to instantly see where it came from, who harvested it and how much they were paid.
“We don’t connect social justice to our day-to-day consumption patterns. The clothes we buy, the coffee we drink... all of these opportunities that we have to spend money is a way to vote on how we want to spend money.” She concludes: “Living in concert with your values makes you more beautiful and happier.”
This feature originally appeared in the May 2018 print issue of #legend