Starting over isn’t easy for anyone, but that’s where Mary Skaggs found herself at age 69, after battling Stage 4 lung cancer. It was December 2006 when she got the diagnosis, and the doctors were doubtful she would survive. Against their wishes, she pushed to continue chemotherapy — a testament to her persistence — and after eight long months, she was in remission. But that wasn’t the end of Skaggs’ struggle. After 20 years as a truck driver, lingering ailments (including asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) forced her to give up the job she loved and, with it, the paycheck that her family desperately needed to cover medical expenses.

When it was time for Skaggs to find a new career, she knew she needed something with a flexible schedule, one that would allow her to work from home and provide for her and her husband, who is also ill. She started taking classes at Merced College’s Business Resource Center in Merced, Calif., to learn basic computer skills. There, in the fall of 2013, she met a representative looking for volunteers for a new, free program offering job-skill training, intensive computer instruction and a chance for a better life. She was immediately interested. “I thought, ‘This sounds great,’” she says. “By the time I graduated, it had opened my life enormously. My whole life had changed.”
That program, SamaUSA, is a branch of San Francisco-based Samasource, an innovative social impact organization that connects people living in poverty around the world to work on the Internet. Headquartered at Samasource at 16th and Mission, SamaUSA focuses on helping folks earn money at home through online work so they can supplement their income and eventually graduate from college, leading to higher lifetime earning potential.
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“Education is often cited as the solution to alleviating poverty or breaking the cycle, as people with college degrees earn up to $1 million more in their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma,” says Leila Janah, founder and CEO of Samasource and SamaUSA. “Yet 80 percent of students drop out of community college.” Most of these students are forced to quit for one reason: money. According to a Public Agenda report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 71 percent of college dropouts said they had to quit school in order to go to work. Of those who attended school, but never graduated, 63 percent of students said balancing school and work was just too stressful. And nearly two-thirds of dropouts said they would like to finish their degrees. “At SamaUSA, we are aiming to change these statistics by providing low-income students access to a new economy and an opportunity to move above the poverty line,” Janah says.
SamaUSA is also job training at its most cost efficient: It currently spends about $3,000 per trainee, as much as $20,000 less expensive than other comparable job training programs. Initial funding was provided by the California Endowment — a private statewide foundation that expands access to health care and other needed services — but SamaUSA is currently seeking new financing to expand its impact.
At Merced College, Skaggs listened to the SamaUSA pitch: During a 10-week bootcamp, students learn the skills they need to be successful freelancers in the online market. With the help of instructors, they then build profiles on websites like Elance, oDesk and TaskRabbit, where they can apply for jobs in areas such as customer service, marketing, data entry, research and graphic design. The program was exactly what Skaggs was looking for. She wanted in. “I had come to Merced College strictly to get some type of computer skills so I could get a job online,” Skaggs says, adding that her health problems would eventually make her housebound. “But I was not sure how I was going to get my skills from the learning stage to the usage stage.” For Skaggs and other students, SamaUSA can bridge that gap, either by teaching them how to earn supplemental income while in school, or providing them with everything they need to develop a new career.
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SamaUSA is based on a business model called microwork, a concept that Janah developed in 2008 with the founding of Samasource, which so far has helped more than 20,000 women and youth in areas such as East Africa, South Asia and Haiti lift themselves and their families out of poverty through digital outsourcing. The microwork model takes complex data projects from large tech companies in the United States like Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn and breaks them down into small tasks, which are then completed by workers overseas. Samasource has been so successful that the organization was awarded a $2 million Google Global Impact Award last year.
But fighting poverty in the U.S. presents unique challenges. The SamaUSA pilot program launched its first classes in March 2013 in the Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA, near Samasource’s offices in San Francisco. The area is just 40 miles from Silicon Valley, but it has a poverty rate of close to 40 percent. “Even though Bayview is within one of the largest tech hubs in the world, there are not a lot of technology jobs that are accessed by this community,” says Tess Posner, SamaUSA’s director. “There’s a huge digital divide.”
To get the program off the ground, the SamaUSA team also had to combat the misperception that online work is a scam. After all, who would come to this low-income neighborhood and offer free laptops and technology classes, along with a promise of limitless job opportunities? “We were a new program, and no one knew who we were or what online work is,” Posner says. “It took time to build credibility.”
The first course in Bayview was a success, with the average 2013 graduate earning $1,800 working online and 92 percent of students staying in school. At Merced College, SamaUSA’s second location that opened in the fall of 2013, full-time job opportunities in the area are few and far between: The unemployment rate is a staggering 15.9 percent. That’s why a program like SamaUSA is a welcome opportunity for Skaggs and other adults who are attending Merced College to change careers. The flexible schedule has fit perfectly into Skaggs’ life. She can continue to take classes at Merced’s Business Resource Center, keep an eye on her husband and earn a decent amount of supplemental income doing data entry and research. “[SamaUSA] has given me everything I didn’t know I needed,” she says.
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In January, SamaUSA launched a third location: Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., a rural area in the Sierra Mountains with a high unemployment rate and little industry growth. Alesha Lindsey, 20, is a student in the first SamaUSA course here and has been consistently working a variety of jobs — from the Quincy Pizza Factory to Subway — while putting herself through school. With about 30 credits to go, Lindsey has finally nailed down her major, in part because of her attendance in the SamaUSA program. She’s now seeking a business degree, with an emphasis on marketing.
At first, Lindsey, like many other SamaUSA students, struggled to understand the concept of online work, but she now sees the program as an opportunity to build a better life for herself — as well as help her neighbors. “A lot of rural communities focus on keeping the money in their own town, which means there’s only so much to go around,” Lindsey says. “If I’m able to do online work, then I can bring in new money. And I can go the coffee shops and cafes and keep those places in business.”
Though SamaUSA is still in the early stages of development, Tess Posner is excited about the organization’s future. “Some students started [building careers] online, earning thousands of dollars in different fields, and applying that money right back into their college education,” she says. Instructors continue to support program graduates by hosting weekly SamaCafe gatherings, where they get together to apply for jobs, ask questions and connect with their classmates. And as SamaUSA continues to grow — Leila Janah, its founder, hopes that the program can expand to other areas of California in 2014 before going nationwide in 2015 — so will the opportunities to share what they’ve learned. “When you’re empowered with technology, it stays with you for the rest of your life,” Posner says. “It changes everything.”
Additional reporting by Charlotte Parker.
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