When a SamaUSA representative came to her English class at the City College of San Francisco looking for volunteers for their first class ever, Ashley Ballard decided to enroll in the program.
The 26-year-old Ballard says she’d always loved computers, but had used them mostly for talking to friends and browsing the internet. SamaUSA was offering a job skills program, intensive computer training and a promise to teach her to be a digital freelancer — all at no cost to her.
Officially launched this November, SamaUSA is a new branch of the nonprofit Samasource, which for five years has coordinated a multinational digital-outsourcing program aimed at giving tech jobs to women and youths living on less than $3 a day in developing nations. SamaUSA is the organization’s first U.S. project.
From its headquarters at 16th and Mission (also the headquarters of Samasource), SamaUSA is focused on imparting skills instead of providing employment. The goal is to recruit students from community colleges and teach them how to become successful freelancers in the online economy. Only in its first year, the nonprofit has trained nearly 100 students.
Ballard, who has a serene smile and a quick laugh, has become one of its biggest evangelists. A mother of three children under the age of six, she lived, until last year, in Merced and tried to make a living braiding hair, a business she describes as surprisingly competitive, and which ended when she developed wrist problems.
To make matters worse, her partner of three years was physically abusive.
“I tried to find other work, but no one wants to hire you when you’ve got a black eye,” she said.
Last winter she’d finally had enough, and took her children and moved in with her mom in Bayview. After spending a few months in a funk, she enrolled at City College of San Francisco. It was there that she met the SamaUSA representative.
Over the 10-week course held at a classroom in the Bayveiw-Hunters Point YMCA, classes of around 25 students met for two hours, three days a week. Students learned the basics of cloud systems like Google Docs, spreadsheets, Skype and data entry. The program also got her signed up and working on a number of digital freelancing platforms, including Elance and oDesk. She now earns $14 to $20 an hour — mostly doing data entry. On the day she spoke with this reporter, at 2 p.m., she had already had four people contact her for work.
Currently, SamaUSA’s director, Tess Posner, said that with startup charges, the early classes have cost the organization around $3,000 per student, but those costs will fall to $1,200 for future classes. In addition to the training, students who need them are also given laptops they can keep.
SamaUSA is primarily funded through The California Endowment, a foundation that issues grants to community nonprofits across the state, and individual donors, including many from the tech industry.
The U.S. operations arose from the work the nonprofit Samasource was doing over the last five years. Pam Smith, a company spokesperson for Samasource, said that their goal is to provide work for people in third world countries. They do this by setting up work sites in remote locations, training workers there in digital skills and then paying them a living wage to do online work for U.S. corporations.
Smith said that workers are generally paid $1.60-$3.60 an hour in countries where more than 60 percent of the populace lives on less than $2 a day. Ideally, workers will stay with Samasource for three to six months before moving on to secure employment elsewhere. Samasource said that nine out of 10 of their foreign workers go on to jobs or schooling.
Unlike Samasource, SamaUSA isn’t directly providing work, but instead is taking the lessons they’ve learned teaching digital work skills abroad and applying them to its programs in underserved U.S. communities.
Ballard said she had tried other job-readiness programs, but felt they turned her loose unprepared.
“I used to not really know how to do a cover letter,” Ballard said. “Now I’m helping my mom and brother write theirs.”
Online freelancing has a number of attractive features for someone like Ballard. The work rarely needs to be done during business hours, allowing her to continue school and take care of her kids. Additionally, employers can pay her via a prepaid debit card. Ballard says she hadn’t had a bank account before, and had never built credit before this.
Posner said that as many as 70 percent of community college students drop out, and many mention money or the difficulty of juggling jobs and classes as a factor.
Ballard said that not everyone who went through the class has had her success. Some students were poor communicators, causing employers to drop them. Her brother also did the SamaUSA program. He struggled with the online work, but took to TaskRabbit, a service that allows people to contract out their skills — everything from professional services to helping someone move or driving them to the airport.
SamaUSA hopes to have classes in six cities in 2014, and has just added classes at community colleges in Feather River and Merced, where Ballard used to live. She says she’s already pestering her friends there to sign up.