A couple of years ago, Yasmine Mustafa found herself in a situation that most women have faced at least once in their lives. On her walk home one evening, she was being followed by two men, who were trying to get her attention. She passed up her door so they wouldn't know where she lived, and they finally veered away, leaving her alone. Moments later, she saw a cop stopped at an intersection and told him what happened.
"I said, 'Hey, what should I have done? What could I have done?'"
The first thing he asked her was, "Do you have pepper spray?" And the second thing was, "Have you taken self defense classes?"
She looked at him angrily, and wondered why she should be doing that. It's all about giving women something else to buy, another way to protect themselves.
"Right now, everything is on women. Don't wear this. Don't walk here," she said.
That incident just added to her growing frustration with how society deals with the subject of sexual harassment, violence, and rape. Not long before, Mustafa had spent six months traveling around South America where she met dozens of women who had been victims of sexual assault. When she returned to her hometown of Philadelphia after the trip, she learned of the brutal rape of a woman just blocks from where she lived.
She sat, looking at the paper, and decided someone had to do something about it.
So Mustafa approached Anthony Gold, a longtime friend and advisor she knew, to build Roar For Good, a wearable technology for self defense. It's a circular wearable that can clip on a woman's bra strap, belt, or shirt, or be worn as a necklace, with an alarm, light, and connected smartphone app. Gold had spent most of his career as an entrepreneur and wanted to use technology and business to address societal challenges.
He quickly agreed. What struck him most about Mustafa's idea was not only how the technology she had come up with could reduce assault, but also that her vision was much bigger. She didn't want to just put a Band-Aid on the problem.
"We call them women's issues, but they aren't," he said. "They're societal issues and we need to do something about it as a society."
According to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five women are raped in their lifetime. A separate study showed that one in five college women are sexually assaulted during their time in undergrad.
Mustafa and Gold wanted to develop a better tool for women to reduce these types of attacks, but they also wanted to dig deeper than that with Roar For Good. They want to get to the root of the cause by partnering with organizations and nonprofits that teach young boys and girls empathy, respect, and consent.
"We know we are successful when there's no longer a need for what we we are doing," Gold said. "So in a sense, we are trying to put ourselves out of business. There are far easier ways to make money, but we really want to make a dent in the universe in what we are doing."
Originally, Mustafa's idea for Roar was wearable mace. She realized that existing self defense tools have not been updated in 70 years, when pepper spray was invented. Women don't want to take tasers or mace to bars or other locations, so the idea was that instead of having to take something out of a purse or pocket, women could already have mace on them.
She thought it was genius. But then, Mustafa started talking to women and posted a survey on Facebook, asking women what they liked/disliked about existing self defense tools. In a couple of hours, she received hundreds of responses. And there was a pattern. Almost 40% of women owned tools, but most were afraid mace and tasers would be used against them if they were overpowered. Or they forgot them at home all the time. Or they were difficult to carry around.
"I was like okay, obviously women are finding these tools aggressive, bulky, hard to use, and wanted to address all those concerns," she said.
So it developed into what will launch on Indiegogo later this summer. The wearable has an alarm and light that will work without a phone connection, just by pressing a button on the wearable, but to contact anyone, a woman needs to have her smartphone on her.
There were a few reasons for that, Mustafa said. First, adding GPS in the wearable makes the device bigger and bulkier, which defeats the purpose; and second, if a woman is attacked and the device is stolen, the app can still contact authorities. The device also has the ability to connect to anyone who is using the Roar app if a phone is dead — so say, you're at a frat party and your phone dies, your device can connect to your sorority sisters' Roar app just in case.
The Roar smartphone app has two main features:
1. The virtual bodyguard. This came from the idea that most women want to use the app when they are walking home alone at night. It works like this: You open the Roar app, and it ties into Google Maps API to find your location and how long your trip will be depending on if it's walking, biking, or on public transit. It starts a countdown timer, and if you aren't within the GPS location within that timeframe, it sends a text to your emergency contacts listed. An optional feature allows someone to watch over you, and basically follow your dot until you arrive safely at your destination.
2. Crowdsourced safety tips. This came about because Mustafa used to live in an area of West Philly that had a corner where many men gathered outside a bar and public transit stop. Women couldn't walk past without being whistled at or harassed. So, she made crowdsourced safety tips a part of the app. Anyone can enter a safety tip — like identifying a known street harassment zone or dangerous area — and the community can vote it up or comment on it. That way, women can find a different route to avoid the area.
After many surveys with potential customers — Mustafa has spoken to more than 1,000 women — they have decided to make the wearable customizable for women, because the overwhelming majority said fashion is important. For instance, women who want to jog may want to clip something basic on their bra strap, whereas someone else may want to wear a colored version disguised as a necklace when they're going out to a bar. Roar will also offer a basic version that's more subtle and not as focused on the fashion element as much as concealment. Gold also mentioned a natural extension in retail, and hopes that eventually, the device can be embedded in clothing like sports bras.
"We don't purport to know what's most fashionable," Gold said. "One of the key things we're working on is making it modular — to actually change the color and style of design so the face can be replaced. There is no one size fits all, and we don't want to take a stance of okay, here it is, you're going to love this... [we want to] create something that women can accessorize to meet needs as they want."
One of target customer groups are sororities, Gold said. When they were initially designing the wearable, they contacted a large sorority at a major university in Philadelphia to talk about Roar For Good. The chapter responded within an hour saying the timing couldn't be better — one of their sisters had just been raped. They wanted to hear more, and so Mustafa and Gold spoke to 118 young women about the horrifying reality of what women face on college campuses.
"We see universities and urban environments as good place to start, because these issues are so prevalent there, and it's an opportunity to make an impact early on," Gold said. "This can't just be a top down from executive management, it has to be grassroots, from the students up."
Roar for Good will be available to anyone in the US at first, but the team is partnering with several local universities and organizations to automatically connect with 911 centers and campus security centers to start. Though Mustafa wants to expand internationally, since that's how this idea came about, it's difficult because of various countries' emergency numbers and the lack of cell phone coverage in developing nations. Right now, Roar is focused on the US and Canada, with plans to expand internationally next year.
The price point isn't available yet, but the device will be set at an affordable price, the founders said. The crowdfunding campaign launches later this summer. For the next few weeks, Roar is running a contest for people who sign up and refer their friends to win the wearable for free.
However, one of the most important aspects of Roar For Good is education. Mustafa and Gold want to reach students by engaging with them at their level — short, text-based or social media-based content that is reminiscent of Twitter or Yik Yak, so they can better understand issues of harassment, assault, and violence.
The company is partnering with nonprofits focused on preventing violence against women, and will donate some of its proceeds to them as well.
"We want to focus on programs that teach young boys and girls about empathy, consent, and respect because [they're] more likely to decrease aggression and promote a culture of respect and gender equality," Mustafa said.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.