Safe & the City transforming the spaces we walk
Safe & the City is an app that creates personalized journeys to appreciate the different perceptions of safety and risks of different types of groups during their daily commutes.
Founder and CEO Jillian Kowalchuk utilized a public health approach to designing the technology with her team, to balance crime, lighting and crowdsourced incidents like sexual harassment, insights to provide a safer route. With her purpose-driven company she wants to make moving around cities safer for everyone. We spoke to Jillian about how she came up with the idea for Safe & the City, what her biggest challenges are and what her vision for her company is.
If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, what would you say?
Jillian: Definitely ambitious, always challenging the status quo and motivated by progress.
How did you come up with the idea for Safe & the City? What was the inspiration, what was the incident that made you start a business around it?
Jillian: I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life and I grew up in the Middle East in Yemen. As a young child, I never thought about my safety until the civil war broke out. This drastic change fleeing with other refugees from the country not only left me thinking about safety differently but also inequalities around the world. My family and I were lucky to be able to return home to Canada but it grew in me a sense of injustice about the world and I started questioning much of the status quo around me. This also motivated me later as an adult to want explore different cultures. Including Germany, I’ve lived in nine countries but also was pressured to not do this alone, especially as young woman. I didn’t want my gender to limit my freedoms or ability too fully live my life, but this also exposed me to more risks and experiences that made me have to grow up faster.
After finishing my Master’s degree in Public Health and Epidemiology, I move to London to pursue a career in academic at the time. New to the city, I used navigation apps to get met around the city. However, I from this new data pattern lens, I noticed this problem in terms of how the apps were treating us all the same by guiding us only the quickest route. I would often be guided alone in a new city through a dark park or an alleyway and they were not places I felt safe and sometimes put me at risk for other types of experiences by trusting these apps.
One night when I was following the Google maps route through an alleyway. There were two kitchen staff on a smoke break. They noticed I was out of place, blocked my way and threatened to sexual assault me there. I was able to get out of that situation, probably because I’ve experience this form of sexual harassment before. But after I ran to meet my friend at the restaurant and explained what happened I couldn’t stop thinking about someone else walking into that situation but potentially not being as lucky as me. The police didn’t know, the business didn’t know, the community didn’t know, and other people walking through that space wouldn’t know. What if there was an app that could not only benefit people by giving them a heads up but also provide those crowdsourced insights to the organisations, like police, that could enable the change. That was the start of Safe & the City.
How did you then start building the business?
Jillian: As a newcomer, I didn’t know many people, especially any entrepreneurs. So I had to emerge myself into those spaces to see others living out their dreams to make me believe I could do my own. That was the first step, and then learning everyday, experimenting to fail fast, searching for talented team members, advisors and supporters who were able to help to chip away at this mountain I was trying to move.
Looking back now, you’ve been doing Safe & the City for a little more than 2 years now, what was one of the biggest challenges and how have you overcome it?
Jillian: One of the biggest challenges is raising investment. There are a few layers of experiences that come into those challenges. It’s hard to know if these are exclusively to women but being one and speaking with others there seems to be additional challenges. I’ve had a number of experiences dealing with the sexual harassment in investor situations. It was actually one of my first experiences with a VC I was introduced to. This was not isolated to me and with unbalanced power dynamics it can be a ripe situation to manipulate and take advantage of a person.
The other challenge is more around gender bias. The stats don’t lie, only 2% of VC investment goes to women. There is even more pressure to perfect every element, but even if there is support that can lead to becoming a better business leader it also is frustrated to be questioned, doubted and discriminated against because of what you look like.
Is there one highlight moment that you think of when things are not running that well? Jillian: I had a moment relatively recently being able to do my TEDx talk “Equality by Design” which was a highlight and one I was really proud of myself for doing. When things are not going well, I also have a Happiness toolkit with an accumulation of letters, text messages or user stories – what people have said to me about the importance of what I’m building and how it is changing lives. Those are messages that become so meaningful to kept going.
What is your advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs based on the learnings you’ve made in the past two and a half years?
Jillian: I think surrounding yourself with other people who are doing it is really important. If I hadn’t really seen other women being successful in tech, I’m not sure I would have had the same drive I could do the same. Not only female entrepreneurs but the Founders living by their values, giving back and being authentic to who they are.
What are the next steps for Safe & the City?
Jillian: We will close our investment round soon and planning our launch of Safe & the City V1 in Berlin. We are looking for event organisers and other mobile apps companies in Berlin that are interested in our public-safety-as-a-service technology. We’ve are also looking at other cities including Chicago, Detroit and New York City.
What makes Jillian happy thinking about Safe & the City in four years?
Jillian: We want Safe & the City to be in at least 10 major cities, generating both a highly profitable and socially impactful insights to measure the change we’re making to public safety. We are on the path to becoming zebras, more than a unicorn as we can do both. For me personally, I’d like to have more work life balance and use my voice and position to continue to be an advocate for equality.
Your vision for Safe & the City in one sentence?
Jillian: Progress with movement.