Violence against women is a global epidemic. About one in three women around the world have been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization. Seattle-based entrepreneurs and philanthropists Anu and Naveen Jain, who cofounded Internet search company InfoSpace, are aiming to help reduce the number of assaults by using technology to keep women and girls safe. Naveen also created lunar expedition firm Moon Express.
“My husband, Naveen, has a company that’s going to go to the moon. I was just like, wait a minute! How can we do that and we still haven’t solved such a basic problem? It’s really frustrating,” Anu Jain tells Forbes.
In October 2016, the couple launched a competition with the XPrize Foundation—a nonprofit known for its competitions—to encourage techies from all around the world to create a hidden device that will send an emergency alert to community responders in 90 seconds if a woman is facing a threat. Eighty-five teams from six continents joined the quest to develop an affordable, accessible and inconspicuous device. They were also asked to design a device that would work everywhere, from a crowded bus in a big city like Mumbai to rural areas where wireless network reception is perhaps nonexistent.
On Wednesday evening, XPrize honored the five finalist teams, which hailed from the U.S., India and Switzerland, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The $1 million prize was awarded to Leaf Wearables, a team led by 24-year-old Indian entrepreneur Manik Mehta. The team’s device, Safer Pro, sends emergency alerts with location details to users’ guardians and also records audio at the time of alert. “Audio recording is so needed in developing countries where there’s corruption,” says Anu Jain, who adds that she hopes to see all the finalists’ devices reach the market.
“We have been working tirelessly to solve the problem of safety using technology. It has been our mission to make one billion families safer,” Leaf Wearables team leader Mehta said in a statement.
Mehta and four of his college friends cofounded Leaf Wearables in 2015 while still in school. They introduced a safety gadget disguised as a pendant shortly after. Mehta says once XPrize announced the competition, he received dozens of calls from friends and family who said this would be a great opportunity to improve their product. The new device, which looks like a FitBit and comes in different colors, uses 3G and 4G networks to send distress signals as well as 2G, which is still common in developing countries. Once fully charged, it can be in active mode for three days and on standby for seven days. Though it has not been manufactured at scale yet, Safer Pro is expected to cost about $35. The team, however, hopes to bring the cost down significantly.
Leaf Wearables was not the only team to win a prize at the event on Wednesday evening. Naveen Jain surprised the remaining finalists by announcing that each would get a total of $50,000. Other teams included a group from Switzerland, a cohort of college students from Bethlehem, Penn., academics from the University of Washington and Tsinghua University in China, and a collaboration of two U.S.-based startups, Nimb and SafeTrek. At the event, Nimb cofounder Kathy Roma shared the story of how she was stabbed nine times in her hometown in Russia in 2014. Roma had just dropped her daughter off at school and was on her way home when she was attacked.
Personal experience played a part in the Jains’ decision to establish this competition. As a kid, Anu Jain moved from one country to another with her father, who worked for the UN Peacekeeping Forces. She was 2 months old when she first left her home country, India, for Jerusalem. She later lived in Cyprus, Egypt, and Lebanon where, as a ten-year-old in 1975, she witnessed the beginning of the country’s Civil War. (She remembers bullets finding their way into her family’s Beirut apartment through open windows.) Years later, Jain immigrated to the U.S., studied economics at SUNY Stony Brook and pursued an MBA at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
No matter where Anu Jain went, however, one problem always persisted: “Every single place we were in, there was always a concern for safety. Being a girl, I always had to remember that I had to be careful. I have two sons and a daughter. I’ve always had to tell my daughter: ‘You have to be careful. You’re a girl,’ ” she says. “It doesn’t matter what our socioeconomic background is. We’ve [all] felt unsafe at some point, whether it was walking to our car alone in the dark at the mall or opening the door and there’s a stranger. It doesn’t matter which part of the world we live in.”
Naveen Jain concurs: “Women’s safety is not just a third world problem. We face it every day in our own country and on our college campuses. It’s not a red state problem or a blue state problem but a national.”
The entrepreneur was born in 1959 in northern India where he grew up in poverty. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1983 and pursued a career in tech. He joined Microsoft in 1989 as a manager but left seven years later to start his own company, InfoSpace. He even briefly joined the Forbes 400 ranks as a billionaire in the year 2000 before the dot-com bubble burst and the InfoSpace stock plummeted. A serial entrepreneur, he’s founded several companies since, including public records business Intelius, health startup Viome, and Moon Express, an early-stage company created to mine the moon for natural resources.
Is Leaf Wearables’ device the ultimate solution? It’s certainly a good start in the attempt to help girls and women who are vulnerable to attack, but it won’t eliminate the millions of attacks on women that take place every year. “[The global mindset] needs to be changed and it’s slowly happening, but that takes generations,” says Anu Jain. If this device becomes widely adopted, as the Jains hope, Anu says she believes people will have to “think twice” before they assault any women.
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