Find Your Way: All About Safe and the City

Inspiring others and empowering women: Jillian Kowalchuk, the founder of the safety app Safe and the City, talks about her business, diversity, inequality and how to make a change for women entrepreneurs

Jillian Kowalchuk founded Safe and the City to create safer and crime free routes. Unlike the other navigation apps, it doesn’t just show you the faster way – but the safer way. It provides users with alerts from police, quick access to Emergency services and nearby Safe Sites. It is driven by crowdsourced information so people can alert others about unsafe experiences and incidents.

You started your app, Safe and the City, in London. Now you expanded to Berlin. What is the next step? Where is the app going? 

Safety is something universal. We would love to be everywhere with Safe and the City, but we have to be quite strategic as a startup and consider where we can find support and people in communities that will respond to our project. We started in November 2017 and launched the app on the 8th of March, the International Women’s Day. We did it in London, purely because that was where I came up with the idea of Safe and the City. My original plan to come to London from Canada was to pursue my academic career. Being a newcomer made me notice how navigation tools were limited to help me stay informed about safety and how to get help. I wanted to share my experiences as a newcomer, as a woman, and a young person to understand how many other people are experiencing what I am and how we can use that information in a powerful way together to create safer spaces.

The problem of safety, especially for women is everywhere. Will you focus on just bigger cities, where the danger is greater?

In large metropolitan cities, there is a higher risk of crime as there are more people moving  in and out and more unfamiliar places. Berlin was our second location, not only as a major European city with an activism spirit, but also because we were supported by the Vodafone Institution. We’re exploring a few other cities, which have shown interest, but are also driven by the reports coming through the website to understand where people want the app to be next.The U.S. market is quite interested, but we also care about the walkability of the city – how connected it is to public transportation, because our navigation app is primarily focused on people walking and taking public transit. Our app can thrive in spaces that don’t only look at crime risk but the experiences of other antisocial behaviours, like harassment, discrimination and bullying.

The app is for everyone: men, women, children. But did you start it with the focus on women who, statistically speaking, are less safe on the streets?

Yes, I was driven from my own experience and perspective. I spoke with a lot of other people and most of them happen to be women, who couldn’t believe something like Safe & the City didn’t already exist.They also saw the gap between purely navigation apps, such as Google Maps or Apple Maps,  which lack crowdsourcing experiences, appreciating diversity of the users and working in collaboration with the police and cities to enable change. We also take into account personal safety, to identify Safe Sites willing to help anyone who feels vulnerable,  quickly reaching 112 and receiving public safety push notifications flagged by the police.

We recognize that there’s a lot of other intersections, which can put you at risk, not just because of your gender. For example, if you’re an ethnic minority, if you have religious attire, if you have a physical disability or you are with a partner of the same gender – these can all factor into a different perspective and concerns for safety. People are unique and we’re trying to understand these needs based on the contribution of what others feel comfortable sharing, not what we think they would be with any identifiable information. We can engage all people in the solution of safer and more inclusive spaces.

You focus a lot on women entrepreneurs and you help to guide them. Do you think that now people focus more on that and they want more women in business?

Yes, I think there is a huge shift that’s going on societally and it’s a really good turning point for equality efforts. In my TEDx talk, I speak about social entrepreneurs especially in technology, and how they actually can accelerate us towards the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). I dedicate my time to supporting other Female and diverse Founders, because I believe we need more of them. It really helps me to keep accountable and disciplined on the things I know work for me and many others. I’ve seen so many successful female founders involved in a few different things; by giving back you are able to gain much more.

We actually did an article about the Multi-Hyphen living – not being defined by one profession, but being open to other possibilities. Would you advise women who are entrepreneurs to aim for more? 

It’s definitely valuable for women to aim for more and invest their time into developing various skills. For example, I have recently been sponsored by a diverse Founders programme ran by Tech Hub. When people were sharing their elevator pitch, I was actively getting involved by downloading their app, following them on social media, or I was connecting them to people they may need to speak with to get more help. Even these small things can go a long way, which are often lost when you’re only thinking about yourself rather than the community.

My advice: how can you add value and in what areas do you want to grow within yourself? The more I’ve pushed Safe and the City, the more people started to notice me because I was so intrinsically connected to it. I started investing in other things like public speaking and coaching, which will pay off in the future.

Have you ever felt that starting Safe and the City was more difficult because you are a woman? 

I definitely felt that there were additional barriers to climb, whether that was in micro behaviors in meetings, such as being interrupted, not taken seriously with other men being asked questions, or the tendency for more risk- focused questions like: “When you will have a baby? There is definitely a barrier there, but I also believe we are making progress. During times of frustration I like to take a stoic approach to have those barriers become your drivers to push you further and also take on the longer-term view to not want to work with people who don’t respect or want to take you seriously. I also believe it is important to focus on appreciation. I am so grateful to be Canadian, well-educated and have many opportunities ahead of me.

Is there one way of conquering those barriers, do you have a method? What would you say to other entrepreneurs who are female or minorities?

There is no one right answer. What’s also crucial to me, is that my team understands these  types of issues and we can be there to support each other. At times,when I felt I couldn’t speak up they stepped in . For example, when I first started with the idea of Safe and the City, I was being advised by an older man who retired from the police. Very frequently people would be talking to him and asking him questions, even though he was an adviser. However, he was very straightforward and said “She’s the founder, you should ask her”. So I think it’s important to make sure that your team and the people around you are also aware of the problem and able to have the tools to support you. In general, I try to point out this behavior and call people out on it but you need to find your own style to do so. For me, humor and a witty, but respectful response has been an effective tool. You have to find your own style of what works but it is important to speak up where you can as bringing more awareness to these issues is how we can work towards resolving them.

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