A light to prevent darkness
Stephenie Rodriguez, an Australian, is a serial entrepreneur and global citizen. She is the Founder of JOZU for WOMEN Inc, and the inventor of the WanderSafe beacon. Stephenie has lived on two continents and travelled to more than 55 countries. During an interview with The Guardian, she explained that she is on a personal mission to impact a billion lives by 2025, and to help people commute and travel better and safer, in support of nine of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Hello Stephenie, it’s been a pleasure being introduced to you and your work. Please can you share some details about WanderSafe and JOZU?
WanderSafe is a complete holistic personal safety solution. It is both a free smartphone app to download that will give you information about where you are and it works together with a beacon, which is an Internet of things device that I designed in collaboration with a 24-year CIA counter terrorism expert on safety. It is non-violent and it’s for empowering you to go anywhere. It is designed for vulnerable people that includes men, women, children, elderly, LGBT. For anyone who feels unsafe at any time.
JOZU is the name of our parent company. It is a Japanese word that means “well done” or “better than”, and JOZU has always been on a mission to make travel better and safer. So in 2018, we pivoted and really went into R&D on the WanderSafe product and decided that an app by itself wasn’t enough, because as long as women are carrying their keys, they need something better than that. We wanted to make travel and commuting better and safer. Everything we have developed has been aligned with the JOZU principle as our North Star.
What are the fundamental principles that drive you, beyond producing a technological solution?
We look at peace and justice, smart cities and innovation, and collaboration. We look at every aspect of our product development and how we’re supporting the UN SDGs, and the partnerships that we can really create value with. And for every beacon we sell, we have an obligation to put one back into communities at risk.
What stage are you at with everything? And how do you feel it’s going?
We founded JOZU for WOMEN at the end of 2016 as a platform wherein women could share their collective wisdom about destinations they visited. We attended the Women’s Startup Lab in Silicon Valley in September 2017, which is an accelerator for female founded startups. It was at this point that we were advised by great mentors including Chris Yeh of Wasabi Partners and Bill Reichardt from Garage Ventures that we need to push our idea even further and productise ourselves. We regrouped at the end of 2017 and launched the WanderSafe mission at the beginning of 2018. In April 2018, we began our initial designs for the app and the WanderSafe beacon, and by October, launched it to the Duty Free/travel market at the big TFWA.com trade show in Cannes. We chose October 2 – which is UN International Day of Non-Violence and Ghandi’s birthday – as our day to launch, because it was aligned with our purpose.
We received our first order on the launch day at the show and Etihad was the first airline to sell the WanderSafe beacon in their in-flight duty free shop. Since then, we have produced and shipped 3,000 beacons and have users in 50 countries. We sold some of those to B2B customers including Booking.com, Revlon and Deloitte Digital for their traveling staff. Others have been purchased off our website, wandersafe.com.
The free WanderSafe app released its first version in October 2018, and since then has gone through over 30 updates. We continue to add more features and data layers, as there is a great deal of value in the informative aspect of the app as it relates to personal safety. Each month we see our user-base doubling, so I believe we are tracking according to plan.
How do the WanderSafe beacon and app work? How does it make a potential victim safe from an attacker?
One single click of the beacon carries the strength of a thousand lumens, which is very bright. If you click it twice, it delivers a seven per second pulse light – a strobe light – because clinically, if someone puts a strobe light in your face, you are disconnected from whatever idea your brain was having. The light takes over. So that strobe light distracts a potential assailant from being able to think for that second about whatever they were intending to do. The beacon also has de-escalation features, and also the ability to silently press an SOS feature that activates a series of sequences in the app.
When a user downloads the WanderSafe app and adds their emergency contacts in the application, the user’s contacts get encouraged to download the app. This is so that if the user activates the SOS protocol, their loved ones can see where they are in the app and begin to act on their safety plan, whatever that may include. We’ve created the platform to start that dialogue and then work together.
Are people buying into the idea – both men and women – or is your market mainly women?
Yes, and surprisingly more men are using the app than women and our purchases are almost equally 50/50 from the sales that we know. We don’t know who buys them on airplanes or in duty free stores. When I have asked our customers why they purchase the beacons or download the application, I am told by men they are buying them for their loved ones. Women tend to make a personal purchase. Of our four B2B customers, three out of four of the decision-makers are men.
Aside from your customers, who have been your main supporters to date?
From an investment perspective, most of our angel investors are female, with my largest shareholder being a local businesswoman who is also my mentor. From a partnership standpoint, we are working with various NGOs that address the problem of violence and human trafficking including SWATLeague.org in the US, CrimeStoppers International at the Hague, Airline Ambassadors, and others. We are in discussions with StopTheTraffick.org to integrate their known trafficking database to supplement JENI.
JENI (Justified Environmental Navigation Interface) is our proprietary algorithm that we are developing to be able to deliver dynamic safety data and information that is contextually relevant to you and where you are, in near real time. We are part of the OSAC.gov Diaspora and are able to know what governments know about health, and about geopolitical and environmental issues that could harm travellers. We also have a partnership with a company called Geospatial Intelligence, which provides intelligence to assist JENI.
And which key groups or organisations do you feel you need to generate more support from – and why? I’m not only speaking of financial support here.
We would like to work with NGOs and agencies whose stakeholders include the most vulnerable people so that they can educate them on how to use the WanderSafe app to assist themselves and work as a community. Finally, we would like to collaborate with national Telco operators as we see that WanderSafe should become a utility application in all smartphones and come as standard equipment like Facebook with the ability for the app to work with local SOS functionality at the carrier level. These are the essential ingredients to being able to deploy WanderSafe in a place like Nigeria where it can help many.
And I understand you are planning a trip to Nigeria, what brings you to the West African country? Is there much competition over here already?
I am attending a global leadership summit called HiveAfrica.org being held in Lagos. I have never been to Nigeria, although I have been on the African continent, so it will be the 56thcountry to be stamped in my passport. I am not sure whether we have a direct competitor in Nigeria or West Africa, as we focus on building the best product and platform at a global level. We’re bringing a solution that works not only in Nigeria, but which can protect Nigerians as they travel abroad.
To reach our full potential in places like Nigeria, we need to work collaboratively with law enforcement and government agencies who can provide us with data so that our crime heat maps can be robust and helpful to users. Having this collaborative relationship would also allow us to provide them with user feedback on how citizens are viewing or experiencing certain unsafe situations when they are commuting. The app allows for the user to annotate why they might feel unsafe. This would provide insight for city planners and law enforcement to be able to add more resources where citizens say it is most needed.
Do you come up against any adversity for dealing with a rather sensitive, and perhaps personal topic? How do you handle this?
Safety is a global concern and how personal safety is being managed in the western world like the US requires us as citizens to solve our own problems, not wait on the world’s leaders to do it for us. Violence only creates more violence. I know that there are certain countries that would prefer to give a “disturbing the peace” infraction to a man who attacks a woman rather than a criminal charge for abuse, so as not to create a statistic or stigma about that country. My story of being attacked as a foreign female business traveller is not unique. I hear stories from folks all over the world, and not just women – which is why we developed WanderSafe. To address the needs of vulnerable people. “Vulnerable” could be a minority group/religious sect, the elderly, those who identify as LGBTQ, the young, and women. The statistics about human trafficking victims, with women comprising more than 85 per cent, are irrefutable. We lead our product and conversations with the data…it is not subjective. We also share our stories about assault and empowerment because “what gets revealed, gets healed.” (That is my favourite quote from Jay-Z the artist).
The safety of women is a global problem.
How do you think we can better tackle this universal issue, and do you feel it’s easier to manage the situation in certain parts of the world compared to others? Where are the real problem areas, or are potential attacks random acts of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
In certain cultures, including Australia, there are certain norms which perpetuate violence against women. This evil comes in many forms. In Australia, more women are killed at the hands of their domestic partner than any other illness or accident. There are aboriginal tribes, and in these rural communities, women are still perceived as the property of their spouses. In the US, human trafficking is at an all-time high and most of those victims are being used as under-age prostitutes for what has been perceived as a “victimless crime” at an average of nine years old.
Human trafficking is the HIGHEST earning criminal activity after drugs in the US, and it’s in the billions of dollars. We’ve pledged to empower people to leverage mobility, community and collaboration to protect themselves and to assist others. To tag a location in the WanderSafe application because you saw something and felt uneasy is the first step to speaking your truth, and it is effortless. The ability to call for help in the press of the SOS button or deter an attacker with a siren, are all tools of empowerment. We believe that personal safety has three pillars: Information, Environmental, Awareness and Equipment. If you knew an area was unsafe, or that there was the presence of something unsavoury that you could see in the application, you could make a more informed decision about which route you might take. If you needed and could only take a route that has been marked as unsafe, you would know what to be alert and mindful of, and at the end of the day, knowledge is power. With WanderSafe, you would be better equipped to call and get help if you needed it.
Last of all, what advice would you give women who’ve either had their security compromised or who currently feel their personal safety is threatened, for all manner of reasons?
Having been a victim myself, appreciate that if you are a victim, it is not your fault. Speak about it to someone you trust, because it can be an amazing and silent burden to bear. The CIA teach that success is a mindset, and having a conversation with your loved ones about your situation and what you need is important. Be it for international travel and sharing itineraries and plans, to domestic violence situations. Having a plan creates that success mindset.
It’s really encouraging to hear that the customers buying into this dual WanderSafe beacon/app solution are both male and female. Thank God men are also seeing the light and buying them for the women in their lives. The classic advice men used to give women – to carry their keys in between their fingers like brass knuckles – is not good enough. Yes, that can make women feel safer, but it doesn’t actually help unless they are able to land that punch. And we are not Floyd Mayweather or Anthony Joshua – so that’s risky. Thank you to Stephenie for shedding light on a situation to help keep us safer, and to allow us to travel safer.
At the time of interview, Stephenie, appreciating that some markets need a lower price point, announced the launch of their new value product, the SHAKTI Safety Beacon into production. Shakti means “power, ability, strength, effort, energy, capability”, and this product is specifically targeting female customers. It is lighter and more feminine in a fashionable rose gold finish, and unlike the WanderSafe beacon, it comes with a loop clasp to attach to hangbags, backpacks and key-rings, and has similar capabilities. The difference is the activation function of the 130db alarm, where you pull it, instead of twisting it to activate it. SHAKTI will pair elegantly with the WanderSafe app in the same way as the first beacon.