As she huddled with her family in a crowded bomb shelter in Kuwait during Saddam Hussein’s attack on her country in 1991, Yasmine Mustafa felt as petrified and helpless as any eight-year-old girl would feel under such horrifying circumstances. Today, Mustafa is co-founder and CEO of a company in Philadelphia that’s creating technology to help prevent women everywhere from having to endure the fear and helplessness that far too many are subjected to every day.
In a captivating Ted Talk from earlier this year, Mustafa recounted the story of her family’s relocation to the United States, where she entered school as a fourth grader who spoke no English. She would eventually graduate summa cum laud from Temple University with a degree in Entrepreneurship, and with an internship under her belt that had enabled her to work with early-stage tech entrepreneurs. That exposure set her on a path that led to the founding of ROAR for Good, a startup that’s gearing up to ship a wearable device that can be activated to sound an alarm and send out a location-based text alert in the event of an attempted assault.
In an interview last week, Mustafa spoke about the pieces that fell into place to equip her with the wherewithal to lead a tech startup with such an extraordinary vision. Each piece along the way centered around helping others — like starting the Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It in 2011. I asked Mustafa how that came about, and she said it evolved from an attempt to teach herself how to code:
As a non-technologist starting a software company, I thought it would be much easier than it was. I was very disillusioned, and I learned very quickly that it wasn’t going to work out if I didn’t at least understand how things work on the back end of technology. I tried to teach myself how to code, and it didn’t go very well — I would get easily frustrated.
Then I started my own coding group in Philadelphia to learn Groovy — I recruited a teacher and I promoted it, and we would meet up every Saturday. It was great for the first couple of weeks, but then it got overtaken by other developers — people who knew Python, or C++, or other languages, and wanted to learn Groovy, vs. beginners just starting out.
So I relinquished ownership of the group — I gave it to somebody else, and that’s when I learned about Girl Develop It. There was a chapter in New York, so I would take a two-hour bus ride there for a two-hour class, and a two-hour bus ride back to Philadelphia. It was fantastic — it was exactly what I was looking for. I felt really empowered that I understood what everything meant. I thought, why not bring it to Philly? So I talked to the founder, Sara Chipps, and six months later we brought it to Philly — that was five years ago this month.
ROAR for Good’s other co-founder is Anthony Gold, a former Unisys executive who became a tech entrepreneur. I asked Mustafa how the two of them came together to create ROAR for Good, and she said it stemmed from that internship when she was at Temple:
One of our clients was a company called Healthy Humans. We would go in there once a week to work on their marketing strategy and their plan. Anthony came in and took over as CEO about two months after we started working with them. I was walking with him one day, and he saw that I was carrying a notebook, and he asked me what it was. I told him it was my “idea notebook” — I would jot down ideas I had, and it became a recurring thing where he would ask me what my latest idea was.
He became a mentor and an advisor. So later, when I had the idea for ROAR, I called him to tell him about it. He was retired at the time, but he said he wanted to be involved in it, and help with it. So he and I banded together.
ROAR for Good’s first product, a wearable device dubbed “Athena,” was originally scheduled to ship in the spring, but the ship date was pushed back to this fall. I asked Mustafa what caused the delay, and she cited a manufacturing issue:
The biggest one was that our crowdfunding campaign blew away our expectations, and the manufacturer we had lined up at the time couldn’t accommodate the volume that we had. We had to go and vet a new manufacturer — it’s now being manufactured in the United States by Flex, which makes a lot of wearables. They don’t normally work with small companies like us — usually you go to them when you have bigger volume, and you’re looking to scale. But we met them at CES, and they really liked what we were doing, and we feel very lucky to be working with them.
So we lost about three-and-a-half months just because of that alone. Other factors were little things here and there — product improvements that we’ve made. We’ve done a lot of user testing, and everybody said the alarm needed to be louder — that probably set us back another month. We have pre-orders for 8,000 units, but we expect that to reach 10,000 by the time we start shipping in October.
Mustafa’s original idea was to include the capability for Athena to call 911 when the alarm is activated. But that functionality has proven to be elusive:
It’s been challenging to be able to do that, because iPhones and Androids have restrictions in having a low-energy Bluetooth device initiate the call through a locked phone. We were able to figure out how to do texting to 911, but unfortunately that’s only available in 5 percent of counties in the United States. To be able to trigger a call, just because of the way iPhone and Android devices are set up, we’re just not able to do it.
We’re working with a partner right now to figure out a workaround, using their API. It’s possible when the phone is unlocked, but of course in an emergency, most likely your phone would be locked. We have to figure out how to circumvent that — we haven’t talked to Google yet, but we’ve talked to Apple to see if this is something they would be open to. We’re going to continue talking to them to see if we can figure out another way.
Mustafa wrapped up the conversation by highlighting the educational dimension of the work ROAR for Good is doing:
The whole goal in what we’re building is to see the day when we won’t need to build it. We’re investing part of the proceeds in programs that get to the root of the problem — programs that educate people about empathy, and respect, and healthy relationships, especially among children, when they’re most impressionable. We want to decrease the need for these devices, and for things like pepper spray and tasers. We’re really excited about the possibilities created by the educational piece of our business, and investing in nonprofits that do this really important work.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.