“The initial vision was how to help those…living in fear.”
Yasmine Mustafa, co-founder & CEO of ROAR for Good
Yasmine Mustafa is the co-founder and CEO of ROAR for Good, a tech company dedicated to engaging communities using technology and education to foster peace of mind and empathy. Here, she describes how her trip to South America inspired her business, and how her “Oprah Moment” — and, more importantly, the many survivor stories — serve as a reminder of the importance of her work.
What was your initial vision for ROAR for Good?
It started right after I became a U.S. citizen and decided to get rid of all my possessions, put a backpack on, pack three sets of clothes, and go solo trekking through South America for six months. It was really meant to be a celebration of finally feeling free and becoming naturalized. When I first told my friends I was going, they were really excited — including my family and my mom, who I did not think was going to be excited for me. When I bought my ticket, everyone thought I was crazy. I remember my mom even specifically saying, “Stop pretending you have a penis.” Then I went anyway, and it was amazing.
But as amazing as it was, it was also eye-opening, because everywhere I went I would meet people who would share a story of a time they had been attacked, harassed, or abused. Then, just a week after I came back to Philly, I was living downtown and my neighbor went out to her car and — it’s a horrific story. The headline the next day was, “Women in Center City brutally beaten and raped.” I remember when I saw that news story, a light bulb moment came to me, and it was that women use pepper spray and Tasers as self-defense tools, but they’re not readily accessible. It’s not like you can tell someone, “Excuse me, hold on,” and pull it out. So I thought, why not combine self-defense tools with wearable technology? That way it’s right there when you need it most.
The initial vision was how to help those who are living in fear, and how to use existing self-defense tools and marry them with wearable technology to create something that was more accessible and innovative than what’s currently out there.
What drew you to that vision personally?
I’m a refugee. I spent ten years undocumented, and I know what it’s like to feel powerless and afraid. I would say that’s a big part of why I enjoy what I do. I love the idea of being able to combine the experiences that I had to help others that are going through something similar to what I have experienced.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
The normal ones, like failing. Do I know enough to do this? Am I going to be broke forever? Those were top of mind initially. I think what helps me more a bit more than the typical [entrepreneur] is I have come from nothing a few times. If I lose everything, I feel like, already been there, done that. I can do that again. So those fears didn’t necessarily dissuade me from going after my dreams.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding ROAR for Good?
There’s a lot. I went from being a solo founder at my last startup to having a team here, and it’s awesome to have people to lean on. But one of the things I’ve had to learn is people management. I’m used to managing myself, and I’m hard on myself. So with a team, I’ve had to learn the best ways to motivate everyone based on their own personalities and adjust my leadership style. I would say what keeps me up most at night — besides sales — is making sure that people are happy.
I would say there have been a few times where, going from a solo founder [of my old startup] to two founders and then also a team [at ROAR], it was hard to make sure that the team felt heard. I definitely went through a trying period where I was confronted with that and had to take stock of my actions and how they were not encouraging the team in a way I would want them to be motivated. So it was a really good lesson.
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
There was a moment I had recently where I was speaking at a conference at Comcast. Comcast had given Athena away as swag to all the attendees. It was a really cool moment. We had our own Oprah moment, to be like, “You get an Athena! You get an Athena! Everybody gets an Athena!”
But the best part was, afterwards I was talking to the organizer and hanging out, and this woman who was in the audience came up to me. She had tears in her eyes and she said, “I was attacked on a jog seven years ago and I’ve never gone jogging since. With my Athena, I’m going to go jogging for the first time this weekend.” I feel like I’m never going to forget that moment.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
When I first started up, my mom. She felt like I needed something more stable. I remember living at home and starting my company and I would be in meetings and she would just come in and talk to me as if I wasn’t in a meeting. Like one time I was interviewing a developer — it was a video call — and right in the middle of the interview she came up behind me, and she was like, “Oh, look at my daughter being so cute!” And I’m like, “Mom…” So she never really took it seriously.
But all of that changed when we won this competition and all of a sudden she was like, “That’s my daughter! I’m so proud of my daughter!” And she’s been supportive ever since.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as work-life balance when you’re an entrepreneur.”
Yasmine Mustafa, co-founder & CEO of ROAR for Good
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
My friends and family, for sure. Just asking how things were going, especially when things aren’t going well. For me, what I look for the most is just someone to listen rather than to give input. Sometimes you just want to be able to vent more than anything else.
I also run a Power Ladies’ Grudge Group. We meet every quarter. It’s just a bunch of badass women CEOs and I love it because we all get a chance to just rant and encourage each other, because I feel like it doesn’t really happen often, where people talk about where they’re failing. We all talk about how we’re failing and we all just pick each other up and tell each other to keep going. It’s nice to have that.
Tell me about your work-life balance.
I would say that it’s getting better, but very it’s very difficult. I don’t think there is such a thing as work-life balance when you’re an entrepreneur. But the thing I’m trying to do now is hit the gym three times a week, because I know taking care of myself means I can take better care of my employees. And then I make sure I have something fun planned at least once a week. I don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but I know that I have to have one thing, whether it’s hanging out with friends or going out somewhere, so that I have that to look forward to and I know that’s going to be a time when I’m not working. I have tried not to work on Saturdays, and I would say I’m successful 90% of the time. Baby steps.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
I’ve definitely felt frustrated, and wondered, “Am I the right person to do what I’m doing?” I never thought about doing anything else, though. I really feel like we’re helping people and I really feel like we can help even more people, especially with this B2B shift [to focus on housekeepers in the hotel industry] that we’re undergoing now. It used to be that we would help one person at a time, but moving to B2B and working with hotels, we can now help hundreds of thousands of people at one time. You just have a bigger impact and I’m very much looking forward to that. I feel like it’s a challenge. It’s going to be a whole new ballgame and I’m excited to uncover it and learn more and figure out what doesn’t work in order to be able to provide something that gives housekeepers peace of mind at work — one less thing to worry about.
What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with ROAR for Good
People saying that I helped them. Is there a number? I don’t really have a number.
We had a client recently who purchased Athenas for all their real estate agents. Real estate agents go into homes alone with strangers and I was asking [the client] how things were going and he was telling me that he didn’t realize the things that women face every day. [Purchasing Athenas] has ignited a conversation in the office where now all the real estate agents talk about clients that lurk or touch them inappropriately. He’s actually started a weekly sync-up outside of the normal meetings that they have where they each talk about it in case it happens to someone else and so they can provide support to each other. Just being able to spark conversations and having newfound awareness of it, I think it’s really important.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
I’m so focused on the vision and wanting to make a difference, that — it’s awesome, but at the same time you have to focus on the business aspects that make it scalable so that you can make that difference. I have to remind myself to do that sometimes. I get so caught up on the impact that we want to have, that I need to make sure I focus as much time, if not more time, on the economics of the business model and the business aspects of things that will make us successful so we can have that impact.
What has been your experience as a woman in tech?
I think the danger of that question is, when we focus on the challenges of being a gender or a specific trait in entrepreneurship, I think we dissuade others from wanting to go into that field because we’re so focused on why it’s hard versus, “Here’s the opportunity.” I’d much more prefer to talk about what the opportunities are.
One of the things I usually say at panels is, as women, we have different experiences and different perspectives that we can bring to the table. When I came up with the idea for Athena, one of the things I learned is that all self-defense tools have been made by men initially. So, as a woman, knowing what I liked and didn’t like, I could use that to make something better. I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities and it would be great to spend just as much time talking about those versus the challenges, because a lot of the challenges are going to be just like any other challenge that someone’s going to have: how do you use what you have to your strength?
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.