Yasmine Mustafa, a refugee from Kuwait, grew up undocumented, feeling invisible and powerless. With Roar for Good, her seven-employee panic-button company in Philadelphia, she wants to bestow visibility and power on a threatened community: hotel housekeepers. --As told to Leigh Buchanan
On December 21, 1990, I was 8 years old, sitting in a bomb shelter in Kuwait with my family. Two men burst in, yelling my little brother's name. They had been sent by the embassy to collect all American citizens and get them out of the country for their safety. My brother had been born in Philadelphia nine weeks prior, while my family was there for my father's work. They came to get him.
They brought the whole family back to Philadelphia. Even though we didn't know the language or the culture, for us kids it was an adventure. And we thought it was temporary. It was harder for my parents--especially my dad. He was a mechanical engineer who loved his profession. When he realized that he was stripped of his degree and couldn't get work, he became a shell of himself. Eventually, he borrowed money and got a 7-Eleven franchise because he saw other Arabs doing it. For 10 years that was a family business. But he was resentful. He thought we were becoming too Americanized. One day he left.
When I was applying for college, I found out I was undocumented. I didn't have the proper paperwork, and neither did my siblings. Without a Social Security number you can't drive. You can't get a loan. You can't go to school. So for about 10 years I worked two or three jobs at a time, as a waitress, a hostess, for a dry cleaner. Anything I could get.
I became a legal resident at 25. After graduating from Temple University, I got a job with a marketing company. I worked on their blog and ended up starting a business called 123 LinkIt to help bloggers earn money through affiliate advertising. I sold it in 2011.
In 2013, the year I became a citizen, I backpacked across South America and heard all these stories from women about being abused or assaulted. A week after I came back, a neighbor was raped a block from our building. That gave me the idea to start Roar for Good. Women carry pepper spray for self-defense. Why not integrate defense tools into wearable technology, so they'd be readily accessible in case of attack?
The initial plan was to put mace in a bracelet. It would be a "macelet." Terrible idea. I did research and discovered that women worried an attacker could use a defense tool against them. I came up with a panic button. Women would clip it to their clothes and wear it like jewelry. Pressing it would set off an alarm and send the wearer's location to preselected contacts so they could send help.
My co-founder, Anthony Gold, and I raised $267,000 from an Indiegogo campaign, with orders from 47 countries in 2015. We sold the product, called Athena, through our website, Amazon, Urban Outfitters, and HSN. Our customers were the parents of college students, women living in cities, and men buying the product for their loved ones.
We discovered that there is a direct correlation between lack of empathy and violence. If you can teach young kids when they are most impressionable about consent and healthy relationships, then you can make a big impact. So for every Athena sold we donated a portion of the proceeds to organizations involved in that work.
Everything changed about six months ago. We learned about a study showing the risk to hotel housekeepers of sexual assault. Fifty-eight percent of housekeepers have been harassed. Guests open the door nude or masturbate in front of them. Housekeepers are touched inappropriately or grabbed or solicited for sex acts. It happens all the time.
A lot of these women are immigrants, women of color. English is their second language. They had been trying to lobby for protection since Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for allegedly assaulting a housekeeper in a New York hotel in 2011. The #MeToo movement provided momentum. Now eight cities have passed legislation requiring hotels to protect housekeepers. New Jersey looks like it will be the first state to pass it.
So we pivoted. Now our focus is to make hotels into safe and dignified workplaces. To do that, we are creating a platform that uses Athena and additional in-room hardware to let security know where you are. Instead of donating to sexual-assault organizations, we will work directly with corporate clients to create or improve harassment education programs. We are talking to boutique hotels first. We also have had interest from schools, especially because of mass shootings. And from real estate companies whose agents go into apartment buildings alone.
By moving to business-to-business, we can have more of an impact, helping tens of thousands of people instead of just one individual at a time. We will also work with hotel HR departments to supplement their sexual harassment workshops or provide bystander intervention training. We are working on various scenarios to address our Athena customers.
When I was undocumented, I did a lot of hospitality work. I know that feeling that you don't matter. You are invisible, voiceless, and powerless. A lot of housekeepers go through life every day feeling afraid. No one should be afraid while trying to earn a wage.