These Tech Philanthropists Are Looking for a Way to Make Women Safer Around the World

 Photo:  jo Crebbin

Photo:  jo Crebbin

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, here’s a puzzler: Can a $1 million competition from a couple of tech entrepreneurs spur a worldwide transformation in women’s safety?

Anu and Naveen Jain, Seattle-based philanthropists who have notched tech successes such as InfoSpace, are betting it can be done. And with an eye women in developing countries, they’re demanding a solution that costs less than $40.

The Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE challenges teams to "leverage technology to empower communities with a transformative solution that ensures women’s safety." The competition, which was first announced in 2016 and has now produced a group of semifinalists, is taking aim at a huge problem, noting in its online overview that one in three women globally “have faced sexual violence, and at least one in five women are assaulted on college campuses in the United States alone.”

Despite these statistics, violence against women is not a top-tier priority of funders. And while we have reported on initiatives that tackle the problem by grantmakers like the NoVo Foundation, this competition stands out for its focus on using technology to make women safer. That the Jains would take this angle isn't so surprising, given their background. 

And while some tech-based solutions to big global problems can sound awfully complicated, the concept here is pretty simple: "The winning team’s solution will autonomously and inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert while transmitting information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds." In effect, this is a competition to create an inexpensive personal alarm system for women. 

Back in the late 1960s, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation played a role in creating the 9-1-1 emergency response system in the United States. Since then, Americans and citizens of other developed countries have taken for granted the ability to summon help quickly. But as the contest overview notes, “Many nations do not have a universal emergency access number... that victims can call to report a crime. Despite the universal need for women’s safety, basic emergency reporting and response networks do not exist in much of the world.”

Anu Jain, who heads up the Naveen and Anu Jain Family Foundation, is on the powerhouse board of trustees of the XPrize Foundation, which aims to use exponential technology to “solve the grand challenges of humanity.” She is also on the advisory council for the U.N. Foundation Girl Up campaign, which focuses on empowering adolescent girls in the United States and around the world, and the advisory board of Girl Rising, a global campaign for girl’s education. She is a member of Women Moving Millions (a global philanthropic community committed to large-scale investments in women and girls).

Related: Wealthy Women, Big Giving: The Powerful Donor Network Taking on Gender Inequality

Naveen Jain is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has founded several successful companies including Moon Express, Viome, Bluedot, TalentWise, Intelius and InfoSpace. He, too, is on the XPrize Foundation’s board of trustees.

We've written quite a bit about the popularity of high-dollar philanthropic prize competitions, which have been extended to everything from privately funded lunar expeditions to curbing ocean acidification. Some of these prizes are better designed than others. The bad ones waste the time of contestants who never have a realistic shot at winning. The good ones have streamlined applications and offer significant runner-up prizes for teams that don't make the final cut. 

So far, 21 teams have advanced to the Women’s Safety XPrize semifinals. You can lose yourself for quite a while in the competition’s snazzy interactive map, which shows the teams scattered around the globe, from Spain to the UAE. It’s an entertaining—and inspiring—way to spend part of your International Women’s Day.

Philanthropists from the tech sector are often criticized for overlooking the complicated root causes of social problems and naively imagining that huge gains to human progress will flow from technological solutions. It's tempting to knock the Women’s Safety XPRIZE on these grounds. What about patriarchy and sexism, after all? 

To be clear, though, the Jains aren't making any grand claims that this competition can topple age-old injustices. Rather, as I said, the vision here is super-simple: That women facing danger can get help quickly. This seems like a perfect example of what Sean Parker, a leading apostle of tech philanthropy, has called a "hackable problem." 

Related: The High-Dollar Prize Finds its Limit - The Moon