By Paul Wood The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet University of Illinois student KENDALL FURBEE, founder of "Cut to the Case", an organization focused on improving the sexual-assault investigation process with tools it has created.
Question: Who else is in leadership at the start-up?
Deniz Yildirim and Chris Szul, both students and technical leads. Our team has been working closely with Hack4Impact for the past year with leads Megha Mallya, Shreyas Mohan, Annie Wu and Philip Kuo.
I was inspired to start Cut to the Case because the current reporting process can be so deterring that more than 90 percent of sexual-assault victims on college campuses do not report their assault. To report, they must call or talk face to face with someone they may not feel comfortable with. With low reporting rates, law enforcement cannot do their job most effectively and perpetrators are left free to repeat their crimes. Out of every 1,000 rapes, only seven go to prosecution. This was alarming to me.
What is the most rewarding part about your work with Cut to the Case? The most rewarding part about starting Cut to the Case has been learning from people who are doing amazing work around sexual-assault prevention. We were able to learn from a woman who led an initiative in Detroit that successfully ended a backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits found in an abandoned Detroit Police Department storage unit. Her efforts helped identify 811 serial rapists. This work is often emotionally exhausting but I am constantly reminded of all of the reasons to push forward by those committed to this issue. I have also been very touched by the people who have contacted me with their personal stories after starting Cut to the Case.
How did participating in the Cozad New Venture Challenge help accelerate your startup idea? Cozad held us accountable. It provided us with the mentorship and skills necessary to set and achieve focused goals. We also learned how to communicate our venture to various groups of people. Knowing how to pitch your startup in a quick and effective manner is key. Through Cozad, we were able to workshop and refine our pitch based on the feedback provided from industry experts, investors and mentors.
You were in the iVenture accelerator. Also, you've used SocialFuse, Founders Microgrants, Chicago Entrepreneurship Workshop, ThinkChicago, 54.io, and Forge. You have also taken TE250 (Idea to Enterprise) and TE461 (Technology Entrepreneurship). Do you think you've absorbed some of their best ideas?
All of these events/resources have been instrumental to the inception and growth of Cut to the Case. Some of my favorite takeaways have been learning how to fail often, utilize my network, and ask the right questions when conducting primary research. I've enjoyed working alongside other student entrepreneurs in the ecosystem as well.
Cut to the Case was formed around the idea of using technology to create a victim-centered investigation process to bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice. What are some of those technologies?
Cut to the Case aims to empower victims of sexual assault and bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Through our online reporting platform (which is still in development), victims or witnesses can submit a report of sexual assault anonymously. By providing a comfortable way to report without the obligation of having to do an in person investigation right away, we can give victims the maximum of 10 years by the statute of limitations to heal and decide how they would like to proceed. Additionally, if the case goes to prosecution, the Cut to the Case time-stamped report can be used for evidence admissible in court.
Did you always dream of launching your own company? Did you plan to launch your startup in college or did it just happen?
I didn't dream of launching my own company until I got to the University of Illinois and experienced the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I discovered the Technology Entrepreneur Center and the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership and began to take advantage of their resources and events. College is the most risk-free time to form a startup and there are more resources than anywhere else. I couldn't think of any reasons not to!
You've also worked with MakerGirl and Cast21, both start-ups that are concerned with helping people. Did you learn a lot from working with them?
The co-founders of both MakerGirl and Cast21 were (and still are) awesome role models and taught me more than I have ever learned in the classroom. Not only did I learn how two different types of startups were run, but I learned how to take calculated risks and push myself out of my comfort zone.
Tell us about university or local resources that foster cross-campus collaboration to help community.
EntreCORPS is a student-led consulting firm that provides services to startups. Through EntreCORPS, I've had the opportunity to work with people from all different majors and startups in a wide variety of industries. Consulting for startups is a great way for students to gain exposure to entrepreneurship and startups to gain access to resources they may not have had access to otherwise. A lot of our clients have been members of Research Park and the Champaign-Urbana community.
What is something you've learned as a social entrepreneur? Often technology gets created and quickly thrown at a social cause, with the creators not having a full understanding of the problem and the implications the technology could have. When tackling a problem deeply rooted in society, it is extremely important to get to know your problem before coming up with a solution. Through NSF I-Corps, we talked to hundreds of attorneys, advocates, DNA labs, police officers, public officials and victims of sexual assault to ensure we understood the sexual assault investigation process from all stages and perspectives. The solution we chose after researching the problem for months wound up being completely different from what we envisioned it would be in our heads. If I were to go back in time to the early stages of forming a social venture, I would have spent more time embracing the research process and less time worrying about creating a solution.
Tell us more about the latest developments with your company.
Currently working with Hack4Impact on development and rolling out an app this Fall.
Have you worked with the University of Illinois Police Department?
The University of Illinois Police Department has been extremely helpful by teaching us more about their role in the current sexual assault investigation process. I've been meeting with members of UIPD every so often to gain feedback on our progress as well. Most recently, I participated in the Community Police Academy which I highly recommend to anyone in the local community.
What are some of the other agencies locally or statewide that can provide you with resources?
Locally, the Women's Resource Center and RACES (Rape Advocacy, Counseling, & Education Services) provide confidential support ranging from academic to legal advocacy. ICASA (Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault) is a non-profit with crisis centers across the state. They also provide prevention education. Nationwide, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest Network) provides confidential support through a 24/7 hotline.
What are you hoping to accomplish before you graduate? Before I graduate, I hope I can make a measurable impact on sexual-assault prevention at UI with Cut to the Case. I also hope that as a female engineer and entrepreneur I can raise the number of women involved in both fields, either through more community outreach or initiatives on campus.
TECH TIDBITS ... with KENDALL FURBEE Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? Cut to the Case is on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
What's your favorite app? The campus safety app coming this Fall that we are releasing with Hack4Impact will soon be my favorite app.