Keynote Speech from the Pacific Connect ‘Social Enterpise & Social Impact’ Dialogue Welcome Dinner – Emma Koster, Founder of Hello Cass
I’d like to start by acknowledging the First Nation’s people as the traditional owners of beautiful Brisbane where we gather today, and I recognise the country North and South of the Brisbane river as the home to both Turrbal and Jagera nations. I pay my respects to elders past, present and particularly to any gathered here this evening. I would also like to acknowledge the incredible group of women who have journeyed across the seas to talk and connect with you and have brought a wealth of insights and expertise.
I had a different talk prepared but after today I thought it was no longer appropriate so I spent the last two hours trying to work out something that was more appropriate for reflecting on the day we had today.
I’m Emma, the founder of Hello Cass, an SMS chatbot that provides an anonymous and accessible way for people who have experienced or are affected by family and sexual violence with the opportunity to find information and support pathways. I wanted to make something that helped victims, survivors, their support network and people worried about their own behaviour. I wanted to find a way they could access this information and support that made it feel like they were almost texting a friend. Through Hello Cass, the chatbot is essentially a computer programme. The way it works is that there is a standard SMS Australian phone number, the user will text that number, and they will just say “hello” and instantly, a computer programme fires in the background and sends back in a response and guides users through a series of questions and information for counselling services in their area and an overview of the legal process, well-being tips and more through text message.
When I started this, it was about finding ways of making information more easily accessible and as I started going, I realised that actually the project was about helping people overcome barriers to disclosure. Several times today it came up that in Pacific culture there is also this reluctance to ask for help, whether that’s in a family context, a violence against women context or mental health context. I was thinking about this discreet way of accessing information, augmenting help seeking as something that could be useful in that context. We set barriers so high for people and for ourselves, barriers such as fear and shame and social stigma. As I was developing Hello Cass I realised that these barriers get even more complicated when we think about accessibility, connectivity, language, literacy and so on.
How did I arrive at the idea of Hello Cass? That’s always a good question. Violence against women is one of the most persistent, pervasive and urgent challenges we face as a global community. Around the world, one in three women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. Today I was told that in the Pacific it’s more like two in three. In Australia, one in four women will experience some kind of intimate partner violence or sexual violence in her lifetime, these already shocking statistics are worsened when we consider the experience of First Nations women, women from ethnically diverse backgrounds and women with disability. One particularly disturbing statistic is that for women in this country − in a developed country, for women with intellectual disability the statistics are more like 9 in 10. It is practically a foregone conclusion that if you’re a woman with intellectual disability or a brain injury you will be abused in your lifetime. Despite the recent shift in the global conversation and sexual violence post #Me Too movement, only a third of incidents are ever reported or disclosed. In a study into family violence in First Nations communities the non-reporting rates can be as high as 90% for most incidents of violence. That speaks to the challenges that face First Nations communities and ethnically diverse communities, I knew the problem was really bad when I started Hello Cass but I didn’t know it was this bad.
The original Hello Cass looked quite different, it was May 2017 and I was living and working in Berlin. I was doing some volunteering in an emergency accommodation camp that was set up to help the refugees flee Syria. The camp had started with mostly Syrians but over the weeks it became more diverse, with asylum seekers and refugees from all over North Africa and the Middle East. After a little while I learnt that family and sexual violence within the camp was a really big problem, whether it was regarding trauma that residents brought with them from their own countries, whether it was happening from within the family unit in the camp, and even sometimes perpetrated by the security guards who were supposed to be keeping these women and their children safe. Resources were really strained and getting resources into the residence was much harder than I had previously thought possible, but everyone had a phone and I used my background in tech to think about how we could use technology, particularly mobile-based technology in this context to disseminate information. Chatbots were just starting to explode, they were often used as annoying customer service products. I’m not a general chatbot advocate, I think they need to be very purposeful. However, they are discreet, they are easy to translate and you can use them through messaging platforms. You don’t need them to build a separate app, you can use it through messenger, Facebook messenger or sms (like Hello Cass), WhatsApp if you have enough funding. Anyway, the original idea for Hello Cass was starting to take shape, I was passionate about this topic, that’s where the founding story for Hello Cass generally ends.
This room is full of incredibly smart and emotionally smart people, you’ve probably already worked out that I am passionate about this topic because I too was one of those statistics. I have lived experience with violence and it’s a classic story of thinking it wouldn’t happen to you (me). I’ve been incredibly privileged throughout my life so I had access to resources. I’ve been an outspoken feminist and I have had an incredibly low threshold for men’s poor behaviour but somehow in my late 20’s I acquired this other status of being a victim survivor. There was no way I could have sat through this room today and spent that time together and couldn’t share my solidarity with Mary, Esmerelda, Niki, Kaajal, Kim, Ronna, Georgina and all of you as you sat here and told your stories, so I had to do that and I’m glad I did, thank you all so much.
I made a decision at the beginning of Hello Cass to not make myself the centre of the story and I did it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I understood that everyone has a different story when we are talking about violence and I didn’t want Hello Cass to feel like it was something that wasn’t for them. I didn’t want people to feel like maybe their experience wasn’t bad enough, maybe it happened too long ago, and I didn’t want people to doubt the validity of their pain and suffering. I also had 15 years of tech experience, and as women in tech we already have to work so hard to be heard and to get the positions that we are entitled to, to get the pay we are entitled to. I felt like if I were to shift the story from something that was about a novel, technical solution to something that was about me I would stop being the tech maker I worked so hard to be. So that was my decision and it’s not something that’s a secret in my life, it’s just something I didn’t make part of my brand.
Rewinding back to Germany, where I was working on Hello Cass, with a very generous, very humane social structure where I quit my job and I was an ausländer and they still gave me unemployment benefits, which was amazing. I realised in Germany, that it was going to be pretty difficult because my German is conversational at best but if you close your eyes it’s like you’re talking to a child which is tricky because my last name is German and so people would speak to me and wonder what was wrong with me. My Arabic is non-existent. I had no idea how to get money and all I had were my savings and the German government’s nine months of ausländer benefits. I also realised that I probably didn’t know as much about Germans and Germany as I thought I did. To do good work in the community and to do no harm you really need to know the community and ideally be from the community that you are trying to serve. After a few months of trying my absolute heart out to get something off the ground in Berlin it became pretty obvious that I needed to move home to Melbourne and try there. In that time the #MeToo movement hit and I have never won anything in my life except for Miss Personality 1996 in my home town but I was awarded the ‘Myer Innovation Fellowship’ in 2018, which was $100,000 and I was able to ensure that I could keep Hello Cass as my main focus and build it to the point of launch in May last year , two years after I started it.
As I mentioned, at the beginning of Hello Cass I thought the problem was about getting access to information and I personally knew how hard it was to find the right access to information and to find the right counselling, to understand the police process and to understand how to navigate legal systems. This was coming from someone who was tertiary educated, very middle-class background, a white, able-bodied woman in Australia. As the product evolved I had to start thinking about what would it look like for someone who didn’t have my privilege, who didn’t have my access. What does it look like for First Nations women, for women with disabilities, for women who have migrated to Australia and don’t understand the process we have? There’s so much we know from living somewhere and to acquire that in a short space of time is difficult, I just pretended I knew in Germany what was going on, but I didn’t know. I had to learn a lot, I had to learn about the barriers to disclosure such as shame, stigma, embarrassment, language and location. I had to learn how to build something that ensured cultural safety, I had never used this language before. I had to learn about meaningful endeavour’s research, focus groups and the family violence sector, which I had no experience in. I had to learn about the law, which I had no experience in. I had to learn about how policy works and different levels of government, I had to learn about data security and privacy. Ultimately, I learnt that violence against women is an incredibly complex issue and to end it is going to take time but it will take all of us as well.
I won’t go into the lessons because we will be here all night and most of the mistakes were my fault as well and come down to poor project management really. I will share that in the few months since launching with no further funding we’ve sent over 7000 messages to over 500 unique users through the service and that’s something I am really proud of. Something that I didn’t expect (and that’s the way with projects – you have an idea of how something is going to be used and you give it to users and they ruin it) but something I didn’t expect is the significant percent of users who sent messages who were worried about their own behaviour. These were generally men, I decided at the last moment to include this information because I realised that in trying to augment health seeking, we hold incredibly high barriers for people using violence to get the help they need. There is also shame and stigma associated with that, so I wanted to make sure there was a pathway there because I could imagine nothing worse than finally mustering up the courage to get some help and to find out that there is no help available for you there. So that was somewhat controversial in the space also, to combine both those purposes.
Building Hello Cass has been an epic journey, a challenging, painful, exciting, disappointing, exhausting and empowering one, sometimes all in the same day. It is the thing that I am most proud of making and it was the practice of learning and iterating and challenging and being open that allowed it to be that way. We started today with Simone mentioning that social impact and the things that are involved take time, things change, projects change, government is slow, so as innovators and entrepreneurs and supporters in this space we have to be really patient but also really impatient for change. Kim talked about becoming obsessed with your idea, with not being able to let go, and I couldn’t agree more. I quit my job and put everything into a not-for-profit start-up, which I know is not the way to make money, but luckily that’s not what I did it for. I did have that idea that I simply could not let go of. Wilma reminded us that our vulnerability is our strength and to prove how strong we are we’ve all been crying pretty much since just before lunch! Niki and Kaajal talked to us with incredible passion about the potential that young Fijian women can bring and unlock in their country. Ashish shared his story about how through his mother’s ailing vision, he perceived the initiative of bringing low cost eyeglasses to people in developing regions. Olga mentioned to me that I need to think about my own knowledge capital and how I can ensure the safety of it, which is very timely. We talked about Soul Alliance in PNG, rugby league, organic coffee, childcare facilities, using local expertise, producing honey from the eastern highlands of PNG, making street wear for Pacific Islanders, youth engagement and sharing meaningful work for people with disability, access to clean water and more (I’m sorry if for those whose passions I’ve missed).
There are no shortages of ideas in this space but things do need to change around here for such an impact to really take hold. We need more funding instruments to support incubation, receiving and scaling. We need a new system of measurement and metrics that allows for projects like mine even, like many discussed today, to be evaluated over time. To be allowed the time they need to create the impact they are being perceived for, we still don’t know how to measure impact well and that’s a challenge I find for many social entrepreneurs. We need government, private sector and philanthropy to understand that sometimes, even if you’re in tech, the profit model is that there is no profit. Human rights, which is what I consider my project to fall in line with, is not a market opportunity and we need to unlock access to capital that is sympathetic to that. This is a room of innovators and frankly it is a bit annoying when we are waiting for everyone to catch up but we’re not talking about simple apps or easy to market initiatives, what we are actually talking about is systems change. I think we can be heartened and persistent at the fact that we are all in this together.
Like the beautiful poem shared today, this region and Pacific Islanders are both mighty and serene. And finally, something that I know will stay with me forever are Mary’s words today, and how she overcame her grief to find her purpose. I will think about how incredibly eloquently Mary told her story of losing her girl-Pilot, and how she walked the Kokoda track three times to find closure; and how it was on this track, she found that her purpose is to create the path for others, so thank you Mary and thank you all.