In safe hands: Jillian Kowalchuk

Safe & the City founder Jillian Kowalchuk on following your intuition, and how being underestimated can be your biggest advantage

People 22 Mar 2019

Jillian Kowalchuk

I was born in Canada before moving to Yemen when I was about five years old – I spent a few years of my childhood there. From an early age I was exposed to a lot of different cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe, and this really shaped my outlook when I started to study.

My first degree was in psychology, and following this I tried a lot of different lines of work including social work in New Zealand, teaching English in Japan, and starting a make-up business in Australia. I knew there was this underlying thread – I was always very passionate about helping people, so for my master’s degree I returned to the UK to focus on public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. However, I felt some frustration within the academic world that started to make me think it wasn’t the only answer to issues in the health sector.

I started to look at what other problems were out there that I could address, and Safe & the City was something that came from a few layers of problems. Being Canadian and moving to London, I didn’t really know which areas were safe or not, and this was an experience I’d had in many cities I’d travelled to. Admittedly, I’m not a very good navigator so I’ve always been quite reliant on navigation apps, especially in new places, but even using a navigation app, I’d have to make adjustments around routes that took me to places that didn’t look safe.

The light-bulb moment for Safe & the City came when I was going to meet a friend at a restaurant and was guided via the quickest route by Google Maps, which led me down an alley where two men made sexual threats. I didn’t think to report it to the police at the time since a crime hadn’t fully been committed, but it was still very frightening, and it made me think that if people could share their experiences of certain routes, it would help others to make a decision about whether they want to take that route or not.

I started thinking around how important it was for people, especially women, to feel that they had a voice and that their experiences mattered, and I realised there were a lot of changes we could action to make our everyday walks safer, and my idea was to leave a geo-marker on a navigation app to give other people a heads up.

London was our pilot city and we’re now looking at sub-areas including Old Street and Stratford that we can work more closely with to demonstrate how we can share this crowdsourced information. Not only can we share it with the police but also local businesses so we can make recommendations to start addressing problems in their community. This can start transforming the way this type of information is being implemented. Our aim is to roll out in several different cities throughout the UK, including Scotland and Wales, and Ireland.

I’m developing something that aims to empower women to anonymously report and share their experiences of sexual harassment. One of my earliest experiences was being approached by an investor who sexually harassed me in the process, which I shared with a journalist at The Guardian addressing sexual harassment from investors.

Despite facing some prejudice as a young woman working in tech, I think it also gives women a huge advantage. I’ve been able to take a disadvantage and make it into something positive. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is that ‘one of your biggest advantages is being underestimated,’ and learning your material inside out, plus having a lot of common questions that you can have an answer to can really assert your authority and often surprise people.

I’m always keen to debunk the myth that you have to be perfect, or you have to have years of experience or a certain amount of money to get started as an entrepreneur. The only guarantee is that you’re going to make mistakes along the way and that you have the ability to learn from them, so you’re not making the same mistakes.

An important lesson for me is that when I’ve failed, I’ve often known beforehand that it wasn’t the right fit, or I felt there was something else going on that I wasn’t aware of. I believe women are attuned to our intuition being able to navigate us, even in a business dominated by numbers. Often I’ve made the biggest mistakes when I’ve been pressured so regardless of the opportunity, I’ve realised it’s really about building relationships and staying true to who you are and what feels right.

Since being featured in Brummell‘s Inspirational Women listing 2018, there has been increased momentum both for me personally and with Safe & the City. I have recently given a TEDx talk entitled Equality By Design, available soon to view online, and launched my personal and professional coaching services. Safe & the City just celebrated its one-year anniversary and created a new-and-improved version with new features, which is free to download now on Android

We also recently announced our partnership with UN Women UK to conduct research to support the Safe Public Spaces and Safe Cities global programme and were invited to demonstrate the app to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.