The Parasol Cooperative Hopes To Protect Domestic Violence Victims With Its Technology App
Originally posted on Forbes
By Jackie Abramian
January 14th 2021
Megs Shah - co-founder of The Parasol Cooperative.
When last April the UN Secretary General called for a global ceasefire on a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” linked to the pandemic lockdowns, the European Parliament called on its members to increase support for domestic violence victims. The United Nations observed a 25-35 percent rise in the already staggering numbers of domestic abuse cases, and the UN Women report showed helpline calls “increased five-fold” in some countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By last September, 48 countries had integrated prevention and response to violence against women and girls into COVID-19 response plans–and 121 countries adopted measures to strengthen services for women survivors of violence, calling for more urgent efforts.
To combat the staggering rise in gender-based violence, technology executive and entrepreneurs, Megs Shah and Fairuz Ahmed joined forces last July with a group of survivors, advocates and technologists to launch The Parasol Cooperative. “Protecting lives through technology” the nonprofit’s developing technology will allow organizations and victims to communicate safely with each other–similar to an enhanced case management capability tailored to organizations supporting victims of violence. The Cooperative will also offer collaborative educational and peer to peer networking services to enhance member organizations’ work by providing safety programs for “vulnerable and under-served populations–especially populations affected by domestic violence.”
Fairuz Ahmed - co-founder of The Parasol Cooperative.
In a virtual interview with the New Jersey-based co-founder, Megs Shah detailed her electrical and computer engineering background–most recently as Head of Digital Investment Governance, managing technology initiatives decisions at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Previously her work as a Technology and Management Consulting Executive at Accenture, helped build the business acumen to launch and manage an organization, leading her to product development as senior director of product at Collective[i] and her own digital product startup, Kidhoo. This “intimate familiarity with identifying problems to solve using technology” Shah says, introduced her to New York area’s start-up ecosystem.
“My personal life was in shambles through the tail end of my career at Accenture and while I worked at Collective[i]. No one knew that I had a tumultuous relationship at home which eventually led to a divorce–and now I co-parent my 10-year-old son,” Shah joined a Facebook support group for single moms during her divorce which exposed her to different abuse stories of women from all walks of life and education levels. “There is a misconception that even I held in my mind, that domestic abuse is only physical. This group is a godsend, and it has afforded me an opportunity to help a lot of women and I actually met Parasol’s co-founder, Fairuz Ahmed, in this support group.”
Shah connected to Ahmed following her published an article in the group on domestic abuse. With Ahmed’s background with community development, journalism and journey, the two “clicked.” Even though they have never met in person, Shah knew Ahmed was someone she wanted to work with.
“When the stay-at-home order came early last year we talked about the implications on the abused individuals, men and women alike. The thought of being stuck at home with an abuser was bone chilling in some cases and we wanted to find a way for these individuals to safely request help,” Shah began to think of ways to create a technology product to help solve the problem. The two pitched their idea at a national COVID-19 TechStars startup weekend challenge last April and made it to the nation’s top 10 teams. “After the weekend, we had two options–either leave it or make our idea into a reality. We chose the latter.”
When Shah’s position at Bristol-Myers Squibb was eliminated late last summer, she considered it “good news disguised as bad news.” It allowed the two women time to focus and methodically approach the launch of The Parasol Cooperative.
The Parasol of Protection
During the TechStars weekend someone had suggested ‘umbrella’ as a possible name for the tech product Shah and Ahmed pitched. Shah and Ahmed looked up alternatives to umbrella and ended up selecting ‘Parasol.’
“Parasol stuck because they are very colorful and fun which is really needed when you are facing serious situations in life. The Parasol Cooperative was conceived as a better name,” Shah explains how after talking to many organizations, they learned the untapped resources of technology and to differentiate their product they developed the technology in collaboration with the organizations.
With eight, all-volunteer staff, last October the group secured the Peace Development Fund’s fiscal sponsorship to raise funds for their programs and sponsor memberships from individuals, foundations, and corporate and government sources that fund tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Parasol has filed for its own 501c3 status.
“I have personally donated a large sum to the organization, and we raised funds online, which we use for our current operational costs,” Shah explains. “As with any nonprofit, we are actively seeking public and private funding to convert our volunteers into paid staff.”
The product team is diligently working with survivors and advocates to ensure the mobile and web app technology is secure and functional. Their research has shown that the majority of victims don’t report the abuse due to lack of knowledge, social and cultural stigma and fear of getting caught while requesting help.
“Education is an issue as well. It’s important to recognize that this problem can’t just be solved with a magic technology. This is why we’re creating educational and peer to peer networking services for member organizations, and the survivors they support,” Shah explains. “Technology is a part of the solution. Not the whole solution.”
Their research has shown that organizations use technology to “primarily to run operations” –that’s not how survivors request services. Current framework requires survivors an option to call, chat or text organizations–methods which put the survivor in danger of getting caught.
“Being home with the abuser during the pandemic has opened an opportunity to use technology in a new way. We must solve the problem from the requesters’ point of view– in this case that’s the victim,” Shah says many organizations are unfamiliar with how to best utilize technology, or can’t afford it given the influx of requests. “This is especially true for small and mid-sized organizations that need to stretch their dollars. We want to help them do that.”
While Parasol’s focus is on small and mid-sized organizations, they will work with any organization interested in becoming a member and leverage their technology and services. Since financial stability is a major reason why victims don’t leave abusive relationships, Parasol will provide long-term sustainable living programs for survivors–not just one-off grants–to provide marketable employment skills. Plans to partner with large organizations, like Accenture, will help reintegrate victims into the workforce–especially for stay-at-home moms.
“The support group I was a part of helped me tremendously in getting back on my feet. Having that ‘net’ of people who experienced similar circumstances can help provide a different type of comfort. So, providing a support group for the survivors the organizations serve, will be an important part of what we provide,” Shah explains how New York City’s Sakhi for South Asian Women was the first organization they worked with and late last year added a large domestic abuse organization in central New Jersey. They are in discussions with other organizations outside the tristate area.
To expand their App to various parts of the world, especially to the grassroots organizations, Shah knows the importance of localized content and language support will be essential. While the initial App will support English, other languages will soon follow to help eliminate the language barriers hindering victims of abuse from requesting help.
“While the immediacy of the technology is very important–for us safety and privacy come first. We are still working through it,” Shah says response without delay is essential. “Calls from victims are short and frantic and most call centers are getting calls from friends and family members, not the victims–not to mention the up to 45-minute wait time in call centers. Our technology needs to be simple, safe and effective. While it’s very hard to do because it requires a lot more validation and thinking, it’s worth it.”
Tapping her own background in data analytics, Shah says the data collection portion of the App will be managed with compliance as HIPAA and the Violence Against Women Act guidelines–prioritizing safety and privacy first.
“These individuals have gone through enough, we must do what we can to protect their information,” Shah is keeping a close watch on the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act which will affect the company’s offerings. “There are many organizations, we aren’t one of them, driving policy changes for VAWA before it’s reauthorized and we look to them and other political representatives to be involved and drive it forward.”
The launch date of the App is for now by late spring or early summer. While the technology is only part of what The Parasol Cooperative will offer, the team is focused on enabling services to help organizations maximize their dollars and provide public education awareness of domestic abuse for survivors and their friends and family.