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Startup Journal: Zariya

By Vajiha Sipra

· Technology,India,Returners

We sat down with Sahar Khan, founder of Zariya, to catch up with the progress she has been making on her company, a first-instance platform that connects Indian women who have faced violence and trauma with relevant service providers. Sahar is a third-culture kid who was born in Boston to Indian parents, and grew up in the coastal city of Muscat, Oman. After graduating from Stanford University in 2013, she founded Zariya to address what has become a "national problem" in India. Designed as a safe space for women who have been assaulted to come forward, Zariya aims to support victims of sexual assault and abuse. By giving an accurate picture of the frequency of abuse cases, the platform maps reports to geographic locations that give insights into 'danger zones', which in turn allow for the creation of a larger, united community of abuse survivors.

Zariya is a bi-national project with team members based in California and India. The Stanford team includes Arzav Jain (Tech Lead), a recent Stanford grad currently working at a start-up in San Francisco, with previous stints at SiftScience and Palantir and Japsimran Kaur (Outreach), a Human Biology student at Stanford. In addition to the core team, the Zariya team consists of product design and R&D volunteers in California and India.

Sahar has worked in the International City of Peace and Justice and has been exposed to grassroots legal work in India. Sahar recently completed her Masters at Cambridge University in development economics. Besides her passion for law and development, Sahar loves travel, movies, dance and good conversation. Currently living in San Francisco, she plans to expand the company's presence in both the US and back home in India. As a Returner making an impact in her home country, Sahar wants to share her experiences working in India after living and working abroad for most of her life. Here's what she has to say.

Can you tell us about yourself? What gets you up in the morning; what motivates you?

It sounds a bit cliché (and perhaps even self-righteous) to say “I’m motivated by justice” because “justice” is an abstract and ambiguous term with multiple meanings. But, at a high-level, this ambiguity is exactly what motivates and inspires me to do what I do. Across my work and life experiences in jurisdictions as culturally and politically varied as India, Oman, the USA, the UK and the Netherlands, I have learnt that it takes a lot of preliminary analysis and hard work to make justice a clear, real and tangible value in citizens’ everyday lives.

Furthermore, there are barriers to justice that need to be tackled. On the demand-side, there are certain costs that make people reluctant to seek fair resolutions for their problems. On the supply-side, legal systems in countries all over the world tend to be over-burdened with more cases than can be attended to in a timely fashion. Additionally, there are so many ways to solve problems without going to court such as Alternative Dispute Resolution. However, people do not know about these options. The extent of the lack of awareness and clarity surrounding “justice” keeps me busy and motivated. There are countless ways in which we can realize just and fair outcomes and I hope to explore them through social entrepreneurship and legal work.

What has been the biggest obstacle in your experience as an entrepreneur? How are you overcoming this challenge?

The main obstacle (which remains even after you think that you’ve overcome it) is resistance of novel solutions for an “age-old” problem. Rightfully, many Violence against women (VAW) experts will be skeptical of what they may perceive as a so-called new solution. To earn the respect of these experts, you have to move fast, make mistakes, derive lessons, and implement those lessons just as quickly. You need some street cred; you have to show other players in the space that just because you’re a late-comer doesn’t mean that you’re a dabbler. Collaboration is key. We overcame this challenge by doing our own research upfront and working with experts in the space to reinvent our initial proposed solution. We developed the content of our website and platform in concert with Indian experts in New Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai. The language we use has been gleaned through conversations with experts about what works and what doesn’t. Not only did we strike solid work relationships, but we ended up developing a better-informed product. Rather than being competition, we are a complement to the anti-VAW ecosystem in India.

What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?

Firstly, maintain your innovative edge and never be satisfied with your product. Keep iterating. We are constantly tweaking our website from features to testimonials to clarifications. We have volunteer product designers working out of California to examine and redesign the Zariya process. This process of piecemeal iteration is what keeps things fresh and, more importantly, effective. Catalogue your insights and translate them into action items for your website, platform or organization.

Secondly, don’t crumble under opposition. Many people told me and our team that violence against women is a very natural problem that has always been and will always be. Maybe they’re right, maybe they aren’t – I’m not a seer so I can’t be sure. But, that window of doubt became a window of action for the Zariya team. I remember reading an uncharacteristically philosophical message on the back of a truck in India: “The fruit of action must not be the motive of your action. Your business is with action alone, not with the fruit of action.” We have taken action and, fortunately, have also started to reap the fruit. So, don’t be deterred by those who tell you that there’s no fruit in the offing. There’s always a window of doubt – leverage that and maybe you’ll end up surprising yourself.

What was your golden moment since you started your startup journey?

Our golden moment was when our first user filed a report with Zariya. Given how many people had told us that it wouldn’t work, we were thrilled, relieved and shocked when we actually received an email address and a pincode in our Zariya inbox. For us, that signified one woman who had mustered the courage to take action. That is also one woman who had trusted us as a completely new and unknown organization. We had worked for months before the website launch and receipt of the first report so there was a lot of anxiety about whether or not the Zariya entry-point would work. Given all the nay-saying and skepticism around tech-based entry-points for social problems, we were perhaps more mentally prepared to shelve Zariya than to continue. But, we got cases and then we started to learn more and more about what we can offer to our users. While it is saddening to see how widespread violence against women is, every time a woman stands up for herself and makes an intention to use Zariya, that’s a golden moment for us.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Interesting that you ask this question. I’ve very recently replaced my 2 and 5-year plans with 6-month plans. Don’t worry – I won’t dodge your question but I’d like to explain why I’ve made this change. Zariya wasn’t something I planned; it happened serendipitously. From this, I learnt that while general long-term plans provide useful timelines, one should also not hesitate to be “derailed.” Being derailed off-course has been a deeply enriching experience for me. I’ve gained immense happiness from providing a door of opportunity and justice to those women who have been knocked down far too many times. Now, to directly answer your question, in five years, I would like to either be involved in litigation and/or institution-building relating to law & development. Creating lasting institutions that close serious social gaps is what I’d like to continue doing. The long-term goal for Zariya is institutionalization whereby governments can deploy Zariya as the tech complement for their efforts against VAW. I think we need a healthy dose of entrepreneurship in law, justice and governance. That’s what I hope to be doing.

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