Online harassment is a problem that’s been growing for as long as the Internet has been around. And it’s only getting worse. 40% of American Internet users have experienced online harassment.
It’s easy to brush online harassment off as a few rude comments on a photo or an aggressive email that crossed the line. But it’s more than that. Over 50 million Americans have experienced severe cases that escalate to stalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment. Digital threats can result in real-world harm and it’s critical that support is established to protect those targeted online.
Now social entrepreneur Liz Lee, who personally experienced the negative impacts of a digitally connected society, is making sure no one else suffers in silence like she did. Lee is at the forefront of the movement to protect Internet users from bad actors and built OnlineSOS, a digital safe-haven from online harassment, to do just that.
I talked to Lee to understand what drove her to build her product, lessons learned, and how she figured out her business model.
Online harassment seems to be a growing issue. The tech initially built to improve human connection feels like it has turned against us. How did you get involved with this issue?
Online harassment is a deeply personal issue to me. About a decade ago, I moved to New York City after graduating from University of Pennsylvania. I was so excited to be in such a vibrant city, getting ready to dive head first into my career in finance. Shortly after my move though, someone started harassing me online. It started with text messages and emails, but soon escalated to stalking and extortion. This harassment culminated with the stalker kicking in the door to my apartment. The experience was paralyzing and was intensified by the fact that I had nowhere to turn for help.
How did you deal with the harassment?
Back then, online harassment wasn’t even a coined term. I truly didn’t know what to do and didn’t tell anyone for weeks. I turned to Google and Ask.com to figure out what to do, but the results didn’t help. I was scared to tell friends. I was living in a constant state of fear. It got so dire that I even considered using Craigslist to hire a private investigator, with the goal of finding out who was behind the threats and assessing the ongoing threat level.
What ultimately motivated you to dedicate your career to solving this problem?
The catalyst was continuing to hear stories from strangers and friends experiencing the same form of online abuse. For some, their experiences were so severe it ended in death by suicide. While the prevalence of online harassment increased, there were no solutions or support systems in sight.
I had been silent about online harassment when it happened to me. I was young and concerned that if I spoke up, I would damage my credibility and career in finance. But at a certain point, I grew tired of waiting for someone else to build a solution. I realized I was uniquely positioned to do something about it, to take what I’d learned from my own experience and turn it into the solution I wish I’d had at the time. I left my job at Morgan Stanley to launch a startup aimed at supporting individuals experiencing online harassment.
That couldn’t have been easy. What was the biggest challenge you faced leaving the corporate world to start a company?
One of the challenges was, well there were so many, but one of the most significant was not having a clear roadmap that spelled out what…