I'm Building Software to Fight Sexual Assault – Jess Ladd, CEO and Co-Founder of nonprofit CallistoFeatured

Hi I’m Jess Ladd, the CEO and co-founder of Callisto. Callisto is an online reporting system for sexual assault survivors to document and report what’s happened to them. Callisto’s technology helps identify repeat sexual offenders, empowering victims to take further action. Callisto was first built for college campuses, but we’ve since expanded the platform to support reporting in professional settings as well. Before Callisto, I was founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations, and I’m a TED Fellow.Ask me anything about building Callisto, working on a nonprofit, or something else!
I just want to thank you. Having a record in Callisto has taken a huge mental load off of me. Congratulations to your and your team. Please let me know if I can do anything to support your work.
Thank you Lissa!
Hi Jess - have been following and love what you and your team are doing - congrats!I find fundraising as a nonprofit to be an ongoing learning experience. As you grow Callisto's revenue/budget, how have you grown as a fundraiser? Any mantras or tips that help you prepare to make the ask?
I've become a lot more shameless about asking for money, and I've stopped trying for a 100% success rate. I've learned it's much better to focus on a small number of people who really understand and are passionate about what you're doing, rather than chasing after every $10k grant that might possibly be related to your work. And so much of it - even open funding applications at foundations - is about who you know and how much they like you / your work. It's not a fair system at all and it privileges the already privileged. I think for asking individuals, I just try to be human about it - ask them like I'd like to be asked. And know that for a lot of people - it's a privilege for them to give to a cause they care about. It makes them feel all glow-y inside.
Thanks Jess! Love the point on a small group who is passionate to see you succeed vs a bunch of small investors. Have found that to be true, as well.
I’ve always been passionate about social impact, my last two roles have been at not for profits and I hope to start my own soon.I currently also have a for profit business and wanted to have another arm that not for profit, both organisations are focused on women and educating them around business and money. Do you feel it’s best to separate them or just start a foundation under the current orginsation? Also, what has it been like getting funding? How are you currently funding your initiative, through donors? Have you been successful in getting partnerships and if so, how did you secure them.
Hmmm on separating vs corporate foundation... I lean corporate foundation a little big because then there's a funding stream for it baked in. Otherwise you have to keep endlessly fundraising for your nonprofit.Getting funding for a nonprofit is really challenging. There's a lot of luck involved, and the system is rigged to privilege the already privileged. We're funded through a combination of high net worth donors, foundation grants, small donors, and a small amount of earned revenue from the colleges. Our biggest funder is the Skoll Foundation. Our first funder for Callisto was So a lot of our funding has come from tech corporate foundations, the family foundations of successful tech CEOs, or tech CEOs as individual donors. And it's mostly come from San Francisco - when I tried to raise capital in New York I felt like we just confused people for the most part - the philanthropic world there wasn't as used to investing in tech and didn't know what box to put us in.
Thank you so much for your response! Would love to share your story on
Thank you Jess for building Callisto! I was really disturbed and hurt by the Kavanaugh hearings and some of the statistics you mention in your TED talk like how most rapists get away with their actions and that they tend to be serial rapists. When I was sexually assaulted in college, I was open about it, and I was really disturbed by how many people I knew were also sexually assaulted. When my friends were sexually assaulted, I did not know how to support them. Do you have any suggestions/resources/advice on how we can prevent sexual assault, help people report sexual assault, and overcome sexual assault? When or how can my friends and I report our perpetrators on Callisto?
For overcoming & reporting assault - I'd check out a survivor's guide we just created: It's got lots of links to resources and (hopefully) helpful content. I'd love your feedback on it!For prevention... that's a doozy. We're trying do some aspects of prevention by creating a deterrent / incentive for potential perpetrators to care about consent. But honestly I think what's needed outside of that is: consent education from an early age (could be folded into anti-bullying education to - it's really about what does it mean to respect someone else's body), media (including porn) showing stories / sex scenes that model consent, high-quality in-person small-group discussion-based training for college freshmen, and "upstander" training in high school/college about how to speak up when a friend says something problematic or confesses to you that they did something unethical (with role playing - get ppl trained in how to be a good ally - doesn't need to be limited to sexual assault but that should be part of it).For when / how to report perpetrators on Callisto - we're growing through partnerships right now - through colleges, employers, incubator, accelerators, VCs, community groups (like Leap), etc. You can suggest a partnership here: And you can reach out to that group and ask them to partner with Callisto - it's usually the grassroots effort from the people in the network that makes it happen.
Thanks so much Jess for your detailed response and this amazing guide! Jess, have you thought about creating a chatbot? I've been making chatbots for my ecommerce business and I wonder if it would be helpful to have a chatbot for Callisto or to turn your survivors guide into a chatbot. When I deal with these sensitive topics either myself or through my friends, I find it difficult to educate others or even have conversations. Many people, men or women, just do not believe women. A lot of the time I wish I could just easily direct people to resources where they can educate themselves like specific parts of your guide. Through my and my friends' experiences with sexual assault- I think getting support was as hard if not harder than the trauma itself. I wonder if there can be a dating app that requires people to pass consent training to start. Great. I'm afraid that my alma mater might be intentionally hurting their students by not giving them the proper resources to take action or actively impeding Title IX cases. Have you worked with any schools like that? I would love to get my alma mater into the callisto network.
What’s the challenges to grow Callisto and what’s the public acceptance for it so far? And how do you think you’d be able to overcome these challenges?
Challenges in the short term: we have only 2 engineers. So fixing bugs takes a long time and we can't bring on too many users at one time or everything breaks. We're fundraising to hire more engineers and will post open positions soon.Challenges in the longer term: The new model of Callisto connects victims of serial perpetrators with attorneys (Legal Options Counselors) and we cover the legal fees. That adds up quick - it can be $10k per case, even when we limit the scope of the legal engagement to helping you figure out what to do next (rather than representing you in court, which would be exponentially more expensive). So we need to: (1) find partners who really care about solving this problem and are willing to cover the cost of the system for their community, (2) find high-quality sexual harassment and assault attorneys who are willing to give us a reduced rate / pro bono services (we have 4 right now but we'll need more), and (3) raise a ton of philanthropic support from donors & foundations.
I'm really inspired by the work your team is doing! In workplaces where power dynamics and fear of retaliation are the culture, Callisto can really lower the risk for victims to report harassment. A personal question - as a second time founder, what lessons did you learn the hard way in your first startup that you're bringing to your second venture?
I learned the hard way just how critical it is to have the right team, with high trust, who are ideally colocated (I know some ppl can make startups work with a remote team but I've found that that doesn't really work for me). But your team and your communication with them is everything - and I've become a lot more comfortable with letting people go when it's not the right fit. I've also become comfortable with idea that it really is "fit" - do they and I work well together - and that someone can be a wonderful & talents human and just not the right fit for the company at a particular point in time (e.g. some people who would be great on a 25 person team w/ a really available manager will fail utterly when on a 5 person team).
What is your vision for the future? A couple of things I've been hopeful for is to have a way to report bullying and harassing behavior in the work place (lying about someone to gain an advantage), ethics committees to be constantly evaluating examples of things that have happened to report information on and to also see legislation change to include harassment with investors, contractors, etc. as a legal protection (right now it is only protected within the work place). Any thoughts on how to tackle these, if they are things you think are good, work or not would be great.
Vision for the future: I'd like to grow Callisto Expansion to serve every survivor of sexual assault, professional sexual coercion, and child sexual abuse in the US, and to be able to detect any serial sexual predator.
Hi everyone! This conversation is part of our ongoing series with women in our community doing impressive work.Jess may not have time to answer every question, so we'll be sorting questions by popularity (most emojis!). If you like a question, emoji to help bump it to the top for her to answer!Jess – Thanks so much for joining us this week. We're excited to have you :)
Thanks for joining us, Jess and thanks so much to everyone here who participated! This AMA is now over.