In 2020, Harish Kolli, a high school junior from Austin, Texas, was scrolling through TikTok when he came across a viral trend. The viral TikTok trend encouraged women to save videos with fake conversations to use when feeling unsafe (for example: when feeling uncomfortable in an Uber). These videos would have a person talking to you as if they knew you and were expecting to see you soon in order to dissuade potential harassers.
Kolli later realized that what made the videos so popular and beneficial was their preventative and discreet nature. More than 80% of harassment crimes are committed by someone the recipient knows, so people often don’t feel comfortable calling the police or using deterrents such as pepper spray. Understanding just how important these underlying concepts are, Harish decided to create an improved, user-friendly solution that deters harassers before they escalate their behavior. Not long after, he met his teen co-founders, Mahi Ravi and Kaitlin Tan at a summer entrepreneur incubator program.
They created Guardial, a personal-safety app that allows users to trigger an incoming simulated phone call that acts as a deterrent, whenever they want. This call has a realistic caller-ID display screen, a familiar ringtone, and audio with dialogue that deters, such as “I have your location, see you soon.” Additionally, color-coded buttons within the simulated call allow users to contact help through services such as 911 and to record audio or video.
Despite the need for this app, the journey to bring it to consumers hasn’t been easy. “As high school students building a startup, we didn’t have access to many resources,” Kolli said. ”We had to teach ourselves skills like app development and UI/UX design using tools like InVision and Figma.” Along with a steep learning curve, the early days required a lot of time and energy. Harish and his co-founders interviewed their target market, young women, to better understand pain points and get feedback from Guardial’s early adopters and testers, who said they found the technology straightforward and easy to use.
In 2021, Kolli and Guardial experienced their first success when they posted surveys in women’s online safety forums and received overwhelming positive feedback with over 350 survey responses. Not long after, the Guardial team received $6,400 in equity-free funding from an investor who believed in the team, their app, and the problem they were trying to solve. While Guardial isn’t the first personal-safety app, its approach is to be more proactive and deter potential harassers, rather than simply providing a way to contact help after problems begin.
The pandemic gave Kolli more time to work on Guardial. No longer needing to attend in-person school, the Guardial team had more flexibility with their schedule. Kolli made it a priority to read articles, watch videos, and connect with other entrepreneurs to learn how to best operate and grow Guardial.
In January 2022, the team received great news. They were selected as one of five finalists at the SXSW EDU Student Startup Competition powered by my organization, WIT, which helped the finalist teams with three months of coaching. This gave them the opportunity to pitch their business from a stage at one of the most prestigious conferences in the world. It was a milestone moment for the Guardial Team as it was the first time they had pitched Guardial in person. The opportunity validated their hard work and provided them a platform to showcase their company, and gave them opportunities to progress their journeys as entrepreneurs. The team not only benefited from the chance to pitch at SXSW EDU, but the conference provided them networking opportunities, workshops, mentorship sessions, and more.
“We had a lot of people come up to us and tell us how powerful our pitch was and how important they thought our app was,” Kolli said afterward. “Having those genuine interactions with people post-pitch made us want to work even harder. Another thing I learned was the importance of collaboration over competition — everyone can win and feel fulfilled if they are focused on uplifting each other.”
Recently Guardial started working to launch their new version in app stores. The review process brought to light technical issues that the team is resolving to improve the technology. Kolli explained, “We aren’t giving up and will continue to iterate our app design so Guardial will be available for all to use.” The team believes this persistence will pay off and save lives.
To get notified when Guardial becomes available in app stores, click here. To learn more check out @guardialco on social media.