The Social Ventures Zone at Ryerson University is home to unique entrepreneurial initiatives that are designed to make a positive impact in a variety of communities, both in Toronto and beyond. See all of our profiles here.
Who’s involved in this project?
Lucrezia Spagnolo (founder/CEO).
What are your goals for this project?
Vesta is a chatbot for survivors of sexual assault. It provides 24/7 support that allows survivors of assault tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Giving survivors the ability to take control of how, when and where they tell their story and providing them with access to justice, it will hopefully encourage more survivors to come forward and report.
Research shows that the legal system benefits when the survivors are treated as much more than witnesses to their own crime. If victims decide they do want to report, with their permission Vesta will create a record of events that can be submitted to the authorities. Our primary goal is to eradicate rape culture.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?
Access to information and resources is always a challenge as many of these discussions have traditionally happened behind closed doors or whispered about. Also, in order to create an inclusive and unbiased survivor-centric solution, we need to engage with as many survivors of assault as possible.
Our biggest challenge as we move forward is to gather the information we need without causing more harm or alienating those that we aim to help.
Can you explain the mentorship process available to you through the Ryerson Social Ventures Zone (SVZ)?
Being part of the SVZ has been a great and rewarding experience. Having someone like Alex Gill and the rest of the team at the SVZ believe in our mission and our vision has been invaluable.
Beyond that, not only have we received one-on-one coaching but we have been welcomed into the SVZ community. We are part of a weekly get-together called Caffeinated Innovators, where we meet other members of the SVZ community. This weekly exchange provides peer mentoring and sponsorship that is not to be underestimated in its impact.
The Ryerson SVZ is all about leveraging innovation to make a social impact. How will your project affect the communities you’re targeting?
Vesta takes a holistic approach by interweaving evidence collection while helping the victims process their emotions, reactions and memories. By placing the survivors’ wellbeing at the centre of the process, we will not only decrease the time to report but will also provide police officers access to a level of detail and possible corroboration of evidence not currently available. It will also help create more reliable and credible witnesses, fortifying prosecutors’ cases.
Have you been able to obtain any feedback from people who stand to benefit from your project? If so, what have they told you?
Many survivors feel they must first process their emotions, reactions and memories before even considering reporting. The first hours, days, months – even years, in some cases – after the assault are spent unpacking what happened and how it happened. On the other hand, the outcome of a sexual assault case is significantly influenced by how early a victim presents their case to the police. The longer they wait to come forward, the more challenging it becomes for officers to investigate and find corroborating evidence.
There are significant challenges associated with gathering evidence in historical sexual assault cases, so there is a high level of attrition in the criminal justice system. The time a survivor takes to report can be shortened by using Vesta, which can make it better for the police to investigate and potentially lead to higher arrest and conviction rates.
What kind of public or private partnerships are you hoping to make (if any) to help grow your project?
While we are building a survivor-centric solution, we are also engaging with legal and law enforcement experts as well as leveraging the expertise of front-line organizations, clinical therapists and campus- and community-based support groups.
Imagine if you could scale up your project to its full potential. What would that look like?
Vesta would be the go-to resource for anyone who has experienced sexual violence. It would be a safe and trusted place where they can unpack their emotions and fears. No judgement, no shame, no biases, no condemnation will exist within this platform. We strive to put an empathetic humanity into artificial intelligence that moves modern society forward.
Timing is a crucial factor that contributes to the success of a social venture. Why is now the right time for your project?
Society is at inflection point. It seems that every day, new allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are being made publicly. Hashtags like #MeToo, #BeenRapedNeverReported and others are bringing to light social behaviours that have been normalized for many years.
This is an important first step, but what happens next will be even more significant. We aim to be part of a larger solution that will fundamentally change how society views and deals with sex-based crimes.
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