Jessica Ladd
Ashoka Fellow since 2018   |   United States

Jessica Ladd

Jess has designed a new victim-centered way to report sexual assault, identify repeat offenders, and provide institutions – beginning with universities – with relevant data to guard against and…
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This description of Jessica Ladd's work was prepared when Jessica Ladd was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018.


Jess has designed a new victim-centered way to report sexual assault, identify repeat offenders, and provide institutions – beginning with universities – with relevant data to guard against and respond to the problem.

The New Idea

Fewer than 20 percent of sexual assaults that occur during college are reported to the police or to college authorities. This is in part because the process of reporting itself can feel isolating, re-traumatizing, and can involve personal and professional risks. Jessica founded Callisto to enable people to record and disclose incidents of assault on their own terms via a technology platform that also connects them to victims of the same perpetrator so as to identify repeat offenders. The platform also “time stamps” an incident and offers a range of counseling options so that victims understand their choices going forward.

Part of what makes Callisto new is its unrelenting focus on survivors’ needs, including specialized legal support for victims as they navigate the complex options for disclosing their experience. Callisto is also the only reporting system for any crime that offers matching of perpetrators. While survivors choose not to report for a variety of reasons, matching is intended to lower the barrier for survivors who wish to come forward but feel more comfortable doing so if they know they were not the sole victim. And indeed, early data suggests that those with access to Callisto are five times more likely to report than those who did not.

Importantly, Callisto also helps institutions and authorities by (1) providing them with higher-quality timestamped reports, (2) flagging serial offenders, and (3) providing them with aggregate data from unreported assaults. This enables them to take action of both the individual level (against perpetrators) and a systems level (by creating data-driven prevention strategies).

Callisto was launched on the first college campus in 2016 and is now being used on more than a dozen. In the next year, Callisto will be expanding to address sexual assault and coercion in multiple industries by creating a universal platform for any victim of sexual assault or professional sexual coercion. Ultimately, Jess and her team want to be able to help victims detect any serial sexual predator in the United States.

The Problem

Sexual assault and harassment are far too common and often never reported. The process of reporting can feel isolating — or worse, re-traumatizing — and comes with its own set of personal and professional risks.

An estimated 20% of women, 7% of men, and 24% of trans and gender nonconforming students are sexually assaulted during their college career. Fewer than 10% of college assault survivors report to administrators, local police, campus security, or other authorities. Those who do report, report an average of 11 months after their assault, making it hard to conduct an investigation. These investigations are not challenging because of an unknown perpetrator – 85% of college survivors know their assailant – but rather because investigators are not sure whether to believe that an assault actually took place. Only 6% of assaults reported to police end with the assailant spending a single day in prison, meaning that over 99% of them will not face serious consequences for their actions. This means there is practically no deterrent to sexual assault in the United States.

Meanwhile, an estimated 90% of college sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders who assault an average of 6 times – and that's just before they graduate college. However, since reporting rates are so low, it's fairly unlikely that even repeat offenders are reported, so investigators often have no knowledge of a pattern of behavior of the accused when trying to make a fair judgement on a case. And without clear evidence (which is hard to gather if a report is made months after the assault) or a pattern of behavior, authorities are often afraid of taking on the liability of taking action against the accused. It's far more likely that a college will be sued expelling an accused assailant than sued by a victim of sexual assault.

Victims very rarely know whether or not they're the only one, but if they did they’d be more likely to report. Indeed, learning of another victim of the same assailant dramatically increased victims' desire to report, as well as their perceived probability of being believed if they reported.

Despite the seriousness and scope of the problem of sexual violence, existing solutions to the problem are piecemeal and tend to focus on mitigating risk against lawsuits for schools and companies rather than empowering victims and creating culture of survivor support. How to prevent perpetrators or change their behavior is still unknown. This is because right now, the only data we have about perpetrators is by surveying people and asking if they’re assaulted someone, or by studying people who have been convicted (less than 5% of perpetrators and a very unique subset). There is no good data on recidivism rates, patterns of perpetration over time, and other patterns. Callisto seeks to change this.

The Strategy

Jess’s strategy is to build and refine a system that combats sexual assault and harassment and then via institutional partnerships, to spread that system – and more importantly, the principles that define it – until it becomes the adopted best practice. The ultimate goal is a world where sexual assault is rare and survivors are supported. Jess believes that if we truly empower victims to take action and help them identify serial predators, we will create new cultures of survivor support, perpetrator accountability, and sexual misconduct prevention.

Over the last several years, Jess and her team have designed and refined a new technology-enabled platform to significantly improve the sexual assault reporting process and have been rolling this platform out on college campuses across the United States. The platform contains college-specific information about reporting options and resources and allow survivors to take three actions related to reporting their assault:

1. Create a time-stamped, secure record of their assault, preserving evidence for later reporting;
2. Report electronically by sending their assault record to their college; or
3. Save their record for now, but report automatically if another student names the same assailant.

The time stamp is significant because it bolsters the integrity of victims whose integrity is so often undermined, especially after months have elapsed between an incident and when someone chooses to come forward. The matching system is a new and creative way to both encourage reporting (crucially, victims are much more likely to report if they discover they are not the only person who has been targeted by a particular perpetrator) and to uncover repeat offenders. Victims have the option of connecting with other victims of the same perpetrator both for support and as part of their decision-making process going forward – what that means going to the authorities or simply confronting a perpetrator and attempting to get him/her to change behavior. In addition, the platform directs victims to a range of resources and options they have in the wake of a traumatic experience, including legal avenues and counseling support.

Every aspect of the Callisto platform was designed with the needs and agency of survivors in mind, including its recording form which is based off the forensic experiential trauma interview (FETI), the best-practice way to get high-quality information from victims of trauma while triggering them as little as possible. As it grows – and in particular as it solidifies an earned revenue model – Callisto hopes to grow its legal services team (called “opportunity counselors”) so that users have access to free top-quality counsel with attorney-client-privilege.

But the system is equally beneficial to partner institutions and authorities too. With Callisto, institutions are more likely to know whether the accused person has been accused by more than one victim, and can use testimony that was recorded closer to the time of the incident and in an organized fashion. Right now, institutions also do not have great data about what sexual misconduct looks like in their community, making it hard to design effective prevention programs. Callisto provides detailed aggregate information from the stored unreported records – like what time of year assaults are most often occurring, or what percentage involve alcohol.

Finally, the platform targets perpetrators and would-be perpetrators by (1) stopping serial offenders earlier on, and (2) by creating a deterrent to sexual assault. According to research by Dr. David Lisak, if serial offenders were stopped after their 2nd assault, we could prevent 59% of college sexual assaults – just by halting repeat offenders.

Callisto was launched on its first college campus in 2015 and by 2017 was partnering with 13 campuses reaching 150,000 students. Each campus fully incorporates Callisto into its web presence and markets it across campus – including with Resident Advisors – as the go-to place for any student who may have been a victim of sexual assault or harassment. Early results have been promising: students with access to Callisto are five times more likely to report an assault, and will do so within four months on average as opposed to 11 months post incident. 97 percent of users would recommend the platform to peers. By 2021, Callisto aims to reach 1 million students, to support more than 170,000 survivors, and prevent 40,000 sexual assaults.

Beginning in July 2017, Callisto was flooded with emails asking to expand Callisto to combat sexual harassment in the venture capital industry. Following these inquiries, Jess has spoken with over several dozen venture capital firm founders who have been sexually harassed by VCs, VCs themselves, LPs concerned about the problem, and experts in diversity & inclusion in Silicon Valley. Similar inquiries are now coming from the entertainment industry where a culture of sexual harassment and assault is being exposed.

Moving forward, therefore, Jess is focused on signing the first contract with a non-academic client – a vital expansion point to solidify credibility with professional industries. She and her team are in the process of identifying stakeholders across industries to establish trust with organizations as a tool for partnership rather than a sexual violence enforcer. Part of this involves a strong communications and marketing strategy to solidify the Callisto brand and market the platform with hard data that demonstrates impact and success identifying repeat perpetrators across industries and environments.

As the number of partnerships grow, Jess sees Callisto as playing the role of market disrupter: by connecting survivors with their full range of options, they are challenging current systems acting under the guise of solutions. This applies pressure on existing institutions an players in the complex system – from HR departments to the police to lawyers even – who frequently don’t have victims at the center of their priorities. Whereas before HR departments, for example, had an incentive to make reporting difficult so they don’t have to deal with the real problem, now they will not only have an incentive to respond but actually work in a real way on prevention and culture change because the fundamental power dynamics will have shifted.

Now in a period of rapid growth, Callisto’s team doubled over the last year and its projected 2018 budget of $3.1M is triple its 2017 budget of $991,000.

The Person

As a college student Jess created her own major in public policy and human sexuality, a decision she made in part because she was sexually assaulted by a friend during her sophomore year. Jess ended up reporting her assault – over a year after it happened – and found the process of reporting more traumatic than the assault itself. She became her college’s sex columnist where she surveyed fellow students about their sexual experiences, including experiences with sexual violence, and learned that her own experience was far from unique. Jess created a chapter of a female sexuality empowerment group and learned that while several of her friends had also been assaulted, none had disclosed the experience before the group – they were too ashamed.

Jess has a long track record of entrepreneurship, particularly at the intersection of sexual health and technology. In 2011 while at Johns Hopkins she founded the Social Innovation Lab – an accelerator for student-initiated social innovation projects and organizations, now staffed full-time by university staff, which provides startup funding to student social innovations for public health. The following year she founded her first nonprofit, Sexual Health Innovations, dedicated to creating technology that advances sexual health and well-being in the United States. Its flagship website was So They Can Know, a way for people diagnosed with STDs to notify their partners that they need to get tested, either in person or via anonymous emails.

After several years working in sexual health policy, including as a federal HIV policy advocate and as an intern with the Obama White House Domestic Policy Council, in 2013 Jess once again began reading stories about college sexual assault survivors speaking about how their schools failed to hold their perpetrators accountable. She thought back to her own assault and began to consider how victims could be supported during the reporting experience in particular, and how technology might be catalytic in that process. She began designing the Callisto platform and then in 2015 re-branded Sexual Health Innovations as Callisto to focus full time on implementing this solution – one that she wished had existed for her in college.

The name Callisto comes from classical mythology: Callisto was a nymph in Artemis's band who took a vow of celibacy but who was raped by Zeus in disguise and became pregnant. Callisto was then turned on by the very people who had sworn to protect her.

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