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Nancy Lublin is Saving Lives with Big Data

By Liam Satre Meloy
We caught up with Nancy about Crisis Text Line’s global expansion, the state of mental health in America, and her new for-profit venture, Loris.ai.

Nancy Lublin has built and led some of the world’s most innovative and impactful nonprofits, including DoSomething.org, Dress for Success, and most recently, Crisis Text Line, a platform that provides free, 24/7 text message-based crisis intervention globally. Nancy’s many awards and honors include Forbes’ “Trailblazer Award” and Fast Company’s “Fast 50 Award.” She’s been named a World Economic Forum “Young Global Leader,” the Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation, one of the NonProfit Times’ 50 Most Powerful Leaders three years in a row, and one of the top 50 Influencers on LinkedIn.

With over 118M+ text messages processed through Crisis Text Line, Nancy is applying her data-driven learnings to the corporate world. Her new for-profit venture, Loris.ai, is using machine learning to teach companies and leaders how to better handle everything from performance reviews to firings, layoffs, and diversity and inclusion.

Dress for Success… Nancy founded the org in 1997 with $5,000 in seed money and a vision of helping women and minorities achieve lifelong financial independence. Now Dress for Success has spread to 160 US cities and 27 countries, helping close to 1M people globally.

DoSomething.org… After leaving Dress for Success, Nancy took over DoSomething.org, a digital platform that mobilizes offline activism. Over the next 12 years, Nancy reversed the company’s financial woes (the company had $73,000 in the bank and was $250,000 in debt when she joined), generated $24M in revenue, and grew the user base to 3.6M members (bigger than the Boy Scouts of America). She also wrote a pretty badass resignation letter.

Crisis Text Line… Nancy likes to say CTL was “born from the rib” of DoSomething.org. When hundreds of DoSomething users started texting in with pleas for personal help, Nancy saw a need and an opportunity. Within months, she launched a pilot program for CTL in Alabama and two years later she left DoSomething and formally launched the company.

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Getting help... Is as easy as texting “home” to 741741 in the US. You'll be connected to a trained, experienced Crisis Counselor. “The goal of any conversation is to get you to a calm, safe place. Sometimes that means providing you with a referral for further help, and sometimes it just means being there and listening.”

CTLs users... Two thirds are Millenials and Gen Z, many from the poorest regions in America, and the highest demand comes in the middle of the night. “We're a time-sensitive marketplace, like Lyft and Task Rabbit. Except we don’t have surge pricing to incentivize the supply side. It’s a very complicated business, where the stakes are high--it’s people’s lives.”

Prioritizing risk... CTL operates like a hospital emergency room, "where a person with gunshot wound gets helped before a person with a broken leg.” An algorithm assesses a texter’s risk based on their first few messages and then codes the texter with a corresponding risk value. “During the 2016 election, when we saw volume 8x of our normal, we were still able to reach high-risk texters in an average of 39 seconds.”

State of mental health in America… The five most prevalent issues CTL sees discussed are: depression, anxiety, relationships, self-harm, and loneliness. One in five texters over the age of 55 discuss loneliness and isolation. “Loneliness isn’t talked about, and it doesn’t care about how much money you have or how successful you are. It’s great that I don’t have to do this work alone, because it can get really hard."

Unexpected findings...

Bullying: The data shows that online bullying, unlike its real-world variant, almost always co-presents with suicidal ideation. “I’m from a generation that feared being shoved into a locker and beaten up in the parking lot. But with this generation, the online stuff is actually much more lethal.”

Self-harm: Thanks to CTL's texter triage algorithm, they learned that words like “Ibuprofen,” “Tylenol,” and “bridge” are four times more likely to lead to high-risk conversations than “suicide” or “shooting.”

Identity: Texters age 13 and under are twice as likely to discuss gender and sexual identity -- as are male texters of all ages.

Deescalating risk… In 20% of conversations, texters show signs of serious risk, but CTL counselors successfully deescalate. “So we convince you to put the gun in the drawer or flush the pills down the toilet.” But in some cases -- less than 1% of conversations -- counselors deem the texter at risk of imminent harm and call 9-1-1. “We’ve completed 26,000 active rescues -- that’s 26,000 individuals, but also families, neighbors, friends who’d be in a completely different place today if not for us.”

Power of language… Nancy's learned a lot about how word usage shapes emotion. "For eaxmple, words like smart, proud, brave, impressive are helpful in the face of anxiety." But CTL has also learned that music, exercise, and, crucially, sleep are sources of strength. “21% of our conversations explicitly mention sleep. America is not sleeping.”

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Crisis Counselors… They're all volunteers who work remotely. Counselors are given 30 hours of training and are expected to commit to volunteering 4 hours per week (until 200 hours are reached). “Our volunteers are strangers helping strangers in their worst moments. They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not because someone is going to tell them ‘thank you’ or they’re gonna get a plaque. I really love the selflessness and purity of it.” If you’re interested in getting involved, apply here.

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Crisis Trends data… CTL has one of the largest real-time mental health datasets in the world, which they share openly (and anonymously) with the public. Filters allow you to view, for example, which states experience the most anxiety or depression. Or what’s the worst time of day for substance abuse. Check it out!

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Good technology vs. bad technology… “I think of technology as a lightsaber--it depends on how you use it. You Jedi or Sith?” Nancy believes companies have an obligation to put the right policies and protections in place rather than “hiding behind safe harbor and thinking, well, we’re just the pipes and whatever happens on our platform is not our problem.”

Loris.ai… When companies started coming to Nancy asking about what she’s learned from CTL about how to handle hard conversations, she decided to spin off an independent, for-profit company, called Loris.ai, and hired ShopKeep’s CRO Etie Hertz to run it. Loris gives company’s customer service reps an expanded toolbox and support system to do their jobs better. In an unusual move, Nancy gave all of Loris’ founders’ equity to Crisis Text Line. “Loris is not a B-Corp--I hope it becomes a unicorn. This is just another way of being a socially responsible company.”

Quote to live by… “Never be too proud to stop and pick up a penny in the rain. Everything, everyone, every experience has value, and I should never be too busy or proud to miss that.”

Connect with Nancy... “I left Twitter and I’ve gone silent on IG. I like real friends. Come meet me for a coffee in Palo Alto or New York.” Email her at Nancy@crisistextline.org

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