When and how did I first meet Nancy Lublin, CEO/Founder of Crisis Text Line? I don’t recall but I know that once I got introduced I held on and wouldn’t let go. Because Nancy is always moving in interesting directions with compelling missions and people around her. Some of this velocity can be attributed to her New Yorker residency but the majority of it comes from her heart, which is like some superpowered, perpetual motion machine. Here she answers Five Questions…
Hunter Walk: Can you give folks a quick overview what Crisis Text Line does and how it started?
Nancy Lublin: Sometimes products have unintended consequences. I was the CEO of DoSomething.org. We were texting with about 2.3 million young people every week. Huge open rates (97%?!) and super strong response rates (about 200k in each campaign) but every week we’d have a couple dozen “out of flow” messages. That’s normal in customer feedback land—but these messages were all personal, asking for helping with personal crisis like bullying or crystal meth. We were handing out hotlines numbers and referring folks elsewhere. Then we got a message that made me think differently. The message said “He won’t stop raping me. Its my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. R u there?” (Can you imagine?!) We gave her the hotline number for RAINN. And we never heard back from her. (I’ve actually tried calling and texting her. It’s now been almost 6 years. No word back.) Within weeks, I was like, “If they are going to share stuff like this by text, let’s build a hotline by text!”
HW: The tech infrastructure needs to be reliable—you’re dealing with very personal and often time-sensitive issues. How does this shape the infrastructure you’ve built and the engineering team you have in-house?
NL: I started with people I knew and trusted. First two hires were a CTO and Chief Data Scientist and they were out of DoSomething.org. They spent a few months traveling the country, looking at existing hotlines and typical user challenges, tech infrastructure, etc…
You start cheap. You hack your first system together. So, yeah, that meant we used a lot of Drupal. So much of who we are today we owe to Chris Johnson, the founding CTO. Chris built our original stack by himself. He was dev ops, front end, back end, etc. He owned the product pipeline. When we were a year old, we only had 3 devs—largely because he worked 24/7 and put so much heart into things. Lots of people talk about founders—and founding tech teams (or, more likely, individuals) don’t get the love they deserve.
Now our dev team is ~12 plus product and a data team of 4. (We’re looking for additional senior backend devs, fyi.) The messaging is built on top of Twilio and the CRM is Salesforce. You can see the rest of our stack here: https://stackshare.io/crisis-text-line
HW: Supporting others through difficult problems is noble but can also take its toll. How do you assess health of the team and make self-care a priority as well?
NL: Huge huge part of the culture. There are structural things—like quarterly reviews, weekly all-team check-ins, free Soul Cycle classes, nicer office space than you would expect for a not for profit, blah blah blah. Every tech start up has this. More importantly, supervisors (full-time staff with a masters degree in a relevant field like social work or psych) are half our company—and our purpose is to support 3,500 volunteers who do the counseling. So everything we do is about supporting caregivers. They ARE our users. We’re not selling toilet paper or helping you find Chinese food at 2 a.m. What we do is empathy. So we talk about words, best practices, new studies, news items, etc all day long. We’re in the business of self-care. As a company, we make it possible for Empathy MVPs to do their thing. We are in AWE of these supervisors and crisis counselors.
HW: Have teens been impacted by the election and the political rhetoric? Has there been a “Trump-effect” for Crisis Text Line?
NL: The lack of civility. The anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies. The nationalist rhetoric. The threats of homophobic policies. This talk affects everyday Americans.
On election night, we saw 8x normal volume for a couple hours. It was mostly LGBTQ people using the word “scared.” Immigrants and children of immigrants worried they would be deported. And, sexual assault survivors asking if they should bother going to the police or continuing with court cases in a political climate where a president admitted to grabbing women.
When there is anti-Muslim policy and rhetoric, we see spikes in everyday American Muslims feeling anxiety, bullying, and depression.
So, yes. We have been busy. When there is pain in America, we see more volume.
HW: Social media can be a very challenging place for teens. Do you feel like the CEOs of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are interested in creating more positive environments for teenagers? Do you actively try to engage their product managers with feedback?
NL: No. I don’t think any of the social media or search companies is doing enough. We have engaged with many of them—and it is a struggle to get them to make mental health a real priority. Committees and press releases are not the same as protecting user data, acting quickly in the face of imminent risk, and spending money on solutions.
Thanks Nancy! And everyone can donate to Crisis Text Line.