[Editor’s Note: This story is part of a “Where Are They Now” series on startups named to NC TECH’s annual Top 10 Startups To Watch list from 2014 to the present. You can find the main story here. There are also six other feature stories on startups from the NC TECH lists that are no longer active standalone companies: Organic Transit (2014 list); Tourpedo (2015); EmployUs (2016); Forecast Health (2016); Cultivate (2017); and myBeeHyve (2018).]
As a crime survivor who was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager, CJ Scarlet has built a career around helping others and preventing them from experiencing what she endured.
When she was in her 30s, she went back to college and earned a graduate degree in human violence. As an advocate for other crime survivors, she recognizes it took years before she was able to take her power back and get help for her own trauma.
Later, she took on the role as Director of Victims Issues for the NC Attorney General’s Office. Scarlet loved her work with crime survivors, but she longed for a way to create a larger impact.
“It was very frustrating because I was dealing with situations after they happened,” Scarlet said. “And I wanted to do something to keep them from happening at all.”
Beginning in 2013, after her husband died, Scarlet put these long-held frustrations to work in a new Triangle-based startup: Tiger Eye Sensor. Its purpose was to stop crime in the midst of it happening.
The wearable device allowed victims to call for help immediately. The device would record audio and video of the perpetrator and send the data to the 911 Center. Police would be able to see where the victim was and immediately come to the rescue. The device even announced to the perpetrator that the police are on the way, and to leave the victim alone.
Scarlet wanted to empower the wearer to feel more confident about staying safe and scare would-be perpetrators before they commit violence. In 2015, NC TECH named Tiger Eye as one of its Top 10 Startups To Watch.
To this day, there is no technology that approaches the level of what Tiger Eye aimed to do, Scarlet said.
Tiger Eye had attracted interest from jewelry company Swarovski to create jewelry to go around Tiger Eye, and several other companies expressed interest in using and promoting its potentially life-saving technology, Scarlet said.
But in 2016, Tiger Eye Sensor shut down. While the company had raised some money for its prototype, it did not successfully convince investors to fund full production of a commercial product. One issue was that the prototype’s speaker wasn’t as powerful as hoped.
The main challenge, Scarlet added, was how much harder it is to sell hardware than software, and how much more expensive it is to bring to the market.
Another challenge Scarlet faced was being an older (mid-50s) woman founder. She said it was frustrating to go in front of all-male investors and have them look at her as if she wasn’t supposed to be there. Her heavier weight at the time also might have led to some implicit bias, she said.
Ahead of its time
Scarlet believes that Tiger Eye Sensor had all the right elements, but the timing was off. Maybe if they launched a couple years later during the #MeToo Movement, things would have been different. But at the time, she said, male investors quickly became uncomfortable when they brought up sexual assault. Rape is not a happy topic, and it often got investors squirming in their seats.
But Scarlet feels the world is shifting now. There are more incubators and funds for women than ever, and it remains important for women founders to get out there.
“I think there was a bias against that, an unconscious bias,” Scarlet said. “So I would say for tech founders, especially women, don’t give up your power. Tell your story and stick to it. If you’re walking into the wrong rooms, find new rooms. Someone out there is going to love it. We just didn’t happen to find it in time.”
Scarlet also advises other founders to recognize when someone is not contributing to their company. Differing minds and constructive criticism is helpful, but naysayers are something else entirely.
“It’s good to have gadflies, people who will push you in different ways,” Scarlet said. “But if somebody clearly is a detractor of what you’re doing, they don’t need to be in your space.”
Since Tiger Eye Sensor closed, Scarlet has tried (and failed) to retire. Instead, she writes, with much of her books inspired from her time at Tiger Eye. “The Badass Girl’s Guide: Uncommon Strategies to Outwit Predators” was her first book, published in 2017, which aimed to help women protect themselves against sexual assault.
When Scarlet had grandchildren and started having nightmares about their safety, she also wrote and published the books “Badass Parenting: An Irreverent Guide to Raising Safe, Savvy, Confident Kids” and “Heroic Parenting.”
She also serves on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina LGBT Chamber of Commerce and helps women-owned businesses become certified.
So while she says letting go of Tiger Eye was extremely painful, it was by no means the end for her.
“I also recognize that there are no failures,” Scarlet said. “Every experience is a learning experience. My worst enemies are some of my best teachers, and some of my worst ‘failures’ have been my best teachers as well.”
If it hadn’t been for losing Tiger Eye, Scarlet might never have launched her “Badass Grandma” book line.
“If it hasn’t worked out, give yourself time to grieve, but know that the universe isn’t saying no, necessarily,” Scarlet said. “It’s saying ‘not yet’ or ‘I have something better in mind.’ You’ll find a way to make something out of it. If you’re an inventor, if you’re a creator, if you’re a maker, you will find a way to make, invent, create something else. It’s in your blood.”