How The Founder of Hollaback! Made a Career Out of Fighting Street Harassment

From countless rejections to creating a worldwide movement, and the lessons learned along the way. Including last year’s viral video.

How The Founder of Hollaback! Made a Career Out of Fighting Street Harassment
[Photo: Flickr user Nikko]

Every time a new rejection letter appeared in Emily May’s mailbox, she tried her hardest not to take it personally. She’d been convinced the cause she was rallying for–fighting street harassment–was sure to get support. Of the eight foundations and two fellowships she’d applied to, something would come through. But it didn’t. And more rejection only followed.


May had been street harassed since the age of 18 and knew countless women who’d been catcalled, followed, subjected to masturbating strangers. But as each form letter rolled in, not only rejecting May’s proposal for funding, but often pointing out that street harassment was in fact not a real issue–May felt increasingly more resolute. “The rejections were even more important an indicator of what we were trying to do,” she says. “I felt strongly that it was time to get people to pay attention to this issue.”

Emily MayPhoto: via Hollaback

And she did. In 2010, after five years of running a blog that gave women a platform to post their street harassment experiences, May founded Hollaback! as a full-fledged nonprofit. In the absence of institutional funding, she raised more than $13,500 on Kickstarter instead.

Today Hollaback! has grown to include local chapters in 92 cities and 32 countries around the world and has expanded its mission with help from the Knight Foundation, creating an app called Heartmob designed to combat online harassment.

These days, May is a new mom with a two-month-old son at home. She’s on a twelve-week maternity leave–a fact that still awes her when she thinks back to the early days of starting Hollaback! from her New York apartment. “I am constantly in shock that we have gotten to this point where the organization can pay me to take maternity leave,” she says.

How did she get there? May spoke with Fast Company about her career path, the challenges along the way, and what it took to turn her conviction into a worldwide movement.


You Have to Want It–Real Bad

In 2010, May quit her full-time job to devote herself to Hollaback!. She was broke, living off rice and beans, and working around the clock. “I was everything from the administrative assistant to the executive director,” she says. “I would wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning like my butt was on fire and I would work until midnight. I had no time to see my friends and family, much less have a family.”

Is there any getting around that frantic dedication? In May’s eyes: not really. “You have to want it so bad you are blinded by it,” she says. “You have to want it so bad that you can’t do anything else but this. Then you have to do it. You have no other choice.”

Getting an organization–be it a startup or nonprofit–up and running means investing a lot of time upfront with no salary and no guarantee anything will come of your efforts. There’s a solid measure of good faith that must go into the endeavor. Also: confidence. “I wish I could have told myself back then that it’s going to work out,” she says. “That would have helped a lot.”

Expect Growing Pains

May’s hunch that she was onto something with Hollaback! proved itself all too quickly. While she’d focused her efforts on New York City for the first five years, she kept hearing from volunteers around the world wanting to get involved and start their own Hollaback! chapters. As a result, May created a 25-page startup packet that she distributed to interested participants. But while 25 Hollaback! sites launched as a result, in the end, 19 of them failed.

May realized the sites weren’t getting enough internal support and that the network connecting them wasn’t fully in place. “People couldn’t see that this was a global movement,” she says. “All they could see was here’s some kids in New York who are pissed off about street harassment.”


Make Sure Everyone Is On The Same Page

To help centralize and solidify the movement, May decided to put the various Hollaback! sites on the same platform to created a more unified community. She put together a thorough training process that took at least four months to complete before site leaders could launch. She wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page.

Today, the organization only has a full-time staff of five people, but it also includes 500 leaders around the world doing everything from working with local legislators, to engaging in research on how street harassment affects different cultures, to hosting workshops at schools and creating chalk walks and ads in local public transportation systems to educate people on street harassment.

“We’ve seen an explosion of interest from people really leading this movement,” says May. “Now instead of being this frantic one-woman operation, we have an amazing team and I am getting to spend more time doing executive director responsibilities and less time standing in line to buy stamps.”

Be Cautious Who You Work With

While embracing the help and support of volunteers was crucial to the growth of Hollaback!, it also lead to some big mistakes and lessons learned. In 2014, a volunteer offered to create a video that documented a woman walking the New York streets for ten hours getting harassed, including a Hollaback! endorsement at the end. May agreed, but later after the video went viral and people began to speak out about the fact that no white men, only men of color, were depicted as street harassers, sending a racist message to viewers, May realized she’d been too quick to agree to put her organization’s name on the video. “I don’t think I anticipated my mistake would go viral and be seen by 42 million people, but it did and that was hard,” she says. “In hindsight, I would have had a legal contract that would have allowed us to pull our name off of it after it went out because we weren’t the ones to release it.”

Being cautious about who she works with is a lesson May learned the hard way, but one that’s ultimately helped the organization grow. “We’ve had volunteers coming from all around the world,” she says. “It’s a testament to how far the movement has advanced and changed, but it’s also really important for me to know I can’t just lead this movement being 100% trusting all the time. My leadership style has to adjust and adapt.”


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction