If you ask Jensine Larsen, there’s no power quite like sunlight. She’s the founder of World Pulse, a women’s social network which shines light upon the lives of 60,000 women and 3.1 million people around the globe through the power of storytelling.
World Pulse is a platform where women gather to share their stories and hear those of others. It gives a voice to many who are otherwise voiceless and in a technology sector where only 19% of board members and 21.9% of developers are women, World Pulse is built nearly exclusively by women and its board is entirely female. Its female focus and creation allow it to function quite differently than other platforms.
How did World Pulse come to be? Perhaps fittingly, you have to hear the story.
Shining a spotlight on stories
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Jensine always felt that she lacked a platform where she could share her own authentic voice, so she went looking for it. Her journey as a journalist took her across the globe from Burma to the Amazon and in each place she discovered other women who felt equally speechless. Many told heart wrenching stories of oil contamination, children with skin cancer, ethnic cleansing, and repression, none of which were being picked up by the media.
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Jensine did all she could to write about these women but she quickly learned that she couldn’t do them all justice on her own. If she was going to have an impact she’d have to create a forum where women could carry themselves and each other.
“There is no country in the world where women have an equal voice. There is a tremendous culture of silence and fear.” –Jensine Larsen
From dream to beating pulse
World Pulse began as a print magazine in 2004 but quickly outgrew its physical confines. “Women were emailing us their stories from all over the world—the Congo, Siberia, Southeast Asia—so a print magazine was no longer practical,” says Jensine. World Pulse shifted to an interactive social network to foster peer-to-peer connections. It was then that she and the team realized the terrific gender imbalance online.
“Women in mid- to low-income countries have 25 to 45% less internet access than men,” says Jensine.
There are a variety of reasons for this. In many developing countries, women who run the home may not travel to internet cafes for access, may be dissuaded from learning to use computers, and are often bullied online. New studies from the US to Pakistan reveal that around 50% of women report some level of harassment.
But while she could have cried foul, Jensine decided that it wasn’t the systems themselves that were to blame. “Technology is a neutral medium that gets imprinted by the people who design it,” says Jensine. “So, I asked myself, what are we going to do about that?”
Unlocking half the intelligence of humanity
Today, World Pulse reaches 60,000 women in 190 countries around the world. South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa, and North America are the network’s most active regions. Within the US and Canada, women participate from everywhere—from Appalachia to Native American reservations, to working class suburbs to big metropolitan cities. Many are trying to find their own voice and to help others find theirs.
The platform itself has grown up around 3 offerings: a supportive community culture, a community resource exchange, and a crowd-sourcing initiative. The supportive culture is the platform’s bedrock and Jensine and the team discovered through extensive testing that “the greatest empowering moment for a woman isn’t writing her story but the interactivity and comments that follow.”
This is why they’ve created a gamification system around support.
“With just 5 minutes a day and a mobile phone, around the clock women are learning about the world through women’s eyes and that they have a valued role to play.” –Jensine Larsen
“We created a unique role called an ‘encourager’ and created an encourager dashboard,” says Jensine. To ensure that every post gets a comment, the system sends notifications and offers rewards and badges for those who acknowledge others’ stories.
The women who use it report a deep sense of fulfillment from offering validation to the community and after a healthy dose of trial and error, Jensine and the team have grown their engagement rate from 2 to 3 comments per post to 5 comments on everything that goes live across the World Pulse network.
From a design perspective, this high engagement is a godsend. World Pulse’s team works in lock-step with the most active leaders of the community, the core champions, who provide regular feedback. Designers use InVision to share mockups and prototypes globally, instantly.
Then there’s the community exchange, which is a global Craigslist of sorts. “There’s so much abundance in the network, and women naturally want to share,” says Jensine.
Members offer each other new speaking engagements, educational materials, and jobs. In this way, World Pulse is quite different than your average social network. There’s an upwelling of gratitude and a desire to engage in order to give back. Community members have sponsored hundreds of organizations around the world such as that of Bharti Singh in India, who has grown her violence prevention programs to serve 8,000 women and youth and Nakinti Nofuru in Cameroon, who is providing digital education to hundreds of girls in rural areas.
“The greatest empowering moment for a woman isn’t writing her story but the interactivity and comments that follow.” -Jensine Larsen
And finally, the crowd-sourcing element has Jensine perhaps the most excited. “We regularly put out calls for stories that surface ground up solutions on topics like cyber violence, girls education, breast ironing, or core themes that many of our community are interested in. These can bubble up until they reach our advocacy partners.”
Grassroots interest on the platform has precipitated the White House to appoint a special envoy to the Congo, has prompted USAID and The World Bank to redouble their efforts on women’s digital inclusion, and has seen more than 60 of its stories published by Time Inc.
Of course, in visibility there is also danger. Women who speak up are at risk of cyber bullying and World Pulse has put in place preventative systems to reduce threats. The platform operates as a closed social network, vets applicants, provides digital safety and security training, relies on community policing, and invests heavily in language moderation and threat detection.
Yet Jensine feels strongly that while World Pulse is a safe harbor in a larger social ecosystem, it is not a world unto itself. “We need social networks both closed and open,” she explains. “It’s not as simple as a great war between evil and good. We need these safe spaces where sunlight can shine and women can build confidence and collaborate, but we also have to go out and engage each other and transform the virtual town squares.”
“We need these safe spaces where sunlight can shine and women can build confidence and collaborate.” –Jensine Larsen
Through testing, World Pulse’s design team continues to make the platform even more inclusive. They used to feature a handful of individuals who had high impact but “We got pushback from the community that they didn’t want to focus on a few but rather to lift up the many,” reflects Jensine. This has led them to design a soon-to-be-released impact dashboard. Each member will be asked to set their own impact goals, such as mentoring 5 other women or educating 100 girls. “Like Fitbit, you get nudges along the way,” explains Jensine. “Think of it as a user-friendly motivational platform.”
Jensine expects World Pulse’s model to transform international development and philanthropy because rather than funneling aid through the traditional NGO bottleneck, donors and philanthropists can reach these women directly. “As our network grows, so will the power of these voices,” says Jensine.
A new model for change
As World Pulse expands, its greatest advantage continues to be its tight-knit network of highly engaged members. “What doesn’t happen on other platforms is that you don’t facilitate direct social connection between the women” says Jensine. “Micro-loans, NGOs, governmental aid, and private philanthropy are generally handed down in silos such as ‘early education’ or ‘reproductive health’ which these multifaceted women have to fit themselves into.” Aid is well-intentioned but it doesn’t help the women support each other as a community, and women deeply desire community. World Pulse fills that void.
World Pulse is what the women put into it, and the community has chosen to put in a tremendous amount of effort. Community members commit their stories, their time, their ears, their hearts, and their minds to other women around the world to show them that they are seen. It was the community, not the team, that created World Pulse’s Android app and published their Wikipedia page.
What’s next for World Pulse? Jensine wants to see it continue to accelerate its growth and cast its light even further. It’s well on its way to launching a crowd-sourced round of funding that’ll allow the community to strengthen the leadership of 500,000 women and change-makers around the world who will go on to improve the lives of millions more and speed up the global pace of change for gender equity.
For those interested in their mission, World Pulse invites you to consider their open positions and to keep in touch by signing up for updates and following the World Pulse blog where you can read the stories of the women who have discovered their power through the platform.