Behind the Click: Evelyn Castillo-Bach, Founder of UmeNow

May 18, 2012  |  

  So here we are with another profile of Behind the Click!  This series is actually the first and largest running living interview archive on African-American females in the technology industry.  I’m happy to continue to select and spotlight my fellow colleagues in the industry so that we can continue to dispel myths and inspire action globally!  As the series continues, you will find that I am re-defining what it is to be note-worthy in the tech industry.  For too long the pool of talent has been much too limited.  Ideas and contribution take many shapes and forms so it’s about bringing a broad vision to identify powerati in all its forms – not just what the mainstream deems worthy.  Evelyn Castillo-Bach falls into such a category.  I’ve selected her because she is bringing a unique vibe to the tech game. She is an Afro-Cuban power player and just may be one of the only few women in the U.S. who is heading two digital start-ups simultaneously.  She is also a champion for digital privacy, particularly as it pertains to teenagers.  What follows is a snippet of my recent conversation with her:

Current Occupation: Founder and CEO of CollegiateNation.com and UmeNow.com

Favorite website: UmeNow.com and http://epic.org/ (Electronic Privacy Information Center)
Favorite read: Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins
Recent read: I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did by Lori Andrews
2012′s ultimate goal:Make everyday a win
Quote Governing Your Mission or a Quote that Inspires You: Pivot the Planet
Twitter handle:UmeNow_com    and    CNTicker
Moniker: Privacy Mom

LdC:   So you run the start-up called Collegiate Nation.  Tell me more about (the mission) and how you got the idea?

ECB: First, I am the founder of Collegiate Nation– also known as GoCNCN.com and UmeNow.com. I was inspired to create Collegiate Nation after seeing how my college age sons and their friends were sharing every aspect of their personal lives on Facebook without really understanding how their data was being harvested and shared with advertisers, data collectors, and thousands of other companies through apps and games.  I realized that college students are essentially in denial. They either don’t see or don’t believe that in the future everything they have shared can be used against them by graduate schools, recruiters, future employers, banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, and any corporate or government entity that wants information about them that is not normally disclosed to the general public.
After creating Collegiate Nation, university professors and others asked me to create a site for them with the same privacy protections offered within Collegiate Nation. That is how UmeNow was born and launched in July 2011. UmeNow is growing faster than Collegiate Nation. Very interesting. The mission of UmeNow is similar to that of Collegiate Nation, except that UmeNow is open to the general public.
The mission of Collegiate Nation is to provide a secure and private communication network where college students can connect and share with each other without being tracked by advertisers, data collectors and data brokers. We have banned all ads, all tracking, all data mining, and all face recognition technology because we believe it’s an unethical business practice to track students and profit from their private communication. We believe that tracking and face recognition technologies belong in the realm of law enforcement and have no place in a social network. We believe that we have an ethical responsibility to educate and inform college students about the true nature of public social networks like Facebook and Google. In our view, they are data collection companies disguised as friendly social networks.
We believe there is no demographic more powerful than college students and that this group of upcoming world contributors deserves a company exclusively focused on providing them with every service, tool, product and creative space they need to create the future they want. As a company, while remaining profitable, we have no desire to resemble the typical for-profit organization. Our commitment includes the uncompromising pledge to protect personal privacy and insure that every college student retains total control and ownership of personal data and all submissions. What’s Yours, Stays Yours.
As a company, we believe that tracking those within our society who are most vulnerable, valuable and likely to make youthful mistakes is not only unethical but cruel. We have initiated the Occupy Privacy campaign to educate college students on the pitfalls of posting on public social networks that track its users.
How do we protect our members?
Students can post anonymously, use a pseudonym and delete or edit anything they post. They can also change their name at any time or even hide their name. These features empower students by insuring that they are always in control. We have also banned all third party apps and games because they are back doors to extracting private information without consent. All communication with Collegiate Nation (and UmeNow) is encrypted. Additionally, search engines cannot enter Collegiate Nation or UmeNow to index anything posted inside the site. The only information search engines can see are blogs or Love-n-Like posts members select to share on the public page section of the site. Other features of Collegiate Nation and UmeNow include the ability to hide your friend list, form private groups, and share photos only with your friends.
Membership levels
Both Collegiate Nation and UmeNow have a 2-tier membership. Free membership has no time limit.  Premium level members who subscribe for $6.00/ month have access to all site areas. Free members enjoy the same privacy protection as subscribed members.
LdC:  Wow.  Quite thorough, thanks!  So, what were challenges like in starting this venture?
ECB: The greatest challenge in starting this venture was identifying the brightest and most ethical developers, then educating them away from the ad-based model and teaching them to create a platform where members actually control everything and not the company. The next great challenge was identifying designers who could take a platform with many features and make it intuitive and easy to use.
LdC:  Tell me how your degree from Columbia U (I attended there as well, btw 🙂  aided you in this venture?
ECB: I graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1993. At that time, I could have never foreseen that I would become an entrepreneur and founder of a two tech companies, competing against giants like Facebook and Google.  In fact, nothing in my educational background prepared me to be an entrepreneur. But what Columbia J-School did do was reinforce within me the values of ethical conduct, unrelenting thirst for knowledge, and not being afraid to speak truth to power and challenge authority.  So, when I saw how my sons and their friends were sharing on Facebook, and I realized that college students everywhere are being duped into naively assuming that their communication was in their control, my outrage turned to creating an ethical solution. Columbia J-School taught me to put integrity and ethics first — be unafraid, dare to challenge, and dare to expose.
LdC:  So,  are the projects self-backed?
ECB: Yes, this venture (and UmeNow as well) are self-backed.
LdC:  Given that, you must wear a lot of hats.  Thus, what is a typical day like for you?
ECB: A typical day begins around 5 am
—  Read about privacy issues and the latest technological developments
— Review any press releases that we plan to send out
— Respond to emails
— Meet with development team
— Test / review new features to be released in the future
— Plan for the next new online company or app
— Brain storm on guerrilla marketing strategies
— Exercise
— Write blogs related to privacy issues
— Respond to interview requests
— Enjoy a late dinner with family or friends
LdC: Do you have any tech background/expertise?
ECB: I don’t have a formal tech background or expertise, although I have certainly learned a lot from my developers and I am turning into a girl geek of sorts.  My expertise is in identifying talent, organizing that talent into a strong team, and communicating the vision.  My expertise on privacy issues has evolved as a direct consequence of developing and launching Collegiate Nation and UmeNow.
LdC : I asked that question because I didn’t think you did, which is great to see what you achieved not having that.  I think a lot of people have ideas but no expertise in tech, and are scared of taking the plunge. So what advice would you give to those readers – particularly of color –  with a similar background to yours when seeking partners/allies  to help execute their vision?
ECB: If you have vision, the technical expertise is out there to make your vision into a reality. It’s not necessary for the leader, founder or CEO to have specific technical knowledge. If your vision is clear and powerful, the technical team can create it. But you do need to have the ability to quickly learn enough about the technical range of issues so you can make the right technical decisions. My developers speak to me as technical experts. I need to understand them. But, what’s really interesting and exciting is that not being a developer has really helped them to see the world through a different lens. When I get them to see what I see, they are excited to create it. The great challenge is that technical people tend not to be visionary. As the leader, you need to provide the vision.
In the tech industry, there are too few people of color. There are even fewer women of color leading tech companies. The industry seems to favor white males barely out of college. The guy in a hoodie and a t-shirt about to become the next Zuckerberg is the image you mostly see portrayed.  Media coverage gravitates to them or to those who are backed by well-known investors and venture capitalists.
My allies have supported me because they believe in the vision that I see for the future. And they are not deterred by the fact that I am old enough to be the mother of most founders of tech startups. In fact, my supporters are encouraged to see an experienced adult leading Collegiate Nation and UmeNow.
LdC:  So, I know privacy is a big issue for you, as well as many others.  Explain to me why privacy is such a hot topic for you right now/why you see it being an important element of today’s world/what should consumers be on guard about regarding privacy?
ECB: This is a big question and I have been recently interviewed on this subject and have press releases and blogs that address this issue.
Here is a short synopsis. We are witnessing the largest data grab in human history. Companies are rushing to collect and store forever every piece of information about us. While we are happily entertained with the latest games and apps, data collection companies posing as social networks are harvesting everything there is to know about us and making billions by selling that information to other companies, governments, and who knows who.
People forget that information is power, and information can and will be used against you. In my opinion, there is a tsunami coming, a tsunami led by companies who control everything there is to know about us. People will be denied credit, mortgages, loans, medical insurance, life insurance, and jobs because of shadow profiles about them that they know nothing about. These shadow profiles already exist. Data brokers buy and sell our data like gold and any other commodity. People naively think that they are protected because their information is buried among 1 in 800 million. They could not be more wrong. With the technology we have today, we can process billions of pieces of data every 24 hours and match it to you in minutes.
Additionally, we see in media reports that increasingly companies, schools, and law enforcement are using information posted on social media.
LdC:  Well put! Evelyn, what is your greatest hope for your site for 2012?
ECB: In 2012, our goal is to grow awareness of our two brands, Collegiate Nation and UmeNow. We would love to attract a tech philanthropist to help us reach the next level.
LdC: And what is your greatest hope for the tech industry this year?
ECB: Privacy experts, ethical entrepreneurs and developers have a responsibility to expose the unethical business practices of tracking and data mining. Many do this already. Thanks to them privacy abuses by big data companies like Facebook and Google are exposed. Mostly, however, the tech industry is only giving lip service to privacy issues. We need tech philanthropists to jump in and support ethical ventures like CollegiateNation.com and UmeNow.com
So that concludes another installment.  Hope that you Evelyn’s journey will inspire you in your own.  Don’t forget you can keep up with technology from a socio-economic point of view via my site http://www.ldcoleman.com as well as via my Twitter feed @mediaempress until the next profile!

 

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