These UMBC students started a software company to combat online harassment

With recent recognition from Minority Innovation Weekend’s pitch competition and Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, the cofounding trio is using AI improve digital communities.

MindStand Technologies cofounders (L to R) Nikita Wootten, Michael Ogunsanya and Eric Solender.

(Courtesy photo)

This story's headline has been updated. (11/11/2019, 4:38 p.m.)
MindStand Technologies cofounder and CEO Michael Ogunsanya didn’t plan on tackling the issue of harassment until it happened to him firsthand.

His company serves to improve online communities with its artificial intelligence-driven software that detects online harassment, hate speech and other troubling interactions.

Ogunsanya was inspired to create MindStand after experiencing harassment while interning at a white-collar corporation in 2017. Interns there generally sported button-up shirts and slacks. But one day, Ogunsanya wore a polo shirt and didn’t wear his glasses, much to the dismay of one of his superiors.

“Our supervisor came up to me, put his arm around me and said, ‘I would’ve thought you were a thug the way you’re dressed,’” Ogunsanya said. “That firsthand experience of what it’s like to be isolated in the workplace — I understood what that meant.”

Ogunsanya has since made it his mission to make sure others didn’t experience what he went through.

The Baltimore-based business was founded in May 2018 and aims to partner with various organizations, from small businesses and enterprises to universities and government institutions. The startup has raised $25,000 of a pre-seed round and picked up a recent win at Minority Innovation Weekend’s 2019 pitch competition, as well as joined Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab’s latest cohort.

Cofounders Eric Solender and Nikita Wootten created the AI engine for the business, while Ogunsanya joined to handle stakeholder interest and business strategies.

The cofounders agreed that the toughest part of starting the business was getting off the ground while balancing time for classwork, as they are all students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Each cofounder had relevant background experience to ease the transition, though.

Solender and Wootten had previous coding experience. Solender built a program that could identify concussions with a Microsoft Kinect when he was in high school, and during his early stages of college, he worked full-time as a software engineer. Wootten partnered with Solender to participate in several hackathons.

The concept of MindStand originally came to fruition at one of those weekend-long collaborative computer programming events: The two created a hate speech identifier for the University of Maryland’s Bitcamp 2018 hackathon. Though they came in second place, it was clear that they had something special on their hands. 

“We were told we’d be insane not to pursue the idea,” Solender said. “At the time I was taking an entrepreneurship class with Michael, and I could tell he knew what he was doing, so I asked him to come on as the CEO.”

In the early stages of the company’s existence, it has provided software for a few pilot customers. MindStand executes training camps with each new partner, providing several examples of potential interactions to determine how organizations deem behavior as harassment.

There are exceptions, though. Some institutions may have policies already in place to define harassment, such as Title IX for universities or certain companies having specific codes of conduct. Wootten said MindStand works with each partnering organization to learn exactly what they view as troubling behavior and adjust the software to fit that view.

“It can really come down to the organization’s culture,” Wootten said. “What is deemed acceptable in one scenario may not be acceptable in another. There’s definitely certain aggressions that shouldn’t take place anywhere, but we have to be able to tune sensitivity to the organization.”

Ogunsanya said he is looking to analyze feedback from the company’s pilot customers over the next few months to determine how to improve the software.

In the long term, he hopes to conduct case studies and academic studies in order to support research from clinical psychologists and influence activists.

“If we can use [case studies] and the funding that we’ve been able to get to have resources to continue creating social technology, then we’ve achieved our life goal at an early stage,” Ogunsanya said.

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