In 2014, not long after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Mbye Njie decided he’d had enough. He’d just been pulled over by a police officer for the third time in one month and mistakenly informed there was a warrant out for his arrest.
The experience convinced him to build an app that could help people in emergency situations, such as encounters with law enforcement or immigration authorities, providing a way to contact loved ones, record what was happening and more. Called Legal Equalizer, he formed a company with the same name the next year to sell it.
Njie also is part of the new, three-month Cox Enterprises Social Impact Accelerator powered by Techstars class. Last summer, after protests over the killing of George Floyd and the systemic racism it highlighted, the Atlanta-based program, which is virtual, shifted its focus to startups addressing social justice and systemic racism issues.
Njie came up with the germ of the idea after seeing the drastically divergent reactions among various groups of friends to the Brown killing. In 2004, he’d graduated from Davidson College, a largely white liberal arts institution, after attending an inner city high school in Macon, Ga. And he was gob smacked by the responses from his college and high school classmates. The Davidson friends wondered what Brown had done wrong to get himself killed, while high school pals assumed the police officer was at fault.
Three months later, in Dekalb County, Ga, Njie found himself getting pulled over three times by law enforcement in a span of two weeks. The last one, the officer revealed he had a warrant for Njie’s arrest. After about 20 minutes, during which Njie had to sit in the back of the police car, he learned that the arrest record was invalid and he was free to go.MORE FOR YOUThe Last Mile: Teaching Incarcerated Individuals How To Code—And Preventing Their Return To PrisonTechstars-Cox Social Impact Accelerator Adjusts Its Focus To Racial And Social Justice StartupsSustainable Seafood Wholesaler Seizes The Moment To Embrace Direct-To-Consumer Sales
It was by far not the only time Njie had been pulled over by a police officer—he estimates that has happened more than 100 times in his life—but this experience was the last straw. He and his mother visited the police station the next day to file a complaint. There, someone suggested they find a way to do something about these situations.
That got Njie to thinking about developing an app to help people in such encounters. He knew, at a minimum, he and others like him needed a way to let loved ones know they’d been stopped and where, plus a recording in case the situation escalated. By 2015, using all his savings, he hired a friend of a former colleague to create a version capable of sending text messages and recording what happened. Then through a Davidson classmate and a family member, he raised $25,000 to build out a more robust app. In the fall of that year, he quit his sales job to run the company full-time.
But, Njie realized that, in order to improve the app he had to attract more investment and the way to do that was to find a way to make it commercially viable. “Initially, this was a way to save lives,” he says. “But to keep building it out, we had to figure out how to monetize it.” That’s when, after interviewing immigrants, he got the idea of adding criminal and immigration lawyers with an app allowing users to contact attorneys in real-time.
Now, Njie is adding the ability to contact a lawyer, who can also watch and record, while providing advice and receiving payment in the moment. For attorneys, he says, “It gives them access to clients they couldn’t have had before.” The app also includes the Bill of Rights, pertinent laws in all 50 states and what to say and do when pulled over by a police or immigration officer.
Also, it can send an automatic live Zoom link to up to five people, so they can see what’s really happening and the incident can be recorded. He’s thinking of developing bumper stickers letting police officers know that the driver uses the app.