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ASU partners in one of 1st housing complexes in US for survivors of sex trafficking

November 4, 2017

Arizona State University is a partner in one of the first facilities in the United States to offer long-term housing to victims of sex trafficking and their children. Called “Starfish Place,” the 15-unit apartment complex is in north Phoenix and offers furnished two- and three-bedroom units. Families could begin moving into the facility the second week of November.

On Nov. 3, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton welcomed about 100 people to the grand opening of the complex that was originally built in 2013 and refurbished by the city. Councilmembers Jim Waring and Debra Stark spoke at the event as did Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. An actress involved in stopping sex abuse and a survivor of sex trafficking also talked at the grand opening.

“In Phoenix, we are sending a message that we will not tolerate an inherently harmful industry that deprives people in our own backyards of their basic human rights,” Stanton said. “And as a community we will embrace and help our most vulnerable.”

The apartment complex has a large grass area and features a community center with a full kitchen, offices and a learning area for kids.

Interns from the ASU School of Social Work will help staff the facility and work with tenants and their children. A $50,000 grant from the ASU President’s Office and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions will pay for the internships, therapeutic opportunities such as yoga and cooking classes and cover the costs of a program evaluation.

“We have people who are going to come in and teach children all the things they need to know to prevent them from being trafficked themselves,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor of social work and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. “The funding will also pay for an evaluation to make sure that if we want to replicate this somewhere else, we can hand this to the city of Seattle, the city of Chicago and say ‘this is how we did it.’”


Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, announced that ASU will offer scholarships to human trafficking survivors. The university will make available five slots in the ASU Public Service Academy, a civilian leadership program modeled after the military Reserve Officer Training Corps. Koppell says the scholarships reflect ASU’s commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness.

“This is a spectacular place and it's entirely appropriate because what this project, to me, is about is human potential,” Koppell said. “The individuals who will be living here are not merely trafficking survivors. They're individuals with tremendous potential.”

During the grand opening ceremony, Stanton thanked the many city of Phoenix agencies, local nonprofits and donors that helped make Starfish Place a reality. He also thanked a city of Phoenix human trafficking task force led by Waring and Cindy McCain.

“Without her efforts this wouldn't be possible,” said Waring, who represents northeast Phoenix. “But, it's not just here in Arizona where she (Cindy McCain) has made an impact, it’s international. And she deserves every round of applause she gets and every award she receives for her work on this issue.”

McCain and the McCain Institute worked with the ASU Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research on several studies that measured sex trafficking in Arizona and developed evidence-based training for law enforcement and professionals who work in child welfare, health care and education. Their findings helped guide new policies adopted by the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona and informed a U.S. Senate subcommittee examining nationwide solutions to sex trafficking.

“We are all here because we understand that everyone has a responsibility to fight human trafficking,” Stanton said. “Not just law enforcement — although law enforcement is critically important. Not just city officials or government. Everyone in our community has to be part of the solution.”

Actress AnnaLynne McCord, who starred in the reboot of the TV show 90210, spoke at the grand opening. McCord is an ambassador for the No More anti-sexual assault campaign.

“I had my first experience with how amazing Phoenix as a city is in fighting human trafficking a couple of years ago when the Super Bowl was here and I am just completely blown away by the continued efforts,” McCord said. “I hope that our country listens and uses this trend in other cities.”

Sex-trafficking survivor Lois Lucas told the grand opening audience that had such a facility existed when she needed help, her story might be different. Her son was taken from her and put up for adoption because she couldn’t escape prostitution. She finally got the help she needed and now helps other women recover from their trauma and abuse.

“There are a lot of survivors with children ready to get here to get the help they need to change their lives,” Lucas said. “There's just no place to go before today.

“So thank you city Phoenix and everyone involved for creating this special place for sex-trafficking survivors who don't get to just survive. They get to thrive!”


Top photo: Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor of social work and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, talks to ASU students who work on human trafficking issues.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Starfish Place is the nation's first facility to offer long-term housing to victims of sex trafficking. A nonprofit in Minneapolis, Breaking Free, established the nation’s first permanent housing program for victims of prostitution and sex trafficking in 2002.

Paul Atkinson

assistant director , College of Public Service and Community Solutions


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ASU-based entrepreneurs take a trip to the 'Shark Tank'

ASU-based entrepreneurs take a trip to the 'Shark Tank' competition.
November 5, 2017

Creators of the Bravo app, in the Venture Devils program, score $150,000 investment

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

A Phoenix couple whose business is based at Arizona State University scored a $150,000 investment from two judges on the TV show “Shark Tank” that aired Sunday night.

Maria Luna and Hector Rodriguez invented a payment and tipping app called Bravo and pitched it on the televised entrepreneurship competition, which is judged by a team of successful businesspeople.

Luna and Rodriguez, wearing black T-shirts with the Bravo logo, told the judges that the app, launched in 2015, is already processing more than a million dollars a month in transactions.

“Bravo is a seamless payment solution that allows you to find and pay anyone,” said Luna, the co-founder and CEO.

They were seeking a $150,000 investment in exchange for a 5 percent stake in their business. Three of the judges passed, but businessman Mark Cuban and inventor Lori Greiner agreed to invest if Luna and Rodriguez would increase the equity to 14 percent, which they did.

After the deal, Luna said the opportunity is “a dream come true.”

Luna told ASU Now after the show aired that the experience was fun and that what’s shown on the show is much shorter than what actually happens. The negotiation, for example, went on longer.

“It’s their job, they’re sharks, and it’s their right to negotiate,” she said.

“It was a very positive experience and will give us access to resources we didn’t have before.”

Even though their appearance on the popular TV show makes it seem like they’re an overnight success, Luna said it has taken years of hard work.

“It’s a lot of hours and a lot of ups and downs and having the capacity to adapt to that,” Luna said. “You have to be your own cheerleader.”

Rodriguez, who is a physician in addition to being the co-founder and COO of Bravo, said, “You need the ability to pick yourself up and reinvent yourself and move forward.”

Luna and Rodriguez, who are married, created an app called Bravo and are part of ASU’s Venture Devils program, which is in the office of Entrepreneurship + Innovation housed at SkySong in Scottsdale. Venture Devils provides space, mentorship and access to funding opportunities to entrepreneurs who are ASU students, faculty, staff or, like Bravo, community members.

“We have the shared space where we can have team meetings, and just being around other companies that are in our same stage as us is so inspiring,” Luna said. “You learn a lot from other companies that are going through the same pains. Just that environment alone is super helpful.

“ASU has one of the best accelerator community programs in the world, and for that we’re forever thankful.”

Bravo, which is GPS-based, works without exchanging personal information such as e-mail addresses or phone numbers. The app is designed to tip or pay artists, musicians, servers, valets, hairdressers or any small merchant. Users and business owners don’t need to be “friends,” and the app accepts 130 currencies. Bravo makes money by charging a 2 percent service fee to the payers, so someone who wants to give a tip of $10 actually pays $10.20.

Luna and Rodriguez got the idea for Bravo in 2014 when they were on a hiking trip in Utah and realized they didn’t have any cash to tip the guide. That made them realize that there was a niche in the market for workers in the service industry and small businesses who miss out on tips or payments because people no longer carry cash and don’t want to pay ATM fees.

Bravo won the “Wild Card” award at the TechCrunch San Francisco 2015 event and that prompted a producer from "Shark Tank" to invite the couple on the show.

On “Shark Tank,” Luna described how she grew up poor with a mother who worked in the service industry.

“My mother used to depend on those tips, and I know how much it hurts at home when there’s a week of poor tipping,” she told the judges.

Top photo: Hector Rodriguez and Maria Luna, whose business Bravo is part of Arizona State University's Venture Devils program, appeared on the "Shark Tank" entrepreneurship competition TV show on Sunday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now