Scott Berkowitz is Founder and President of RAINN. Through his organization, Berkowitz has worked to eliminate sexual violence and helped provide support for survivors since the organization’s founding in 1994. As the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN has helped over 4 million people since its inception. Victims and their loved ones can receive support through the RAINN-operated National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800.656.HOPE. Individuals can also access assistance through online chat (online.rainn.org), an online hotline that became the web’s first secure, anonymous hotline service.
Overseeing RAINN over the decades, Berkowitz has led the national effort to pass new laws to fight crime, help survivors, and improve the criminal justice response to rape. He has helped pass dozens of laws to help prevent rape and ensure justice for victims. Under his guidance, the organization has also grown to operate 40 hotlines that serve sexual assault survivors around the world. Additional programming brings sexual violence education, awareness, training, and consulting services to corporate America, including brands such as McDonald’s, Royal Caribbean, and Uber.
Where did the idea for RAINN come from?
Back in 1994, I had a friend who worked for a local service provider, and she was always talking about this big service gap that existed and the need and the need for a national hotline. So we were out to dinner one night and she kept coming back to that topic. Initially, I knew next to nothing about the issue. I was young and inexperienced and it seemed like a good idea and it seemed like a business challenge of getting an organization going. I figured I’d sit on the board for a year and that would be it. It wasn’t until I got really immersed in it that I learned about the issue and met lots of survivors — and my ambition and goals for what this could be and what it could do for people grew substantially from there.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
These days, it’s pretty much Zoom from sunup to sundown, and then some. We’re still all remote and have been since the beginning of covid. Every day is different, but it tends to be split up across our four mission areas. Some of it is doing media interviews; some of it is working with donors or potential donors; some focused on legislation and lobbying; some helping companies proactively prevent and better respond to sexual misconduct; and then all the administrative parts of running a large organization — finance, HR, etc.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Public education is central to our work. The outreach we were doing about the hotline five years ago, teenagers today didn’t see that. The demographics of this crime are very young. About 80% of victims are under 30 and nearly half are under 18. So you’ve got to constantly adapt what you’re doing to the needs of the audience, the needs of those who are being harmed today.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I think that there’s a much greater willingness with those who are currently in high school, college age, just such a greater comfort level with sharing things. I think that there’s less shame there, less self blame. Social media has allowed folks to share their story on their terms with only the details they want and the audience that they choose. So I think that that’s encouraging. I’m hopeful that over time, that will also lead to a greater reporting rate. One of the challenges the country faces is that the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported. Even worse, those that are reported often don’t lead to an arrest and conviction because of problems throughout the system. That means a whole lot of serial rapists remain free to find more victims.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Even after 28 years, we try to keep the mentality of a startup. We always want to be improving and reinventing what we’re doing.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There’s a disadvantage of not knowing very much, but there’s an advantage of not knowing very much. When you’re young and haven’t done something before, you just dive in and figure it out as you go. I think if I had thought about starting something like this when I was 40, I probably would’ve been daunted by all the work that it would require and all the challenges that I knew I would face. Not having a real good sense of that made it easier to dive in at the beginning and just learn as we go.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Well, within the field, I would say that our approach to talking about the issue is different than most other organizations. We’ve always talked about it as a crime issue because I think that that’s what the public understands it as, and that’s their context for understanding the problem and understanding potential solutions.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
There’ve been a couple of inflection points. So initially when I started RAINN, the mission was very narrow. It was just to run the telephone hotline. Our role was really connecting service providers across the country, which is why “network” is part of our name. Over time, in the process of promoting the hotline, we developed a lot of relationships with TV networks and media and entertainment. It was always with the goal of getting the hotline number out there, getting PSA time, getting the phone number printed at the end of stories that are on the topic.
After a couple years, it really became clear that there was a whole lot more that needed to be done on this issue, that we were the ones best positioned to do it, and that we were not taking full advantage of all these relationships because our goal of hotline promotion was so narrow. We could really be doing so much more to educate the public and change attitudes. So that’s when we expanded our mission significantly, made public policy and public education part of it. Later we leaned into technology development, to create better services for survivors. And most recently, we expanded our mission to directly help companies and organizations that want to do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual misconduct.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
We faced a lot of opposition from the field in the beginning. But that actually helped us figure out that the folks who are already working against rape are not our audience. Our audience is the general public. So we’ve learned to talk about the issue in ways that are going to resonate with the public and did a lot of research to understand what they knew and what their attitudes were and what their misconceptions were, and try to integrate that through all of our communications. I think another thing that’s been really successful for us and had a big impact is we started working very directly with the entertainment industry, with writers and producers, where we actually review scripts before they’re filmed and we provide training for the actors who are playing a survivor.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
RAINN’s original mission was connecting service providers across the country. There are many opportunities in other industries where developing an avenue to connect service providers would be beneficial.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A gift card for my niece.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
We developed an online hotline, which was the first secure confidential service on the web. Then we decided that there’s more we could do by working directly with organizations and companies in helping them improve their approach to preventing and responding to sexual violence or sexual misconduct. So we work with a lot of schools, with companies like Uber and McDonald’s, a lot with federal agencies, training them, evaluating their programs, giving them concrete recommendations on how they can do better.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Anything by Coleson Whitehead or Ian McEwan. I stick to fiction — it’s a nice diversion from the awful stuff I deal with at work.
Keep the startup mentality to remain motivated
Know what your target audience is and focus on serving them
Adapt to the changing needs of your audience
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.