Austin native provides hope for Indian women

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kuros!

Approximately a year after starting his organization, the Kuros! founder reflects on his journey that motivated him to start a company that gives Indian women a fighting chance against sexual assault.

At 21 years old, Tawil completed his undergraduate degree at Texas State University and felt lost about his next challenge. “I know it’s cliché, but I was confused about life and wanted to find myself,” Tawil said. The former communication studies major said he needed complete isolation from everything and everyone and decided to backpack across Pakistan.

“I bought a one-way ticket and had no intention of coming back for a while,” said Tawil. In January of 2013, the recent graduate set off and found more than he bargained for. “I had to go somewhere where I didn’t know anything. They say you have to lose yourself to find yourself, and I needed to be so far out of my comfort zone,” said Tawil.

After leaving Pakistan on foot, missing buses and traveling on a train for 30 hours, Tawil found himself and discovered his purpose. Approximately a month and a half into his trip, he was on a bus with migrant workers headed to Nepal, where he heard a striking story about a particular rape victim.

“There was a culmination of events that led to my decision to start Kuros!, but this was the turning point. People always say something will just hit you, and I never believed in that, but when you go out of your normal routine, it hits you,” said Tawil. “It’s an indescribable feeling, but you know without a doubt what you need to do.”

Tawil admitted he was aware of the sexual assault stories and statistics in these countries, but witnessing the regularity of these instances was unsettling. “The justice system in these countries is ineffective. These women cannot count on the police, their families disown them or their rapists kill them,” said Tawil. “At that point, you might as well fight back and defend yourself.”

Tawil felt these women needed a physical weapon to protect themselves and thought of arming them with pepper spray. Less than two weeks later, Tawil was on a plane back to Austin to start Kuros!. He educated himself on the business aspects of starting a company, contacted a small, Indian non-governmental organization (NGO) for women’s rights, formed a relationship with a manufacturer in Nepal and set his company in motion.

Tawil came across handmade wallets while in Nepal, which sparked a marketing concept for his company. “I don’t know much about fashion, but I saw these purses and thought if I put a better zipper on them, put a tag and made them a little nicer, I could sell these,” said Tawil.

He decided for each purse sold, he would match its purchase by providing a can of pepper spray to one woman in India. Tawil had a startup budget of $5,000 and further developed partnerships with a Nepal manufacturer and Indian NGOs, who assured him his vision would work.

“I knew I didn’t want to start a nonprofit. I wanted a sustainable company without the limitation of donations,” Tawil said. He also didn’t want a specific product to define his company either. “When people think of Kuros!, I want them to think of the cause not the product.”

“Every product sold represents one woman. You can physically hold this and know there is a woman out there who can protect herself because of you,” said Tawil.

Kuros!’s product process also travels full circle. Men in Nepal hand make each purse Kuros! sells. Tawil explained that this decision was a way to decrease their opportunity to attack women. “The solution to the problem overall is education, but we want to arm women and keep attackers off the street” said Tawil.

Tawil dropped his first shipment of pepper spray cans eight months and ten flights after his return to Austin. “There were a lot of obstacles. We have to keep the drops small, train women how to use it, people want to levy taxes on the shipments and manufacturing deals fall through,” said Tawil. However, he never felt this venture was too overwhelming; he was on a mission.

“After my trip, I have no doubt that I can do anything. This is going to work. And it has,” said Tawil. It has been nearly a year since the initial shipment to India and the company has seen marked improvements in the villages that have received pepper spray. “Women are a lot more confident. We’re giving them hope and allowing them to rely on themselves.”

The most significant results Kuros! has seen include accounts where girls’ families allowed them to return to school because they can defend themselves. At least one woman has used the pepper spray to escape an attacker. Furthermore, many think the men in these villages are more hesitant to attack because they’re aware of the possibility that a woman might be armed.

The young entrepreneur has plans to vastly expand Kuros! even further. He decided to return to school and audit Gautami Shah’s Hindi class here at The University of Texas at Austin. “I wanted to learn the language and knew public universities allow you to audit classes and the experience has been so positive,” said Tawil. “It is very rare to have a professor be so involved with the concept of learning. There are only two other professors I had in college that sit on that level.” In addition, Tawil recently finalized distribution channels in two other continents and is in the process of partnering with one of the world’s largest manufacturing pepper spray companies to create a specialized Kuros! line. Tawil is also in the works of selling Kuros! purses in Austin boutiques.

Despite his admirable accomplishments, Tawil credits his parents for his successes as he looks toward the future. “Some people say, ‘It’s such a huge accomplishment – what you’ve done,’ but I think people reflect too much on what they’ve done,” said Tawil. “Don’t ever dwell on your accomplishments, make more.”

When asked who “Kuro Tawil” is now, Tawil still can’t explain it. “I know what makes me happy and I know what I need to do,” said Tawil.

“People are always looking for happiness in everything but rarely look into themselves. I didn’t have to go around the world to sleep on a riverbank to find myself; it’s internal, it was always inside myself.”

“I cannot express the feeling, but everything inside you knows what you need to do. We always say we want to do something but rarely go through with it,” said Tawil. “Hunter S. Thomas said it best, ‘Buy the ticket, take the ride.’”

To support Kuros!, visit kuros.org, like them on Facebook.com/kurosprojects and follow @kurosproject on Instagram.