Neha Husein ’19, the student innovator behind Just Drive, a mobile app that rewards users who lock their phones while driving, has been invited to talk about her app at a Texas Department of Transportation event on November 8. Husein’s app helps Texans abide by state law, which prohibits writing, reading and sending electronic messages while driving.
By Nancy Lowell George ’79
Neha Husein ’19 gripped the steering wheel as her car jolted forward, hit from behind on one of Dallas’ busiest and most dangerous freeways. Shaken, but not injured, the high school senior surveyed the significant damage to her car. The cause of the crash? The driver behind her was texting while driving.
The SMU senior admits to being “a little paranoid” on the road since that 2014 collision. That unease eventually inspired her to develop Just Drive, a mobile app that awards points to drivers who lock their phones while driving. Users redeem points for coupons and gift cards for food, drinks and merchandise.
In less than a year, Husein piloted Just Drive from a class assignment into a viable startup. Along the way, SMU’s innovation ecosystem put her on track for success. Her venture won financial awards from SMU, and faculty mentors helped steer her in the right direction. She even tapped into the Mustang alumni network to bring her idea to life.
Her enterprising spirit also shines through in her academic passions. She’s a double major in marketing in the Cox School of Business and human rights in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “People sometimes question my combination of majors,” Husein says. “When they do, I point out that so much of my campus involvement – everything from planning and organizing cultural awareness events to serving as the social media and marketing coordinator for the Embrey Human Rights Program – demonstrates how beautifully they mesh together.”
In fact, her mobile app started out as a paper for her “Ethics and Human Rights” class, taught by Brad Klein, associate director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights program. A requirement for human rights majors, the course examines ethics as part of everyday life, work and relationships. The final project challenges students to develop something that will benefit society and create a proposal for implementation.
“Neha came to class with an embryo of an idea based on an experience that touched her deeply,” Klein says. “I encourage students to develop projects that match their skills. As a marketing major, she brought the skills to develop and market an app. By the end of the class she had everything in place – goals, timeline, funding, partnerships.”
She also had a new identity as a social entrepreneur.
Husein aims to change drivers’ behavior through positive reinforcement. Just Drive users collect points that can be redeemed for products and services, so they are rewarding themselves for resisting the temptation to use their phones.
According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT), one in five car crashes in 2017 was attributable to people behind the wheel not paying attention while they were driving, and cellphone use was a top reason. Distracted driving resulted in 100,687 accidents, 444 deaths and 2,889 serious injuries.
It is now illegal for drivers to read, write or send a text and drive in Texas, but many can’t seem to break their bad habits. The state has issued hundreds of citations and thousands of warnings since the law went into effect last fall.
TXDoT statistics show that drivers ages 16 to 34 are most likely to text while driving, but Husein is betting the app will appeal to all ages. “Expecting incentives is a generational thing, but it’s a human thing, too,” she says. “People enjoy rewards.”
Her incentive-based approach struck a chord with judges at SMU’s Big Ideas pitch contest, where she won $1,000 for her 90-second elevator speech about her app. The multi-stage competition is part of SMU’s Engaged Learning program, a campus-wide experiential learning initiative that encourages students to turn their passions into signature projects.
Her project mentor, SMU law professor Keith Robinson, a specialist in patent, intellectual property (IP) and technology law, co-directs the Tsai Center for Law, Science and Innovation in SMU’s Dedman School of Law. He also teaches a class for law students on designing legal apps.
“I like people who show initiative and are willing to bet on themselves,” says Robinson, who met weekly with Husein to discuss IP issues and trademark application. “Neha has developed an app for a relatable problem, one that can save lives.”
Husein grew up with an entrepreneurial mindset. As a child, the Carrollton, Texas, native manned a toy cash register alongside her father at his convenience store. He was on hand to see his daughter present her business plan during the second stage of the Big iDdeas competition – and win $5,000 in seed funding.
“I had the biggest smile in the room,” says her father, Malik Husein. “I am so proud of her.”
Memories of her father pulling over to offer assistance whenever he saw someone on the roadside with car trouble influenced her desire to help others, she says. Husein counts herself fortunate to have grown up in a multigenerational household, with the support and guidance of her parents and two sets of grandparents.
Her SMU activities reflect her caring spirit and the examples of community engagement she grew up with. Husein begins her third year as a resident adviser at Kathy Crow Commons this fall. She was the president of Circle K International service organization and has performed community service as a Caswell Leadership Fellow and Human Rights Community Outreach Fellow. She is also a Hilltop Scholar, which recognizes academic achievement and commitment to service, and a McNair Scholar, a University undergraduate research program.
“People sometimes question my combination of majors. When they do, I point out that so much of
my campus involvement – everything from planning and organizing cultural awareness events to serving
as the social media and marketing coordinator for the Embrey Human Rights Program – demonstrates
how beautifully they mesh together.”
In March, Husein was invited to share Just Drive on one of the world’s biggest stages for entrepreneurs, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin. Red Bull selected Husein and seven other Texas college students to participate in its SXSW Launch Institute, a three-day workshop filled with one-on-one mentoring, idea pitching and media training.
“I was able to refine my pitch and iron out some of the details about Just Drive that I hadn’t even thought about,” she says.
She also experienced a game-changing transformation.
“My mindset shifted from student to entrepreneur,” she says. “Instead of introducing myself as a college student and handing out my résumé, I began handing out my business card.”
In the spring, she focused on moving her concept into development. A mutual friend introduced her to Jayce Miller ’16, ’18, a software engineer at Toyota Connected by day and an app wizard by night. Miller, who earned undergraduate degrees in accounting and math as well as a master’s degree in computer science from SMU, has enjoyed the creative challenge.
“We’ve had to find the right balance between ease of use and control,” he explains. “Some similar apps go to the extreme, making it almost impossible to use your phone at all. Others basically give you points regardless, so that defeats the purpose. Our goal is to make something that people will use again and again, which also encourages the safe driving goal.”
He applauds Husein for laying the groundwork for a strong launch. “It could be the best piece of technology in the world, but it only matters if people know about it, and Neha has done a fine job of getting people interested.”
She credits her Cox affiliation with helping her stand out at networking events. “It’s so easy to connect with someone who has taken the same managerial accounting course, from the same professor, as you,” she says.
Over the summer, she pitched prospective restaurant and retail partners when she wasn’t working as a business systems analyst intern for global marketing giant Epsilon in Irving, Texas.
Her goal is to have a consumer-ready app before the end of the year and expand it beyond the Dallas area.
“After graduation, I hope to create an ambassadorship program at local high schools, colleges and driving schools to emphasize the importance of undistracted driving,” she says. “I also hope to continue to upgrade and promote Just Drive until distracted driving becomes a thing of the past.”