Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sarah Gardner of Heat Initiative Is Helping To Change Our World

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People with lived experience, or survivors, will be your support system. I have the privilege of working alongside a number of people with lived experience, or who are survivors of child sexual abuse. The support and love I feel from some of these individuals is overwhelming in the best way. It’s honestly been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Gardner.

Sarah Gardner is the Founder and CEO of the Heat Initiative, a collective effort of concerned child safety experts and advocates encouraging leading technology companies to detect and eradicate child sexual abuse images and videos on their platforms. She previously served as Vice President of External Affairs at Thorn. During her 10-year tenure at Thorn, Sarah was integral to the organization’s growth from a small, scrappy tech start-up to a multi-million dollar nonprofit. She helped develop Thorn’s plan to eliminate child sexual abuse material from the internet and led efforts to win the TED Audacious Prize, which spurred a $63M investment in the organization’s mission 2019.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was at a conference overseas with a mix of tech people, NGOs, and government officials when I ran into someone who worked for Apple. At the time, Apple had recently announced that they would detect child sexual abuse images (something they had not done to date) and then changed their mind, quietly killing their plan. As someone who has worked in the online child safety space for over ten years, I said to this Apple employee, “You know people are going to come back and demand Apple follow through on their commitment to detect child sexual abuse and you just changed your minds and decided it was unimportant, right?” This person looked at me and said, “No they are not. No one is following up, no one is giving us a hard time.” It was at that moment I knew it had to be me. She was right — no one was going to demand it because so few people even know about it, which is the frustrating part. So that needed to change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but writing a private email to Tim Cook and then having that leaked publicly was definitely one of the more interesting moments where we had to move fast. We didn’t expect this right out of the gate, but this paired with our launch, taught us a lot about where to focus our efforts for phase two of the Apple campaign.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we were getting started, we didn’t prioritize the actual naming of our organization. My colleague and cofounder, Lily Rhodes, and I were too excited about getting started on all of the other things. Because of this, our working title, “Heat Initiative,” became the “accidental” name of our organization. We now often get asked if we are in the climate space or related to the Miami Heat in any way, and the answer is no. The truth behind it is that we want to bring the heat to these corporations who are not doing their part in creating safe spaces for children online. The name stuck and we decided to roll with it. It is hard to imagine us named anything else.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Some choices will not be fully intentional but that is OK. You can’t control everything at the beginning, so focusing on what’s most important and letting some things just unfold naturally is a good balance.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

In all honesty, we are right at the beginning of having an impact, and to date, I think it has been to show that we are unafraid of calling out the most valuable company in the world on something they are not doing right. Just because a company is powerful and well liked doesn’t mean we should ignore where they are negligent. I think we are giving voice to something many who work on this issue have felt for a long time: No company gets to ignore the prevalence of the sexual abuse of children on their platform. It is often true that survivors of child sexual abuse images and videos necessitate that they are not public with their stories, which means it’s all the more important that others step up and join the fight on their behalf.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

To play devil’s advocate here, I can’t tell you about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by our cause out of respect for anonymity and survivor safety, but I can promise you there are certainly victims of this abuse who have shared that our work is providing an element of hope. To push this even further, when we are successful with our campaign, I am confident that the day Apple starts detecting child sexual abuse at any real scale, a child will be removed for an unsafe situation, and it will likely be more than one child. And that number will go up over time. The child safety field continues to be a beacon for these survivors, even without knowing their identities, and for that I am grateful.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There is always something people can be doing to get at the root of this issue. Like so many other corporate greed and negligence campaigns and initiatives, there is always a role for people to play.

We ask that our community continue to stay informed. For the Apple campaign specifically, that can mean following us on social media and email Apple leadership using the tool on our website. Signal you want this change too.

We ask society to continue holding corporations accountable for the role they play in all of our futures.

Lastly, politicians must continue to legislate around the continuously growing online space and prioritize children when thinking about the laws that coincide with this innovation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I am a communal leader. To me great leadership is creating an environment where people want to do their best and feel inspired to push themselves to grow — rather than demanding it. I achieve this by constantly gathering the team throughout the day, even if it’s just informally for a few minutes, to keep everyone feeling a part of that day’s energy. A lot of people would say that this can be “inefficient” and sometimes it is, but I think it makes people feel a part of something in real time.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Trust the process. Some things are going to work beautifully and others will completely fall apart. We weren’t able to secure a lot of billboards, but then we used these LED trucks and they ended up being awesome! And so much cheaper. We wouldn’t have been pushed to that point without an initial roadblock.

2. Creative can get done as a group. We’ve been looking at and evaluating a lot of different creative ideas for our campaigns and with a big extended team, some may say “too many cooks in the kitchen” etc. But because everyone has really clear roles, we’re actually able to extract the absolute best out of our creative teams and build off each others’ ideas. It’s been amazing to watch.

3 . Do not underestimate the power of money: Obviously I knew taking on Apple would be challenging. They are the most valued company in the world and one of the biggest out of home ad buyers. When we started shopping around for billboards to display our campaign message “Child Sexual Abuse is stored on iCloud. Apple allows it,” only one smaller billboard company approved our factual messaging. Others were hesitant and cited inconsistent “policies.” One company even stated that Apple was their biggest client.

4 . People with lived experience, or survivors, will be your support system. I have the privilege of working alongside a number of people with lived experience, or who are survivors of child sexual abuse. The support and love I feel from some of these individuals is overwhelming in the best way. It’s honestly been one of the greatest gifts of my life.

5 . Pace yourself.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d ask the question: Are we putting children first or do we think we do? Perhaps we are more adult centric than we think, and to really protect and safeguard our children we will have to put our own interests to the side. That is really tough.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s not my all time favorite, but something that has been very relevant at this point in my career is the notion that “If someone says no, you are asking the wrong person.” This initiative, and specifically this campaign, has shown me how persistent and resilient you have to be in order to see real change. At times, that means getting a million no’s before you talk to the person who will eventually say yes.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jon Stewart. I think he may be one of the few people willing to openly criticize Apple and I need his help.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

IG / TWITTER / TIK TOK: @heatinitiative

LinkedIn: Heat Initiative


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sarah Gardner of Heat Initiative Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.