When former McCallum High School football player Kuro Tawil graduated from Texas State University with a communications degree in 2012, he was like many recent college graduates: He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
He decided he needed to get out of his comfort zone and planned a trip to Pakistan, where he arranged to live with servants for six months.
The trip took many detours, but eventually Tawil found his purpose in life. He wanted to make a difference for women in places around the world where there is a high incidence of rape.
He started Kuros!, a company that sells purses made in Nepal, pepper spray made in Missouri and soon lunchboxes made out of Shweshwe fabric in South Africa. Sales fund sending pepper spray to women in need around the world.
Tawil, 24, explains his company this way: “We are trying to give women a fighting chance, a way to live life to the fullest. A simple can of pepper spray can have huge implications on how you feel about yourself.”
The company, which made its first delivery of 500 cans of pepper spray to women in India in October 2013, expects to deliver 2,000 cans this year to women in India, South Africa and El Salvador. Tawil set a goal of 5,000 cans next year.
He partners with nongovernmental organizations that work with women’s issues: the Red Brigade Lucknow in India, Women Against Rape in South Africa and Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad in El Salvador.
For every $29.99 purse or $39.99 lunchbox Tawil sells on his website, Kuros.org, a can of pepper spray is donated. He also sells $24.99 Kuros! T-shirts and $10.99 Sabre Red Kuros! pepper spray cans. Those proceeds also fund sending pepper spray overseas.
Tawil, whose parents are of English, Czech and Lebanese descent, was given a Russian first name of Kuropatkin, his grandfather’s name. He shortened it to Kuro as a kid. His parents are engineers with University of Texas degrees and manage Austin-based Corridor Television, which runs KCWX-TV in San Antonio. His younger sister, Zahia, is studying engineering at the University of Southern California.
After Tawil graduated, he bought a one-way ticket to Lahore, Pakistan. He got a visa for Pakistan as a tourist with the help of a Pakistani college friend. At his mother’s insistence, a few days before he left, he also got a visa to India. He had $800 in his pocket and a backpack with two changes of clothes. He had no cellphone.
He knew no Urdu or Hindi but studied Arabic in college. His language skills would prove pretty useless on his journey.
When he arrived in Pakistan in January 2013, it was the wrong time to be in Lahore. Two years earlier, Raymond Davis, and American who worked as a contractor for the CIA, killed two men there and caused an international incident. Lahore at the time was also undergoing political unrest with people rioting in the streets.
Even though Tawil bought Pakistani clothing and tried to blend in, within 10 days of being in Lahore, the word got out that there was an American there; people believed he was a spy. At the house where he was staying, he was told that he needed to leave in the next 18 hours or wind up in jail.
“I didn’t want to become a diplomatic issue,” he says.
Flying out would have been impossible because of the unrest. He arranged to have someone drive him as close to the border with India as he could get. He walked on the Grand Trunk highway, part of the old Silk Road, for 12 hours at night to cross the Wagah Border into Amritsar, India.
His feet were bleeding because the Vans that he wore to blend in with the Pakistanis were not good walking shoes. He called his Mom when he arrived and went to a guest house. He couldn’t walk for two days.
Tawil wanted to go home. He decided to take a train to New Delhi and planned to fly home from there.
When he got to the train station, no one spoke English and all the signs were in Hindi. He boarded a second-class train he thought was going to New Delhi.
Within eight hours, he knew it wasn’t headed there, but he still didn’t know where it was going. He did not dare drink for fear that he would have to go to the bathroom and lose his seat. He observed other people and figured out how much it cost for crackers and a cup of peas.
He got very philosophical. “The train is like my life,” he says. “I don’t know where the train is going.” Yet, he knew, “If I just have an open mind, everything is going to end up alright.”
When he got off the train 32 hours later, he was on the other side of India in Varanasi, the city on the Ganges River where people journey to die because they believe that dying in the city will bring salvation.
He walked around the city and followed a funeral. He went back to the guest house where he was staying and reflected on life. There, he decided that he didn’t know how, but he had to leave the world a little bit better than he found it. He walked into an Internet cafe and sent his mother an email about his new mission.
“I found myself in Varanasi,” he says. “I want to help the world.”
He finally did make it to New Delhi, and then, on a bus from New Delhi to Kathmandu, he met a man who worked at a call center and spoke English. Turns out, the man had passed up an opportunity to come to Austin because of a girl. It was serendipity that they met, Tawil says.
The man told Tawil of the legend of the Kichkandi in that area of India. The Kichkandi are similar to sirens, but they are the ghosts of women who have been raped and murdered who walk the earth to find revenge. Rape had become part of the culture there, and the man told a story of a boy he knew in school who raped a girl and disfigured her.
Tawil learned of villages where women cannot walk through the village center at night or they will be assaulted or killed. That means they are limited in the jobs they can get or the education they can receive.
Tawil remembered female friends in college who carried pepper spray. Women in this area of India, who usually don’t have any income or, if they do, might be making 20 cents a day, could not afford to buy a $10 can of pepper spray. Tawil decided he would provide it, but he needed to find a way to raise the money to pay for the spray and a way to distribute it.
He met men who had left Kashmir and went to Nepal. They didn’t have a way to support themselves, but they could sew purses that Tawil saw in the marketplace. Tawil put them to work and started a company.
Tawil could have formed a nonprofit, he says, but he wanted his company to support itself and not be confined to depending on donations.
Seven weeks after he left for Pakistan, he returned to the United States. He reached out the Red Brigade Lucknow, a nongovernmental organization working with women in Northern India. When he traveled back to India that October, he and the Red Brigade Lucknow distributed 500 cans of pepper spray and also showed the women how to use it.
“The response was huge,” he says. “We were able to decrease the attacks. Girls are able to go to school now. Parents feel comfortable that their girls can protect themselves.”
Tawil has kept his day job working for his parents, but he was able to blog about his journey for the Huffington Post.
In June 2014, the blog caught the attention of Marisa McKay, the marketing manager for Sabre, which makes the pepper spray Kuros! distributes. McKay told her bosses they should partner with Kuros! By this spring, they had ironed out the details. Sabre wanted to make sure that the women would be trained on how to use the spray before going forward with a partnership with Kuros! Tawil agreed to do that and now uses Sabre’s international distributors to get the pepper spray into the countries Kuros! wants to be in and to also help train the women.
Kuros! and Sabre also developed an exclusive Kuros! pepper spray that Tawil sells to raise money for more pepper spray for women. That pepper spray is now on Amazon.com, though Sabre is trying to get it into stores. Tawil is also going through Sabre’s Personal Safety Academy so he can train women as well.
“He’s a pretty inspiring guy,” McKay says. “We’re the same age and what he’s been able to do … it’s pretty astonishing.” She says there’s a difference between seeing the need and wanting to help and actually making it happen.
“We are thrilled to be on board,” says McKay, who is based in Chicago. “It’s a great opportunity to empower women.”
At the end of last year, Tawil expanded to South Africa by working with Women Against Rape (WAR). When he came to South Africa in March, he and WAR handed out 350 pepper spray cans to women living in a squatters camp near Pretoria. The people living there are refugees from Malawi and Zimbabwe, as well as South Africans. They make their homes out of whatever they can find, says Marieli Jonsson, the social events coordinating director for WAR.
Often when the men go to work, the women are assaulted, Jonsson explains. “I have heard from the policeman that goes with us (Solly Ngobeni) that the rape has definitely decreased,” she says. “They have expressed that they feel very safe because they can protect themselves and their children.”
Before, WAR could only provide comfort packs for rape survivors that they would give to police stations, trauma centers, hospitals and safe houses. “But now we can also prevent rape,” she says. They have also started feeding the families.
Next week, Tawil will travel to El Salvador to form a partnership there and distribute pepper spray to the women.
“I came back with a mission,” he says. “This is a mission I can see myself doing until the day I die.”
About this series
In Giving Ways, Nicole Villalpando introduces you to Central Texans who have started philanthropies that help us connect to our community and beyond.