Inspired by her own experience with extreme middle school bullying, a Sherman Oaks teen decided to create a mobile app to encourage kindness and inclusivity on school campuses.
Now, Natalie Hampton is the CEO of Sit With Us, an app that aims to solve the sometimes daunting task of finding friends with each with at lunch. After launching last year, it now boasts more than 100,000 users across eight different countries.
But just a handful of years ago, when she was in the middle of her seventh grade year at a private, all-girls school, Hampton didn't expect to live to see her high school graduation day.
She discussed her experience with bullying in a TEDxTeen talk last year. She said it started with snide remarks and being ditched, and each time she tried to sit at a lunch table, she'd get a "Mean Girls"-inspired retort: "You can't sit with us."
But by the spring of her first year, the taunts were being paired with physical violence. "I came home sobbing with bleeding red scratch marks down my face, bruises down my leg and my hair in knots," she said.
She eventually left the school after a classmate threatened her with a pair of scissors during class, and neither the teacher nor administration did anything.
But at her new school, the situation was completely different. One the first day, a boy stopped her to ask if she needed help finding classes — "and it saved my life."
Soon, Hampton became the person reaching out to others and inviting them to join her for lunch, and she said some of those people have become her best friends. She hatched the idea to create Sit With Us after one girl in particular told her she had been struggling with self-harm and contemplating suicide, but changed her mind after Hampton reached out to her.
The free app works like a social network, allowing users to fill out a profile with a bio and interests. You can then search for open lunch events surrounding you, or add an event of your own.
"It's a lunch-planning app, so you basically say where you're sitting at lunch, and that's viewable to your whole school," Hampton told KTLA. "So if you need somewhere to sit or a table of friends to join, you just open the app, and there's a whole list of the tables you can join without any fear of rejection."
But the first order of business open signing up is deciding whether you want to become an ambassador — someone who volunteers to host others at lunchtime and promote an inclusive environment.
"I think that there no one picture for a victim of bullying," Hampton said. "It can happen to anyone. And, at the same time, anyone can make a difference."
Although its target audience is middle and high school students, Hampton said it's being used in graduate school, convention centers, places of worship and even workplaces — and by all different kinds of people.
"I thought that some sort of profile would emerge of the type of users, but it's everyone from jocks to theater kids to freshmen," she said.
The app has been featured by Apple as one of the "New Apps We Love," and garnered Hampton an invitation to speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was also a recipient of the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
Hampton will be starting her freshman year at Stanford this fall.