Getting children to school safely and reliably is a challenge as old as public education itself. But rarely have any entrepreneurs tackled the problem of updating and optimizing one of the nation’s largest legacy transit systems, now nearly a century old. It’s still common to find people at U.S. student transportation hubs speaking into walkie-talkies and wrangling clipboards as they sort passengers into gas-guzzling yellow buses.
Ritu Narayan was working as a product executive at eBay when her two children began attending school. Finding safe and reliable options for getting them to campus was sometimes so difficult that anytime those options would fall out, she would be on the verge of leaving her job.
“We had the minimum viable product, which we expanded upon, built the entire platform, and we kept on going to better places with our solutions.”
Bearing in mind that her mother in India had set aside a career to raise Narayan and her three siblings, she founded Zūm in 2016 with brothers Abhishek and Vivek Garg to optimize routes, create transparency and make school commutes greener; since then, Zūm has operated in several California districts (including San Francisco), as well as in Seattle, Chicago and Dallas. In Oakland, Zūm has optimized routes to reduce the previous bus requirement by 29 percent, with the balance being serviced by midsized vehicles.
Zūm also plans to have a fleet of 10,000 electric school buses by 2025 and is partnering with AutoGrid to transform that fleet into a virtual power plant with the potential capacity to route 1 GW of energy back to the grid.
To get a deeper look into the startup’s plans and hear what Narayan has learned from its journey so far, we discussed the pandemic’s impacts on Zūm’s development, where she thinks the company will be a year from now, and how she convinced investors to back a business model that embraces accessibility and equity.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
How did COVID-19 affect your business? What percentage of your business is back now?
It’s funny, because we used to say that student transportation is a recession-proof business, and no matter what, kids are still going to go to school, but the pandemic was the first time in probably the last 100 years when kids across the globe did not go to school. It was an interesting time for us, because overnight, all the rides were closed and we had to focus on what was needed immediately to support our districts and students.
We realized that the school is such an important physical infrastructure that’s not just for education, but students get meals there as well as physical and emotional help. So we helped the school districts with reverse logistics, taking the meals or laptops from the school districts and delivering them to homes, because our software could handle that kind of thing. That was just an interim to make sure the communities settled. Starting last year, rides started coming back around 30%, and this year starting in April, it has been 100% back in the business.