Founded by Ritu Narayan in 2015, Zūm provides safe, reliable child transportation services for school districts and working parents. The Uber-like service ushers kids ages 5 and up to and from school or to after-school activities, making it easier for busy parents to juggle schedules.
The company doesn’t just provide bus drivers, it took on a mission of replacing outdated school transportation and childcare systems with a more personalized, technology-backed solution that allows more freedom to moms and dads while fully integrating with their child’s needs. Since its inception, Zūm has seen exponential growth: it signed over 250+ school districts and expanded service into six states in the country. The company also won the 2020 World Changing Ideas by Fast Company.
Let’s read on to understand how Ritu Narayan redesigns the school bus system in our country.
Ritu Narayan: Zūm as a Freedom of Choice
As a girl growing up in India, Narayan had an ambitious dream of becoming an astronaut. She made it to the top engineering school in her country and belonged to one of the 6 women among 300 students in her class. Constrained by limited opportunities in her hometown, Narayan decided to immigrate to the US to seek more freedom of choice.
When starting a family on her own, Narayan was a technology executive with a fulfilling job and big aspirations. The troubles arrived when her children began going to school which left her torn between slowing down or giving up her career just to pick up her kids. “I was working at eBay when my daughter started school, and it was very hard to find someone reliable who I could trust to pick her up,” she explained. “It was a crazy hassle trying to juggle work and childcare. I kept feeling like I should be working.”
However, Narayan was not struggling alone. There are 63 million families in the U.S., and mothers spend over a billion hours driving their children around and taking them to school. More critically, over 41% women in the U.S find it hard to progress in their careers due to childcare needs, and more than 10 million mothers have left the workplace completely for this reason.
This common tension is what sparked her idea for Zūm Narayan reflected on the time when her mother sacrificed her career to focus on raising children in India. Many years later, things have transformed rapidly for today’s mothers, fathers and kids while the school, work and childcare systems haven’t evolved enough to meet the needs of many modern families. “It’s common for one parent — often the mother — to leave work early to care for their children after school. That comes at an incredibly high cost to their careers, financial independence and ultimately society.” – Narayan elaborated.
The demand for Zūm was discernible from the start. Yet Narayan wasn’t able to expand her company until she met Miriam Rivera of Ulu Ventures, who wrote their largest seed check, giving Zūm the ability to quickly launch and scale. “I had literally been the parent who was the last one to pick up my kid or something came up at work and I’d get to the daycare center and be feeling like crap as a parent. And I really thought that this was a really interesting idea and that so many people would use it. But I also knew that a lot of people in venture capital might not get it because many of them are from a different generation where their wives did not work.” – Rivera shared.
“There was an instant connection with [Rivera],” Narayan reflected. “Having faced this problem for years, she knew the scale of what we could become and even compared us to Google early on.”
Over recent years, Zūm has been on a swift rise. “We are always looking for founders with an authentic personal story,” said Bryan Schreier, partner of Sequoia Capital, who led Zūm’s $5.5 million Series A in 2017. “Ritu built a company based on her own experience as a working parent and created an elegant solution that tackles a key problem facing modern families.”
In early 2018, the company raised $19 million Series B, led by Sparks Capital. With this financing, Narayan joins a select group of female founders who have successfully closed a large late-stage funding round.
Spark Capital’s general partner, Nabeel Hyatt, first learned about the business through an organic referral. Despite his initial skepticism, Nabeel started using Zūm to pick up his kids from two different schools. Within a month he was “completely converted.” Soon thereafter, he reached out to Narayan and came on as a lead investor. “It’s important to think about how all these new startups are benefiting the world,” Hyatt said. “Zūm is one of those startups that benefit all parties involved – parents, kids, schools, drivers – this is one of the main reasons why they’ve been able to grow so quickly.”
Zūm closes its Series C funding with $40 million with BMW i Ventures leading the round. Additional investment will be put toward the advancement of Zūm’s technology and user-facing products to bring delightful, safe, reliable, and efficient rides to schools and students. It also helped the company to its non-California markets in the future.
With Zūm, Narayan is enabling more choices to working parents with less sacrifice. “My vision for Zūm is to bring about this change and support child development without requiring anyone in the family to sacrifice their personal and professional aspirations.” – she believed.
What to Learn From Zūm’s Model?
If parents are willing to hand off their kids to strangers, they must have an exceptionally high bar of trust and safety. Other than hand-picked drivers by Narayan herself, 90% of Zūm’s drivers are women with childcare experience like nannies, stay-at-home mothers, nurses, and teachers. “Yes, we vet and hire drivers, who must have years of childcare experience and a clean, excellent driving record who’ve gone through multiple background checks with the FBI, the Department of Justice and Trustline. But for kids, when you design a solution, you need a different kind of personalization.” – Narayan said.
The company is more than just transportation. Narayan and her team provide care around the rides which old-fashioned school bus can never satisfy. “The driver can stay with the child before and after the ride and wait for them — and parents are excited about this complete, efficient solution. They don’t have to worry.” – Narayan shared. She emphasizes her company focus on execution, which includes technology, operations and the customer experience. “Once you have these solutions at scale, you can’t lose that element of personalization.”
One of the reasons that justify Zūm’s rapid growth is its diverse benefits for not only children and their parents, but also drivers or school districts. The company optimizes bus routes and makes visible the status of the rides to all stakeholders. More importantly, it provides different sizes of vehicles to match the district’s needs. A standard-size bus could still pick up many kids, but smaller buses or cars could be used for children who live further away from the route, considerably reducing the amount of time spent on the bus by the majority of students.
COO Vivek Garg believes the wide range of options saves school districts a lot of money, especially since Zūm envisions a world where vehicles are rarely sitting idle (a standard practice otherwise). By partnering with Bay Areas school, it has saved the district a whopping $15 million in just 18 months.
The company also re-employed bus-drivers while making jobs for many women who have a hard time finding flexible jobs with predictable incomes. “Women are helping other women stay at work. This is financial empowerment”- Narayan said proudly.
COVID-19 caused school shutdowns just weeks after Zūm signed a 10-year contract with Oakland. When the pandemic closed schools, Zūm transformed from delivering students to schools into a service that delivers essentials to students. It began delivering district-prepared meals to the homes of Oakland’s students, who rely on schools for 70% of their meals. “The technology is so strong—we can do routing and delivery systems and we already have the assets,” Garg said. “So we repurposed our infrastructure.”
Narayan believes the company’s flexibility and dynamism lie in the platform that built for full-service transportation. “We can automatically develop the routes with multi-stops, optimize them and build them efficiently. We also have the logistics infrastructure, namely highly vetted drivers who really care about doing this. So instead of delivering students to schools, we delivered meals from schools to homes, with different stops. It was a very interesting—even fulfilling—change for the team”- Narayan admitted.
Sustain a Startup’s Growth with 3 Principles from Ritu Narayan
#P1 – Passion
For Narayan, you should only do startups when your love for solving a problem triumphs the fear of failure. Being passionate about tackling the pain point is the first key to sustain a business.
In 2013, Narayan was leading a platform at eBay that allowed sellers to sell anything to millions of customers within a few minutes. While successfully integrating technology in solving her clients’ problems, she couldn’t solve a simple challenge in parenting: how to take her kids from one place to another. “I wanted to do well in my career and growing it but at the same time be present for my kids.” – Narayan shared. “Every day I was challenged. How do I drop my kids in the morning and yet be there for the meetings with executives? How to pick my kids at 3.30 pm in the afternoon, take them to extracurriculars while I’m supposed to be at work at 5 pm.”
She realized that the same hurdle was met with every working parent at eBay. Many disconnectedness has been solved in other areas, with platforms like Amazon or eBay yet for parenting, nothing has changed. Narayan was so committed to solving the problem that she was willing to do anything to solve it in an enduring way. Before Zum was able to achieve 3x growth y-o-y and home to more than 100 employees, Ritu and her team faced with so many challenges that could close their company at any time. The only reason she kept on going was her passion for solving this distressing problem.
Passion can not only help you to kickstart your startup but also provides you with unique insights into the area that you are working on. Narayan’s passion has led her to ask deeper questions in understanding the problem. For example, doing digital marketing and acquiring customers at the early stage was extremely cost-prohibitive. Instead of succumbing to the obstacle, Narayan and her team thought deeply about their potential subsidiaries and looked for promotions from the schools. She met with endless schools’ representatives and asked them one question “How do you do your school transportation?”- Narayan recalled. “That one question led us through an amazing $35 billion market that nobody was attacking using technology.”
She started serving schools as a part of her business models and signed multimillion-dollar contracts which led to the company’s persistent growth over years. The burning passion to modernize the pick-up, drop-off kids process has taken away fears of obstacles and enabled Narayan to reach groundbreaking goals.
#P2 – Perseverance
Narayan considers perseverance as one of the most important qualities for entrepreneurs that is usually overlooked. As a teenager, she usually got up at 4am just to get ahead in the class. Narayan maintained such a habit of not giving up even when it was uncomfortable from her childhood to building a fast-growing company.
This woman was resilient in everything she has committed to. In 2016, Narayan signed up for a full marathon to overcome her fear of running and raised money for leukemia patients. “I started coaching with the coach for three months. Every week, one mile at a time, I made progress, slowly but steadily.” – she said. At the 18-mile mark, she got a stress fracture that impeded her from further running. However, with the commitment she made to her friends and herself, Narayan decided to show up and complete the marathon.
While passion can unlock new opportunities, having a persevering attitude is what ensure persistent business growth. Narayan believed that perseverance allows her team to think in the long run. She reflected on the time when Zum was torn between going through a due diligence with Sequoia Capital or accepting a quick funding from another investor to cover its short-term paycheck. With a goal of building an enduring business, Narayan wanted to partner with a VC that had a diverse portfolio of sustainable companies. This prompted her team to persist with Sequoia and eventually got backed by $5.5 million Series A raise.
#P3 – People
The final principle of Narayan to catalyze business growth is people. She believes that collaboration, creativity, or support can only be possible if you surround yourself with people who share the same passion and perseverance.
“My professor at GSB used to say that you’re only as good as 5 people you attract the most with. That makes it really important that the people you interact with are better and smarter than you” – Narayan said. “I was often asked ‘how do you unlock the exponential growth in a startup’ and my insight is simple – by having the most talented people in the team. Great talents attract other great talents.”
In the early stage of Zūm, Narayan and her co-founder used to do everything, from operations to selling the products and attained around 20 school partnerships. However, she realized that her current team couldn’t manage the sales well and if Zūm wanted to expand nationwide, she needed to find the right minds. Narayan sought an outside sales leader who could lead her company to grow exponentially. “In the beginning, we’re not perfect for him, at all. Then, we finally closed him and if you ask him what made him join us, he would say – our passion and perseverance” – she shared. By finding a perfect talent, Zum was able to achieve 10x revenue growth and expand partnerships with more than 2000 schools across 5 states in the country.
For entrepreneurs, people can be the number 1 reason that determines the failure or success of a startup. In the book titled The Founder’s dilemmas, the author has pointed out that two-thirds of startup’s failures were due to people issues. Narayan also encountered this issue when she was too focused on hiring leaders with attractive resumes but didn’t fit Zum’s culture and values. “These mistakes can be very expensive for the company, especially at the leadership positions. Fortunately, we corrected this problem quickly and has built an amazing team” – she recalled.
The Bottom Line
As a company rooted in a dream for societal progress, Ritu Narayan and her company are opening possibilities for parents, especially women and enabling well-rounded development to their kids. Zum has completed over 1 million rides and is partnering with 250+ school districts and 4,000+ schools. The company is expected to become a default option for delivering kids for parents nationwide soon.