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Female Disruptors: Ritu Narayan of Zūm On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

Hard work always pays off — My dad used to always say that to my family, whenever someone felt disappointment or discouragement in the home and I completely agree with it. Being able to have a long view of any situation, relationships, work, etc will eventually ensure that you are making decisions based on a long term goal with the biggest impact in mind and if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find yourself in the right place at the right time.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ritu Narayan.

Ritu Narayan is founder and CEO of Zūm. She founded Zūm to help solve a very real world problem: getting her two children to and from school and other activities, while working a demanding, full-time job as a product executive at eBay. Ritu is an alumni of Stanford Graduate School of business and earned an undergraduate degree in computer science at the Delhi Institute of Technology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

When I was a child in India, my mother sacrificed her career to focus on her children, and especially on our education and development. When I started a family of my own, I was a technology executive with a fulfilling job and big aspirations. But when my children began going to school, I had to decide to either slow down or give up my career because of a lack of safe, reliable school transportation for my children. So, not much had changed since I witnessed my mother face the same dilemma 30 years ago. I realized my challenges are the same as millions of parents in the US. This problem is universal and generational. I knew I had to find a solution that would open up new possibilities and opportunities — not only for myself, but every other family in America. With a plan in mind, I partnered up with my siblings, Vivek and Abhishek, to reimagine school transportation and from that, Zūm came into existence.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

School buses have long played an important role in society — in fact, they are the largest mass transit system in the US — but the “one bus fits all” approach does not meet today’s needs of modern families, drivers, and districts and is literally miles behind today’s other mobility experiences. With Zūm, we are changing something that has otherwise been systemic and outdated. There is so much potential that is lost when children don’t have a reliable and safe means of transportation to school. Not only do their parents face issues at work, but kids are commuting twice a day, and when that commute is disruptive, it damages the learning experience.

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?

I was Zūm’s first driver and learned so much from that process. There’s one particularly vivid memory where I picked up a student around my son’s age, 10 years old at the time, and I just didn’t know how to talk to him. I wondered, “should I talk to him as a child? As a young adult?” I was so worried about communicating with him in the right way that I accidentally missed a left turn I meant to take. From there, he started giving me directions and was even reassuring me that everything would be fine. It was quite a funny moment but as Zūm’s first driver, it was a stressful experience. It taught me to be not only more at ease in my future rides, but as an entrepreneur breaking into new ground.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been very fortunate that my parents always made education a high priority in our home. From a very young age, my parents both offered the unwavering support that I needed to grow and move forward. Now, I can see that the unconditional support and guidance that was provided by my parents helped me to thrive and I was able to become the first female engineer in my family and years later start my own company.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Growing up, “disruptive” was not a positive word — being disruptive in class or at the dinner table is not something that is encouraged. In my experience, however, whenever you are trying to bring about positive change through curiosity and growth, you are disrupting the current status quo. That disruption can generally be gauged as positive or not positive if you’re focusing on the stakeholders and number of people impacted by a successful outcome. In the case of Zūm, parents and school districts had just accepted that there were no alternative transportation options. If the organized system isn’t working for a large number of its users, it’s time to reevaluate and see what can be changed. We were able to observe the trends and needs around us to create a system that can reimagine and modernize something that was previously just accepted as an unwavering solution.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Hard work always pays off — My dad used to always say that to my family, whenever someone felt disappointment or discouragement in the home and I completely agree with it. Being able to have a long view of any situation, relationships, work, etc will eventually ensure that you are making decisions based on a long term goal with the biggest impact in mind and if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find yourself in the right place at the right time.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We have been on this journey for six years now and it feels like we’re still just getting started. We’re transforming student transportation so it can do what was always intended: to achieve community potential. Our next move is to unite a transportation system that will modernize the old one by setting a higher standard for safety, creating opportunity and equitable access for families, drivers, and districts and leading sustainability to create healthier communities for generations to come. Our goal is to drive meaningful change today for student transportation that will be the blueprint for sustainable, community-first transportation in the future. This immense and untapped opportunity for good goes beyond school communities in our towns and cities. Think 100% clean, flexible, and efficient mass transportation for education, healthcare, higher education and private transportation.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There was a Harvard Business Review study conducted that talks about how women are asked limiting questions and it is very telling, and accurate in my life experiences. So much of my time is wasted answering questions such as “how will you ensure this doesn’t fail?” when I see my male counterparts being asked questions like “how big can you make this?” Female disruptors face the challenge of their ideas being criticized as “too risky” rather than “bold and brave”. You can’t be what you can’t see and as a female in business, it is important to me to use my platforms to share my voice and normalize women disruptors and idea makers. The more I persist and make Zum successful, the more likely someone else will be to see someone who looks like them, and feel emboldened to do it too. If we can remove the systemic bias and provide more examples of success stories, we’ll be able to remove barriers for the rising generations.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I love reading and I average at least one book a week, but I always refer back to the book Atomic Habits by James Clear — it has all the answers for life and startups. Throughout the book, he discusses how making small changes every day can have a big impact. If you only improve by 1% every day, then at the end of the year you will be 37 times better than where you started. That is mind boggling. “Overnight success” does not happen overnight, even what can be considered “rapid growth” takes place over time. This book provides great insight into how you can make lasting changes.

You are a person of great 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 love to inspire people to combine both the concept of self care with exploring the possibilities of who you can be. Life isn’t about treating anything as an obstacle that can’t be faced, instead use everything to help yourself grow and explore. What I love about my company is that we are providing parents the opportunity to do just that — they can explore and achieve their maximum potential at home or at the office because they can trust that their child’s transportation has been taken care of and they don’t need to make the choice between furthering their aspirations or ensuring that their children can also meet theirs at school.

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

You can’t be what you can’t see — This has been a frequent thread throughout my life. I’ve tried to continue to be an inspiration and a role model, doing and exploring things that were not previously done so that other females see it can be done by a woman. But you cannot always find a role model leading your way. In these situations, you’re responsible to picture yourself doing the unimaginable. Visualize yourself reaching that success and mastering what others have not yet mastered. Once you have the image of outcome you want in your mind, it becomes more realistic and attainable.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!



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