Driving Community-Led Change in Detroit: an Interview with Caravan

Jeffrey Henebury
Published in
7 min readAug 7, 2017

by Jeff Henebury

Kenny Fennel, Claire Koo, and Sneha Joshi working through Caravan’s monthly goals

I recently got a chance to sit down with Kenny Fennell, Claire Koo, and Sneha Joshi of Caravan, an amazing group of Michigan entrepreneurs looking to find innovative transportation solutions for low-income residents of Detroit.

Caravan is one of TechArb’s Summer 2017 portfolio companies; we met in TechArb’s offices between coaching sessions for the team.

Jeff: To start off, can you tell us about Caravan? What drew each of you to form this startup?

Kenny: Sure! So Caravan is a peer-to-peer car-sharing platform for nonprofit managers and the communities they serve.

I’m one of the cofounders of Caravan. I started my career working as a civil engineer in Afghanistan, and I quickly noticed that in the projects I was working on, they were usually done from the top down. So what ended up happening was, people who didn’t actually live in Afghanistan were deciding what projects to build, and these projects would quickly fail, because it wasn’t actually what the people living in Afghanistan wanted, but there was no way for them to give that feedback early on in the process. This led me to grad school for public policy at the University of Michigan; I wanted to do more community-led development. From there I became a Dow Sustainability Fellow. Caravan started as a research project to understand car-sharing and ride-sharing in Detroit for the community development nonprofit Focus: HOPE. We presented the report, a bunch of challenges, a bunch of barriers, and the nonprofit executive director said, “Oh cool, we’re glad that you identified these challenges! Now can you solve them?”

My co-founder Benjamin Morse and I decided to take that on and try to do it as a social enterprise startup. So we entered Ford’s Go Detroit Challenge, got second place, and then we got into an customer discovery program run by Next Energy, and now we’re in TechArb.

Kenny Fennell and Claire Koo at Tech Trek 2017

Sneha: I’m a grad student in the School of Information; previously I worked at Accenture as a software engineer. So it’s a transition for me from technology to design. The concept of social mobility is something I’m really interested in, plus getting to design the experience of a venture from scratch is super awesome. And working with TechArb has been a great resource.

Claire: I’m also a grad student at the School of Information studying human-computer interaction. I first started something related to this project when preparing for CHI, the human-computer interaction conference and student-design competition; me and three other SI students designed a rideshare program for people in low-income communities, and we were having a poster session at the U of M’s SI exhibition. The professor there connected us with Kenny and Ben from Caravan because our projects were really similar. Ours was more on the technology side, they were more on the public policy side, so the professor saw the good mix in our groups. Kenny reached out, and I said, “Cool! Awesome! I’ll do it!”

Nice! That’s great that the professors were able to connect you guys. So what led you to TechArb?

Kenny: So Ben and I did Innovation in Action at the School of Public Health. Vic [Strecher], Ann [Verhey-Henke], and Erin [Moore] are just amazing, constant champions for Caravan and for us as individuals. I actually met Ryan [Gourley, TechArb’s Director] while I was a Dow Fellow. So it was through a mentorship event that we met, and he offered to keep in touch. And when we decided to make Caravan a startup, people said, “You should get in touch with Ryan,” and I thought, “Oh wait, I already am!”

So we checked in and he basically gave us a milestone to hit if we wanted to be taken seriously for TechArb. And apparently we hit it, because here we are!

That’s great. Can you tell me a bit about what your vision is of what Caravan can become, either near-term, long-term, or both?

Kenny: Short-term, we want to do manual prototyping. We’re solely focused on getting one transaction to happen. And that’s seeing if there’s a nonprofit manager who owns an underutilized vehicle, if we can match them with a nonprofit manager who wants to use that vehicle for their mission, and make that connection happen. The reason the goal’s that simple is what we’ve learned through TechArb; if you can’t get one transaction done, going as manually as possible — through emails, and direct contact — you’re not going to scale.

Long-term, as Caravan grows and we identify market need and demand increases, we want to provide a way for nonprofit managers and the communities they serve to actually vote on what vehicles should be doing. This is a way for us to hopefully identify other purposes for the vehicles we’re sharing through the platform. And then we grow from there to a car-sharing, ride-sharing hybrid into the mobility-as-a-service market. But that’s too far down the line for us to know any more than that!

Brainstorming Carvan’s logo (left); the final product (right)

Taking things step by step definitely seems the way to go. You mentioned the learning through TechArb; I’m wondering if there are any other big TechArb takeaways you’d like to share?

Claire: Through TechArb, I got to be connected to so many different channels and platforms and contacts. I went to these community meet-ups and mentoring sessions, I went to Desai events, and all these different entrepreneurial happenings going on around Ann Arbor; that’s been really interesting to me. I would’ve never known this field existed so actively here without TechArb. So it’s been a great way to meet new people, hear new ideas, and help feel inspired and motivated.

Sneha: I’ve been away from Ann Arbor for most of the summer, so all of TechArb’s online resources — the classes, the videos — have been really great for me to be able to participate in the program and with the team from afar.

Kenny: Honestly, everything here’s been valuable.

Claire: Yeah, you can’t really pick just one piece!

Kenny: For me, it’s been getting challenged to meet TechArb’s list of deliverables, and really growing as a leader and a cofounder, and understanding how to manage the team we have of eight people. And how to identify who should be working on what, who wants to be working on what, and realizing “Oh wow, we can get this done, we can really move at a fast pace.” So now when I reflect on where we were in June and where we are now, I think, “Wow, that feels good, we got that done together.”

Claire: The connections and relations are perhaps what I’ve gotten out of TechArb the most. Even with Kenny, before we started TechArb, we really didn’t know each other that well.

Kenny: Now, we’re spending 45 hours a week together! Yesterday we said the same thing at the same time, the exact same reaction. Kind of scary, but we’re on the same page.

Claire: And also with other teams as well. Just having venting-out sessions together, sharing the same struggles, same pressures, same stress of starting a new business, leading the new business to be successful — we know this is somewhere we can really feel safe to talk freely about that stuff, and share our pains!

Brainstorming Caravan’s mission and values

Thank you guys so much for your time! Before we finish, for those in the community reading this, is there anything Caravan needs help with right now?

Kenny: We’re trying to raise money through grant competitions and pitch competitions to support some of our manual prototyping — people getting rides to their jobs so they can stop missing work days, make sure kids can get to and from after-school programs, make sure elderly people living in nursing homes can get to the grocery stores they want to shop at. So we need money to do that! If anybody knows of any competitions we should apply to, that’d be great.

We’re also looking for mentors as a social enterprise. A coffee and a conversation — maybe a little venting and experience-sharing — would be great.

Claire: We’d also love to connect with nonprofits in Detroit to hear about their real challenges and struggles.

To learn more about Caravan, follow them on Twitter. If you can help Caravan or just want to connect, email them at gowithcaravan@umich.edu!