Believe in your passion and know that you are uniquely situated to solve the problem you’ve identified. Do not compare yourself to others. Everyone is unique and so are you.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ritu Narayan.
Ritu Narayan is the 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. Not much had changed since I witnessed my mother face the same dilemma 30 years ago. I realized my challenges were universal and generational, with millions of parents in the U.S. experiencing the same obstacles. 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 student transportation and from that, Zūm came into existence.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had to present the final round of Series A funding at 10 a.m., and my husband was traveling to France for work. My children were taken to school by Zūm drivers and traveled 84 miles round trip — something that I could not have done alone that day while preparing for my presentation. With 20 investment partners in the room, the stakes were incredibly high and we had been courting this investor for months. This was the make or break meeting. I was surprised by how calm I felt, and was proud and confident of how Zūm had enabled that sense of calm. None of this could have been possible without the existence of my company. It was a surreal moment, and one that made me feel more sure than ever that I was on to something meaningful and important for working families.
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.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
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.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
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.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
When I was a Computer Engineering student in college, I was one of six female students out of 300 in my department. That feeling of being the “other’’ was very much there until later in my career when I started working at eBay, where 42% of employees were women. As individuals, we must learn about and be cognizant of gender bias in the workplace. It’s imperative that we actively include women candidates in the interview process as potential recruits for executive positions.
As a society, having a norm where equality is accepted is important. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission recently approved a plan to boost the number of women who hold board member positions. This is a crucial step in supporting more female founders as a recent study showed investors are more likely to invest in people that look like them.
Additionally, making child care options and after-school transportation more affordable and accessible should be a top priority. The current lack of access to child care is one of the driving factors keeping women out of the workforce. I still recall that the only time I felt like I had to leave my career was when childcare options fell apart.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Females are responsible for half of the world population, however, we don’t see that number represented in the workforce. That leaves men as the decision-makers for products and services that are being designed specifically for women’s needs. For example, a couple of decades ago, women were having issues with the fit of Nike shoes. Why? Because they had only men designing, producing and testing their products. This is just one example. Women need to be involved in the decisions and processes that are going to ultimately affect them. Whether that be in healthcare, childcare, clothes, and more Had my company Zum been founded by a man, we would be a very different company today, as it was built with my understanding of a woman’s struggles to both work a full-time job and care for her children full-time.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Many people think starting a company and running your own show is harder than working for someone else. In fact, as a founder, you have more flexibility and creativity. It is the most fulfilling and empowering job. As a mother, I feared that I wouldn’t be up for the challenge at times, but I ultimately found that becoming my own boss instilled a sense of empowerment, energy, and motivation I had never felt before.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a successful founder, you must first and foremost be a problem solver who is willing to shoulder the responsibilities of your company and your employees. Second, you need to be resilient as you will rise and fall almost daily. It’s more important to be able to quickly recover from any mistakes and continue your journey. Lastly, you must be innovative. While being able to listen to others input and feedback is important, it’s most important for you to trust your gut on the company you’ve created and know when you take advice versus when to tune it out.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Self-worth: Believe in your passion and know that you are uniquely situated to solve the problem you’ve identified. Do not compare yourself to others. Everyone is unique and so are you.
- Courage: Be fearless about your ideas and your desire to solve a problem. Have courage in your ability to approach people, take help and be resilient.
- Connection: You need to surround yourself with a tribe you can trust. Build connections with people and seek mentorship in your coaches, peer founders, and investors. Choose a team that will keep you on your path.
- Learning: In order to achieve success, you need to be a constant learner. It’s not always what you know right now, but it’s how much you can improve each day. Even if you were to improve only 1% every day, you would find yourself to be 37x better by the end of the year than someone who is not learning at all.
- Self-care: Don’t forget to prioritize self-care. Running a company requires a lot of emotional and physical energy. Having a ritual and regiment that lets you take care and reenergize so that you can get the best of people around you is critical.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When I founded my company Zum, I did so to better the lives of children, parents and schools. I realized that the archaic student transportation system was failing to meet today’s standards, and was not only creating challenges for parents and schools, but was leading to additional barriers in our children’s ability to learn. Every day, we are seeking new and innovative ways to improve the student transportation experience for all involved, and are working to find more sustainable options for the largest mass transit system in the nation. Through our commitment to transition school district partners to 100% elective in the next four years, we are creating a greener, healthier alternative to the school bus system.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number 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.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to spend time with Oprah Winfrey. She has defied all of the odds and has succeeded in an industry where no one thought she would. Her story is truly inspiring. As a successful African American, female entertainer, I would love to talk to her and understand how she made her dream a reality.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.