Aslyne Rodriguez and Jerry Tsai asked economic development professionals from counties around the region one simple question, “What are the top three pain points manufacturing and distribution centers are facing?”
“Across the board they kept saying the same thing,” Rodriguez says.
The major issues that came to light? Finding a dependable workforce, transportation and childcare.
It was validation that the pair’s startup, EmpowerBus, is tackling the right problem, directly addressing two out of three on the list.
“We are providing workforce-ready citizens in the Morse Road corridor area with reliable, on-time and dignified transportation to and from work in the New Albany beauty park,” Tsai says.
The Morse Road to New Albany connection is just one of many that could potentially exist with Columubs’ name as a logistics hub and over 5,800 businesses in the distribution and manufacturing industries.
However, it wasn’t the original idea that the entrepreneurs set out to address.
Tsai and Rodriguez connected as alumni of Teach for America about five years ago. Fast forward to 2015 and both were pursuing other entrepreneurial endeavors. Tsai had come back to the city from Las Vegas in 2011 to start Acceptd, a platform connecting artists with opportunities in their communities. Rodriguez was validating the idea for her startup, Yokel, at Rev1’s Concept Academy when she ran across Acceptd and Tsai.
They reconnected when Tsai joined the advisory board for Roriguez’s platform aiming to connect locals and travelers. When operations for Yokel ended up winding down in late 2016, Rodriguez became transfixed on a new idea. Inspired by her time in Teach for America, she envisioned a mobile classroom on wheels for students.
With Tsai along for the ride, they started exploring the idea. Rodriguez met with a mentor to share the new path forward and was met with some interesting feedback.
“She pushed me to think further,” Rodriguez explains. Her mentor said, “I actually don’t think you are thinking big enough.”
Using a mobile classroom to support students in poverty through educational growth didn’t get to the root of the issue. A student’s stability is largely influenced by their parents’ stability. And what provides stability for parents? Access to employment opportunities.
Seeing that the viability of a mobile classroom wasn’t there, Tsai and Rodriguez shifted their focus to workforce development.
As they started seeing validation for the new idea, “Jerry really encouraged us to an accelerator called SEA Change Columbus,” Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez admits she was hesitant at first, but the 14-week social enterprise accelerator provided critical insights for EmpowerBus.
Not only was the classroom work beneficial, but they connected with a mentor well-versed in social enterprise, SocialVentures President & CEO Allen Proctor. Proctor encouraged Tsai and Rodriguez to really validate from square one, prompting the conversations with the economic development professionals.
EmpowerBus addresses manufacturing and distribution facilities’ major pain points of reliable workers and transportation through a system that’s more than just a ride.
“We are an organization that is focused in on the actual individuals that we are transporting,” Tsai says.
Currently running a pilot program with a group of new Americans, the classroom concept carries through. English classes take place on the bus. They are also working with a culturally competent employer thoughtful in their efforts to accommodate schedules based on religious beliefs.
It’s those kinds of partnerships that also differentiate the startup. Partners come in the form of employers and other organizations that provide connections to workers. EmpowerBus works with for- and non-profits, and other social enterprises like US Together’s Welcoming City, for staffing.
EmpowerBus also aims to cluster its workers. Similar to how school bus stops operate, the transportation company looks at communities where the workforce is clustered together and creates centralized stops.
For the pilot that launched in October, EmpowerBus is gathering workers at three stops in the Morse Road corridor. The bus can hold a max of 25 and is consistently seeing 15 – 20 workers as it offers transportation for first, second and third shifts.
EmpowerBus goes from pick-up to New Albany in about 35 – 40 minutes depending on traffic. Tsai and Rodriguez were astounded at what the equivalent trip would take on public transportation. Google Maps spits out a route that requires three buses and one hour and 49 minutes of travel time to arrive at the New Albany warehouse.
Rodriguez points out, though, that they do see themselves as a compliment specifically to COTA. COTA serves a purpose outside of their focus area and is the mode of day-to-day transportation for some residents. She wants EmpowerBus to be a partner to the city and surrounding areas, specifically addressing areas public transportation is restricted based on county or township boundaries.
Response to the pilot has been positive both from the employer and the riders.
Through their relationship with US Together, EmpowerBus’ manufacturing partner finds, “We provide the most consistent group of workers that come ready to work,” Rodriguez says. “And that’s a huge validation for us.”
It’s providing employers with access to a new talent pool as well. And if a worker can make it to a pick-up spot, “We take a lot of the mental pressure off of them,” Rodriguez says. Once they are on the bus, they know they will consistently make it to work safely and on time – and for free. The employer sponsors the cost of the transportation.
Ultimately, consistently having the same group of workers impacts a facility’s bottom line.
When the pilot ends this month, EmpowerBus is looking towards growth in the new year.
“In 2018, we’re really looking to onboard more partners on both ends,” Rodriguez says.
The goal is three to four strong staffing partners and four to six manufacturers in need of a dependable workforce. Tsai adds that they are looking for manufacturing partners with paths for mobility, i.e. a seasonal worker moving up to a full-time position.
For more information, visit empowerbus.com.