In January 2017, EmpowerBus was just an idea on paper and comprised two components: one that involved providing children with safe, reliable school transportation, and another one for workforce transportation. Later that year, EmpowerBus co-founders Jerry Tsai and Aslyne Rodriguez decided to participate in SEA Change, a social enterprise accelerator program. They were matched up with Allen Proctor, president and CEO of SocialVentures, who mentored the EmpowerBus team throughout the summer. As part of this process, they determined they first needed to validate the workforce component of this bold new vision.
By September, EmpowerBus formed as an LLC. In October they launched a pilot program that extended through December. The verdict: it was successful. They had one employer and one 25-passenger bus, and an outsourced driver from a third party. The beta successfully transported 42 individuals living in underserved communities to and from work, and the margin from the contract with the employer to provide this transportation further validated the budding social enterprise’s business model.
“As a social enterprise, we define our success by how our social impact, ‘upward mobility for all,’ is achieved,” said Tsai.
“We look much more broadly than just getting people from point A to point B, and we don’t limit our services to underserved communities,” said Rodriguez. “We take into consideration how we can help address a significant community challenge. And when everyday individuals use our services, it helps us expand the social impact we’re able to achieve for those living in underserved communities.”
With SMART Columbus, the City of Columbus, and many other organizations, there is currently a huge emphasis around the discovery of new and innovative ways to solve Central Ohio residents’ transportation challenges. And to be at the heart of this movement, in January 2019, EmpowerBus announced its move to co-locate its headquarters in Central Ohio Transportation Authority’s (COTA) Innovation Transit Lab.
But accompanying the startup’s successes, EmpowerBus has also encountered some growing pains along the way. In 2018, with 13 contracts to provide transportation for employees, EmpowerBus successfully transported several hundred individuals and racked up more than 1,500 hours on the road. Much of this was accomplished by Aslyne, while Jerry still holds a full-time job, in addition to working essentially full-time for EmpowerBus.
“It has been difficult to balance and serve both employers, and I’ve definitely experienced a lot of professional growth,” said Tsai. “While I’ve helped build organizations before, there have been many elements of building EmpowerBus that I hadn’t experienced previously. But I’m fortunate to have Aslyne as a co-founder and a truly trusted partner in this venture.”
In addition to the 13 contracts with corporate customers, EmpowerBus is also expanding its service area to include routes that run between Newark and New Albany. Previously, no such route or alternative existed for Newark residents to find affordable transportation to the Columbus suburb.
“We are constantly watching the bank account to make sure we’re using our resources as wisely as possible,” said Tsai. “Our mindset as founders and bootstrapping is just so much different.”
EmpowerBus has received a blend of grants and impact investments from The Columbus Foundation, Tony R. Wells Foundation, IGS Energy and United Way of Central Ohio.
“I believe much of our success can be tied back to—we’ve prioritized maintaining a really good dynamic with our funders and community stakeholders,” said Rodriguez. “Both as organizations and as individuals, and regardless of whether we have received or are seeking funding from these organizations, we value and show our appreciation for these relationships. These are individuals who care deeply about our community, and who have expressed a personal interest in EmpowerBus. We are always transparent about what we’re struggling with, and when we seek their advice, we put it into practice.”
While the social enterprise sector in Central Ohio has boomed from 14 to more than 100 social enterprise businesses since 2014, there’s still much to be done. The EmpowerBus duo still encounters confusion when explaining the social impact component of their for-profit business. The misconception that social enterprise is synonymous with nonprofit is still pervasive.
“What’s unique about social enterprise, is that everyone can contribute to social impact through their purchases, volunteer time, lending expertise, in a collective effort to strengthen our communities,” said Tsai. “And that’s what EmpowerBus is all about.”
For more information, visit empowerbus.com.
Founded in 2014, SocialVentures is a nonprofit organization that advances remarkably good businesses—businesses that intentionally integrate social impact as a non-negotiable component of their business model. To learn more about organizations like EmpowerBus, visit SocialVentures’ online Marketplace. The Marketplace features profiles of more than 100 local social enterprises.
Each month, SocialVentures and The Metropreneur feature a social enterprise to help generate awareness in the community, to demonstrate how everyday purchases of both consumer and business products and services can be leveraged to create positive change in our community.