Office Hours: I raised $208M in funding from Sequoia and Softbank. I’m Ritu Narayan, Founder & CEO of Zūm. AMA!Featured

Hi Elphas!

I’m Ritu Narayan, founder and CEO of Zūm, where we’re on a mission to solve an enormous environmental and societal problem that’s been hiding in plain sight: the inefficient, inequitable, $28B U.S. student transportation system.

I’ve worked in tech for 15+ years leading tech companies such as eBay and Oracle. I am now the founder and CEO of Zum, a company we started in 2015, initially envisioning it as a ride-sharing service for kids. I felt so strongly that we had to help mothers with the 4:00 problem - getting kids to and from school and activities when there was still work to be done at the office.

In 2021, after better understanding the scale of the problem, I led Zum’s transformation into a far more ambitious company, dedicated to modernizing student transportation partnering with school districts to provide safe, sustainable, efficient and equitable service. Today, a growing number of innovative school districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation, San Francisco Unified School District, and Seattle Public Schools partner with Zum.

Zum’s technology-driven solutions optimize school bus routes, reduce student commute times, and track children’s arrival and departure from school while connecting parents, drivers, schools and administrators in real time. Zum is the first and only 100% carbon neutral student transportation company, with a commitment to transitioning our entire fleet to electric to reduce diesel emissions and save costs. Zum has been recognized by the Financial Times as one of the Fastest Growing Companies of 2023, named on CNBC's Disruptor 50 list, and selected by Fast Company as a World Changing Idea. I have led our company through several fundraising rounds and our total funding is now over $208 million.

During my downtime, I enjoy spending time with my children, hiking, and I love to travel.

Ask me anything about innovation in transportation, being a product manager, starting a business, fundraising, or anything else!

Thanks so much for joining us @ritunarayan!Elphas – please ask @ritunarayan your questions before Friday, May 5th. @ritunarayan may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Impressive, thanks for sharing your insights with us today. How did you differentiate your dynamic route optimization product from the others when you raised funding? How do you substantiate your claim to be "100% carbon neutral"?
Impressive, thanks for sharing your insights with us today. How did you differentiate your dynamic route optimization product from the others when you raised funding? How do you substantiate your claim to be "100% carbon neutral"?At Zum, we are focused on all areas of sustainability when it comes to student transportation. This includes: Innovation & technology, Efficiency (cost savings & cars on the road & electricity is cheaper/cleaner), Cleaner air, reducing toxic exhaust, Environmental responsibility, Student wellbeing (safety), Ecosystem/infrastructure of all above (partners, Zum’s role, etc).When we were raising funding, and still today, we are the only company that approaches sustainability holistically and with proprietary, incredibly dynamic technology, especially when it comes to route optimization. Building the most efficient routes for school transportation is incredibly complex because the data set is always changing, kids move schools and houses, or the needs of the districts change. So we need to be constantly updating.
Hi Ritu, thank you for this OH! Can you elaborate more on how the transportation system is inequitable and what your company is doing to address this? Also, by pivoting, does that mean that the original "4:00 problem" for mothers still remains?
The yellow school bus hasn’t changed in the last 80 years. Kids sit on buses for long periods of time and parents have no idea when they will arrive at or get home from school. This affects our kids in so many ways: Studies have shown that students with longer average times on buses report lower grades, fewer social activities and poorer study habits. Because low-income families, children of color and children with special needs are more likely to depend on school buses, they're disproportionately affected. With Zum, school bus routes are efficient and adjusted in real-time, and kids spend far less time on the bus. In Oakland, CA, for example, the number of students spending more than one hour on a bus has dropped from 70 percent to less than 10 percent since the district partnered with Zum.The core of the “4:00 problem” is that parents have no visibility into how or when their kids will get home from school. In many cases, the bus ride might take so long that students would have to sacrifice after-school activities or enrichment programs. We continue to address this problem by advancing equity through efficiency and transparency, and modernizing transportation helps ensure access for all students.
Hi Ritu, that's an awesome journey! Thanks for sharing. My question: What's your advice on raising a pre-seed round when every investor wants to see a "sapling" (pun intended ;))?
Hi @ritunarayan! So amazing to read about the Zum, your career trajectory, and the work you do. I am currently working on my femhealth startup to support women post-partum and looking to raise pre-seed funding to prove product market fit. As an immigrant with limited networks in this country, my question is really two fold - 1) what advice do you have for someone like me with a very early stage idea to get the right people in the room to sit up and notice? And 2) are there any specific avenues/forums that I should be looking at that you think helped you when you were in the early stages of building zum? Appreciate your help and your time on this forum and excited for everything in store for you in your journey!
Hi Ritu! Thanks a lot for doing this. Do you have any advice for excelling as a product manager and progressing in your career? I transitioned into the role from a non-tech background 4 months ago and I'm eager to do it well!
Anyone can be a great product manager as long as you know your product well. Knowing your customer inside and out is critical, so spend time with them, hear their feedback, and do your best to implement what they want. I also think it is critical to build simple, easy-to-use products. The general population expects tech products to be incredibly intuitive. Be great at tracking your success on the product to drive business goals forward - if you do this well, progressing within your organization should happen naturally.
Hi Ritu! Thanks for offering your time. Can you share any tips on fundraising for startups, and are there any that are specific to the transportation sector? Curious to hear your insights!
The funding environment has changed significantly over the past year, especially for growth rounds, where investors are more careful. They are looking for more metrics in terms of sustainable and profitable growth. That’s where companies like Zūm truly stand out because, first of all, we are recession-proof and growing 3x year over year. On top of that, we have very large contracts and predictable revenue that is coming in. So all of those conditions combined together make us a very good candidate for continued investment.My biggest advice is to make sure that your purpose is always your North Star. This is what sets companies apart in today’s environment. Be relentless in articulating why the world needs your business and demonstrate a path towards building a scalable business. Also know that if fundraising is not going well, sometimes you need to hit the pause button and try again when market dynamics and things that are outside of your control are better aligned with the business you are pitching.
Hi @ritunarayan ...its really great to read about the great work you're doing. Zum is such a great concept and I hope it can come to the east coast soon. I am in the stages of raising pre-seed funding for my startup, Kamoky. For someone like me who is only looking to raise less than 20k to finish up our app and prove product market fit, where would you advice me to look? Networking events and cold emails all seem to just be leading nowhere but i'm not quite ready to throw in the towel..Thank you in advance for any insight you may have.
Fundraising is hard. Do not ever give up. Sometimes you have to pitch your business dozens or even hundreds of times before you get the backing you need and deserve. Networking is important, but also focus on finding as many firms as you can to pitch. There are now 1,000s of seed stage, early investment firms and look outside of Silicon Valley. Also, while I know fundraising can be extremely stressful and challenging, be strategic in choosing an investor who will be a true partner over time versus a short-term transaction. Think of it as a two-way street. Lastly, find people who will have an affinity for your ideas and vision in the early days. In the early days of Zum, it was angel investors who were potential users of my platform, and could deeply identify and relate to the problem we were solving.
Thank you so much! @ritunarayan
Hi Rita! When did you raise your seed round and how challenging was it? If there is one thing that you would do differently about that first funding round what would it be?