Social entrepreneur uses EmpowerBus to address work commute disparity

For about a month, Aslyne Rodriguez had a recurring dream about a school bus. But it didn't look like a regular school bus. It was somehow different, like a magic school bus.

Rodriguez told her friend and business partner, Jerry Tsai, about the dream, and they wondered if the school bus experience could be reimagined. “Nobody thinks about the way buses smell, the way they look, the colors in there,” Rodriguez said. “Why couldn't a kid have an airplane experience while on the bus?”

Rodriguez and Tsai pursued an innovation grant for social enterprises through Teach for America, a nonprofit for which both had worked. But soon they decided to take the bus idea in a different direction. “I had a mentor who said, ‘You're thinking too small. What if you picked up the kids and took them to school, but then you picked up their parents and took them to work?'” Rodriguez said.

The more she thought about it, the more it made sense to target workforce transportation. The average work commute in Columbus is about 20 minutes, but she found that for low-income residents who take public transportation, that commute can be three or four times as long. What if the bus could help solve that problem?

What started as a dream became EmpowerBus, a startup with the goal of “strengthening the roads to social mobility by providing dignified, reliable and on-time transportation to and from employment, education and healthcare opportunities.”

Rodriguez can trace her interest in social enterprises back to her upbringing in Poland, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown. Her mother required her kids, the second generation of Puerto Rican immigrants, to volunteer at nursing homes and spelling bees.

Growing up, Rodriguez assimilated pretty seamlessly into her community. “I never felt ‘other,'” she said. “It wasn't until I applied to college that I heard the word ‘minority' as much as I heard it.”

After graduating from Ohio University, Rodriguez moved to New York and taught in the Bronx through Teach for America. “It was a culture shock,” she said. “I experienced reverse prejudice because I speak Spanish, but my Spanish isn't great. … My kids were all Latinos when I was teaching kindergarten. I would talk with their families, and one time one of the parents said, ‘... You're white.' And I was like, ‘What? My last name is Rodriguez.' They're like, ‘Well, your Spanish is terrible, your English is too good — you're white.'”

Rodriguez's chameleonic tendencies have been both a blessing and a challenge. “I'm in the middle,” she said. “I've learned to love the Latina I am, but in some cases I felt like, ‘Am I a poseur? Will I be Latina enough?' In other cases, ‘Will I be too Latina for some rooms?' I walk in and it's like I have a flag above my head.”

After working for a state senator and teaching at a local charter school, Rodriguez worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger's After-School All-Stars, becoming the local co-executive director. “Within four years we had taken it from being in debt to a $1.4 million nonprofit that was statewide,” she said. “We were the first chapter within the national network to go statewide. … It definitely felt like a startup.”

Job offers were coming her way, but after getting some encouragement from a mentor, Rodriguez scratched her entrepreneurial itch and launched Yokel, a startup that matched newcomers with locals. After Yokel became “a heavy lift,” Rodriguez closed its doors and took part-time jobs. The bus dreams followed.

In a pilot program last fall, EmpowerBus provided transportation to an industrial park for personal care and beauty products in New Albany. And in January, Kroger hired EmpowerBus to take citizens from its now-closed Linden grocery store to a Kroger on Morse Road.

Rodriguez said employers pay for a bulk of the EmpowerBus service, though riders sometimes pay $3 or $4 depending on the employer contract. Right now, the startup owns one bus and has access to a fleet through a third party, though it hopes to grow its own fleet.

“We have conversations happening with a very large nonprofit here that transports over 500 people Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, and we're at the table with COTA,” Rodriguez said. “We see ourselves as a complement to COTA. If COTA feeds the arteries of the city, we would be the veins.”

Rodriguez also hopes to grow EmpowerBus beyond Columbus. “I see this as a national company,” she said. “I see it being a part of my life the next five years, but I also see myself doing other things, too. I see myself as being a serial entrepreneur. I have a ton of ideas.”