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Jan 12, 2018

Connecting People to Where the Jobs Are

Aslyne Rodriguez and Jerry Tsai recently launched EmpowerBus, a social enterprise that is addressing the income gap in Central Ohio by providing reliable, on-time transportation for unskilled workers in the Morse Road corridor to the employers outside the beltway who are having difficulty finding enough reliable employees. They call it “creating corridors to employment and family stability.” Unable to afford a car and lacking direct, timely public transportation, new immigrants cannot get from their urban homes to the jobs that are going unfilled in the rapidly expanding warehouse and distribution centers outside the beltway. By taking advantage of the neighborhood clustering of immigrant groups and of employers’ need for hardworking, dependable workers, EmpowerBus is able to provide employers with the transportation services their workers need at a cost the employers can afford.

SocialVentures sat down with Aslyne Rodriguez and Jerry Tsai to talk about the challenges of creating a new business that serves as a bridge between the employment agency and the employer. A version of this interview appeared in Columbus Business First in December 2017.

How do you counter the zip code/income gap problems in Central Ohio?
Aslyne: The gap goes beyond what you see on a map, but it is rooted in the lack of access to transportation. Public transportation must deal with legal limitations on the areas that each public transit agency can serve, so crossing a county border can be prohibitive. We believe that a huge step to countering the income gap problem is to find employers who are looking for a new source of labor and who are willing to address transportation issues.

Photo of Aslyne Rodriguez
Aslyne Rodriguez presents at SEA Change pitch event in August 2017.


What makes your business unique?
Jerry: Asking employers to pay for transportation is unique. We find that the clustering concept allows transportation to tap both resident and employer geographic concentrations in a way that has not been tapped before. Clustering on both ends reduces pick-up and drop-off times which makes the cost affordable and arrival times consistent.
Aslyne: EmpowerBus benefits our community because we are helping to solve the important problem of how to attract and retain more companies to our region by addressing one of their main barriers, which is finding and transporting a dependable workforce.

What startups have you been part of and how did that experience help you in launching EmpowerBus?
Aslyne: I started Yokel. I quickly learned the importance of having a co-founder, like Jerry Tsai, that shares the same drive and passion and to tap professional advice early on to free up my time for execution.
Jerry: I was the first employee of Acceptd. I quickly learned that a “we can solve this” positive attitude is essential to sustaining the energy needed to overcome the challenges a startup will continually encounter.

What inspired you to start a social enterprise rather than a regular business?
Aslyne: Both of us worked for Teach for America, which taught us there are many ways in which a community can support its most vulnerable citizens. As first and second generation New Americans, we are witness to the central role of a reliable job to building a new life and a stable foundation for families. This made it natural for us to create a business focused on people and purpose.

Photo of Jerry Tsai, EmpowerBus
Jerry Tsai speaks at SEA Change pitch event in August 2017.


You are starting as a pilot. What are you looking to learn? What are your post-pilot plans?
Jerry: We thought a pilot was the best way to learn which of our customers’ problems we can best address and to validate our assumptions about the cost savings and value of our focus on clusters of employers and immigrant neighborhoods. We are learning the importance of having a consistent set of workers to transport and how to match that against what each employment agency can provide. We already have found that our initial agency partner, fellow social enterprise Welcoming City Career Connections, is the most reliable of the several agencies staffing our employers.
Jerry: Distribution and warehousing are highly seasonal and we are using the pilot period to validate our ability to sequence contracts with employers to facilitate continuous employment for workers and to assess our value to the employment agencies.

What are the special challenges of being an intermediate step, a bridge, between employment agencies and employers?
Aslyne: We need to be nimble with our pick-up points and clusters as shift schedules and worker lists vary from day to day. That makes communication a special challenge because there are more points of contact in order for us coordinate transportation and pick-up locations with these daily changes.

Who is your ideal customer? How can they contact you?
Jerry: The ideal employer has positions that are viable for low skill or entry level workers and is striving to be culturally competent in welcoming and accommodating employees with diverse backgrounds. The ideal employment agency has values and a purpose that align with our goal to provide steady work for the New American population. Our website is the best way for employers and employment agencies to connect with us.