You’re in for a ride today. I know we’ve been digging into some serious podcasts around trafficking, but this podcast is about a different kind of traffic: transportation.
Who is EmpowerBus?
I met with Aslyne and Jerry of EmpowerBus – a social enterprise which strengthens the roads to social mobility. What does that mean? It means providing dignified, reliable, and on-time transportation to and from employment, education, and healthcare opportunities. Basically getting people without access or means to transportation where they need to go, trying to close the gap between opportunities and the transportation barriers that exist in Columbus, Ohio.
EmpowerBus is strengthening the roads to social mobility by providing dignified, reliable, and on-time transportation to and from employment, education, and healthcare opportunities.
How did access to transportation become an issue?
When the city was younger, factories and jobs were available downtown – and low-wage workers were able to access these jobs. With urban sprawl, Columbus grew outwards, and as rents raised, it pushed low-income areas out of downtown, but still within the beltway.
But as the city continued to grow and attract big businesses business parks sprung up either downtown or outside the beltway — effectively creating a transportation barrier for low-wage workers. The sprawl of Columbus makes it difficult to offer a comprehensive system of affordable transportation… meaning for people in low-cost areas have a harder time reaching the job opportunities. Not only is this a challenge for low-income workers, but this also impacts businesses with higher costs from higher turnover.
Is it about access or fair wages?
EmpowerBus built a business around connecting low-income areas with businesses that want to provide reliable transportation to their workers.
Aslyne and Jerry are very aware of the dark side of this: are companies paying unfair wages, keeping employees from meeting their basic needs? Part of their company’s DNA is to vet who they work with to ensure that the companies they work with are fair with their wages and employee benefits.
The two sides of Columbus
Still – Columbus has two sides. One side is well off and thriving, and another which is low-income, and disconnected. I must admit, until I started this podcast, I had no understanding of what that meant.
Aslyne described it pretty well, what it means to live in a low-income area:
A Kroger store shut down — the nearest one was far enough away to make it prohibitive to reach by public transit. Two bus changes, and unpredictable bus routes? Some of these people use the grocery store in ways that I couldn’t imagine – it’s their bank, it’s where they go to cash their checks, to pay their bills. Things which you’ve automotive because you have a bank account and bill pay… other people go to the grocery store. It’s their lifeline.
EmpowerBus is not alone in trying to tackle this. SMART Columbus is an initiative to develop the transportation needs for Columbus. But instead of competing with them, they’re working together, looking for opportunities that the other can’t serve. For example – as a for-profit company, they can bus people across county lines… meaning they can connect people living in Franklin County with the Honda plant in Union County.
Building social entrepreneurs
Both Aslyne and Jerry served in Teach for America – this is actually how they met. I’ve seen with programs like Teach for America, the Peace Corps, Americorps a similar thread of entrepreneurial spirit and social change activism. When I asked Jerry about this, he shared his perspective:
These organizations find naive well-accomplished college graduates who believe they can go and change the world. As they join, they get to see firsthand how deep and how challenging the world really is — and they face all these difficulties head on and when they come out the other end… they realize how much more work they have to do.
It makes you get scrappy and use the resources you have at hand to make your impact. You may not be able to change everything instantly, but small steps with the right effort can have a profound impact.
The road ahead for EmpowerBus
Still a young startup, they’re filled with energy, and for Aslyne it’s a dream come true. Literally. this was her dream. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the incredible story of how this started.For Aslyne & Jerry, that impact is EmpowerBus, connecting people with opportunities.
When I came to the interview them, I was drained and exhausted after a long day – but we sat in this small room – possibly a converted horse stall — and the energy from being in the same room as Aslyne and Jerry had me buzzing for the next week. If they can have that kind of effect in just an hour, imagine what kind of impact they’re making with EmpowerBus.