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Startup Spotlight: How Dollaride is Transforming Urban Transit for Underserved Communities
Su Sanni, Founder and CEO of Dollaride

Dollar vans have long been the only option for people who live in "transit deserts" – underserved communities in urban areas that aren't close to any subways or trains. These informal ride share networks are sometimes the only affordable way to get to work or school – but they were ripe for innovation. Su Sanni, Founder and CEO of Dollaride, who grew up in a transit desert in Brooklyn, has built a game changing mobile app, making the experience far more accessible for van drivers and riders. In this episode, Su talks about his journey as a Black entrepreneur, the importance of founders finding mentors and prioritizing mental health, and why he prioritizes "moving at the speed of trust" when partnering with governments, regulators, customers and communities to drive innovation forward.

Su Sanni, Founder and CEO of Dollaride

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Show Notes

Craig Wilson:

Welcome to The Future Fountain: A Podcast series dedicated to conversations about the tech ecosystem brought to you by Orrick and the NYU Future Labs. I am Craig Wilson from the Future Labs, and today we are thrilled to have as our guest, Su Sanni, Founder and CEO of Dollaride. Dollaride provides innovative transportation technology to marginalized communities starting with the New York City dollar grant. Su, thank you for joining us. Let’s dive right into it. So, first tell us a little bit about your story and your entrepreneurial path that led you to founding Dollaride.

Su Sanni:

Well thanks, Craig. Well, one, I grew up in New York City. I am a Brooklynite, so I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn. I actually never thought I would be an entrepreneur. But I remember having a few experiences growing up that undoubtedly led me to entrepreneurship because I just saw and experienced lots of problems living in the city and coming from the background that I did. For example, in East New York, Brooklyn, I lived in an area which was called the Linden Plaza Housing Projects that was notoriously far away from the nearest subway. So, as early as seven years old, I often had to walk 25-30 minutes every morning no matter the weather—rain, sleet, snow, dead winter, early mornings—I had that experience as a NewYorker with a terrible morning commute. And I remember thinking to myself, man this sucks and I know for sure other kids my age aren’t waking up as early and walking 30 minutes to the nearest subway. There is something wrong here, and this can’t be a problem that doesn’t get solved. I remember having that thought at seven or eight years old. I didn’t start working on this problem and really thinking about entrepreneurship until about five or six years ago when I discovered that I had uncles and family members who were part of New York City’s dollar van system and ecosystem. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in the podcast. I am a NewYorker through and through, and I guess I became an entrepreneur through my personal experiences living here.

Craig:

Su, that’s amazing. I think that your experiences as a NewYorker, and NewYorkers are so entrepreneurial, it makes a ton of sense. I do want to talk a little bit about dollar vans then. Can you tell me what is a dollar van? How important are they to New York in getting people around? What does this infrastructure look like?

Su:

It’s funny because I have to often explain and describe dollar vans to people—and I never get tired of it. But even when I am talking to NewYorkers, nine times out of ten, even people from this city don’t know what dollar vans are. And this kind of explains how much of a phenomenon they are to local communities. Basically, dollar vans are—it’s the colloquial term that we use for this network of drivers who own their own vehicles, and they operate along fixed routes in the outer boroughs of New York City. So, specifically Brooklyn, Queens, and even at some point some parts of the Bronx would have these dollar vans. Back in the day, so let’s say like the 80s, early 90s, the actual vehicle was a van that these drivers would use. Today, the most popular vehicle is more like a shuttle bus, like a small minibus. But what’s common with all dollar vans is that it’s a mass transit solution that is powered by entrepreneurs. All of the drivers own their own vehicles or are renting vehicles from a fleet owner within their neighborhood, and the vehicles seat anywhere between 15-20 passengers. We have gotten the term “dollar van” because in the 80s when this became really popular the fare or the price for a ride was only $1.00. Like everything, that price hasn’t stayed the same and now people are more commonly paying $2.00 or even more—but we still refer to them as dollar vans throughout the city.

Craig:

Wow. That’s right. I think I noticed a lot of these vans kind of running up and down Flatbush Avenue and into the Rockaways and Queens as well. And it seems to me just in traveling that this type of infrastructure exists in many cities around the world. Do you have a good sense of how much informal transportation infrastructure is powering cities in general?

Su:

I do. I’ve had to learn more about this in the work that we are doing with my company Dollaride. But I think one good way to think of this is that informal transit, like dollar vans…are integral to the mobility of people in specific neighborhoods. So particularly when there is an area of a city that is far away from public transit or where people need to “go downtown” to go to work, you will often find things like dollar vans or dollar cabs because a lot of folks who are residents of those communities, you know, might have a harder time using regular public transit or can’t afford to take a taxi every day to get to work or to go to school. So, dollar vans and their kin, they typically pop up as like this, you know, supplement to public transit. But all around the world, this is actually the predominant way that most people travel. My family is from Nigeria. In Nigeria, specifically in Lagos, we have a similar ecosystem called Danfo buses, and they operate the same exact way as dollar vans do. It’s a driver who owns his own vehicle, the vehicle he can pack with 20 or more people, and he’s picking up people and dropping them off along fixed routes for the equivalent of about $1.00 or $1.50. In the Philippines, we refer to them as Jeepneys. In Haiti they’re called Tap Taps. Throughout Mexico, they’re called Peseros. Everywhere you look, all around the world—you can refer to them as Sherut in Tel Aviv. All these things are the equivalent of New York City dollar vans and what we refer to as informal transit.

Craig:

Would it be fair to say that your goal at Dollaride is to provide the infrastructure for all of this informal transit, starting in New York City and then expanding globally? And what are you doing, and how are you providing, sort of, help to either passengers, or drivers, or both?

Su:

I would say our goal is definitely to empower more informal transit services around the world. And we are indeed starting with NewYork City. But the way that we are doing it is definitely a multi-prong approach to building a business. So, at Dollaride, we are first building and deploying software that just makes dollar vans and the drivers and the riders participate in this form of transportation much more easily. So, for example, with the drivers, we’ve built the mobile app that helps them actually collect digital payments or credit card payment. Whereas previously this style of transport was a cash-only business. And we still do support cash transactions, but we are making it easier for the driver to accept passengers who don’t have cash on them, which is becoming an increasing experience that more and more people have today. And then on the passenger side, for the first time people can actually see where the drivers are in real time. They can see when new routes are opened up and be able to participate in a growing network of dollar van services around their city. So, those are what I call the easy things that Dollaride is doing now. The more challenging stuff that we will be working on is bringing other types of infrastructure to the dollar van ecosystem, including electric vehicles and charging stations. I just launched a partnership with a few companies last month to work on bringing that type of hardware and infrastructure to commuter-based transportation in New York City. Although this is going to be a multi‑year effort, I do think commuter vans or dollar vans need this type of infrastructure to really be future proof and provide a resource for NewYork City that will live on for a long time.

Craig:

That’s amazing. As a NewYorker and as someone who is now a mobility expert, I’m really curious to understand what a well-functioning multi-modal city looks like, and how do we interact with it? How do you hope that we would interact with it? What does a city look like that we can get around really easily using all kinds of different forms of transportation?

Su:

That’s a great question and it’s something that I have had to think about more often as Dollaride has attracted the interest and has now contracts and relationships with both local businesses and government agencies. And the common request that we get is facilitating more multi‑modal trips. So, when I think about what does our city look like when we have more multi‑modal trips or the technology that can empower this, what comes to mind is simply the ability to easily transfer from a subway to a dollar van or from a dollar van to a bike share, or from the LIRR, our tram system, to another form of transit. Essentially, we want to make transportation ubiquitous and interoperable for all people, no matter where you live in the city. So, although New York is far ahead of a lot of cities, especially in the UnitedStates, the problem of people who live in transit deserts is one that unfortunately is growing. So, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done and I think Dollaride is one of a few companies that are on the pulse of this and really trying to create this type of change faster than what our government can probably implement on their own.

Craig:

That makes a lot of sense. I want to talk about in our next question a little bit more about your mentioning serving communities that have been traditionally ignored and people who live in transportation deserts. But first I would love to dig in just a tiny bit more around working with city governments and agencies, which you mentioned. Obviously, there have been companies that have taken more of the move fast and break things approach to entering new markets and creating mobility options within cities, and there have been other companies that have been more well known for working very actively and very closely with city government. What do you think in your opinion is the right approach? And secondarily, if I could essentially grant you the mayor’s magic wand, what would you do?

Su:

Wow, what a question. So, I am probably going to get into a little bit of trouble for this answer, but I think honesty is best here because we are going to have a lot of people listening. So, move fast and break things—honestly, I like, and I’ve always appreciated, the sentiment that that phrase and ideology has. It is often what empowers us as entrepreneurs to push the envelope and do things that have never been done before. And particularly when it comes to regulation, when you are a first mover type of company, you might actually have to move fast and break things in order for you to figure out what’s really working and also to get your product to market as quickly as possible and maintain that advantage. So, my entrepreneurial hat wants me to actually give kudos and clap for those who have been able to move fast and break things. But being a citizen of New York and an empathetic human being, I do recognize that that approach doesn’t always fit for every situation, and specifically when you are dealing with transportation and people’s lives, I am now more of the fan of a different approach, which I learned by listening to this transit planner from the Oakland DOT. She mentioned this idea of moving at the speed of trust. And to me—I thought this was an excellent—she coined it excellently in that for one you need to gain the trust of the people and the communities that you are serving. And that may mean slowing down and educating folks, keeping them a part of the process, and helping them be a part of the solution. But moreover, when working with regulators and government, this is not a game of speed. It’s really a game of compliance and trust. The city and our governments, they have a different role and responsibility—a longer term, more constructive relationship requires that we move at a slower pace so that we can be partners with city government as opposed to adversaries. So, I’m kind of straddling the fence here at times, but I think just in the business that I am a part of now, I am more in tune with moving at the speed of trust because people’s lives are on the line. But certainly, there are other types of businesses where moving fast and breaking things doesn’t have such dire consequences and therefore it should be your competitive edge.

Craig:

That’s a great answer. I think what you’re telling me, basically, which is a great lesson, is that context matters. I also really like the idea of and that phrase, “moving at the speed of trust.” And it seems particularly pertinent and important in your business because moving at the speed of trust is so incredibly important when you’re serving traditionally underserved and potentially marginalized communities who have every reason in the world to distrust someone coming in who is going to grant them this new great thing that is going to change their lives for the better—so I think that’s really, really an astute observation, Su. And to build maybe a little bit more on that and tie it together a little bit with your experiences as an entrepreneur is the problem that you are solving, as mentioned, is really one that serves communities that have been traditionally ignored. And many cities have thriving, informal transportation options that go largely unnoticed, particularly by those who would be evaluating your company as a potential investor and evaluating your company as a potential partner. So how has fundraising and partnership gone for you and Dollaride? And what would you recommend to someone else that is focusing on underserved communities—to help them raise their profile and presence and be more successful and have more impact?

Su:

So, to answer this question I have to give some context about the fundraising experience I’ve had that at least can demonstrate to people how things have changed but also how challenging it can be to raise capital when you’re in a social impact type of business or space, as well as being a Black entrepreneur. My last company was a business called WeDidIt, which you’re aware of, Craig—it was also a business that was incubated by the Future Labs. So, shout out to Future Labs! But at WeDidIt, over eight years we raised $1.6million. And while that is objectively a lot of money for individual people, in the start-up world it isn’t a lot of money when you’re trying to build a fast-growing company and especially a company that’s completely all software-based. So, my co-founders and I, we often struggled at fundraising. And during that eight-year period, there’s probably like a six-year period where we were always actively raising money but were never able to really get a full round together, never able to get a lead investor. We always raised money in small chunks—$50,000 here, a hundred grand here, and oftentimes $25,000 from individual angel investors. So, we were fortunate to sell that company and have an exit, but the fundraising process was always an uphill battle. And I think it was because, one, we were in an unsexy industry. We’re helping nonprofits raise money online and be more efficient fundraisers, and the nonprofit world does not scream profits and high valuations to VCs, so that didn’t help. And then, two, I was a first-time founder, oftentimes the only person of color in the room pitching to a group of VCs and, you know, trying to share my experience which was probably hard for folks to really resonate with—we didn’t get the benefit of the doubt to say the least. Now, comparing that experience, essentially taking six years to raise $1.6 million to Dollaride—I’m still a Black entrepreneur, right, that hasn’t changed—but Dollaride being in a completely different industry, something that is a little bit more in favor of the times in a part of being a clean tech space where there is a lot more capital coming in, we were able to raise $1.5 million in about two years. So, what I’m learning from this experience is that your industry matters a lot and your pedigree and your reputation as an entrepreneur also matters a lot and it can precede you. Now, I am having an easier time raising capital. I’m able to get meetings easier because I have a little bit of a track record—I have a reputation and a network to lean on. So, I really want to share this story and the advice that for founders who come from underrepresented backgrounds, really doing whatever you can to build your network of professional folks and investors who you can reach out to would do you a huge, huge favor when it is time to fundraise. One quick hack to this whole approach is joining incubator programs like the Future Labs, which was also instrumental in us meeting investors. But also accelerator programs where you can get in front of dozens or hundreds of investors through a demo day or through office hours. These are the things I did that helped me build my network over time and have now made it easier for me to raise capital, especially in today’s climate.

Craig:

Wow! Yes! That makes a lot of sense. Maybe to expand a little bit further on what you’re mentioning about diversity, as a Black entrepreneur that has now built not one but two companies, can you elaborate a little more on how you see the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem evolving and becoming more diverse—or not? And what do you think needs to be done? How can we increase diversity and representation among entrepreneurs?

Su:

So, when I think about diversity and the sort of ecosystem from my experience, I do see more diverse faces in the rooms that I’m in. Whether it’s when I’m pitching and trying to raise capital or when I’m networking at events and meeting people in my industry, or just folks around New York who are part of the start-up game. I definitely see more women, more Black and Brown folks—so that is encouraging for sure. I think what’s also happening is entrepreneurship and start-ups as a national—let’s call it a national pastime—is just more popular today than it was five and ten years ago. And there are so many more ways that you can be an entrepreneur that it’s inviting for a lot of people. So, the space in general is growing, and the tide raises all boats, so to speak, so you have more diverse people in the space as well. But, structurally, there are still a lot of barriers for diverse founders and people from underrepresented backgrounds. In particular, women I think still have a long way to go, or a lot more needs to be done, to level the playing field for women who are joining the start-up ecosystem as investors and as entrepreneurs or early team members. When a founder starts to hire, typically, we are going to our closest circle of friends and maybe past colleagues and people we went to school with as our first round of hires. And because men often have other male friends and are thinking about their male friends when they are creating or providing opportunities to one another, we inadvertently leave a lot of women out of these opportunities. I’ve experienced that and deliberately tried to break that pattern by being more intentional in our own hiring process and encouraging my team and myself to create connections to affinity groups and other areas of entrepreneurship where women are congregating and meeting. So, we’re creating that pipeline to bring more women into our company, and I think what needs to happen in the ecosystem is for founders to think about this and be more deliberate in their hiring approach as well. The other thing that I think needs to happen is there needs to be more diversity on the other end of the table—the investors and the corporate partners who are writing checks and signing contracts. If they too are diverse, then they might make more diverse decisions, so to speak. So, there’s a lot of people who are working on this issue and can probably speak more robustly about it than I can, but it does mean a lot when, let’s say, an investor who comes from East New York, Brooklyn and has actually lived the transit desert issue can meet me and immediately recognize that I am working on a problem that is big, affects a lot of people in a very intimate way, and that I have a solution that potentially makes sense. So, investors from a diverse background can also lead to diverse outcomes and hopefully outsize outcomes at the end of the day.

Craig:

That also makes a lot of sense, and I think it is maybe worth noting that there are studies that say more diverse teams make better business decisions. So, it’s not just—it is a representation issue as well as a bottom-line issue for entrepreneurs to diversify their teams. So, I hope we continue to make progress on that as well, even though, as we know, there’s a lot more to be done.

As someone who has now founded multiple companies in very different spaces, what is easier about it the second time around? I know you’ve mentioned fundraising and having gone through that again. And what’s harder, if anything? And do you think you have an advantage over first-time founders, or you as a first-time founder? What is it like going the second time around and what would you tell first-time founders as a multi-time founder as a piece of advice—to ignore maybe some of the pitfalls that you encountered that first time going?

Su:

Wow. So, I have to say it is so much easier as a second-time or third-time founder to build a business and to found a start-up and to go through the entire sequence. The way I like to describe this is that all of the mistakes that a first-time founder would typically make during the first 12 months of their—building their company, not only will a second-time founder not make those mistakes, usually, but we can also do everything that is done in 12 months in like three months because we know exactly what we need to do and we also know what issues are really not as critical as they seem—because we’ve gone through it before. We’ve recognized the true risks and rewards of these decisions. So, a perfect example: In my first tech company, my co-founders and I, we first formed it as—I believe—as like an LLC in New York. And that was fine, until it came time to actually start raising money and every investor didn’t want to touch us—and basically this was teaching us and forcing us to change our corporate structure so that it was more in line with what is commonplace for investors today. Typically, like a C-Corp in Delaware. And for disclosure, obviously, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not telling you to do this. But these are the things that were part of my experience. Nonetheless, that was something that to revise and fix it took us maybe four months, and we had already gone a year operating the company as an LLC. So, this is something that I knew right off the bat and knowing that I was going to raise capital from outsider investors, I knew what was expected. So, when I incorporated Dollaride, it literally took me two and a half weeks. I did everything right, got all the right paperwork. So, you can extrapolate that example to literally everything that happens during your first year or year and a half when you’re starting a company—from the most mundane administrative things to actually choosing co-founders, dividing equity, and figuring out how to get your first set of users or customers. All these things become significantly easier once you’ve done it at least once before, with some success. So, as a second-time founder, the advantage we have is that we can go a lot faster, especially in the early months or years of the business, because we have a lot more confidence in what to do. I think the last thing I’ll say is really the best thing to do as a first-time founder is to surround yourself with second-time founders, or at least a founder who is two years ahead of where you are. That’s the big hack. So, if you just started your company, hopefully you can become friends with one or two other founders who started their companies two years ago—and they have already raised their C-round or they’ve already dealt with some of those common trials and tribulations that you’re going to end up going through. So, if they’re just a few years ahead of you, you can kind of get ahead of these problems by talking to someone who has relevant experience and advice that is applicable because they just went through it only a few months ago.

Craig:

Yeah, finding mentors—so, so important, particularly when something like entrepreneurship can be lonely at times. So, finding folks who you can both commiserate with and learn from, I imagine it’s critical to the journey. Before I ask my last question, I just want to know, Su, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you think is important for our audience to know? What did I miss? I’m sure there’s something.

Su:

What you last said about the—I guess the emotional journey that entrepreneurship is—is something that I wanted to make a point about. And it does relate to the difference between second-time or multi-founders versus a first-time founder. One thing that I’ve learned now going through starting a second tech company—and this is actually my third company in total—is how to manage my own emotions and psychology, my own mental health through this whole process. And what’s also different as a second-time founder or different for me at this stage in my life is that now I’m a father and I’m married. That has also forced me to be a lot more responsible with my mental health, my physical health, and my emotional well-being. And these things are really, really important when you’re a founder and you’re building a company. The constant ups and downs and uncertainty that we have when we’re literally building the future is exciting and exhilarating at times, but, as we all know, it takes a huge emotional toll on ourselves. But one thing I didn’t appreciate when I was younger is how this affects the people around me. And now that I have a family, I’ve had to become über-conscious of that, and it’s made me want to take care of myself a lot more so that I can be present and healthy for my own family. So, I think that for founders, especially if you’re a founder in a relationship or you have kids, you are doing yourself a disservice if you aren’t taking care of your own psychology, your own psyche and mentality and your own physical health—because your family needs you. But moreover, you’re going to have a lot more energy, which you’re going to need because this is a long game oftentimes when you are taking care of yourself. So, some way, somehow, figure out a way to prioritize these other things that we don’t talk about and that aren’t taught to you when you go through an accelerator program. They are hugely important, and the consequences can be dire when you aren’t taking care of these things. And I think we’ve seen enough headlines to know that we don’t want to lose any more founders because they were mentally struggling with some issues.

Craig:

Amazing. Really, really important. I totally agree with that, Su. So, last question, and it stays the same across—it is the tie that binds our episodes together—is: Are you optimistic about mobility? About diversity? Are you optimistic, and what are you optimistic about, if you are?

Su:

This is a terrible question for an eternal optimist. {Laughter} I’m always optimistic or very, very often optimistic. But yeah, I’m optimistic about mobility for sure, and I’m optimistic about diversity. Specifically, with mobility, there are just so many companies and people who are now aware of this issue and are in some way or another chipping away at making transportation more accessible, more clean or electric, and more efficient that I think we’re heading in the right direction as a society overall. I certainly want Dollaride to win, but I know this space is big enough for multiple winners. So, I’m optimistic that a large group of us are going to continue to push the envelope and create a better transportation resource for all of us. And then when it comes to diversity—man, I feel like I have to be optimistic! {Laughter} My success depends on it. But no, I think similarly, there are more diverse people sitting in the power seat today than they were ten years ago, and there’s enough pressure on the powers that be to continue to diversify the ranks that I think we’re heading in the right direction as well. I would love for this to happen a lot faster, but what’s also happening that I think is part of the diversity conversation is access to jobs and access to capital is also changing in ways that are decentralizing power. So, things like crowdfunding now makes anyone an investor and makes it easier for entrepreneurs to raise the capital that they need. And then, similarly, the gig economy has also shown us that there are a lot of different ways to be employed and to make money. So, I think we’re going to see a lot more flexibility in our work—well, a lot of us are working from home today—but also different forms of employment and occupation that doesn’t fit the rigid nine-to-five structure that will open up the gates for a lot of people to pursue different types of work. So, overall, I am optimistic about diversity because I think there is a larger playing field for all of us today and that playing field is only getting larger as we look into the future.

Craig:

Amen to that, Su. I appreciate you and thank you for joining us. Really appreciate it.

Su:

Thank you for having me, Craig. It was fun.