50YO Indian-origin mom sacrifices product manager job for her son to build a $1.3 billion biz

Ritu Narayan, a former tech product manager based in the US, struggled with her son’s unreliable school transportation. She often had to leave her office in the middle of a meeting to pick her son up from school.

She realised that her mother faced the same dilemma decades ago in India. Eventually, she sacrificed a promising career to raise her four children well without compromising their education.

To Narayan, the question was straightforward: How could you balance career and reliable childcare?

Also, she was aware that millions of parents across the globe grappled with the same daily problem.

That was her aha moment.

She knew the issue was universal, and the market gap was begging to be filled.

Reinventing School Ride

Ritu Narayan - Founder & CEO at Zūm
Ritu Narayan – Founder & CEO at Zūm

One day, tired of sacrificing work for her children’s commute, Narayan took a bold step as she left her job to establish Zum in 2015 – an AI-backed electric school bus service. 

The original model was similar to a self-funded Uber, transporting children between schools and homes with a private team of drivers.

It helps troubled parents schedule rides for emergencies via an app, and to her amazement, the startup gained swift popularity in the residential area of Bay. 

“I knew [Zum’s original model] was changing the lives of working parents. Working women would write to us how they went back to the job, started to advance more — because they didn’t have to run at 4 p.m. to pick up their children — and got promoted,” said Narayan in an interview with CNBC.

However, the customer base remained low as parents didn’t require their services daily. 

A Billion-Dollar Journey

Zūm Bus
Zūm Bus

In 2019, when Narayan proposed collaboration with schools to gain popularity, they counter-proposed Zum to provide a privatised school bus fleet.

The road to a billion-dollar journey hinged on a difficult decision: stick to the successful Uber-like model or transform into a competitor to established bus companies, potentially collapsing the business. 

It forced Narayan to rethink her vision, for she knew that signing the deal meant pitting against the giants of the transportation industry.

However, as any natural entrepreneur would, Narayan chose discomfort and took the risk. In other words, she sticks to her true purpose for starting a school ride business.

“Let’s act now to reinvent student transportation for the future that we want to live, learn, and travel in,” Narayan said.

Now valued at $1.3 billion, Zum has over $1.5 billion in contracts, serving 4,000+ schools across several states. 

Narayan emphasises how eureka moments present unexpected opportunities for sustained success. 

“Many times, the needs change in the market. You often land upon something unexpected, which happened in our case, which is even bigger than what you initially thought. In those cases, [you] have to evolve, because it’s that crucible moment. If you don’t make the right decision, you wouldn’t be as successful as you could be.” Narayan remarked.