Ritu Narayan remembers the sacrifice her mother made raising her in India.
“She basically left her career and completely devoted her life to raising us,” Narayan, MS ’14, recalls. Her mother gave up her job as an educator to raise four children full-time. Narayan is her eldest.
Many years later, Narayan faced a decision similar to her own mother’s dilemma. Narayan had moved to the U.S. and was a group product manager at eBay and the mother of two young children. She wondered, “How do I continue my fast-paced career while providing for my children?”
The answer to that question would ultimately result in a dramatic career change — and a leap into entrepreneurship.
After studying engineering in India, Narayan moved to the U.S. in 1999. She was initially a consultant for IBM, then PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2004, she began the first of several product management roles in Silicon Valley, first at Oracle, then Yahoo, then eBay.
Looking to Build Something Enduring
While working at some of the valley’s most well-known technology companies, she prided herself on her ability to find new opportunities for growth. “As a product manager, I always enjoyed finding the new green spaces,” Narayan says. “I had that innovative nature.”
Narayan had a kernel of an entrepreneurial idea for a business she thought would make her life — and the lives of other parents — more manageable. She envisioned a service that would transport children safely between activities and provide additional childcare if necessary.
As a longtime employee of large Silicon Valley companies and the wife of an entrepreneur, she knew starting a company of her own would be a massive shift. “When you have nothing but a laptop, that is very different,” she says. “There are different muscles you need to exercise.”
Narayan had researched the Stanford Sloan Program, which was renamed and redesigned as the Stanford MSx Program in 2013. The MSx Program was, for Narayan, “the right thing at the right time.” She left eBay and was laser-focused on her entrepreneurial plans.
“I entered [Stanford] with a very specific idea,” she says of the business venture that would become Zūm. “I wanted to build something that would become an enduring business.”
Go Outside and Speak to Customers
Narayan spent her year at Stanford — in the recently expanded four-quarter MSx Program — doing everything she thought would be helpful to her as the CEO of a startup. She joined the High Tech Club, the Entrepreneur Club, the Stanford Venture Studio, and the Women in Management group. She took Interpersonal Dynamics (aka “Touchy Feely”), Startup Garage, and other design-thinking courses.
Her most valuable course, she says, was The Lean LaunchPad, taught by Steve Blank. “He would insist that you have to get out of the building,” Narayan says. “We had to go out and speak to the customer.”
She interviewed 20 people a week to learn what would make them trust a service like Zūm. She tested demand with surveys to prospective customers, receiving 300 mostly encouraging responses from Palo Alto parents. She learned to present her funding pitch analytically to better connect with investors. She learned to practice rapid iteration on her fledgling product — a process that would become part of the DNA at Zūm, she says.
“After finishing the program, I was in a very good position to start the company,” she says.
In February 2015, Zūm launched and Narayan was the first driver.
The company now employs 80 people full-time and operates rides in the Bay Area and Southern California. In March, Zūm raised a $19 million in a Series B round from Spark Capital and Sequoia Capital, bringing the company’s total funding to $26.8 million. (In 2017, less than 7% of late-stage venture funding went to female-founded companies like Zūm.)
A Family Affair
Vivek Garg, Narayan’s brother, a 2013 graduate of the Stanford MSx Program with a background in social entrepreneurship and 10 years of operations and strategy work for the Indian military, joined Zūm as COO in 2015.
“Ritu and I, we push each other a lot,” Garg says, “but we don’t let each other get eaten alive by the grind.”
It’s a similar relationship Garg says he saw among his own cohort at Stanford. “That’s what I really loved about the Sloan Program,” he says. “They challenged me when I had to be challenged, and they kept me on track.”
The siblings and Sloan Fellow alumni plan to keep expanding Zūm, aiming to partner with more schools and to launch in new U.S. cities. They say the company has saved parents more than 185,000 hours of time spent driving children to school and other activities. Zūm is on track to complete 1 million rides by the end of 2018.
Photos by ToniBird Photography