2013-09-11

Zipcar's Co-Founder On How Transportation Is The Ultimate Solution

Robin Chase's career has been built on expanding the options for how people get around. Here's how she's done it.

Robin Chase, founder and CEO of Buzzcar and co-founder of Zipcar, believes everyone should strive to find their highest and best use.

“People should look at themselves and say, ‘What is my highest and best use?’” Chase says. “People have different talents. People have different kinds of jobs. We all have different purposes.”

Each individual has a unique set of skills as well as physical, mental, financial and spiritual makeup that will determine their role, productivity and contentedness, says Chase. The circumstances of each individual set the stage for the highest and best use.

Chase attributes her motivation to live up to her full potential to her upbringing. As the daughter of a diplomat, Chase spent most of her youth in the Middle East. Her parents believed in immersion and she attended local schools rather than traditional American ones and lived in neighborhoods with local residents. That background instilled in her an appreciation for how fortunate she was and how every person deserves respect.

“I deeply connect with the idea that I personally was born to very lucky circumstances--being born an American, having parents who were well educated and cared a lot about education,” Chase says. “A lot of that is just the luck and circumstances of my birth. And yes, I do work very hard but I really appreciate continually how it might have been otherwise.”

Acknowledging that good luck, Chase raised her own children to find pleasure not in items and material success but in relationships and travel.

“I want them to have a happy life and feel happy in their life even if they don’t become high earners,” Chase says. “I wanted to train them to get their value and pleasure out of things that didn’t cost a lot of money.”

As the recipient of both an advantageous background and rewarding career, Chase recognizes that she has a certain responsibility to others. “If a person who is as well educated as I am and has a fabulous husband, if I can’t have the time or the ability to address those pressing problems, who do I think is going to be doing it?” Chase says.

Chase tends to give away time--time to projects and to others needing advice--more than anything. “Most of my time is to other people,” Chase says. “I’m not the keeper of very small details of generosity. My husband is better at that.”

Her professional path has consistently had a positive social aspect. While working at an international public health organization, Chase saw a need for experts in finance and operation and a role where she could have the greatest impact on issues. As a result, she pursued a degree in business rather than one in public policy or public health.

That degree and expertise made her the right person at the right time to launch the shared car service program, Zipcar, when her co-founder approached her.

“I was the perfect audience. I absolutely didn’t want to own another car but I wanted one a couple of hours here or there,” Chase says. “I had the right education, I had the right demand and I was in the right technology quadrant to put it all together.”

It was the highest and best use of her skills given the circumstances. Although the company was launched to fulfill the need for a car by the hour or by the day, “had it not had a social, environmental upside,” Chase says, “I would not have chosen to spend 100 hours a week doing it.”

Establishing Zipcar as a for-profit business rather than a non-profit allowed Chase to achieve her mission and maximize the company’s impact. Without outside investment, the company would not have been financially sustainable and scalable. Both the company and the environment benefited from more people joining Zipcar, rather than owning cars.

“When I talk to people I want them to think about these big social issues,” Chase says. “If they’re solving some important problem, they really should be trying to do it at maximum skill.”

Through her work, Chase has learned that all issues lead back to transportation. It has everything to do with what opportunities--food, housing, education, leisure, health care, jobs, etc.--people have available to them.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire

“When I talk to people who care about women’s issues or poverty, I want to impress upon them that transportation is the make or break on those issues,” Chase says. “Women in the United States are complete slaves to driving their children around because our transportation system is so car-centric. If you’re poor, 40% of your income goes to your car because our urban planning is such that if you don’t have a car, you don’t have a job.”

Tackling some of these issues requires high growth, scalability, efficiency as well as individual creativity. Chase is optimistic that a new paradigm that has been coming forward in the last decade will help get us to a place where we can impact some of the more daunting issues. Chase is currently writing a book about Peers Inc., the collaborative business model that celebrates individual products or services on large platforms such as Etsy, TaskRabbit, or Airbnb.

“Companies build the platform for participation and give the power of the corporations to the individuals,” Chase says. “These companies are bringing together a ton of small entities and giving them the economies of scale that big companies deliver. So, each side is doing what it does best. It’s my lone source of optimism for the future.”

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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