Robin Chase is most famously known as the founder of Zipcar, the world’s leading car sharing network. But that’s just one part of who she is. Her passion for vehicular mesh networks and climate change is just as great as her interest in transportation.It all seems to come together very nicely not just in her blog Network Musings, but also in her various business ventures that include Zipcar, Buzzcar, GoLoco.org, Meadow Networks and Veniam Works. If that’s not enough, Robin Chase is also a very successful parent who raised three children, including supermodel Cameron Russell.
Entrepreneurial Spirit right from childhood
In order to understand her rather European worldview, passions and achievements, we’ll have to travel back a bit and start with the 1960s. Robin’s father was a career diplomat who had to move around a lot. Robin herself spent a lot of time in various countries and grew up mostly in Swaziland. The entrepreneurial bug she has is inherited from her mother, who had a habit of launching cottage industries every time they landed up in a new country.
Robin began college in Paris, but ended up graduating with a liberal arts degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1980. After graduating, she joined JSI, a firm in Boston working on public health USAID contracts. Robin saw how chaotic the programs were, managed and run by people who had no background or knowledge of finance.
Robin signed up for business school and graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1986. Around this time, she and her electrical engineer husband Roy Russell got busy raising kids and had three children in six years. They had their hands full all the way until Sept 1999, which is where Zipcar rolls into the picture.
She just loved the idea of Car-Sharing
Antje Danielson, whose child was a friend of one of Robin’s kids, had just come back from Berlin and described the car sharing service she saw there. Robin was living in Cambridge at that time, and they had just one car for the whole family. She didn’t want a second car, but liked the idea of car sharing as a way to meet her infrequent driving needs.
She and her daughter had mulled over the idea of Robin working with UNICEF, but agreed it would be better if she made a lot of money with a startup and contributed to UNICEF.
Thus was born the idea of Zipcar, where members could book a car by phone, unlock it with a card and lock it when they finished using it. The car would send and receive information wirelessly, and no human interaction was required. Antje handled the technology and leases, while Robin was in charge of fundraising, marketing and the other business aspects.
She went to MIT Sloan Dean Glen Urban, and lined up the university’s support for the project. In Jan 2000, she snagged $50,000 as an angel investment from Jean Hammond, a fellow Sloan classmate. They bought one car by using Robin’s house to secure the down payment.
MIT sent a blast email about Zipcar to 35,000 people, and the startup that triggered the sharing economy was well underway. But three days before launch, they ran out of money and had to get another $25,000 from Juan Enriquez (Excel Medical Ventures).
The next year or two was a momentous period when Zipcar was going great guns, Robin’s husband joined the company as its CTO, the company closed $1.3 million in Series A funding and raised $2 million as a convertible note, expanded from Boston to Washington D.C., and then 9/11 brought the travel industry to a screeching halt, followed by the dot-com bust.
That didn’t stop Zipcar, though, and they were launching in New York in Feb 2002. By the time Zipcar secured another $7 million in funding in 2003, Robin’s personal life was again calling for attention so she stepped down as CEO and left the board after another two years.
That may not have been the best business decision she’s made, because the money got from the whole venture was peanuts compared to the $491.2 million that Avis paid when it acquired Zipcar in Jan 2013.
Be that as it may, Robin was moving in the right direction as far as her passion as concerned. She learnt about urban planning and transportation through a one-year Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and started a transportation consulting firm called Meadow Networks in 2004, and then an online ride-sharing community in 2007 called GoLoco.org.
From America, her next destination happened to be Paris
Because of insurance regulations, Robin decided America wasn’t ready for car sharing. So she founded Buzzcar in France in June 2011 to allow people to rent their cars to others. Again, the imperative of doing something about climate change figures in this startup too, as a tool that reduces emissions associated with transpiration.
In 2012, Robin founded Veniam Works in Porto, Portugal. This concept of a vehicular mesh network was another of her dreams being implemented for real. Simply put, all the vehicles in the network are wireless hotspots connected to each other, effectively forming a free wireless network available over the entire physical area which all the cars together cover. Again, there’s a climate and social component since this network is a low-cost model for a resilient communications network that won’t be cut off in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Along the way, Robin Chase won a whole lot of accolades and awards, including being listed on TIME’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in 2009.
She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Transportation Council. She serves on the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She has served in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Program Advisory Committee, and on the Boston Mayor’s Wireless Task Force.
Image Courtesy: Inc.com