Appleton company seeking to make ride-sharing safer

When veteran entrepreneur and startup lawyer Paul Jones first met Barbara Hastie, he was skeptical about her idea for a ride-sharing business for women. 

But after further meetings and discussions, the early-stage company called PoWER has now pivoted toward security certification for ride-sharing services. Jones, who’s acting as a mentor to Hastie, says this approach could gain much more traction. 

The Appleton company’s name stands for Protecting Women Every Ride. Hastie aims to create a security service that certifies both drivers and riders using services like Uber and Lyft. 

“I’ve got to admit, when I first heard about this idea, I thought, well I’ll have lunch with Barbara but I think it’s crazy,” Jones said in a recent interview. “Particularly if you’re in ‘fly-over country.'” 

He knew it would be all but impossible to overtake these companies, which are burning through more than $1 billion of capital every year. Rather than trying to compete directly with some of the most well-known tech companies in the world, Jones and Hastie put their heads together and came up with a new approach. 

Hastie is a clinical neuropsychologist and biomedical researcher by trade. She’s worked in research and education, as well as with nonprofits focused on health disparities. She also had a previous career in international relations, working first for the United Nations and then for the U.S. State Department at American embassies overseas. 

“I’m an advocate and a change agent at heart,” she said. “I love building things.” 

The idea for PoWER came when Hastie was driving for Uber in Chicago. She was visiting her mother in the Midwest at the time and decided to fill some spare time by driving for the ride-sharing company. 

“It was a fabulous experience, I had a lot of fun,” she said. “But what I noticed was that every single woman that got in the car commented about how much safer and more secure they felt that I was a female driver.” 

Hastie was getting calls and texts from parents to the same effect, and started to realize these concerns were very widespread. At the same time, national news headlines were spotlighting sexual assaults happening to women riding with Uber and Lyft. 

“So that actually heightened my awareness that there is a major issue here,” she said. 

One night, she was driving around some female executives who oversee large companies with mostly female employees. Those executives were discussing the idea of a female-only ride-sharing service for their employees, who were feeling unsafe using ride-sharing apps. 

That led Hastie to her idea of creating a new ride-share service just for women. She got connected to gener8tor, a startup accelerator program based in Wisconsin, which then put her in touch with Jones. He had previously mentored and invested in a number of gener8tor startups. 

After discussing the idea with Jones, Hastie realized competing with other ride-sharing apps would be a difficult uphill battle. They decided providing security certification for individual drivers and riders would be a better way to capture part of the market. 

“We can address more of the issues for women across demographics. Not just women in the corporate world, but women using rideshare services, and those who don’t use rideshare services because of safety and security,” she said. 

The company is still in the development phase and is seeking investment. Hastie and Jones recently pitched the idea to several investors at Lambeau Field in Green Bay as part of an event put on by the Wisconsin Technology Council. 

Jones says the story behind her idea “really resonates.” He adds Lyft and Uber — as well as other ‘sharing economy’ companies like Airbnb — are “not particularly well-trusted at this point.” 

“That core idea she had makes enormous sense,” he said. 

Jones has spent about 30 years working with startups in North Carolina, California and Wisconsin as an investor, mentor and lawyer. Hastie is a relative newcomer to the startup world, but Jones said her combination of “passion and real-world experience and smarts” make her well-suited to be an entrepreneur. 

“When you’re doing a deal in Silicon Valley and you’re doing it with someone who’s done four deals prior, well that’s one thing,” he said. “But when you’re doing a deal here, you’ve got a lot of raw talent, and you need to work with that raw talent to fit it to the model.” 

Looking several years ahead, Jones said PoWER could also make it safer for people to share rides in self-driving vehicles. 

“When we have autonomous vehicles, and people are sharing rides in autonomous vehicles, they’re going to want to know who the other passengers are, and they’re going to want to know the car is secure from hacking,” he said. “We think they’ll ultimately see the opportunity here.” 

Listen to a recent podcast with Hastie and Jones: 

–By Alex Moe