VanGo startup does ‘Uber for kids’ driving for working moms

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NORWALK, Conn. — “I really love ,” says Juana Gomez of Norwalk, a nanny with a 16-year-old daughter who often needs to be picked up from school while her mother is . is a new Connecticut-based ridesharing operation that caters to teens and pre-teens. Is Gomez speaking as a user or an employee of VanGo? Actually, she’s both.

“My daughter often gets out early, and I didn’t have anyone to pick her up because I was working. I also needed a part-time job to earn a little more money. I was so happy to find a company that met both of my needs, and is really safe for our .”

VanGo is the second company founded by serial entrepreneur Marta Jamrozik, a University of Chicago economics graduate who is just 28. It’s been operating only six months but is already providing hundreds of rides per week in the company’s first market, Connecticut’s Fairfield County, with a mix of cities and suburbs. A second market will be opened this year, and the company plans to go national as soon as feasible. The elevator pitch: “Uber for kids.”

Many of VanGo’s young clients are on a regular schedule, and the phone app makes allowances for regular pickups (such as baseball practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays), with reservations permitted up to a month in advance. The app has been downloaded more than 1,000 times.

In an interview conducted in her company’s shared office space in trendy South Norwalk, Jamrozik said her previous work was as a management consultant on Fortune 500 strategy, which seems far removed from giving a break to soccer with Second Shift issues. But she likes to fill niches. In 2016, she founded Claire, a company that made predictions on how newly launched products would perform. The launch got her onto the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. And VanGo is aimed at another unmet need.

VanGo’s drivers are fingerprinted and background checked, and their records are checked and their references called. Even their cars are thoroughly vetted. Drivers also need to have at least three years of child-care experience.

It’s interesting that school bus drivers aren’t as thoroughly vetted.

“The Second Shift” was a 1989 book by Arlie Hochschild that focused on the fact that working women come home to a second job — housework and taking care of kids. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, considering overscheduled kids. Obviously, the problem has gotten more acute as more women are in the workforce, but not much has been done to address it. Suburbs often lack safe public transportation — or simply don’t have public transit at all.

“There isn’t much of a support system for working women,” said Jamrozik, whose mother worked full time on top of getting her to activities. “I started talking to moms in Fairfield County, and found there was a lot of interest. We think of ourselves as a feminist company.”

Some 85 percent of VanGo’s 50 drivers are mothers, and all of them are women. and Lyft conduct background checks, but it’s unlikely they’re as thorough as VanGo’s. The idea is to provide rides that anxious working parents can trust, and VanGo’s drivers are fingerprinted and background checked, and their driving records are checked and their references called. Even their cars are thoroughly vetted. Drivers for VanGo also need to have at least three years of child-care experience — as parents, teachers, nannies or babysitters.

It’s interesting that school bus drivers aren’t as thoroughly vetted. A 2018 New York Daily News investigation found at least half a dozen city drivers with criminal records. One driver had spent two years in prison for theft, one had crashed his car while drunk, and another threatened to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend during a violent assault. A fourth had been arrested 13 times.

Christina Zullo, also of Norwalk, started driving kids in her 2018 Nissan Rogue last August, and finds the job perfect for her. “I had to close my consignment store after 30 years, and at 55 I didn’t want to go to work in an office. I also didn’t want to drive for Uber because I’d be picking up drunks at 2 a.m. or having to go to the airports. With this job, I work just from 2 to 8 p.m., around Norwalk. It’s on my own time.”

Technology helps, Zullo said. “I’m not good at directions, and have trouble getting out of my own driveway,” said the experienced babysitter, whose own two kids are now grown. “But with GPS I can’t go wrong. I was nervous at first, but I got used to it, and now I love it. The kids are so sweet, and when I drive them regularly we really get to know each other.”

Zullo offers two examples for why VanGo gets repeat customers. She took a middle-school girl home, and saw an unfamiliar white van in the driveway. “I refused to let her out of the car until she called her mother and confirmed that the van belonged to workmen who were supposed to be there. A lot of our kids will be home alone until their parents get home.”

In the second incident, a kid she was driving had been hit by a ball, and complained of a headache and blurry eyes. “I called her mom and told her that the girl might have a concussion, and indeed she did have one.” That isn’t a service you can expect from Lyft or Uber.

The prime hours for VanGo rides are 6:30 to 8:30 in the morning, and 2:30 to 9:30 p.m., Jamrozik said. The kids go to school, to sports practices, prep classes or tutoring, friend’s houses, Hebrew school and orchestra or band.

Jamrozik says that VanGo is profitable on a per-ride basis, but the big investment she had to make in licensing, insurance and background checks means it hasn’t reached that level overall. But expansion is definitely on her mind, somewhere else in the U.S. with a mix of urban and suburban living. Eventually, she’d like to meet other Second Shift needs, such as meal prep and house cleaning.

But since there’s no shortage of overstressed working mothers, transportation-challenged American suburbs or willing childcare-trained drivers, it seems unlikely she’ll saturate the market anytime soon. “We’re taking it one step at a time,” Jamrozik said.

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