Ritu Narayan is co-founder and CEO of Zūm, which offers safe and efficient child transportation for schools. Despite previously never running more than a few miles on a treadmill, she once trained for and completed a marathon—both to raise money for leukemia research, and out of what she calls “pure curiosity.”
What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?
As an entrepreneur, I think it’s part of your job to seek uncertainty—it challenges you and allows you to discover something new. Under those uncertain circumstances, you find the most potential for exponential growth.
Of course, something like COVID-19 isn’t the kind of uncertainty you ever imagine. We’d always thought of Zūm as somewhat recession-proof, and then suddenly kids weren’t going to school.
In that moment, I followed a process I’ve realized I always return to when I face uncertainty: I thought about how long the situation might last, and then I broke it down into different time periods and tried to figure out how I could minimize the uncertainty at each stage. What do I want to achieve immediately? In a few months? In the long term, how do we emerge from uncertainty as a leader? In the short term, the team needed to feel secure, and our customers needed to feel supported. We made that happen with lots of communication. In the medium-term, we worked with school districts to deliver laptops, materials and meals to children. Then, after the first few months, we focused on where we wanted to be post-pandemic—first growing our product and culture, and ultimately moving school districts toward more sustainable, flexible student transportation.
What resource do you find yourself coming back to?
Journaling. I’ve always liked writing things out, whether it’s a business plan or something personal. But once I became a founder, I started to really rely on journaling as a tool. I think we often already know the answer we’re looking for—it’s just a matter of reducing the questions and complexity. To me, writing feels like an extension of meditation, which I’ve been practicing for about 20 years; instead of exploring your thoughts by letting them go, you’re working through them. It’s all a form of reflection.
I keep things very simple—I have one big document in the cloud, and I just put in a date and start writing about the biggest question on my mind. What do I know? What isn’t known? Most of the time, I’m able to at least narrow down the options. And if I still can’t make a decision, I’ve already gone through the process of editing my ideas a bit before I ask someone else for advice.
What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?
There are so many important steps! I think one is focusing on a real problem—something you’re so passionate about that your desire to solve it overpowers any fear. Before Zūm, I was working at eBay and struggling to find a safe, reliable way to get our kids to school and activities. Then I realized it was the same problem my mom faced, 30 years earlier and thousands of miles away in India; she left her job as an educator to raise my siblings and me. It was an aha moment: I knew this was a universal, generational problem, and something had to change.
Another foundational step is building a strong narrative around what you do and stand for—something people can get behind even before they join the team. I think it’s time well-spent for a founder and CEO to serve as a sort of editor of that narrative, but it’s not an individual exercise. Early on, we surveyed our team to hear how they thought about the company, and then we codified that into our four company values. A company narrative evolves over time and gets more complex; there have been times where we’ve needed to revisit it. But the values are just as relevant today as they were when we first wrote them.
Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?
I think the biggest challenges happen when your company is at an inflection point—as the team grows, or when you change your business model. You have to keep the people and the culture true to the mission, and that’s tough during periods of change. In 2019, we decided to shift our focus from serving parents directly to partnering with school districts, and the decision was polarizing. It changed how the product was evolving and how teams were structured. And there were people who had joined Zūm in part because they were so excited about the direct-to-consumer model.
We got through it by focusing on the core things both approaches had in common and making sure everyone understood that our mission was still the same. Whether we’re working with parents or schools, our customers are really the kids. We always say “no sad children,” which actually came out of an experience my daughter had at Disney. Her balloon flew away, and within a few minutes a Disney employee surprised us with a new one—they said, “There are no sad children in the park.” I think a simple North Star like that is key. Everything else is just mechanics.
What do you do differently than most?
The first and most critical thing for me is the big picture. Until that’s clear and I can see how all the building blocks fit together, I tend to not worry about the details.
I think that approach is the result of a lifetime of experiences, including growing up in India. When resources are scarce but your ambitions are high, you learn to get very clear on one goal and optimize for that. I also got a lot of process-driven training in my first job, working as a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then I took those methods and started applying them to product management, and then I learned about design thinking at Stanford. Everything fit together, like dots connecting.
My approach has helped me over and over in my career, especially when I’m starting something new. If you can quickly get the big picture of an organization and understand how the pieces work together, and then communicate that to the rest of the team, a lot of the confusion goes away. People can see how they’re contributing to the overall goal and strategy, and they get inspired.
How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?
I’ve learned to be decisive in the face of ambiguity. As a founder, you’re making hundreds of decisions every day, and you can’t always know the answers. But most of the time, you don’t need to—because most decisions are reversible. The real skill is knowing which ones aren’t.
Leaving my job to go to business school and start my own company is a good example, because while it seems like such a small risk in retrospect, it was super scary at the time. I’d always worked for large companies with lots of resources, and this was just my laptop and my brain. But I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least try to solve this problem—and I thought, “Those companies aren’t going anywhere.” I could always go back.
What future opportunities will be born from recent events?
So much that we thought should be true suddenly was. Things got simplified, from traveling for business to seeing a doctor to finding a way to get students the technology they need. Working from home, too—I’d always had the idea that you should be able to work from anywhere, but it seemed hard to execute. Then we just had to figure it out, and it’s helped our team in many ways. Including helping me—I love working, but I also love my children, and I’d been feeling like I didn’t have as much time with them as I’d like. Not commuting makes a difference.
We may not stay fully remote, but the experience has given us room to think differently, and those mindset shifts are what most excites me. We have opportunities to make massive changes in education, mobility and how we respond to climate change. I think more people now recognize the urgency there and realize that we can still be effective, even if things work in a very different way.
- Build a strong narrative
- Don’t sweat the reversible stuff
- Clarify the big picture
— Ritu Narayan, co-founder & CEO, Zūm