Recently, ICTC’s Trevor Quan sat down with Aisha Addo, the founder and CEO of DriveHER, a ridesharing company focusing on alternative transportation for women in the Greater Toronto Area. They discuss emerging Canadian challenges and developments related to the “Future of Work” and the “Future of Transportation,” in which Aisha shares insights on gender equity, gig economy worker classifications, and the enduring impacts of COVID-19 on our future.
Trevor: Hi Aisha, thanks very much for joining us today. Could you provide a bit of an introduction about yourself? Perhaps some background for your work and some different hats that you wear?
Aisha: My initial experience has been in the social sector, particularly with young girls within the nonprofit social-impact sector. Over the past eight to nine years, I’ve focused on personal development and leadership. A couple of years ago, I got into the tech space, again with more of a focus around women’s empowerment, and one of my main areas of interest is creating safe spaces for girls and women. So that translates into every aspect of the work that I do via my NGO or with DriveHER, which is the ride share platform that is designed specifically for women, by women.
Trevor: Could we talk about your interest in the ride sharing and gig economy space? What made you decide to create a ridesharing service for women?
Aisha: Great question. When the idea of creating a safer transportation alternative for women comes up, ridesharing is not necessarily the most obvious thought!
Part of the reason why we opted for the rideshare model at DriveHER was because consumers have gotten used to that model and the tech-enabled aspect of transportation services. We could piggyback on that and create a niche specifically for the sector. And again, for women, because the issue around women’s safety is always at the forefront. It’s not in the newspapers and media, but it’s still an underlying issue that needs attention.
Trevor: Do you think we hear less about ridesharing and women’s safety because less attention is paid to it or because of improvements that are being made along these platforms? Do you think platforms are just doing a better job of it now?
Aisha: I believe there was a level of acceptance, with this idea that women are going to go through this regardless. It just became part of the norm. I was speaking to a friend, and I was saying, “You know, people are not talking about this women’s safety aspect anymore.” But yes, it is still an issue. But the media chooses what to focus on and how long they focus on a particular topic. And we talk about safety from the point of the user, but we almost never talk about the safety from the point of the driver. There are drivers that also experience assaults from the passengers.
We’re looking at perspectives on both sides, like what happens when a driver is attacked? What happens when a driver encounters, you know, a very loud and obnoxious and rude customer? With DriveHER, we look at it from a holistic point of view. We’re not just looking at the everyday user. We’re thinking about the mom who maybe need to drop off her kids to piano lessons or take the grandmother to a medical appointment.
Trevor: As you mentioned, given the role of media and current events, we are also seeing greater awareness of issues like equity, diversity, and inclusion, given the challenges that we’ve seen in the US recently. Can we talk about how the gig economy impacts issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion?
Aisha: I believe that one of the benefits to the gig economy is that the barriers to entry are very low. And there is typically less bias because, for a lot of these companies, the more drivers that they have, the better their work capacity. I think most of the people that participate in the gig economy, whether drivers or couriers or repair workers, happen to be people from very marginalized backgrounds.
And then to look at the platform perspective, are management and decision makers reflective of the people that are actively participating in your company and actually driving revenues? You may have vulnerable or marginalized workers often coming from very diverse backgrounds, which leads platforms to boast about that diversity of participants, but when you look at the decision-making level, it’s not reflective of that diversity.
Are you creating these solutions with the people that are using it in mind, or are you doing it based off your own internal biases and your own cultural biases? I think that is the big disparity that I normally see. That is also part of the challenges that I always talk about when running a tech-enabled business or platform in Canada. Like in Toronto, for example, there is a “bro code” and culture that has been formed. So as a black young woman who is coming in and saying, “Hey, I want to create something that is very targeted, very niche,” some of the comments I get back is that “Women don’t experience this.”
But how would you know? You happen to be a white man sitting in your penthouse office with no connection to the people that are on the ground. I think it’s very interesting to see that lack of diversity at higher levels of power. And even for most essential workers, one thing that we realized with COVID-19 is that majority of the people who are essential workers within this country, across the US, across the world, all happen to be marginalized people. It wasn’t the CEOs who saved us, you know, it was the essential workers.
Trevor: Yes, the downsides of some of the challenges for precarious work were obvious. But there are opportunities for people who have been traditionally excluded from the workplace. These new platforms have greater openness and greater participation from other people who haven’t traditionally been able to access the workplace easily. For example, people who have disabilities or childcare responsibilities who can’t work a traditional nine-to-five full-time job.
Also, you mentioned the differences and demographics of service providers versus decision makers at the top. From the research that I’ve seen, there is certainly higher rates of participation from minorities and marginalized groups, at least on the service side.
Turning to the gig economy, let’s talk a bit about workers and some of the challenges in terms of their classification and worker status. What kind of pressures have you seen on the ground? Also, do you see California’s AB5 bill for worker classification impacting Canada? Or is this less important, given Canada’s stronger social safety net?
Aisha: Now, that’s a really good question. I definitely see it coming to Canada, but a more refined version of the California AB5 law. And the reason why I say that is because, like you mentioned, Canada does have a stronger social welfare system than the US.
As we pivot with our model, I was thinking the main reason why a lot of people are concerned about employment status is to be able to contribute to the CPP and their employment insurance, just in case of hardships. And the beautiful thing about Canada is that we do have self-employment insurance that allows for you to still contribute to CPP and EI. So if something should happen to you, you can still access those benefits. It might mean that you would require drivers to be registered as self-employed workers to access these benefits. And then on the flip side, they must have a HST number, which would also allow the governments their revenues. I’ve been reading articles and I think the California law is motivated by the fact that the state lost $7 billion a year in payroll taxes due to worker misclassification.
AB5 or similar legislation is a double-edged sword for me. As someone who runs a rideshare company, I totally understand the concerns from a company perspective. But at the same time, I’m also looking at it from the social perspective. COVID-19 has reduced driver incomes. The revenues will probably drop significantly because people are not going outside as much.
It’s a very interesting subject, and it’s also a very touchy subject: how exactly would the rideshare industry run then? Because then it wouldn’t necessarily be considered “gig economy.” Prices would go up for consumers. You might end up having longer wait times, with companies hiring fewer drivers.
There are so many different aspects to it that I feel like, in the long run, it might not actually benefit anyone at all; for example, if let’s say, using Uber and Lyft, they have 10,000 drivers. Once this law comes into action, maybe they’ll say, “We only have room in our budget to hire 1,000 drivers. That means 9,000 people have lost their source of income. From that perspective, in the end, who really benefits?
It is something that I’ve had to keep in mind as COVID-19 has also exposed these disparities. This will be a conversation that is going to come up again very soon. Ultimately, how can we leverage this to create that economic empowerment and economic freedom for the women that are driving with us and the women that are using our service?
Trevor: I think you really hit on a key piece there. We should be honest about some of the tradeoffs that we could see. Also, there are different situations for that person who wishes to work gigs casually to supplement their income versus doing it as a substitute for a full-time permanent job. But as we have found out, that “job” can be quite precarious. It is a job with no guarantees, often limited healthcare protection, nor long-term retirement savings or disability protection.
You also mentioned economic empowerment, where it is good to empower people to be able to work but, hopefully, not when they are “forced” into it just to make ends meet. Do you find that challenging to reconcile this idea for your drivers?
Aisha Yeah, it’s very interesting because we’ve had women who say, “This is my full-time job.” And then there are women who are also entrepreneurs or freelancers in other different aspects of their work.
Balancing this is really a matter of trying to figure out how to create a win-win situation for everyone if, and likely when, it comes to Canada. Like you mentioned earlier, people have to figure out what the tradeoffs are going to be like.
And I think part of the reason why governments are trying to hone in on this aspect is because of the possibility that many drivers of Uber and Lyft, and these sort of gig workers, do not pay taxes. How do we ensure we collect our tax money? We could make these workers employees, and they will be responsible for their payroll and pensions, but many rideshare companies are already operating at a loss even without this burden.
Perhaps instead of treating gig workers as independent contractors, we could treat them as companies. For example, to be on the platform, you have to be registered as a company or as a sole proprietor. In that case, as an organization, you’re working with another organization, which means they would have to get an HST number. That means you would pay them the percentage, the commission, but then the platform could be responsible for the taxes. If we’re able to create some sort of hybrid like that, that would work better. And everyone wins because the government still gets their taxes, the company still gets their worker capacity, and the individual still gets their pay. And then even as sole proprietor or self-employed person, you can also pay into EI and other insurance programs to access to these different resources that were missed out on as an “independent contractor.”
Trevor: What does the future of transportation look like as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? What does this mean for commuting and getting around?
Aisha: As we know, there’s no going back to whatever we thought life was like in January. The idea of normalcy is dead. Now I think it’s about creating what our new every day is going to look like. And I think it’s going to look very, very different.
Without a vaccine, without a cure, are people going to be comfortable travelling in a stranger’s car? You don’t know if the driver is infected. You don’t know if the person that was in the vehicle before was infected.
Will coronavirus increase car ownership? In the past — partially because of ridesharing — there was the sense of declining car ownership. But is this trend going to reverse? On the other hand, there are a lot of people who might not have the resources and the finances to own a vehicle.
Maybe the worst-case scenario is that people start buying more personal vehicles again, resulting in a huge decline in private transportation services and private transportation companies.
Or the best-case scenario is that we put in measures where after every ride, the vehicle is sanitized for the next person. Are drivers willing to go that extra mile to ensure their own safety and to ensure the safety of their customers and passengers? And are companies going to make it mandatory for drivers to sanitize their vehicles? If that is the case, how are you going to track that the drivers are doing this?
I think we’re definitely going to see a shift and in the transportation industry and how people are going to be commuting. The transportation industry in itself as a whole needs to go through a revamp. And I think they must think critically about how people are going to be a community because I don’t think that’s been part of the conversation.
Trevor: The other unknown variable will be that intersection between public and private transportation. Some people take public transportation hubs and then use rideshares for that “last mile.” But they are also substituting where people might say, “I don’t like that commute in a crowded bus or train. I’d rather take my chances with just a single driver.”
Of course, another dimension of this is commuting in general: with growing adoption of remote work, what happens if people don’t return to offices at all?
Aisha: Exactly. And I think that is some of the pieces that I’ve had to think about as we are designing our pivot because, like you said, a lot of companies have adapted to the idea of remote work. This means that the majority of people are now working from home [and avoiding commuting] to offices, with rush hour and all those different things. Why would they need to hop into a rideshare service? Maybe only if they’re going for grocery shopping or they’re going for a bite. And I can already see that happening: downtown Toronto was like a ghost town. This is a place that’s normally bustling. You assume that there’s still that vibrant energy. But it was just so dead. This is so surreal.
Trevor: DriveHER has been looking at this issue of safety for women, but it’s also the health and safety component with COVID-19 as well. How are you addressing this added layer of uncertainty in the space?
Aisha: For us, safety has always been at the forefront. So that’s also part of the reason why for us, this opportunity to pivot is vital, because now we’re not just looking at the safety of users or drivers, but we’re also looking at health safety. So how are we going to be ensuring that customers and drivers both feel safe in that space.
We are rethinking some of our past decisions and using this as a perfect opportunity to pivot. That aspect around safety and cleaning protocols is vital for us. It could be in the form of ensuring that every vehicle has hand sanitizer or wipes. Or making sure that there is that separator between the driver and the user to maintain that level of safety.
It’s a dynamic situation, but it’s important to really maintain that level of safety. Another thing that we’re playing around with is actually just getting rid of the “on demand” aspect and moving more toward scheduled transportation services, where you get that [time between rides] that would allow you to do those safety protocols and clean the vehicle if you need to.
Trevor: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on these various developments!
Aisha Addo founded Power To Girls Foundation, a non-profit organization to offer young girls the mentors and role models that were absent during my own youth. As a facilitator and director of Power To Girls, Aisha uses her personal experiences and knowledge to create safe and engaging spaces for the girls that work with her. Aisha is the recipient of the Young Black and Gifted Award for Community Service and was also named a Black Diversity Group Role Model and One of 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada and among the 150 Black Women making history in Toronto. DriveHER, the ride-sharing service for women by women, is Aisha’s latest initiative and the next step in her journey to continue to empower and protect women.