By SHELAGH BRALEY
CHARLTON, Mass.—For women who have been nervous to take an Uber or a Lyft, or hesitant to drive one out of safety concerns: Your Chariot has arrived.
Chariot for Women, the new ride-share app built in Boston and launching nationwide April 19, will serve the millions of women who have been left on the sidewalk, who wouldn’t dare step foot in an Uber for fear of safety, and the millions more who wouldn’t drive for the same reason.
“Uber does $68 billion a year in business,” says co-founder Michael Pelletz, 41, a former Uber driver with more than 850 rides under his belt. “But they’ve forgotten about the women. It’s just too bad.
“Let’s put it this way: Uber is small compared with what we’re going to be.”
But Michael and Kelly Pelletz, the founding team driving Chariot, don’t talk about making billions. In their first in-depth interview, they talk about giving to women—providing safety when taking a ride, and providing the economic muscle to empower them worldwide.
Kelly Pelletz, 43, a nurse, watched Michael making money as an Uber driver. But the thought of driving herself made her nervous. “It was literally just a conversation,” she says. “Michael was ubering and I saw the money he was making. I wanted to do it but I could not imagine myself picking up a strange man.”
Chariot for Women will make that possible, with technology they say will ensure safety for “mothers, children, all passengers, that will make everyone comfortable, safe and secure,” Michael says.
Kelly addressed the underlying sense of fear and vulnerability in the ride-share market for women: “There’s an anxiety. We’re taught to run away and put up our defenses, and think about how we’re going to get out of (a bad) situation,” she says. “It’s mind-boggling what things could occur with that fear being gone, that’s where the empowerment comes in.”
That experience of empowerment begins before even entering the car: Right away, the app directs customers to choose a charity to benefit from their ride. Chariot for Women has committed 2 percent of every ride, 24 hours a day, to charity—crowdsourced by its own riders. “Before any person can get a ride, they have to first pick a charity, and that starts the whole process of feeling good,” Michael says. “ ‘Not only can I feel safe, I get to give back.’ ”
Kelly says she sees an opportunity to help meet the needs of charities that could benefit from drivers, too. “I think of being able to co-partner with these charities and do something where we can provide rides for them. We can do a lot more than just provide funding,” she says.
The service will fully tailor the experience to women, including free ride incentives, and beauty services en route, offering passengers 15-minute makeovers in the back seat.
If Uber founder Travis Kalanick looks in the rearview mirror, the competition is coming up fast, and she’s driving a Tesla. With more than 4,000 drivers already signed up for work in the last six weeks, the Pelletzes have worked out a competitive strategy in a tight market. Top Chariot earners will be given their own luxury electric cars, much like Mary Kay rewards top makeup sellers with signature pink vehicles.
“We have partnered with Tesla,” Michael says. “So the top 1% earning drivers across the country, we’re going to give them a free Tesla.”
Chariot for Women takes a unique, targeted approach to recruiting, by becoming a sales channel for other brand ambassadors. “Mary Kay has 3.2 million women consultants. They hire 700,000 and lose 500,000 a year, because how many times can women say, ‘Will you buy from me, or come to my party’ to their friends? Our idea is to partner with Mary Kay and companies like that, and recommend that their consultants drive on the side, because most Mary Kay consults have cars and run home parties. Home parties are where we’re going to get most of our drivers,” Michael says.
He describes drivers picking up 20 passengers a day, and meeting new people who could potentially use their services. “We’re not going to let them sell, but they can at least make the connection, maybe give out a business card.”
Trust is their trade, so drivers must earn their spots, Kelly says. To ensure the safest drivers in the fleet, Chariot needed a security company that could prove it. “We have complete trust in the security company that we chose,” Kelly said. “(Safer Places) offers the highest technology and they’re willing to go above and beyond.”
“Let’s say I pass for Uber or Lyft, but then three weeks later, I get a DUI, and there’s no way they could know it,” Michael says. “We’re doing random checks every day—driving record checks, convictions—that’s the big advantage we have with (Safer Places) David Sawyer and Peter Scott.” Scott was with the Brookline Police for 30 years, retiring as captain. Sawyer is founder and CEO of Safer Places of Middleboro, Mass.
Michael says the problem with a lot of startups is that although they have great ideas, the money to fund it is hard to come by. It was right after a personal episode driving for Uber that the couple’s ideas and capital started to come together.
“I had an incident with a gentleman in the back of my car, he was a kid … I’d drive, and he’d pass out then he’d hear the GPS say turn left and he’d wake up. He started shifting around and getting really fidgety, I thought he could be robbing me for money for drugs. He called Kelly and described what was happening.
“I said, ‘Oh, he’s not just drunk, he’s overdosing,’” Kelly recalls.
“She’s a nurse, so she can say that, she’d know,” Michael continues. “Luckily, I was in Kenmore Square, and there were two police officers there. He was passed out again so I pulled over and said to the police, there’s something wrong, maybe you can get him an ambulance.”
Right after that, he says his first partner called. “We had a lot of connections in China, and he wanted me to invent something. I said, ‘Forget that whole invention, listen to this idea.’ He said ‘I’m going to invest 100 percent in you.’ Potential investors have been getting in touch, despite their “trying to give us money. We’re always open to hearing offers,” he says offhand.
He says not worrying about money has allowed their creativity to flow. “I actually started it Feb 16. It’s only been seven weeks and we’ve done all this. We’ve been able to put together a whole team, 15 now, from PR to marketing to design, an amazing attorney, the app builder—she has a lot of experience with ride-share apps. The best part about the team is, when I talk to them every day, and they’re like, I can’t sleep now.
“Everyone we’ve brought on board has been so passionate. It’s been so exciting to see,” Kelly says.
Making chauffeur dads’ and moms’ lives easier is part of the plan, too. “Another market (our competitors) already missed are rural areas. We eventually are going to certify all our drivers as like bus drivers, so you can have a whole business out in Charlton, just carpooling and driving to dance and soccer—we can do that for them,” Michael says.
But to correct a misconception from a TV shot of an early Chariot: “Not all of our cars have booster seats. A lot of mom drivers have them already. But when you request a ride, the app asks if children are riding, and what age they are,” he says. If a driver doesn’t have the required seat, the passenger can use their own or the driver will refer the ride to one who has the equipment on hand.
The couple talks candidly about feminism, and about the role of men in a company that solves a woman’s problem. “I’m very in touch with my feelings, so I can put my feelings aside, to really listen to other people. I was made to love, respect, honor and keep (women) safe. If that’s feminism, then that’s who I am,” Michael says.
“This is why I fell in love with him,” Kelly says. “He really is.”
Their children (ages 15, 11 and 8), have had a front seat to their parents launching a company with global potential, and solving a major problem. “Sometimes they understand it, and sometimes they don’t, you know, because they’ve never taken an Uber,” Kelly says, laughing.
“Our 15 year old knows, because Uber is in rap songs,” Michael says. “She says you’ll know you’ve made it when you’re in a song.”