Car-sharing pioneer tells grads 'it is a time for heroes'

Robin Chase speaks at SUNY Oswego's May 16 Commencement.Green entrepreneur Robin Chase advised SUNY Oswego’s Class of 2009 to “create the world you want to live in” at the college’s two graduation ceremonies May 16 in the Campus Center.

See it on C-SPAN.


Create the World You Want to Live In

Address by Robin Chase at the 148th Commencement of SUNY Oswego, May 16, 2009


It’s so exiting to be here and share this day and this moment with you. At first blush, it is also kind of curious. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. Who in heck am I to tell you what to do with your life?  But as my children say, “Dad is always right; do what mom says.”

Obviously, I’m not your mom, but you should still do what I say. And I say:

Create the World You Want to Live In.

Let me explain what I mean.

First, the business case.

When my Zipcar co-founder, Antje Danielson, came back from Germany, where she’d seen a shared car on the street, I knew immediately that cars by the hour was what I needed, and something that would make my life better. That’s how I knew it was a business that would fill a large need for many urbanites, for whom the cost of a car outweighed the benefits.

Raising money in those early days, people thought it was impossible to let drivers take the car, drive it around, put it back in its same spot without having a company representative make sure it hadn’t been damaged. How could Zipcar possibly rely on the honor system? Maybe it would work in Switzerland, where car sharing was thriving, but it would never work in America! “We are fundamentally different from the Swiss: they have chocolate; we have guns,” cried the investors.

But I believe that most people are honest. I think we all do actually. But for some reason, when we start a business, some ancient Capitalist Rule exists that says that we (owners) and you (customers) are adversaries: you’re going to try to take advantage of us and therefore we need to try to take advantage of you.

But really, most people are ready to do the right thing and we designed the Zipcar system for them. And, yes, there are penalties thrown in to catch the misbehaving minority. But I knew that the Zipcars that lived in my neighborhood, close to my house, would feel like my own car, and I’d treat them well. It helped that we gave each car a name, and encouraged members to suggest names. Peter Prius, Mini Mia, and Roscoe Rav 4, have all lived near me.

I wanted the company to be cool, hip, fun, and funny, because that’s who I am—or, at least, who I wanted to be when I was in my personal Zipcar.

I used to write e-mails to members every three or four weeks. And I’d tell some great Zipcar story, do some nagging and reminding—watch out for potholes!—and ask for advice. It was really hard to get just the right tone. It would take me a day to write one, and the rule was that at least two other people had to read it and edit it before I could push the send button, sending it off to thousands of people. And I loved that feeling—Send! And away it would go lickety split to all of those people. And I’d always sign these e-mails “Robin (Chase), CEO” Why? Because in the world that I wanted, CEOs communicated with their customers personally. “The Man” didn’t exist. I wanted us to work together to create the place that we both liked better.

This was the same inspiration that led me to hold ZAP meetings—the Zipcar Advisory Panel. So let me tell you about our first one, where we’d invited eight members to give feedback and advice. We also invited one person who was vocal in his complaints about the company. And I was a wreck about how that was going to turn out. He was so flattered to be there and loved the fact that we listened to him, that he became one of our biggest supporters and would do media interviews.

As we went around the room, people were saying things like, “When Zipcar says have a nice day, they really mean have a nice day.” And, “I like getting personal e-mails from the CEO signed only with her first name.” And, “it feels like a community when I find change for the toll left in the cup holder.” Wow, I thought, building community is as easy as leaving 55 cents in a cup holder and signing e-mails with your first name.

But the truth was, these member stories were invaluable to me. They proved we were a community working together. I believed that we could be a high-growth and profitable company while having high ethical standards, providing excellent value, being responsive to our customers, and building a community.

I’ve got a collection of much loved anecdotes. And one of my favorites was from a woman who wrote in to thank us because she’d passed a civil service exam. Why thank Zipcar? Because as she was driving her Zipcar to get to the exam, she wanted to put herself in a positive frame of mind: “Think good thoughts, think about good things.” She said to herself. And then she said, “I know, I’ll think about Zipcar!” And she did, and she passed the exam, and she e-mailed us to thank us. In the world we were creating, good actions begat good feelings begat more good actions.

We continued our close ties with members through surveys. We’d get a 50 percent response rate, which is pretty unheard of. In an open-ended question, we got one remark from two different people: “Everything you say is true.” I loved this line. And I got it twice! So I printed it out really big and I put it on the wall in my office, and I told my kids at home to never question me again. After all, everything I said was true.

So investors and the press thought I was some kind of marketing genius. But trust me, I’m not. My secret was just believing that the world could be the place I wanted it to be. A place where CEOs care about and sincerely ask advice of their customers. A world where people care about what the next person using something we’ve touched is going to experience, where we are happy to pay for service rendered, and where there isn’t any lying or taking advantage of people—or at least, maybe not too much lying.

I’ve been in board meetings where people in power are happy to make decisions that take unfair advantage over employees and customers not in the room. Some people believe that capitalism is all about taking unfair advantage, about getting what is good for you and not caring about what it means to other people. I don’t believe that. While some power brokers have thought I was just so naive, I like to think that the stories about over-leveraged bad lending practices, the resulting toxic loans, the credit default swap meltdown, and Bernie Madoff all lead us to deeply understand that we must consider how our decisions affect others, that just because we can take advantage of others doesn’t mean that we should. I think you can create a FAIR advantage and win, because you are truly better at what you do and because you’re delivering something people want.

So this brings me to my second case: creating a world where good work is rewarded, and individual actions are valued.

I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact on the world. And when I graduated, I thought you had to be in a position of power to effect change. Today I realize that every day, we are all creating the world we live in, moment by moment. How we spend our time, what we buy, how we treat the people around us, what we say about people who aren’t around us, and whether or not we take into account the big picture—that all matters just as much as Rupert Murdoch deciding which newscaster to put on the Fox Evening News.

You don’t believe me? You think, “How could doing dishes be as important as Mr. Murdoch’s decisions?” Let me tell you.

Imagine if no one ever did the dishes at Mr. Murdoch’s house. So after he makes big decisions all day he comes home and there they are, stacking up and growing mold. Nobody does them. And then the mold turns toxic, and he breathes it in. Then he gets a lung infection, and he thinks it’s a cold. And, unfortunately, because no one does the dishes, he dies three days later. But I think in real life Mr. Murdoch eats out all the time.

So there were a number of years when I thought I wasn’t doing enough. I have three children, and while I was raising those children, I agonized over the work/family split. All those dreams I had of being an influential novelist, a CEO, a person who worked hard to make the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people better wasn’t happening. I thought I wasn’t making a mark.

Now I appreciate that all the menial jobs, and all the time I spent raising my kids and sitting in playgrounds, and the shopping, and even the dish-washing—all of it matters because it is all part of what needs to get done. Someone has to raise the children, model good behavior, hold the household together. I was a much better boss, because I’d spent the hours being an employee low on the totem pole and hours spent being a patient parent. Empathy as well as experience, as well as hard work, do matter.

Small actions add up to big actions. And we can’t get to the big results without all the small ones on the way. What I didn’t appreciate well enough before is that you need to value all the moments, from today until you land your dream job, and then beyond. It all matters.

Actually, we’re in a moment right now. You are sitting—filled with pride and being watched by people who love you and who are so proud of you. Soak it up! Remember how this air feels, how the background noises are, the angle of the light, the details of someone’s cell phone ring, and the small amusing incident, and how you feel when you get this hug after the ceremony.

And I’ve got to enjoy standing up here, being your graduation speaker and getting to reflect and passing on my experience. And I’ve got remember it and soak it up, too. So that when I go home and my 18-year-old doesn’t listen to me, I can recall this moment.

Why do you deserve this moment, or any moment? Because of all of those previous hours and hours of effort. Because of the hundreds of pages you’ve read, and that darned Ulysses you waded through, and the endless group projects, and the cramming for exams. We didn’t get this moment without the others, and that is why every single thing you do is valuable.

I do hope you become leaders some day—you probably deserve to and we need more leaders. But there is a critical thing to recognize: leaders need followers and collaborators. Brilliant ideas and visions only work because others help execute them. It’s a collaboration. Whenever you are doing work that needs to get done, it is valuable. When someone else is doing it for you, appreciate it. We can’t exist as a society without it all being done.

And now to my final case, which is the least fun and the most serious.

In this world where we value the individual, where your spouse values you for doing the dishes, and your boss values you for stapling and Xeroxing reports, and your mother and grandmother value you for taking them on a tour of the campus after this graduation to your favorite haunts—this world—if it is one that values every individual—must also be a world that accommodates every individual. And by every, I don’t just mean the rich and the poor, the gay and the straight, the old and the young, and all those elements that we think make up the politically correct diverse America. Creating a world I want to live in means I have to figure out how to make sure there will be a world to live in. I can’t be a pig with my resource consumption.

Today, there are 6.8 billion of us on this planet. We Americans, who represent 5 percent of the world’s population, consume 25 percent of the resources and produce 25 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.

I think there’s a new expanded Golden Rule we need to live by.  If we are to create the world we want to live in, it’s not enough to treat others as you would like to be treated. We also have to think about what would happen if everyone lived like we do. I think of it as the new Rule of Multiplication, and I think that’s part of what President Obama means when he says it’s time to start taking responsibility for our actions.

If everyone lived like we do—eats how we eat, drives what we drive, lives like we live, we’d need five planets. We can no longer be good people simply by treating others well. We must consider the effects of our consumption on the rest of the world.

John Holdren, who is Obama’s science advisor, told the UN that if the world’s CO2 emissions peak in 2015—six years from now—we have a 50 percent chance of averting catastrophic effects of climate change. Catastrophic includes 50 percent species loss this century, 1 to 3 meters’ sea level rise this century, and dramatic reductions in corn, wheat, and rice yields around the world this century. Catastrophic means death and enormous suffering for millions and millions of people, including us Americans who are seeing more fires, more drought, and more hurricanes than ever before.

If we are to create the world we want to live in—the world we can live in—we need to attend to climate change issues right now. We need to do everything we can to reduce CO2 emissions right now. And we need to motivate and enable millions of people to each do their small parts. Now. It sounds daunting.

But back to my earlier point—moment by moment we are creating this world. We don’t have to be daunted. We only have to look at the power and speed of Web 2.0 applications to appreciate that it can be done. Can you believe that YouTube was founded only four years ago? and Facebook only five years ago? Those websites are each visited by 85 million Americans each month.

When “Hot or Not” made a Facebook application, they had six million hits within five days. If only getting people to reduce their CO2 emissions was that easy!

In the nine years since Zipcar’s founding, it’s had an increasing impact. Doing a real back of the envelope calculation, I figure that this year alone Zipcar will avert production of about half a million tons of CO2, and possibly reduce the demand for cars by half a percent in this country (and that’s a lot!). Zipcar has made 275 thousand people satisfied with six thousand cars instead of 120 thousand cars.

And that’s a start, and not a bad one, but we need to come up with much more significant reductions on the order of several thousand times that. From half a million tons of CO2 averted, to reductions of several thousand millions of tons of CO2. And that’s what I’m working on now. I think the first half of this effort will actually be pretty easy and can happen very quickly. It means changes to the way we think about and how we use personal automobiles, and it means changes to how we finance our transportation and how the government spends that money.

So here’s the part where I want to talk to you for another hour on these topics. But since I’m creating the world that we want to live in, which includes caring about how bored and hungry and eager you are to be done, I’ll give you a break, and conclude.

You are at a pivotal moment in your lives. You are bringing all of your life experiences and learning forward, and starting your new adult lives. Be true to your best selves and create the world you want to live in.

We are at a pivotal moment in our species history. We have to bring our best ideas and our best selves to the task at hand. We have to create the world we all can live in. And moment by moment we are doing so. Don’t let these moments slip by, each one matters, they’re all adding up.

I’m going to end by doing something memorable and embarrassing, and something that my older daughter who is your age—and who helped me edit this paper—told me not to do. Are you ready? I’m going to give you something to talk about.

If we are to create the world we want to live in, it is time to go all out, to take risks, to sometimes be uncool, to be principled. It is a time for heroes—time for climate action heroes.


You graduates sitting out there. You are your family’s heroes. Become the world’s heroes. You have the tools and the props you need to accomplish the task ahead.

Go and create your world!


Ban-An Khaw’s remarks on accepting an honorary doctorate of science at SUNY Oswego’s 148th Commencement

(Posted: May 15, 2009)

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