There was a time when concerned mothers would tell their teen children: Don’t walk alone at night. Take a cab. It’s safer. A few years ago, parents began substituting “an Uber” for “a cab.” The language changed, but the message was the same.
Now parents and riders concerned about safety have another option: Chariot for Women, a ride-sharing service slated for an April 19 launch throughout the U.S. The company, which is based Charlton, Massachusetts, is not hesitating to take arms against Uber and Lyft, billing itself as a safer option than the market-leading ride-sharing companies for several reasons: First, all its drivers will be women. Second, it will only pick up female riders or males under age 13.
In addition, Chariot for Women is promising that while its fares will be comparable to those of Uber and Lyft, there will be no surge pricing. But wait, there’s more: Founder Michael Pelletz, is an erstwhile Uber driver. And he got the idea for the company after giving a ride to a passenger who made him feel unsafe. According to various reports, Chariot for Women has signed up more than 1,000 drivers so far.
You could argue Chariot for Women is a timely idea. But the idea raises a straightforward question: Is it legal to hire employees of only one gender—or to deny your service to would-be customers based on gender or age? Recently employment lawyers told the Boston Globe that they doubted Chariot for Women’s hiring or the customer-selection practices would hold up against legal challenges.
But the law, as any entrepreneur knows, is meant to be bent or modified when there’s money on the line. As the Globe points out, the Massachusetts state Legislature created an exception in gender discrimination law for fitness facilities in the late 1990s to accommodate the women-only health club Healthworks. If lawmakers could make an exception for health clubs, why couldn’t they make one for ride-sharing services?
What’s more, you can make a case that any startup pushing legal boundaries is a startup worth paying attention to. Thomas Goetz, founder of venture-backed health care tech startup Iodine, made this very point in a column for Inc.’s October issue. “Many successful companies have thrived by crossing into dangerous territory,” he writes.
Facebook has time and again pushed the boundaries on privacy, in the interest of building more connections for its users (and more revenue opportunities for itself). And Uber, everybody’s favorite example of a no-holds-barred company these days, has willfully flouted local laws and regulations in its haste to conquer new cities and countries.
Those are two prominent examples. There are more. In 2014, a report by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman indicated that Airbnb’s New York rentals had violated zoning and other laws. Aereo raised $100 million in funding before the Supreme Court hammered nails in its coffin. And not a week goes by, it seems, without someone challenging the legality of fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, both of which boast billion-dollar valuations.
The point is this: As frightening is it can be to feel as if the fate of your business model depends on the scales of justice, that very dependence is also a positive sign. It indicates that you’ve hit on something pervasive and vital enough to be the province of judges and lawmakers.
“Your new thing can’t be merely better than the status quo; it needs to be so great that it is sought out over the old, familiar thing,” writes Goetz. “To do that, your new thing must be more than provocative; it must be dangerous.” Even if it’s all about safety.