Santa Rosa ride-share company caters to women

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Renee Cooper never got used to this occupational hazard. A former driver for Uber and Lyft, it bothered Cooper that she knew nothing of the backgrounds of the people in the backseat of her car, some of whom could have been felons.

The anxiety cut both ways: female passengers often expressed relief, upon seeing Cooper, that their driver was a woman.

That gave her the idea to start Women Driving Women, a 3-year-old business now operating in Santa Rosa and San Diego.

Cooper’s business model differs from those of Lyft, Uber and even the handful of female ride-share companies in the country, such as Safr, which has a presence in San Francisco and five other U.S. cities.

It is not intended for someone who decides, following last call at the club, that it’s best not to drive home. Women Driving Women, rather, is “a personal driver service.” Before using it, potential riders must become members, for an annual fee of $25. Women then pay $2.25 per mile a ride. Seniors 65 and older are charged $1.75 a mile. Prospective drivers and members alike must undergo a background check for criminal history.

Once they pass, drivers are assigned a specific territory, usually around where they live. Customers are assigned drivers, who then become their regular, or “personal” driver.

The largest share of Cooper’s business comes from elderly women, who are comforted to see a familiar face, and the fact that her service doesn’t entail downloading an app on their smartphones.

Not only does Anne Arnold of Windsor not have a smartphone, “I don’t have a computer,” said the 79-year-old. “I don’t have an email, I just use the landline.”

Though she has adult children in the area who do their best to help her get to doctor appointments and the grocery store, “they have things to do, children of their own, and I felt badly that I was taking their time,” Arnold said. “I am so grateful for this company. They are a godsend to me.”

Her dedicated driver is Jude Alexander, who works three days a week in the Healdsburg Regional Library. A year and a half ago, Alexander was looking for part-time work and read about Cooper’s business.

“I’d just gotten a new electric car, and really enjoyed driving it,” she said. “So this was like kismet.”

The bulk of her customers, Alexander said, are women over 80, some over 90. They don’t text; they don’t email. “They want to talk to you,” she said.

Almost by accident, Cooper’s ride-share service has ended up scratching a social itch for riders and drivers alike. As Arnold said, many of the riders are widows who “don’t get to talk to anybody, unless the phone rings.”

“So when you get in the car, you have a nice conversation,” Arnold said. “I know a little about Jude, she knows a little about me. We get along really well.”

Sandee Huskey, 68, enjoys a similarly strong rapport with her usual driver, Jeannine Rossi. Leery of using Lyft or Uber, “not knowing whose car I was getting into,” Huskey has found Women Driving Women “ideal.” That’s a message she enthusiastically passed along on Monday to a woman who approached Rossi’s car, which was bedecked with custom WDW magnets.

Describing what appeals to her about the service, 77-year-old Pat Hellhake spoke of what a relief it is to not have to keep her truck serviced all the time. She also likes having a “captive audience” to talk to.

Her “captive” on Wednesday was Cooper, who was driving her to Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, where Hellhake would undergo six hours of chemotherapy.

The rise of ride-sharing companies catering specifically to women has raised the question: Do they illegally discriminate?

Cooper, who was born and raised in Santa Rosa and graduated from UC Irvine before earning her master’s degee in business administration from the University of Chicago, has devised a workaround. After consulting her co-owner and in-house counsel — her father, Richard Cooper, a trial attorney with five decades of experience in California — they decided to allow men to apply, as both drivers and riding members. She simply doesn’t advertise or market that aspect of the operation. Guys make up only a tiny fraction of Cooper’s membership of about a thousand.

“It’s like Staples, which, obviously sells more than just staples,” Renee Cooper said. “The name only represents part of my business.”

While a number of female-focused, ride-share operators have come and gone in recent years, “I do think there’s a demand” for them, said Harry Campbell, an Uber and Lyft driver in Los Angeles who runs The Rideshare blog and podcast.

While seniors provide the bulk of her business, school-aged children are another safety-conscious market Cooper is looking to tap. To increase the comfort level, parents and children have the option of meeting the driver before the youngster’s first ride.

Women feeling unsafe in ride-share situations is “a common complaint and pain point” that has created an opportunity for a company like Cooper’s, Campbell said. The trick, he said, will be for her to tweak her business model to best serve her local market.

For now, that market skews sharply toward the elderly.

One of the perks of running her business, Cooper said, is that “I’ve never been thanked so much by so many little old ladies.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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