Updated: Apr 22, 2019
The following article appeared on GreenBiz.com on October 22, 2018
Back again with the second article in a series featuring companies’ first dedicated sustainability leaders. This time, I speak with the team leading Lyft’s work on social impact and sustainability.
Love them or hate them, ride sharing apps are quickly changing the way we get around. They’re making our commutes easier, which is leading more people to travel by car. From the beginning, Lyft has carved out a reputation for itself as the friendlier of the ride hailers. The company’s interest in social issues has manifested in numerous ways, not least of which involve asking their then-head of global policy & strategy, Mike Masserman, to add social impact to his portfolio, then by naming Sam Arons as the first director of sustainability.
In the last year, Lyft has made some big climate impact commitments and accomplished some major milestones. In April, it made all Lyft rides carbon neutral, and in September, extended carbon neutrality to the rest of Lyft’s operations.
I caught up with Masserman and Arons to discuss Lyft’s journey on these issues. The conversations have been edited for clarity and length.
Mia Overall: As an outside observer, seeing Lyft take a stand on social and environmental issues makes sense. Ride hailing apps have been criticized for contributing to congestion and pollution. Plus, Uber made some missteps with the Muslim ban and other social issues. So as a high touch consumer good, I can see why Lyft would want to take on initiatives that create social good. Is there more to the story?
Mike Masserman: There is. Lyft’s commitment to social and environmental issues goes way back before the Muslim ban or any congestion issues. It goes back to a trip Lyft CEO Logan Green took to Zimbabwe, and to his days when he first founded Zimride, the predecessor to Lyft. Co-founders Green and John Zimmer were always focused on how the company could better connect our communities and eliminate congestion. Logan built The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) while in school at UC Santa Barbara, and John took a course at Cornell called Green Cities, which inspired him to focus on transportation. Sustainability was an issue that was always important to them, and is one of the primary reasons they got into this business.
Overall: You’ve been with Lyft for four years and were heading global policy and strategy. A year ago you began heading social impact as well. How did this come about?
Masserman: Being on the front lines of the policy discussions, many social issues come up — whether it’s reducing drinking and driving deaths or driving equity. I was always a proponent within the company that we needed to be talking about our impact in a more meaningful way because it was happening in departments all across the company. Many of us advocated for creating a program like this and then I was asked to take it on. It makes sense because our work is rooted in both policy and action.
Overall: What are some things you are very proud of accomplishing?
Masserman: We have made our entire fleet and office carbon neutral and we’re covering 100 percent of our electricity consumption with renewable energy. We’ve signed on to letters that we’re still in the Paris Agreement, and we advocate for policies that will help fight climate change.
Impact is embedded in our mission — to improve people’s lives. That’s why we created the "Round Up & Donate" tool. We also launched "The Ride to Vote" program. This year we launched the "Relief Rides" program, which is how we help people in crisis, such as women who’ve been domestically abused. People are very proud of this and it’s brought a lot of focus. Externally it’s changed the way people see Lyft.
Overall: What has it been like being the first person in this role? What have been the biggest challenges — internally or externally?
Masserman: Internally, one of the challenges — and opportunities — is that everyone is involved in social impact in some way. This comes from the company ethos of doing good, but the fact that everyone is interested also creates challenges because a lot of people have a lot of different passions. Lyft is a "for purpose value driven company." We’ve had to pull people back and focus on rides rather than cash donations.
Anytime you do something that's new, there is uncertainty. And many of the things we’re asked to do, no one in the company has done before. Some of the challenges include showing the metrics — and the results.
Overall: What have been some unexpected outcomes or benefits?
Masserman: We always knew there would be a great reaction from certain segments of the population. Still, we were surprised to see how many people are value driven and make decisions to work with companies that are doing the right thing.
On the policy front, the outcomes have been great. It’s easy to walk into a policy maker’s office and say, "We care about sustainability." But it’s a different experience to walk in and say, "We’ve made a multi million-dollar commitment."
Also, we’ve discovered many pain points that we are able to help with. In Detroit, for example, we formed a partnership with the city to give pregnant women rides to their doctors’ appointments. It has been very collaborative.
Overall: What have you learned?
Masserman: I’ve discovered how important it is to have buy-in from the top — John and Logan.
I’ve also had to learn how to say "yes-and" or "no-and." For example, we’ll get approached by a local nonprofit that wants to be part of the Round Up & Donate program. I’ve learned to say yes, perhaps in the future, and in the meantime here is a 20 percent discount code. We work with so many non-profits, I’ve learned that focusing on our superpowers is the way to have impact.
Overall: Given the public focus on climate change and GHG emissions, it seems natural for a company operating cars to have a role focused on sustainability. What led to Arons’s role being created when it was?
Masserman: Sustainability has been an issue that John and Logan have cared about. Sam has known Logan for a long time. We had to reach a certain size to be able to become carbon neutral. Hiring Sam was about bringing someone on board to focus not only on carbon offsets, but to build a best in class program related to green cities.
Overall: Sam, you joined Lyft as the first director of sustainability in March. How did you and Logan meet?
Sam Arons: We met in 2006 when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying energy and resources. At Berkeley, we started hearing about a guy named Logan down in Santa Barbara who had helped launch ...