How Aisha Addo’s new app is giving women in the city a smoother—and safer—ride
BY ROSEMARY COUNTER
To any woman who braves late-night transportation through the city, the story that inspired Aisha Addo’s newest business venture is all too familiar. “Late at night, I got into a cab going home from Toronto to Mississauga,” says the 26-year-old. While cruising along the highway, the driver first asked about her day, then if she had a boyfriend, and then if she lived alone.
Frightened and with limited options save barrel-rolling out the door, Addo called a friend and asked her to stay on the phone with her until she got home safe. It’s an old trick savvy women have long used to survive the bleak truth. “There’s just no regard and no respect for women when they’re travelling alone, particularly at night.”
By day, Addo runs the Power to Girls Foundation, a Toronto-based non-profit that provides one-on-one and group mentorship, recreational programs and community interaction to support health and confidence in young girls. She founded the organization in 2011 because of her own need for community support. At age 14 she’d come to Canada from Ghana, by herself, to live with her aunt in Toronto. But Canada wasn’t the welcoming safe haven she’d hoped for. “It was a huge culture shock to me,” she says. A good student with aspirations of becoming a lawyer or a doctor, Addo was bullied at school for being African, and deeply troubled by the stereotypes forced upon her. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was as opposed to who other people wanted me to be.”
Her first years in the city were lonely. “I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, much less marginalized folk like myself,” says Addo. Luckily, a tight circle of girlfriends got her through it. “When I finally found my girls, they became this for me, and me for them, and that’s how the organization started.”
Although by then she was enrolled at George Brown, studying business admin to become an accountant, Addo had already realized her heart was taking her elsewhere. When she was 20, she created the safe space for Afro-diaspora girls that she herself had needed a few years earlier. Power to Girls also collects clothes, books, toys and cash to support orphans in Ghana.
As one of the city’s highest-profile changemakers—among many accolades, Addo was named one of 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada and was among the 150 Black women making history in Toronto— she believed that all women need, and deserve, a safe space to get to and fro, and a fateful Uber drive sealed the deal. “The very first time I took an Uber, I was so surprised and happy that my driver was a woman. I told her so, and she said that she got that reaction a lot, and that’s when I realized there was a demand here for comfort and safety—for both passengers and drivers.”
DriveHER is an all-women ride-share service in Toronto that beta-launched in March 2018 and officially went live in November. She says starting the business has been a tough journey from the outset. “Honestly, there have been so many times where I just thought, ‘You know what? Forget it,’” she says. “But it was having all these women—and fathers of girls—reaching out and telling me that they wanted to use the service that kept me going.”
It wasn’t just the technical issues that almost kept DriveHER from taking off. “As a woman creating a service for women, I’d often find myself in front of five men who got to decide why—and if— this is important,” Addo says. While she navigated the logistics (red tape, finding funding and securing insurance, for example), cases of sexual assault by cab drivers landed in front of Canadian judges and into the public consciousness.
In May 2017, for instance, a Nova Scotia judge ruled that “a drunk can consent” and acquitted a taxi driver for assaulting his unconscious passenger. In November, Uber pledged $5 million over the next five years to prevent sexual assaults, but for many, that commitment came too late. More than 3,000 women downloaded the DriveHER app during the beta launch, and almost 65 drivers are already serving excited DriveHER customers.
If all goes well, Addo will continue to grow her business and may soon expand into other cities. She’ll also continue to be the face of—and the brains behind—Power to Girls, and says she’s also always on the lookout for her next endeavour. Just not right now, she says, laughing. “I don’t know where I’m going yet, but I’m due for a vacation.”
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