CNBC make it 2024-03-01 02:50:47

50-year-old mom built a $1.3B startup inspired by unreliable school buses: It was ‘an aha moment’

This story is part of CNBC Make It’s The Moment series, where highly successful people reveal the critical moment that changed the trajectory of their lives and careers, discussing what drove them to make the leap into the unknown.

Sometimes, the ride to school for Ritu Narayan’s children arrived on time. Sometimes it didn’t.

Whenever her kids’ transportation plans fell through, the longtime tech product manager at companies like eBay and Oracle had to enter crisis mode and drop everything at work. She thought of her own mother, a former teacher in India who faced the same problem decades ago — and ultimately put her career aside to raise four children.

Narayan’s solution: She left her job to create Zum, an AI-backed electric school bus service that launched in 2015. It started as something of a self-funded Uber, chauffeuring kids to school with a fleet of vetted private drivers. Parents arranged rides ahead of time and tracked their child’s location through Zum’s app.

It caught on quickly with Bay Area parents. “The demand was super clear,” Narayan, 50, tells CNBC Make It.

Then, in 2019, she asked some local schools to promote Zum to parents. Instead, the schools offered to enlist Zum as a privatized school bus fleet, with electric vehicles and tracking abilities.

Narayan faced a turning point: Stick with her original vision, inspired by her mother, with its clear market and high demand? Or completely revamp Zum’s services and infrastructure, while jumping straight into competition with larger established bus companies?

The customer base would be larger — more than 25 million U.S. students rely on school buses. But chasing them could collapse her company.

She took the risk. Five years later, Zum is valued at $1.3 billion. It has more than $1.5 billion worth of contracts in place with over 4,000 private and public schools across California, Washington, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee and Maryland, Narayan says.

Here, Narayan discusses her thought process behind that difficult decision, why her choice paid off and her advice for anyone facing a dilemma that seems to pit emotion against logic.

CNBC Make It: Why was the decision to change Zum’s focus so difficult? How long did you deliberate?

Narayan: It took me a while — eight months, or so — because there was a personal story attached to the founding story. [My mother] faced this problem in India and I was here, sitting in the center of Silicon Valley, the center of innovation, facing the exact same problem.

I knew [Zum’s original model] was changing the lives of working parents. Working women would write to us how they went back to the job, started to advance more — because they didn’t have to run at 4 p.m. to pick up their children — and got promoted.

It was a success. So it felt like, in a way, you were letting them down by not having that service anymore. What helped me make a decision was when I could internalize this: In the end, I’m still serving children and I’m still serving parents.

Did it feel like a big risk to abandon a business model that was experiencing some success?

Yes, absolutely. We didn’t have specialization in running buses, so it meant a new set of capabilities that we would have to build. We had to reorganize the team, convince our board and investors.

We got momentum [from winning a five-year, $53 million contract with the Oakland Unified School District, which began in 2020]. There was a large customer, and their launch was a success for us. So everybody got aligned around something immediate and large to solve.

Then, the pandemic happened and all rides to school stopped for around five [or] six months. That gave us a “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade” type of situation. Since we weren’t in day-to-day operations, and we didn’t have to really serve existing customers, we used that time to very quickly enhance our product.

What’s your best advice about recognizing windows of opportunity and knowing when they’re worth the risk?

One of my investors calls it a crucible moment — where you could die, or you’re just surviving, or you could fly.

I have to give this analogy: A parent is always seeing, when a child is around, what could go wrong. It’s by default. [You need to be] always thinking about how the market is evolving, how the business is evolving, how the competition’s evolving, how the customers’ needs are evolving.

Many times, the needs change in the market. Many times, you land upon something unexpected, which happened in our case, which is even bigger than what you initially thought.

In those cases, [you] have to evolve, because it’s that crucible moment. If you don’t make the right decision, you wouldn’t be as successful as you could be.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Update: This story has been updated to include Narayan’s age, at the time of publication.

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17 factors that could qualify student loan borrowers for relief due to financial hardship

President Joe Biden and his administration are continuing their efforts to provide student debt relief to as many borrowers as possible.

After the Supreme Court ruled against Biden’s plan for mass debt forgiveness last year, the administration began the process of enacting forgiveness through a different legal pathway — by amending the Higher Education Act through a process known as negotiated rulemaking.

At this point in the process — which involves a number of discussions with various stakeholders including borrowers, advocacy groups, lawmakers and more — the rulemaking committee has identified five groups of borrowers who should be considered for debt relief. Borrowers who meet one or more of the following criteria would be eligible for debt relief under the current proposal:

  1. Owe more than they borrowed
  2. Have been repaying loans for 20 years or more
  3. Attended institutions that haven’t demonstrated successful student outcomes
  4. Are eligible for loan forgiveness but haven’t applied
  5. Are experiencing financial hardship

The committee reached consensus at its earlier meetings for how loan waivers should work for all the groups mentioned except those experiencing financial hardship. It struggled to come to an agreement on how to define hardship that would render a borrower eligible for relief.

As a result, the administration extended negotiation talks and added sessions in February to address the question of hardship. The committee came to a consensus on the issue at its final session on Feb. 23.

A proposed draft regulatory text will soon head to the Federal Register where the public will have the opportunity to comment and provide feedback before the new legislation goes into effect.

The proposal would give the Secretary of Education the power to waive federal student loan debts for borrowers facing hardship that “is likely to impair the borrower’s ability to fully repay the Federal government or the costs of enforcing the full amount of the debt are not justified by the expected benefits of continued collection of the entire debt,” the draft reads.

It goes on to list 17 factors that could substantiate hardship. The Education Secretary may consider any of the following factors:

  1. Household income
  2. Assets
  3. Type of loans and debt balance
  4. Current repayment status and history
  5. Total student debt balance and payments relative to income
  6. Total debt balances and required payments relative to income
  7. Receipt of Pell Grant and other information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
  8. Type and level of institution attended
  9. Student outcomes associated with programs attended
  10. Postsecondary education and relative federal financial assistance received
  11. Age
  12. Disability
  13. Age of borrowers loan based on first disbursement
  14. Receipt of means-tested public benefits 
  15. High essential costs such as healthcare, caretaking and household
  16. Extent to which hardship may persist
  17. Any other indicators of hardship identified by the Secretary

The draft also includes a provision that would allow the Secretary to provide “immediate relief” to borrowers who are “at least 80% likely to be in default in the next two years.”

You may notice there aren’t explicit thresholds listed for things like “household income” or when considering debt to income ratios. That’s because the Department of Education wants to retain flexibility in whose debt it is able to discharge. The final rule may include more specific language in its preamble rather than in the regulatory text.

“Although the preamble language is not negotiated, the Department may agree during the negotiations to include in the preamble explanations of certain issues,” the Department’s website reads.

After the public comment period ends, the Department will issue its final rule. If that comes out before November of this year, the regulation could go into effect in July of 2025.

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC’s new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay. CNBC Make It readers can save 25% with discount code 25OFF.

29-year-old makes $125,000 working in tech without a bachelor’s degree—here’s how

This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Ditching the Degree series, where women who have built six-figure careers without a bachelor’s degree reveal the secrets of their success. Got a story to tell? Let us know! Email us at

Ayana Dunlap had her dream job picked out before she even graduated high school. 

She would spend her adult life somewhere exotic behind the front desk of a hotel in a designer suit helping guests, just like the polished women she met on vacation with her mom.

For a while, Dunlap lived out her childhood fantasy. She landed her first front desk job when she was 18 at a small hotel near Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, right before graduating high school, and continued to work at hotels well into her 20s. 

“I thought I found my forever career,” she tells CNBC Make It

In college, she chose to pursue an associate’s degree in business administration, thinking the concentration — and the shorter timeline to graduation, compared to a bachelor’s degree — would bring her one step closer to becoming a hotel manager. Dunlap graduated from Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania in 2016.

Now, the 29-year-old laughs at the plans she made almost 10 years ago.

Dunlap was one of the millions of hotel and restaurant employees who lost their jobs in 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and were pushed into new careers as furloughs and lockdowns dragged on.

Even though she doesn’t have the job she wanted as a kid, Dunlap found a different vocation she loves: technology. 

Dunlap has been working in tech since 2020. Currently, she’s the assistant vice president of operations and information technology at the Bank Policy Institute, a public policy, research and advocacy group that represents U.S. banks in Washington, D.C. 

She’s earning about $125,000 in her role, according to financial documents reviewed by CNBC Make It — a salary that Dunlap says would have been “unimaginable” at this point in her career, had she stayed in hospitality. 

Here’s how she pivoted her career and earns six figures without a bachelor’s degree

Getting into IT without experience 

Dunlap jokes that she was working in tech long before it became official, as her older co-workers would come to her for computer help at nearly every job she’s had. 

She moved to the Washington, D.C. area right after college and spent several years working for Widewaters Hotel Group & Magna Hospitality Group on their sales team, out of different hotels in the DMV area. Right before the pandemic started, she worked as a senior sales manager out of the Hilton Garden Inn Tysons Corner.

“I was the youngest person on my team, and always getting pulled to unfreeze computer screens, edit documents and refresh WiFi connections,” she says. “But I didn’t mind it, I always thought it was fun.” 

Dunlap didn’t consider turning her knack for computers into her career until she was laid off from her sales job in June 2020. 

Weeks after losing her job, she remembers sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor, venting to her friends on FaceTime, feeling “anxious and unsure” about what to do next. 

“I spent years working in the same industry and building up my career, only for the pandemic to put it on an indefinite hold,” she recalls. 

One of her friends mentioned a free online course that she had seen advertised on Google: a 15-week IT support course from Per Scholas, a national tech training non-profit headquartered in New York. 

As part of the course, Dunlap would receive three certifications: A Google IT support certificate, CompTIA Security+ certification and CompTIA Network+ certification. Another benefit: Per Scholas partners with employers across the U.S. to recruit and recommend candidates from their boot camps for open tech roles.

Dunlap started the Per Scholas program in August and graduated in November with an offer for a hybrid job in hand as a tier 2 technical support engineer at designDATA, an IT services and consulting firm headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

While working there, Dunlap was tasked with helping organizations prepare to return to the office, by setting up their desktops, routers and printers on-site. 

One of those organizations, the Bank Policy Institute, would make Dunlap an offer she says she couldn’t refuse. 

Skills worth six figures 

After weeks of helping the Bank Policy Institute prep for their return to the office, its president and CEO, Greg Baer, invited Dunlap to work with them full-time. 

Dunlap was hesitant to leave designDATA, having worked there for just under a year, but those doubts dissipated as soon as she received her offer letter. 

The Bank Policy Institute wanted to give her a better title — Assistant Vice President of Operations and Information Technology — and more money. Dunlap’s starting salary would be $80,000, which was “competitively more” than what she was making at designDATA (she declined to share her exact salary). 

Dunlap started her new role in August 2021. She’s received two raises since joining the Bank Policy Institute, based on job evaluations and taking on more responsibilities. The first, in 2022, bumped her salary to about $98,000. A subsequent raise, effective in January, raised her annual compensation to $125,000.

The IT and AV support skills Dunlap learned in the Per Scholas program — problem-solving, understanding different operating systems and diagnosing software or hardware faults — played a big role in her ability to transition into tech without a bachelor’s degree. But so did the soft skills she picked up while working in hotels, namely communication and customer service.

Customer service, in particular, is a “game-changer” that can help you stand out from other candidates competing for the same tech job, Dunlap adds. 

“I think a lot of people forget that being patient and friendly is so important when you’re helping people with stressful computer issues,” she explains. “I was told, directly, that having that skillset, just by working in hospitality, was a huge bonus.”

Dunlap’s biggest piece of advice for others hoping to land a high-paying job without a bachelor’s degree? Don’t underestimate the value of your transferable skills. 

“Sometimes, society deems people who don’t have a four-year degree as uneducated, but just because you choose not to pursue that doesn’t mean you can’t educate yourself in other ways and bring value to the table. You can read books, take boot camps online, there are so many ways to improve your skills,” she says. “If you take stock of what you’re good at and lean into that, you’ll go far in your career.”

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC’s new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay. CNBC Make It readers can save 25% with discount code 25OFF.

How a 23-year-old started a side hustle that brings in $10,300/mo: ‘It doesn’t feel like work to me’

Sophie Riegel turned her boredom into a six-figure side hustle.

Riegel was a Duke University freshman in 2020, when Covid-19 turned her first year of college into a remote experience. She was “so bored” at home, and began searching her childhood bedroom for unused clothing and other items she might sell online to “make some extra money,” she says.

She found a few items, and netted roughly $200 selling them. “I probably sold, like, an item a week for the first couple months of me selling my own stuff,” says Riegel, 23.

Hooked, she combed through thrift stores around Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Within weeks, she was selling roughly $50 per day of thrifted clothing, mostly buying T-shirts for $1 apiece and selling them for up to $10.

Last year, Riegel graduated from Duke with a degree in psychology, and her side hustle brought in nearly $123,800 in sales — more than $10,300 per month — on online marketplaces like eBay, Mercari and Poshmark, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.

Don’t miss: 28-year-old’s side hustle makes up to $113,500 per year—and it only costs $50 to start

Riegel has pocketed more than $192,000 in total net profit since starting her venture, after accounting for platform fees and the cost of goods. The total figure is slightly higher, she says, due to in-person sales and other revenue for which she doesn’t have documentation.

Now, Riegel sells around 10 items per day, averaging between $400 and $500 in revenue daily. She spends up to 25 hours per week working on her side hustle, she says — in addition to her day job as a professional writer, speaker and mental health coach.

“I’ve been doing [my side hustle] for about three and a half years now, and I wouldn’t do anything else,” says Riegel. “I love it so much. It makes me so happy.”

‘It gives me so much freedom’

Riegel’s full-time career is the kind of job that can require time to develop and build a steady stream of clients. That makes her side hustle money particularly valuable.

’It just gives me so much freedom to do what I really want to do,” she says. “Not only financial freedom … I can have coaching calls at any time, do speaking gigs anytime, because I’m not bound by a 9-to-5 job.”

The payoff isn’t accidental: In her side hustle’s early days, Riegel conducted a lot of research. “I followed tons and tons and tons of other resellers [on YouTube],” she says. “I spent hours and hours learning brands, learning how to use all of the platforms. And in my first year, I had $70,000 or so in sales.”

I followed tons and tons and tons of other resellers [on YouTube]. I spent hours and hours learning brands, learning how to use all of the platforms.
Sophie Riegel

Riegel studied bestsellers across multiple marketplaces to learn which specific items and brands would likely sell quickly or fetch a high price — like Lululemon leggings or Hoka sneakers. Once-expensive items tend to have good resale value, no matter how cheap they are to thrift, she says: A jacket from J. Crew or Carhartt might cost her $10 to $20 in person, but fetch $50 to $150 online.

She learned her local thrift stores’ restocking schedules, too — so she could avoid repeatedly wading through the same items, and get early dibs on new ones. Once, she bought a vintage Chanel purse for $2 and sold it on eBay a few months later for for $1,000: “That was incredible,” she says.

‘I’m going to do it for as long as I can’

Riegel’s side hustle comprised roughly 70% of her income in 2023, she says. This year, she expects a more even 50-50 split as she adds more coaching clients and speaking opportunities.

The side hustle comes with challenges — like keeping track of the roughly 1,300 pieces of inventory she usually has in stock. Riegel spends much of her time researching clothing, photographing items, editing the photos, listing the items online and cataloging them so she can find them quickly in storage once they sell.

Eventually, she might hire employees to help with the aspects of reselling that can feel like a slog, she says — just not the actual shopping.

“Technically, the thrifting takes the most time,” Riegel says. “But it doesn’t feel like work to me.”

As her two careers tracks evolve, Riegel sees no reason to slow down or stop her side hustle. Thrifting makes her happy, and “you can’t put a price” on that, she says. She’s even growing that part of the business by posting her own instructional videos on YouTube and selling her services as a reselling coach.

“I’m going to do it for as long as I can. Both of these [careers] make me happy,” says Riegel. “They both allow me to be independent, and I don’t have to choose between one thing or another.”

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC’s new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay.

Bitcoin will soon be ‘halved’—what that means for its price

Bitcoin’s price has surged 36% since spot bitcoin ETFs were approved on Jan. 10. As of Thursday morning, its price was around $62,460.

But an upcoming event known as halving could that push price growth further.

Halving happens automatically when 210,000 “blocks” are created as part of the bitcoin mining process. This happens approximately every four years, and it discourages coin production by reducing the reward for mining new bitcoin by half. The last halving event was in 2020, and the next one is expected sometime in April.

Halving is meant to slow the supply of coins as it approaches its total supply, which is capped at 21 million coins. The built-in mechanism mimics the scarcity of gold and ensures that bitcoin mining becomes more expensive over time.

“The expectation is that the halving will lead to an increase in price because people expect supply to become constrained,” says Douglas Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth and a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council.

“When supply goes down, price goes up, assuming demand remains the same or greater,” says Boneparth, who holds investments in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Historically, the value of bitcoin has increased shortly after its three previous halving events, albeit with diminishing returns with each halving, according to CoinDesk.

Of course, the implications of bitcoin’s halving could be baked into its current price, since the imminent halving is widely known.

“It could be priced in, but now that the spot ETFs are here, the thinking is that institutions will need to buy more bitcoin on the open market to back the flows into their funds,” says Boneparth.

Should you invest in bitcoin?

As with all cryptocurrencies, bitcoin is a highly speculative asset that’s extremely volatile, sometimes with price fluctuations of 5% to 10% in a single day.

While money can be made on bitcoin’s price swings, past performance doesn’t guarantee future success. There are no guarantees that it will retain any of its current value, either.

And unlike traditional investments such as stocks or bonds, bitcoin doesn’t represent ownership in a physical asset or a claim on future earnings.

Financial planners commonly recommend traditional investments like S&P 500 index funds, which offer less risk. Plus, the S&P 500′s average annual return is more than 10%.

That said, some experts may recommend a small stake in bitcoin as part of a diversified portfolio of investments. But even so, it’s still considered a high-risk asset.

“I think it makes sense for most folks to hold a small holding of cryptocurrencies, maybe 1% or 2% of an entire portfolio,” Chris Diodato, a CFP and founder of WELLth Financial Planning, previously told CNBC Make It.

“I’m hesitant to recommend more because, in addition to its significant volatility, it doesn’t produce cash flow like traditional investments — it’s only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it.”

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC’s new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay. CNBC Make It readers can save 25% with discount code 25OFF.