Apps / Startups / Transportation / Travel

NoVa’s Empower wants to help drivers keep more of their profits

The startup created a new model for ride-hailing apps that its CEO thinks can make profit distribution more fair.

An Empower customer at work. (Courtesy Empower)
Update: This article has been updated since initial publication to clarify that Empower is a tech company, instead of a rideshare one. It has also been updated to specify what software is used in company's tech stack. (9/20/2023, 9:39 a.m.)

Before Joshua Sear created his tech-focused transportation startup, he was a lawyer who — like many folks out there — frequently used apps like Uber and Lyft. His discussions with people driving him often included familiar critiques.

“I would frequently ask drivers how they liked driving for Uber or Lyft and almost every single driver had the same two complaints,” Sear told “They were getting hammered financially because Uber was taking an increasingly large percentage of the fare and, two, they felt voiceless.”

As one driver eloquently put it, the large rideshare companies weren’t treating the drivers like the customers because they weren’t. Everything those companies do, Sear said, is centered around the riders’ experience.

So, in 2019, he set out to create a company that put drivers first — and was a software company, first and foremost. That became Empower, a 20-person startup based in McLean, Virginia. Instead of taking a portion of the fare, Empower lets drivers set their own fare and keep 100% of it. They just have to subscribe to the app.

“They have more control, they have a voice, they feel, for lack of a better word, empowered,” Sear said.

With this model, he said, drivers can make more money and set rates lower than the large companies since they’re keeping the whole fare. Riders can also set preferences like asking for a driver of the same gender or requesting their favorite drivers. Empower also wants to add an option for a driver who speaks the same language.

Empower initially launched in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before bringing its app to the DMV market in 2020. Currently, according to Sear, thousands of drivers use the app in the region.

Empower has four constituent app offerings: a driver and a rider app for both iOS and Android. They were all built in-house, according to Sear, using Azure Maps and Google Maps. Thus far, the company has raised $11 million, largely from high-net-worth individuals, and is cash-flow neutral.

The company reported that so far, riders save about 20% on average in their journeys, while drivers were able to grow their ridesharing business sustainably. Going forward, Sear said the company will likely raise again when it’s ready to move into new markets. Empower is in the early stages of a launch in New York City before it moves other cities across the US, but Sear is cautious about moving too fast with expansion.

“We want to be able to [expand] in a responsible way and make sure that we’re able to support those drivers and provide the resources they need so that they can run their business successfully,” Sear said.


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