By Nadira Jamerson | Word In Black
(WIB) – What happens when you’re headed to work and your car refuses to start? Let that happen five times, and you risk losing your job.
This isn’t a hypothetical for people living in transportation deserts where public transit — bus, subway, or light rail — options are practically nonexistent. And it’s not just about getting to work. We rely on transportation for everything, from picking up the kids from school to getting to the grocery store, doctor’s office, or hair salon.
“Typically, you find places like New York, L.A., Chicago — you find bigger cities have better transportation, but transportation deserts still exist there,” says Trent Griffen-Braaf, CEO and founder of Tech Valley Shuttle, an Upstate New York-based company that’s on a mission to fight poverty through transportation solutions, empowering employees, and building an entrepreneurial spirit.
“I have a goal year over year for how many people I want to help,” Griffen-Braaf says. “Last year, my goal was to help at least 500 people, and I achieved that. This year, my goal is to help at least 1,000 people, and we’ve already helped a couple hundred. I’ve personally helped set up 50 new businesses.”
The company achieves all this by getting people living in transportation deserts to their jobs, helping people to their doctor’s appointments, and assisting employers in hiring workers who don’t have transportation.
A 2015 Harvard study found that commuting time is the strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty in the United States. According to the study, a longer commute lowers the chances of a low-income family becoming more financially secure.
Historically, “transportation supported redlining,” Griffen-Braaf explains. “Public transportation was set up to keep individuals who were redlined without access to these other areas.”
And the times haven’t exactly changed. “Oftentimes, these other areas today are the areas where they are employment opportunities, healthy food options, and things of that nature,”
Indeed, researchers at Rice University found that “all forms of transportation have been used to enable and implement racism.”
Griffen-Braaf first became interested in transportation and how its impact on communities after he was released from a three-year prison stint for a nonviolent drug offense. He also had to serve three years of probation, during which time he was restricted from driving a car.
“Upon release, my parole officer wouldn’t let me drive. The nature of my crime being drug trafficking, he didn’t want me to have my driver’s license. That led me to have to take public transportation,” he says.
While working temp jobs, he quickly learned that public transportation was unreliable.
“You can’t rely on public transportation,” he says. “It wasn’t helping me get to my doctor’s appointment and get my kids from daycare.”
Griffen-Braaf went on to work several jobs before landing a gig with Marriott Hotels in Albany, New York. Over the course of six years, he worked his way up from cleaning toilets to being the general manager of the hotel. Still, Griffen-Braaf dreamed of owning his business — and he knew just where to start: transportation.
In 2016, Griffen-Braaf launched Tech Valley Hospitality Shuttle, transporting hotel guests around the city. By 2018, he’d learned about workforce transportation and how much employees desperately needed reliable ways to get to their jobs, so he expanded Tech Valley Hospitality Shuttle into Tech Valley Shuttle and partnered with more businesses outside of the hospitality industry.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, the company teamed up with schools, nonprofit organizations, and essential businesses to make sure folks could still get to important appointments.
“We started to deliver food for individuals. We saved a couple of organizations because people needed to get to work, and they didn’t have employees. We also started nonemergency medical transportation,” he says.
Inclusivity in Action
Tech Valley Shuttle actively seeks out formerly incarcerated individuals, veterans, and disabled people for employment, helping them to reenter the workforce.
“We’re hiring ex-offenders, veterans, and disabled people — all of the people who are usually counted out, those are the people we work with,” Griffen-Braaf says.
To that end, Tech Valley Shuttle also provides its employees the chance to participate in its Roadmap to Success initiative, which transitions individuals from a poverty mindset to a pride mindset, and actively nurtures an entrepreneurial spirit.
“People come to my office every day, and they pour into my vision and my dream. It’s important that I pour into their vision and their dream in the same way,” Griffen-Braaf says.