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The GreenBiz Interview

Meet Lyft's first head of social impact and its first sustainability director

The ride-hailing service is positioning itself as a social impact and sustainability leader. Here's who's in the driver's seat.

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 The Green Initiative Fund. TGIF was a proposal to increase student fees by a few dollars a semester, which would raise thousands of dollars for sustainability projects on campus. It worked well there, so we created our own TGIF at Berkeley. He gave us advice on how to roll it out.

My graduate research was on plug-in vehicles, so I was getting involved in the transportation space. Logan later moved to the Bay Area to start working on Zimride, which at that time was a Facebook app. I thought it was tremendously cool and asked if I could help out. He said yes so I became part of the Zimride group — as the official note taker at meetings. I then graduated and went to work at Google.

Overall: How did you and Logan get back in touch?

Arons: We stayed in touch over the years. I followed Zimride getting sold to Enterprise. Logan reached out to me in 2016, around the time Google had made the announcement that it would achieve 100 percent renewable energy the following year. Logan wanted to know how we had done it at Google and how they might do something similar at Lyft. That led to a long conversation that unfurled over a year. I thought Lyft was a cool convergence of the electric vehicle space and the energy space. In a way, a transportation company became an energy company and I saw a way to bring these two worlds together to impact the future of planet.

Overall: A month after you joined Lyft, the company announced that all Lyft rides would be offset by carbon credits. What was involved in making that possible?

Arons: First, the directive to do that was coming straight from the top. The project had been started well before I got to Lyft, but no one was working on it full time. My first task was to help take it over the finish line, and I hit the ground sprinting. The volume of carbon credits was out there. We had done an RFP and received a number of bids by companies offering carbon credits. We ended up choosing 3 Degrees.

Overall: At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco a few weeks ago, Lyft announced that all operations are now carbon neutral.  What was involved in making that happen?

Arons: We made a two-part announcement. First, that we would offset all emissions from our business including rides (which were already offset), as well as all other operations. The second part is that all the electricity we use would be covered with renewable energy. 

In order to make that happen, the first thing we had to do was to calculate our carbon footprint so that we would know how much to purchase. We had an EDF Climate Corps Fellow, Matt Panopio, who helped make this possible. 

Overall: What drove the timing of these commitments (no pun intended)?

Arons: Climate change is one of the most urgent issues we are facing. It was less about us waiting for a particular moment, and more about us trying to work as quickly as we can.  We started by offsetting all rides because we were able to calculate the emissions. To offset the rest of our operations, we had to get the data on emissions and that wasn’t as readily available. That’s why it took longer. 

Overall: What has it been like being the first person in this role at Lyft?

Arons: It’s a lot of fun. I’m leaping out of bed every morning. I find it exciting, compelling, and there is so much to do that I try not to feel too overwhelmed.

Transportation is the largest source of GHG emissions, bigger than electricity. We have the opportunity now to make an enormous impact and lead the way. 

Lyft alone is not going to solve climate change. If we can show others that it is possible to run a viable business while going carbon neutral and electrifying your entire fleet, hopefully this will pave the way for others to do the same.

Overall: What things that have been the hardest to navigate?

 Arons: We’re growing at such an incredible pace that everyone is trying to do 12 things at once. There is support and enthusiasm for what our team is working on, but at the same time everyone is very busy with their day jobs growing the business.

My team’s role is to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of the business, but we also need to make it easier for our counterparts across the company to do that. For example, I might help write job descriptions for roles on other people’s teams, like the vehicles team, which by nature needs to sit in operations. I’ve also collaborated with the policy team to put together a set of priorities related to electric vehicles. I might also weigh in on budgetary considerations, such as where various teams need to incorporate sustainability-related activities into their budget.

Overall: At Google and now at Lyft, you’ve gone for really big goals. What advice would you have for other companies considering big goals like this?

Arons: You may be surprised by what you can accomplish. Setting big audacious goals can feel scary and overwhelming. You might not know how you will get there, but you certainly won’t get there if you don’t set the goal. If you set a big goal, you might not meet it, but you’ll accomplish a lot more than you would have if you hadn’t set the goal and you’ll learn a lot along the way. We can all do this, we all have to do this, so let’s get out there and make these things happen.

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