App-ordered transportation is everywhere, especially in traffic-heavy cities like Seattle. But services like Car2go and Uber leave things to chance, based on what vehicle or driver is nearby. Seattle startup Moovn plays to the careful planners by allowing them to prebook their rides. And with expansion into his native Africa, founder Godwin Gabriel hopes to be a leader in not only transportation, but also global technological awareness. As told to Stefan Milne
Kilimanjaro to the U.S.
I was born in Tanzania, the land of Kilimanjaro. I have a brother who’s now a senator in Tanzania and siblings who are doctors. In 1995, at 19, I came to Seattle University for a law degree, but I loved the rhythm of business more than sifting through papers. There are so many resources in America for someone like myself to be able to dream big and fulfill those dreams as long as they have passion.
I took a break during college, mostly because I had a daughter at age 20, but I did night classes to keep up. And in between I worked in the hospitality industry—in high school, I worked a summer job for a Sheraton Hotel in Tanzania—and by 1999 I was the task force manager responsible for opening the W Hotel in Seattle.
A Self-Made Man
In 2003, I formed Elite Cars after noticing a lot of hotel guests were in need of transportation. We allowed the customer to rent a vehicle or to have a chauffeur. We had a website with a very solid booking engine, and most revenues were generated from our website. It was sort of the first Uber. But in 2007 an opportunity came to sell that company to an independent investor, and that move made sense.
In 2014 I graduated with my MBA from the UW. I developed great relationships with professors at both my alma maters. They said, “Follow your heart—you’ll be much happier pursuing something you really love.” With the success of Uber and having been in the transportation space myself, Moovn was a no-brainer. I largely taught myself, spending weekends learning to code and design. Being a non-tech native, I had to form relationships in online forums where somebody could check my code. Maybe six months into it, I had professional developers come on and help me. Within nine months we had a beta product. It was very elementary, but it was enough to get us to market.
Moovn is the first company of its kind in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. At least 78 percent of sub-Saharan African residents have access to smart phone technology, but most people use it for social media and have no idea of smart phones’ ability to transform lives. In the U.S. we may have driverless cars in the next 10 years, but Africa is far from that. Moovn should have a longer life there and help sub-Saharan Africa realize the true potential of smart phone technology, like being able to coordinate emergency services to remote parts of Africa.