To some, “Pretty Woman” (1990) was just another Cinderella story — even if it put an unrealistic gloss on the sex trade and helped launch the career of Julia Roberts. But for Michael Pelletz, founder of a “female-only Uber” called Chariot for Women, the Richard Gere vehicle was nothing short of an inspiration.
“I saw that something in this movie,” he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “I was made to take care of women, to love them, respect them. … I was meant to do this.”
The Massachusetts-based company’s mission — as its website explains, “Driven by women. Exclusively for women” — seems simple. While Uber, which just saw one of its drivers allegedly kill six people in Michigan and agreed to pay almost $40 million after lawsuits questioned background checks for its drivers, continues to draw criticism about safety, Pelletz is launching a competitor to keep women safe but raises significant legal questions about equal access. The service could be challenged in court because it hires only women — and also could be challenged because it serves only them and children under age 13. TNW labeled it “a female-only Uber that could get shut down before it takes off.”
“This company sounds great,” Joseph L. Sulman, an employment-law specialist, told the Boston Globe last month. “Whether it’s legal or not is a different question.”
Pelletz said he got the idea for Chariot while … driving for Uber. The 41-year-old once drove for the ride-hailing service for 17 hours per day, according to Chariot’s website, after his father, who ran the family business manufacturing plumbing and heating products, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“I actually loved driving for Uber,” Pelletz said. “I love to talk. I love meeting people. When I first signed up, I thought that was what it was going to be all about.”
Pelletz, 41, drove for Uber for nine months. Although he said he had “wonderful passengers” and “great experiences,” there was one big takeaway.
“It shocked me all the stories of women just getting hit on all the time,” he said.
Uber is no stranger to sexual-assault allegations. Last month, for example, BuzzFeed reported the company said it saw “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault reported through its customer-service database between December 2012 and August 2015 — but BuzzFeed questioned whether that number was accurate. In February, The Washington Post’s Peter Holley reported that Uber drivers without criminal histories have committed crimes before; they have been involved in a racially motivated choking incident and an anti-gay assault, been arrested for drunken driving at the Super Bowl, and been charged with rape, for example. Meanwhile, just 19 percent of Uber drivers in the United States are women.
“This economic opportunity has excluded women — not purposefully, but women have self-selected out of it,” Nick Allen, a co-founder of the now-defunct Sidecar who left to start a ride service for children, told Forbes last year. “And the number one reason they do that is the perception of safety or lack thereof.”
Chariot’s business plan, according to its website, took only “10 minutes” for Pelletz to dream up: “driven by women, for women and children passengers only,” an “untapped market that Uber and Lyft neglected.”
“How many times did he pick up college girls at 2 or 3 a.m.?” Chariot’s website says. “How many times did he watch as they spilled out of Boston clubs and into the wrong rideshare car? Michael has two daughters, and the thought of them doing this was like a knife to the chest. Just one bad apple behind the wheel, and those women would not be safe at all. 3 a.m. in Boston is a candy store for predators. Michael’s fatherly instinct kicked in.”
How does Chariot work? Chariot’s female drivers will pick up women and children under 13. Drivers, who will be fingerprinted and go through background checks in a partnership with local law enforcement, will earn at least $25 per hour — what the company calls “the best compensation structure in the business.” Drivers will have to answer a security question at the beginning of each work day for Chariot to confirm their identity. The app will provide passengers and drivers with a “safe word” — the ride won’t begin until the driver confirms the word with the passenger. There is no surge pricing. Transgender women can also drive and ride. And 2 percent of every fare will go to “woman-based” charities.
But ahead of Chariot’s launch in Boston on April 19, Pelletz and his wife, Kelly, the company’s president, face an uncomfortable legal question: Does Chariot discriminate?
“There’s nothing wrong with advertising particularly to a female customer base,” Dahlia C. Rudavsky, a partner in the Boston firm of Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky, which specializes in labor law, told the Boston Globe. “But if a company goes further and refuses to pick up a man, I think they’d potentially run into legal trouble.”
Pelletz wasn’t concerned about such questions.
“I have an amazing lawyer and law team, and they would have never come onboard if they thought anything I was doing was illegal,” Pelletz said. “If and when we ever do face a legal challenge, we will be very prepared. All we are doing is protecting women drivers.”
That attorney, meanwhile, defended Chariot in the Massachusetts press.
“Courts have long held that hiring on the basis of sex is permissible where sex is a bona fide occupational qualification in the context of serving privacy interests,” Chase Liu, general counsel for Chariot for Women, told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. “At stake here is more than just privacy — safety and security are also at issue. As such, we are confident that our hiring of women drivers constitutes a bona fide occupational qualification, where doing so is necessary to uphold the privacy, safety and security of our drivers and riders.”
Pelletz also emailed what he called a legal statement to The Post.
“Our mission is to provide women with equal access to safety and freedom of travel, at any hour of the day, from any location to any destination, when taking part in ride-sharing,” the statement read. “We believe that giving women and their loved ones peace of mind is not only a public policy imperative but serves an essential social interest. Our service is intended to protect these fundamental liberties, and we look forward to ending the inequality of security that currently afflicts drivers and riders on the basis of gender.”
Whether Chariot will succeed or join Uber also-rans such as Sidecar is unclear. More than 1,000 women have signed up to drive for Chariot, according to USA Today. But can a Boston company facing fundamental questions about its legality and already thinking about a name change catch up with Uber, which has claimed it provides 1 million rides per day around the world?
Yet Pelletz remained confident.
“I love my children and my wife and I defiintely can relate to women,” he said.
This post has been updated to show the current percentage of Uber drivers who are women.