How CityMaaS's founder, Rene Perkins CA, is on a mission to improve physical and digital accessibility
Rene Perkins CA, founder and CEO of CityMaaS, tells Ryan Herman how the start-up is improving physical and digital accessibility – and why she’s putting purpose first
It is often said that the best businesses are the ones that find a solution to an existing problem. Rene Perkins CA and husband Andy were trying to find places for his family to celebrate a special occasion. Andy’s mother had, over several decades, been a foster parent for disabled children. The couple realised the scale of the challenge in trying to find suitable places, both in terms of a venue’s facilities and the ease of getting to the location.
“That led us to research, study data and do a deep dive into the difficulties that people with disabilities face day to day. Mobility is one of the most obvious challenges,” says Perkins.
So they founded CityMaaS with a mission to “make the world accessible to everyone online and offline”. The name derives in part from an acronym – MaaS for “Mobility as a Service” – devised, in 2014, by Finnish engineering student Sonja Heikkila “who had an idea of creating a digital service to cover every aspect of mobility”.
CityMaaS’s primary function is to provide mobility maps to help people with disabilities get around cities. For example, the map highlights places where there is wheelchair access and identifies businesses providing that access. “We wanted to create a digital product to help people, without them having to book somewhere 24 or 48 hours ahead or finding that when they get to their chosen destination it doesn’t provide the right level of access,” says Perkins.
There are 14 million people in the UK with a disability, according to the Department of Work and Pensions, which equates to a group worth around £274bn to our economy. Yet only one-tenth of UK businesses are actively engaging with that audience.
“We’re not talking about a niche market here,” says Perkins, “But it’s a bit like the concept of the red-car phenomenon. You don’t realise how many people have a red car until somebody points it out to you. How many people know that around 20% of the population have a disability? So it remains an untapped audience, but business will get loyal customers if they can provide the right goods and services and accessibility.”
Investors certainly saw the potential in CityMaaS. Perkins recalls: “Funding came through several organisations including Microsoft, London & Partners (the Mayor of London’s economic development agency) and the Department for Transport. Then we started to be invited into programmes such as [Innovate UK’s] Global Business Innovation as well as programmes in Israel and the Netherlands. We went on a Department for International Trade visit to India. We got VC funding through an accelerator programme in the US.”
Having spent two years in research, development and fundraising, CityMaaS launched in August 2020, a week after the government announced a further easing of lockdown restrictions. Cities were reopening and people were beginning to venture out of their homes again. Within two months, the UK was heading back towards restrictions, if not full lockdown, with the discovery of a dangerous new variant. People with disabilities have, of course, been at disproportionately high risk of suffering serious illness from Covid-19.
So where did that leave CityMaaS? “There was definitely a concern when Covid hit because the mobility map is about helping people to travel and get around and plan journeys,” says Perkins. “But people still need to buy groceries – and when it came to prioritising which groups should receive supermarket delivery slots, ‘vision impaired’ was not considered a group. So how could they purchase goods online and book a slot themselves?
“At that point, we realised we needed to address the issue of digital exclusion and to provide a solution. We realised that our in-house personalisation tool, Assist Me, could benefit other businesses. Somebody who is visually impaired can use that tool to have a website read to them, for instance. For somebody with dyslexia, we can change the words, letters and spacing of online content to suit them.
“So we started with the mobility map but realised the tech we had created for ourselves can help so many different companies across all sorts of sectors including ecommerce.”
Making the leap
Perkins had always wanted to run her own business. “I was working in investment banking for HSBC and I was happy there. But I wanted something more,” she recalls. “I had a business called eGen Electric Scooters to provide deliveries at a time when that industry was just taking off. And we’d had a degree of success but it was still a side project.”
CityMaaS may have been just another side hustle had two personal tragedies in the same year not led Perkins to re-evaluate her life goals and dedicate herself to her purpose-driven business. “I lost an unborn child and my grandmother,” she says. “It made me think life is precious and it is short. So I quit my job to commit fully to CityMaaS.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my career but also the most rewarding. This journey has been immensely beneficial for my personal growth. You need to be involved in every aspect of the business. You learn things you may not have learnt in another walk of life.
“But I remember when I set up a Sustainable Finance Toastmaster Club while working for HSBC, the idea was to bring people together and practise public speaking and leadership skills. I was totally petrified of public speaking. But I knew even if I made a fool of myself, it was about challenging myself.
“Ultimately, that was really beneficial for me, because now I’m attending events or sitting on panels and talking about CityMaaS.
“We’ve had many moments which in their own way have been pivotal – occasions like the first person we hired, our first client and the first piece of funding. Getting that news was amazing because we had been self-funding up until that point.”
Perkins also says that qualifying as a CA provided the grounding that equipped her to make the transition from working in a team to being a business owner. “ICAS gave me the business fundamentals,” she explains. “Financial modelling and planning are a huge part of running any business to understand where there are red flags and risks. Strategy is determined by the numbers, your revenue projections and assumptions. But the other part of being a CA is that you pick up the soft transferable skills, doing the client-facing aspects of a business, such as pitches and presentations, and teamwork and critical thinking.”
As the UK and wider world begin thinking about how best to live with Covid-19, Perkins believes CityMaaS has the potential to gain a mass global audience. “Our digital inclusion tools have no boundaries,” she says. “We can help companies and their websites become WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] compliant. So we know there is the scope to expand this internationally as WCAG applies across 48 countries including the United States, Australia and Canada.”
She also believes a lot more could be done to embed accessibility when new buildings or town centres are designed. “I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson at the Move London mobility conference,” says Perkins. “She said everybody has different abilities and that disability is caused by the environment around them. London Underground plans to make 40% of Tube stations fully accessible in 2022. That still means 60% won’t be.”
People with disabilities have experienced many new barriers and challenges as a result of the pandemic. Research carried out by disability charity Scope last summer revealed that, of some 3,300 people interviewed, 2,427 said their disability had deteriorated since the onset of Covid-19.
Around the same time, the government launched its disability strategy. While some measures have been welcomed, such as the £300m earmarked for improving accessibility in homes, critics of the strategy say it’s too aspirational, lacking substance and clearly defined targets (or “disappointingly thin”, in the words of campaign group Disability Rights UK).
Perkins believes the private and public sector can work together to improve accessibility. “Innovators like us can solve problems but we cannot act alone – we need to work with other innovators,” she says. “There are so many brilliant minds and products out there – the government has started to pick that up. They know they can’t solve every problem and where they have done well is creating a lot of innovation programmes and targeting more SMEs. But it is still hard to access the funding from those programmes. There is a lot of bureaucracy.
“There is a long way to go, but from our experience of working with different councils, bodies and organisations, they’re recognising smaller, innovative businesses and we’re heading in the right direction.”
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