Sharon Feigon had spent two years building I-GO Car Sharing with the idea that everyone should have access to a car, regardless of their neighborhood or income, when Zipcar's CEO asked for a lunch meeting.
At Zipcar, the country's major car-sharing service, officials describe the meeting in the spring of 2006 as just a friendly meet and greet and deny making any aggressive overtures.
"He thought he would intimidate me. I wasn't intimidated," said Feigon, an activist with an MBA whose background includes starting a collectively owned ice cream parlor in Seattle and battling for such causes as tenant rights. "If anything, something like that makes me want to fight more. I don't want anyone standing in our way. We have a mission, and we're on the side of the community."
Feigon is passionate in her belief that access to transportation is as important to people as having a place to live, and especially critical in so-called transportation deserts, or areas not close to trains or buses. Her mission, she said, is helping provide the means for people to go to the grocery store, hospital, schools and day care. And the costs should be reasonable, with a minimal impact on the environment.
"I really believe in public transit and walking and biking," she said. "So, I love car sharing, but I don't love cars."
The fact that I-GO is still in business reflects Feigon's tenacity and salesmanship. In 2004, when she was asked to run it, I-GO was flailing.
It had just 10 cars, and only 250 people had signed up to rent its cars by the hour. Its board was growing increasingly frustrated that the concept wasn't taking off as expected.
"I just think she saw it as a great challenge to pull (I-GO) out of a stupor into something that is vibrant and more economically realistic. She said, 'We're either going to grow this thing, or it's going to die,'" said Jonathan Boyer, then a director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the Chicago-based nonprofit devoted to sustainable urban living that launched I-GO in 2002.
Feigon hired a firm to run an advertising campaign, gave I-GO a new logo and pushed for a more user-friendly website. But, more important, she sought grants to purchase and lease more cars, and she won over government officials to her transportation vision.
Today, I-GO has 250 cars, mostly leased, serving 15,000 members in 35 neighborhoods. Her goal is to have cars on every block of Chicago's 200-plus neighborhoods.
Running a successful business means meeting three bottom lines: social, environmental and financial, Feigon said.
"The people who have the least money are the people who can benefit the most," Feigon said.
The way she figures, it takes $7,000 a year to own and operate a car in Chicago. Car-share members pay $3,500 (including a full year of public transit and the occasional taxi ride). I-GO's data shows that 73 percent of its members either sell a car or postpone a decision to buy a car because its existence.
For Feigon, sustainability is always top of mind. Her vision for I-GO's future includes solar-powered electric vehicles, suburbanites renting out their own underutilized cars and CTA passes that include access to bike rentals.
A child of the '60s
A self-professed "child of the '60s" who grew up on the West Side and in Highland Park, Feigon has a tape of her father at an Executives' Club of Chicago luncheon in March 1974 headlined by President Richard Nixon. There, in front of a friendly audience, he stood and asked Nixon why he hadn't resigned. Five months later, Nixon stepped down.
"He was an adventurer," Feigon said of her father, an entrepreneur who owned an import business. "He was willing to do things that were different, and he was also pretty passionate about his beliefs. I'm pretty sure he took me to my first anti-war demonstration."
By high school, Feigon was following in her father's footsteps. She launched a coalition that organized Chicago high school students' bus trips to Washington to protest the Vietnam conflict. She graduated early, at 17, to work full time on a project supporting First Amendment rights for students to hold protests in schools and press freedoms for high school papers.
Sharon Feigon, CEO of I-GO Car Sharing