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.
But Feigon remembers Zipcar's Scott Griffith telling her that Zipcar was moving into Chicago and asking whether she had an exit strategy, implying Zipcar would blow her tiny Chicago nonprofit off the road.
"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.
While attending Antioch College in Ohio she majored in economics and scored an internship analyzing how Seattle's water and sewer bills could be combined. Later, she moved back to Seattle, and she and three friends started a tenants union.
"Seattle was growing fast, and no one had leases, and rents were going up," she said. "There was discrimination against families with children, and landlords could kick anyone out with 40 days' notice. I thought these policies were unfair and hurt innocent people who didn't have much money."
After 12 years in Seattle, she and her husband moved to Chicago in 1987 to be near their families. At the time, her husband was involved in a magazine startup in Chicago.
She received her MBA at DePaul University in 1988 to benefit her various social missions.
"I thought there was a discipline and a bottom-line understanding that I thought would be very helpful, that the nonprofit sector was lacking," Feigon said.
When she learned that there was a Chicago-based nonprofit that combined her environmental, housing and transportation goals, she set up a meeting with the founder. After serving a couple of years on the Center for Neighborhood Technology board, the nonprofit hired her in 1991 to help with development. Co-workers say she quickly made her mark as a go-to person who could make a project happen.
"Sharon is not the kind of person to spend time in a back room thinking," said Julia Parzen a member of the I-GO executive committee. "She's going to come up with an idea, and she'll be on the phone two minutes later."
Before running I-GO, Feigon was the center's manager of research and development and managed several projects, including Greener Cleaner, which is a dry cleaning service that avoids toxic solvents used by traditional dry cleaners. A staffer traveled to England with a bag of dirty clothes to try a similar idea there before they decided to bring the concept to Chicago.
Feigon originally agreed to run I-GO for just six months.
"It took a couple of years of saying, 'I'll do it for a little bit longer,' and then I was just so immersed in it. As soon as it started to work, it was really exciting to watch it grow. It was hard to walk away from it," she said.
When I-GO reached 1,000 members in 2006, it celebrated with a party at the Ann Sather restaurant in Lakeview.
"That was a big moment," Feigon said. "We had all kinds of people show up."
In one way, the two car-sharing companies couldn't be more different. I-GO is a nonprofit; Zipcar a for-profit. I-GO's mission is to serve Chicago and the surrounding community. Zipcar's sandbox is "the world." In terms of size, Zipcar reported revenue of $131 million in 2009 and $186 million in 2010. I-GO reported revenue of $4.3 million in 2009.
"I think if you were to look 'under the hood,' you'd see that the two companies are a lot more alike than different," said Greg Winter, spokesman for Cambridge-Mass.-based Zipcar. "The key difference between us is that our global vision requires a much different capital model than one dedicated to serving a single city."
Although tension between the two firms remains, Feigon admits that Zipcar has helped bring more attention to car sharing, which benefits I-GO.
While I-GO is in more neighborhoods than Zipcar, in most areas the companies overlap. Zipcar and I-GO cars are usually parked side by side.
"With the industry being a decade old now, and with operations in Chicago having been going for most of that time, it's really no secret which neighborhoods are good fits for car sharing," Winter said.
When Feigon, 59, talks about cities around the globe, she starts with transportation: bike sharing in Paris; cars leaving Times Square in New York; and Copenhagen, the world's most bike-friendly city.
Feigon's fondest memories are of riding the elevated train as a kid.
"An adventure was taking the train somewhere," said Feigon, whose cramped office is highlighted by a poster from the Chicago History Museum of an old advertisement that tells Chicagoans to "Avoid Street Congestion" by taking the "L."
Now, Feigon is looking ahead to a pilot project in Evanston that would allow vehicle owners to rent their personal vehicles and collect fees from I-GO members. The fees would be shared with I-GO and boost its revenue without the nonprofit having to increase its fleet.
"Part of being a part of nonprofit is to push the market and show people what's possible," Feigon said.
She has also made I-GO a partner to Gov. Pat Quinn'sefforts to make Illinois the electric vehicle capital of the United States.
Later this year, I-GO plans to install 18 solar-canopy charging stations to power 36 electric vehicles. The move is part of a partnership to bring 280 charging stations to Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. The plan is for each of I-GO's charging stations to have space for two members of the public to charge their vehicles, in addition to two plugs for I-GO cars.
"We see ourselves as helping to introduce this concept," Feigon said.
She also is interested in adding bike sharing to the I-GO version of Chicago Card Plus, which through financial support from Chicago-based Boeing Co. adds I-GO access to CTA's traditional monthly pass for trains and buses.
Launched in 2009, the card was a vision Feigon had before I-GO was born. In 2000, a car-sharing representative came to the Center for Neighborhood Technology to discuss the concept and held up such a card, saying, "This is my mobility card," she recalled.
The representative went on to describe a vision that included car sharing as part of an overall transportation mix that included trains, buses, bicycles and taxis. Feigon was taken by the idea.
"We're really about a bigger mobility strategy for the city," she said. "We want people to use transit, to bike, to walk, and when they need a car, we're there."