While many business accelerators exist to nurture start-up firms in an array of industries, the two women could not find anything comparable to help entrepreneurs who wanted to tackle civic challenges. "If you want to solve a problem in your own community, in your own backyard, there isn't really a place for you to go," says Brenner. "Where would you go find money to do that? I couldn't have told you two years ago. So we decided an organization to try to change that."
Interest became avocation after the two women finished business school in 2012: With funding initially from the charitable arm of the Blackstone Group, they formed Tumml and moved to San Francisco. Since summer 2013, they have selected three groups of young companies (some 17 in all) from hundreds of applicants based everywhere from Kansas City to France and Germany. For each firm that makes the cut, Tumml provides some initial funding, a place to work, access to mentors, a curriculum that offers guidance on the usual challenges of business formation—and, most distinctive of all, opportunities to interact with local government and nonprofit leaders working on the same issues that the entrepreneurs are tackling. "They have a wonderful network of entrepreneurs, investors, civic leaders that were introduced to us once or twice a week," says Ali Vahabzadeh, cofounder and chief executive of Chariot, one of the firms Tumml has supported.
Though slightly older, Vahabzadeh, 37, embodies the same generational shift in perspective as Brenner and Lein. When he saw a problem in his community, he concluded that the best way to address it was not to lobby government, but to start a company that directly addressed the need.
The problem that motivated Vahabzadeh was public transportation in San Francisco, which didn't match his previous experiences in London and New York City. After relocating to the Bay Area in 2010, he recalled, "The first thing I realized was, I can't get around this town." He bought a bicycle, but recognized that wasn't an option for everyone.
And so, last winter, after leaving a job at a real-estate start-up, Vahabzadeh founded Chariot, a private transportation company that runs vans along crowded commuting corridors in the city. "I just decided that most likely it was not going to be the city or transit agencies that [would] overnight have an awakening and improve all of our commutes, and I didn't see any private options addressing this need either," he says. "So I took it under my own hands, and I thought an entrepreneurial solution was the fastest way to alleviate the commuting issues we had." Only about six months after launching, Vahabzadeh is now ferrying 2,000 riders a week and expanding to a second route that he devised with crowd-sourcing input from potential riders.
Tejal Shah, the founder of KidAdmit, another company Tumml has supported, paralleled Vahabzadeh's experience and response. When Shah, 37, sought to enroll her child in a private preschool a few years ago, she grew frustrated at how the process seemed frozen in the pre-digital age: "Each school had a paper application; it was the same thing over and over again," she recalled. "There was a lot of time being spent with very few questions being answered." The thought of working through local government to encourage or compel preschools to streamline the process never crossed her mind; instead, after recruiting a cousin to join her, she formed a company to create an on-line common application for preschools in the area, much as colleges use. Now she is working with 152 San Francisco private schools—providing parents not only a common application but also more easily accessible data about the schools—and expanding into eight counties surrounding the city.