Note: FreightWaves is posting a series of stories this week profiling black founders and investors, who shared insights about actionable steps companies and VC firms can take to close the racial gap in the freight-tech ecosystem. This is Part 2 in in that series.
“Our current situation should never determine our final destination.”
Not so long ago, Pierre Laguerre, CEO of Fleeting, a mobile platform that connects commercial truck drivers with on-demand trucking jobs, reached out to an interested customer, only to have the customer pull back upon discovering Laguerre was black.
“I hate to make it sound like I’m a victim because I’m not,” Laguerre told FreightWaves, referring to the racism he experiences as a black man in trucking. “I don’t see it as my stopping stone. I look at it as my stepping stone.”
A three-time trucking industry entrepreneur, Laguerre, 36, is accustomed to adversity — and overcoming it. Raised in Haiti, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was 15, where he lived in a troubled neighborhood rife with gang violence.
After dropping out of college to drive trucks, he built two trucking businesses: a staffing agency and a carrier operation. During the same period, he endured a carjacking that put him in the hospital as well as multiple surgeries for an infant son with Down syndrome.
What he’s learned from life’s challenges is to be “consistent and persistent,” Laguerre said. “I wake up every day, saying: ‘I am better than this. I am bigger than this.’ Our current situation should never determine our final destination.”
A focus on labor
In 2019, Laguerre started Fleeting, drawing on his experience as a driver and carrier. The enterprise marks his first experience in the freight-tech business, where he is one of the industry’s only black CEOs.
Unlike Convoy and other digital freight brokers that connect owner-operators to shippers, or connect shippers to trucking companies with multiple assets, Fleeting provides drivers directly to trucking companies. The startup’s technology helps carriers find qualified CDL drivers on demand, eliminating staffing agencies or recruiting fees and helping fleets maximize the use of their trucks.
The advantage of the Fleeting model for the driver is the flexibility it provides, and the ability to earn “as much money as an owner-operator without owning a truck,” Laguerre said.
About that flexibility: Although the moniker “Uber for x” is overused, in this case likening Fleeting to an “Uber for trucking” seems apt, so much so that potential investors posting to a crowdfunding site asked Laguerre how he would compete with the tech-transportation giant should it move into the on-demand driver space. (It’s possible but unlikely, Laguerre responded, noting that Uber is already contracting its digital freight brokerage business.)
To date the Brooklyn-based startup works with 300 drivers, primarily in the Northeast, with a goal of reaching 3,000 drivers and 300 customers by the end of the year. Fleeting has raised $1.3 million and is in the process of due diligence with three venture firms to potentially lead and close a $4 million seed round.
The black VC experience
A veteran of pitch fest events, where entrepreneurs present their ideas to investors, Laguerre in February won the Grand Prize at the Black New Venture Competition. Other investors include HustleFund, Arlan Hamilton, Quake Capital, Champion Hill ventures, Chamillionaire, Hatcher +, Kevin Chenault, Joann Chen, and angels from the Republic crowdfunding campaign.
Learning how to navigate the arcane, jargon-heavy tech ecosystem is a completely different experience than building a traditional trucking company — for any first-time technology entrepreneur. Early success notwithstanding, Laguerre’s experience with VC firms has been further challenged by the fact that black founders are expected to show that their business “is successful today,” whereas his white counterparts have three to five years to prove their business model.
“It’s very depressing sometimes,” he said.
“I’ve had relationships with customers over the phone, but the minute they meet me, the relationship was over,” Laguerre continued. To grow his business and attract investors, Laguerre entertains the idea of “putting a white face on the company,” having his COO and fellow co-founder, Paul Munguia, a former fintech executive, or other white colleagues meet with customers and VC firms. “That’s always in the back of my mind,” he said.
His five-person team has rebelled against that tactic, however, and Laguerre himself believes role modeling — showing other black founders they can do it themselves — is the best solution. Drawing a connection between the challenges facing drivers and those facing underrepresented minorities in trucking tech, he said “the biggest problem I see in trucking is miscommunication between carriers and drivers.”
So too is there miscommunication among investors, who are used to hearing pitches from tech-savvy entrepreneurs — truck drivers, not so much. “I would say to the investment world: ‘Listen to that driver. They have the experience.’”
Ultimately, Laguerre hopes Fleeting empowers drivers to start their own businesses, becoming owner-operators, fleet operators and, possibly, digital freight company CEOs.
“I was a driver, and I want to give truck drivers a better way of life,” he explained. “Many black drivers don’t see black owners, and maybe seeing someone like me is the best way to get more black entrepreneurs in the tech space.”