After reading an article about EmpowerBus, an official with Kroger found a way to use the social venture that was created in September by two young entrepreneurs.

Aslyne Rodriguez and Jerry Tsai launched EmpowerBus to provide free and direct transportation for workers in the Morse Road corridor to manufacturing and distribution jobs.

Amy McCormick, corporate affairs manager for the Columbus division of Kroger, saw an opportunity to help customers of the recently closed store at the Northern Lights Shopping Center. Kroger contracted with EmpowerBus to provide free shuttle service between the closed store on Cleveland Avenue and its store at 1745 Morse Road.

"It intrigued me, what they were doing," McCormick said of EmpowerBus. "We were looking at opportunities to assist during the transition period. When we decided to offer transportation, that was fresh in my mind."

The shuttle service, which began Feb. 1, will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week in February, Rodriguez said.

"We're excited to kick things off," McCormick said. "We'll see how the pilot transition goes."

Whether the service continues beyond February will be based on ridership, Rodriguez said.

EmpowerBus grew out of Tsai and Rodriguez participating last summer in a local Social Enterprise Accelerator program, during which they worked on ideas for improving workforce development.

Improving social mobility starts with helping people gain access to jobs, health care and education, Rodriguez said.

"We are focusing on getting people to jobs," Rodriguez said.

According to the website of EmpowerBus, the average commute time for employees is about 20 minutes, but for employees who must take public transportation, that time doubles or triples. That can lead to high turnover for major employment centers beyond the outerbelt, the website said.

"EmpowerBus is strengthening the roads to social mobility by providing dignified, reliable and on-time transportation to and from employment, education and health-care opportunities," the site states.

Employers pay for the service, Tsai said.

"This increases their gross revenue by improving the timeliness, consistency and retention of their employees," according to the website.

"The rider isn't the one being charged," Tsai said.

Rodriguez and Tsai decided to focus on the Morse Road corridor after meeting with officials from US Together, an immigrant and refugee resettlement organization with offices in the Northland area as well as Cleveland and Toledo.

EmpowerBus vehicles are dedicated to the core mission of getting people to their jobs, Rodriguez and Tsai said.

"We don't want to be a party bus," Rodriguez said.

"Nor a wedding shuttle," Tsai added.

"It's personal to me," said Rodriguez, whose grandparents came from Puerto Rico, settled in the Youngstown area and had to walk long distances to jobs in steel mills. "I know whose shoulders I stand on."

Tsai, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan in the late 1970s for educational opportunities in the United States, said he believes EmpowerBus has the capability of being expanded beyond the Morse Road corridor, and even central Ohio.

"Certainly, we need to get it right," he said. "Replicating it, with nuances, of course, in other communities would be possible."

"I see us as growing in a capacity we can be in almost every city," Rodriguez said. "I know that's a big dream."