Know any Swahili? Then you’ve probably already noticed that “ujama” looks a lot like the Swahili word for “extended family.” That’s what Hugh Molotsi and the Ujama team are trying to create for America’s busy parents.
Molotsi was born and raised in Zambia to South African parents, who were Apartheid-era exiles. His father wanted him to become a dentist but, after high school, he attended the University of Southern Mississippi to study computer engineering. Before university, Molotsi had never written a single line of code, but he quickly realized that he enjoyed programming. He would later attend Santa Clara University for graduate studies and intern at tech giant Hewlett Packard (HP).
After graduate school, Molotsi joined HP as a full-time employee.
“Working at HP, I discovered that I really enjoyed software and applications much more than being deep in the guts of the inner workings of a computer. So, I started to gravitate towards building front-end applications,” Molotsi said.
Molotsi later moved to Intuit, where he spent 22 years and his first job was as a developer on Quickbooks for MS-DOS. During this time, he developed a strong affinity for the small businesses that used the products he created.
He also got the opportunity to work on one of Intuit’s first internet-based products. The experience helped him carve out a niche in bringing new products to life. Among his many accomplishments was Intuit’s payment systems, for which he won the Intuit Founders Innovation Award. By the time he retired from Intuit, he had served as a Vice President of Innovation for several years, which positioned him to empower employees to inject their ideas and creativity into their work.
Molotsi’s challenges as a parent inspired the name. He recalls that, when he was a child, parents could rely on communities to look out for their children and pick up the slack in cases of an emergency. Remembering the extensive network of family and friends that he grew up with, he wanted a way to recreate a similar support system for busy families in American cities.
“Fast forward to today; we’re much more wary of strangers. If I think about my kid, I know where they are and what they are up to every minute of the day. It’s very different [from how I grew up],” Molotsi said.
While Molotsi believes some of the changes are for the better, he realized that modern parenting places enormous burdens on parents. These burdens are acute for single parents or when both parents work full-time. He founded Ujama as a way for parents to help each other out. On Ujama, parents can coordinate with each other to pick up and drop off their kids from school, as well as shuttle them to after-school activities.
“So many parents have said to me that they haven’t been on a date since they had kids. I always think that’s not healthy for the relationship,” Molotsi said.
These parents often name finding high-quality, affordable childcare as the primary challenge.
“But you know, the whole missed opportunity is there are other parents who live in your neighborhood. The other parents of kids who go to the same school your kids go to, and these represent people who could be helping you,” Molotsi said. “In fact, it’s most evident when you go to a school at pick-up and drop-off time. You see all this congestion and all these stressed-out parents who are trying to get in and out of there quickly. And the thing you’ll see is almost every single car has empty seats. And those empty seats represent the opportunity for people to help each other.”
Ujama aims to make it easier for parents to help parents. On the platform, parents can arrange for shared rides, and schedule playdates and babysitting. Molotsi believes that an active community can help make parents and — by extension — families healthier and stronger.
It sounds like a great idea, but the app’s effectiveness will hinge directly on its widespread adoption.
“So really, our challenge has been how to bring a critical mass onto the platform. And you know, I would say we’re making progress on that front. The good news is, we’ve gotten schools to support us, after school organizations,” Molotsi said. “But right now, we’re trying to get the word out, trying to get to mothers groups and other types of organizations, just so that they can help us get more and more people onto the platform.”
The Trust Issue
Molotsi emphasizes that Ujama is not a gig economy platform. People will not be paying strangers to take care of their kids.
“You know, this is really about building parent networks, parent communities,” Molotsi said. “When you join Ujama, you have a way of inviting people to your village. And when you invite someone to your village, you’re basically saying this is somebody I trust, and someone trust with my kids.”
In other words, it’s essential that parents exercise the same discretion on the application as they would in the offline world.
“We’re not trying to be a service of paid drivers or paid child caregivers. We are a network of parents,” Molotsi said.
Who Can Use Ujama?
Right now, Ujama is available for download in any city, but the majority of users are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Molotsi hopes that the application will take root in cities across America so all parents can find and build their own ujamaa.
Editorial Note: This piece has been revised and updated since initially published.