Meet just four of the many women in the school transportation industry who are making a difference: (Left to right) Kelly Rhondunda, Ritu Narayan, Kendra Eads, and Teri Mapengo. - Source: Canva

Meet just four of the many women in the school transportation industry who are making a difference: (Left to right) Kelly Rhondunda, Ritu Narayan, Kendra Eads, and Teri Mapengo.

Source: Canva

Women have made significant contributions to the field of school transportation, but it’s difficult to quantify their impact. While we may not be able to measure the weight of their work exactly, we can tell their personal stories, and in doing so, shine a light on myriad ways their contributions matter.

For that reason, School Bus Fleet is taking a look into the lives and careers of four successful women who demonstrate why women are so important to supporting and advancing the industry.

Kelly Rhodunda, Transportation Director, Upper Moreland Township (Pennsylvania) School District

Before working in the school transportation industry, Kelly Rhodunda worked as an office manager, supervising drivers and coordinating transportation for clients. Then, a more challenging role caught her interest: working as an administrative assistant overseeing the transportation office for a local school district.

“Being the mom of a first grader in the district, I was very interested in how our transportation system operated, how the vehicles were maintained and most importantly, the people who care for our children every day,” she said.

In that role, she immersed herself in the daily operations of the department and started overhauling office procedures and record keeping. 

“I learned about the operational laws, policies and procedures,” Rhodunda said. “I was also fortunate enough to have been able to observe my supervisors, their interactions with staff and the dynamics of union negotiations and contracts.” 

A promotion to an assistant manager position followed in her second year. Then, eight years later, she was promoted to director.  She has held the position for the past 14 years. 

As director, she oversees all the daily operations of the transportation department, including hiring, training, routing, vehicle maintenance, budget, purchasing, payroll and scheduling. 

“The most important duty I have is to be a servant leader to our staff, district and community,” she said. “Without our team of drivers, mechanics, aides, and office staff, I would not be able to do my job. Their development as employees is crucial to the success of our operation.  We work together to ensure that our students and community are supported by promoting a positive and helpful environment.” 

Rhodunda was responsible for implementing an all-propane school bus fleet which was also Pennsylvania’s first district-owned propane fleet. She considers this her greatest professional achievement thus far. Transitioning buses from diesel to propane earned the district the 2018 Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence, the 2019 EP-ACT Alternative Fuel Leadership Award and the 2023 Green Bus Summit Fleet Award.  

Looking ahead, Rhodunda plans to continue to focus on her team.

“I believe that a strong department with good customer service and leadership will continue to attract more drivers to our district,” she said.” If you build good relationships with your co-workers and staff, you will be successful in just about anything you do.”

Teri Mapengo: Director of Transportation at Prosper (Texas) ISD

Ten years ago, Teri Mapengo was a stay-at-home mom who had just moved to Texas. She was hoping to get a job at her kids' school and submitted applications. The only bite she got was from the transportation director, who asked if she wanted to become a bus driver. Mapengo considered the offer and, a month later, enrolled in CDL training.

“A couple of months into driving, I was asked to help in the office with routing,” Mapengo said. “This led to assigning field trips, state reports, dispatching, and student conduct. But more important than the technical skills I developed was my heart and passion for those I serve.”

Today, Mapengo holds the director of transportation title for Prosper ISD. Her first few months on the job were a bit challenging: driver shortages required everyone to fill in as drivers, including Mapengo. 

Morale was low, and our job duties were being put to the side just to complete our essential work,” Mapengo explained. “Culture building was put into effect. It took all of us on the team to create our culture. Recognition, appreciation, being available, feeling valued, implementing change, and creating unity helped us.” 

With the driver shortage crisis behind her for now, Mapengo is implementing new plans to help improve safety, account for rapid student growth, and create a culture of pride and service, as well as identifying continuous training opportunities. 

“I want to ensure my team has the support and whatever else they need to succeed in their role,” she said. “I love giving my staff the tools, confidence, and trust to be exceptional at their jobs. When you can help others see the greatness they have in themselves, it is the best feeling.”

Next on Mapengo’s list is to continue connecting, nurturing, and inspiring her team. 

“I want to create a legacy as a leader where others will remember how I made them feel and how I helped support their growth,” she said. “Employees who feel supported and valued can grow into ambassadors of the culture you’re building. When culture takes root, everyone wins, including students.”

Ritu Narayan, Founder and CEO, Zum

When Ritu Narayan got the idea for her student transportation company, Zum, she was facing the same challenge her mother had faced when she was a child: finding trustworthy and reliable transportation for her kids. The only option Narayan’s mother had was to give up her career and provide the transportation herself. As Narayan saw technology transforming so many other aspects of life, she knew she could find a better solution: Zum, which began as a sort of Uber for kids.

In the early days, Zum directly served parents, while schools aided in promoting the program. Soon, school districts started to see how they could benefit from Zum for their own transportation needs, and Narayan began partnering with them.

“Talking with schools brought us unique insight into student transportation and how broken it was. It's an 80-year-old industry but nothing much has changed. And it’s been touched very little by technology. It’s not transparent to any of the stakeholders, is inefficient, and also less than 2% of the buses are electrified, so it's also polluting and affecting the health of children,” Narayan explained. “We decided our platform was strong and robust enough to take it on so in 2019 we started working directly with districts to take over 100% of their student transportation.”

Having greater visibility into students’ locations is one of the key selling points of Zum. “Parents would tell us, ‘We can track a pizza, we can track our Amazon package, but we have no idea where our children are,’” Narayan explained.

With Zum, parents can see whether their child has boarded a school bus, where the bus is, and when they have gotten off of the bus. The sophisticated technology platform can also optimize bus routes, saving districts money and students commute time.

As Narayan talked to more school transportation directors, she noted their concerns about climate change and their need for sustainable transportation. These discussions prompted Narayan to expand Zum’s scope of business to include electrifying vehicles.

Today, Zum is available nationwide, serving more than 4,000 schools across the U.S. Zum also prides itself for its carbon-neutral fleet and through its Net Zero Initiative the company aims to lead the electric school bus conversion. .

“The most exciting part has been listening to the customers and being very customer aware and obsessed and solving their needs,” Narayan said. “The student transportation problem has existed across the world, not just in the U.S. We are proud and honored to be in a position to solve this problem using technology.”

Kendra Eads, VP of Engineering & Technology, Thomas Built Buses

Kendra Eads officially started working in school bus transportation just a few years ago when she signed on as vice president of engineering and technology at Thomas Built Buses. Prior to that, she spent 20 years at Cummins, a major supplier of school bus engines.

“There was always a lot of discussion about school buses being where our engines would end up, and we talked about how we were going to design them to be safe and safely transport children,” Eads said. “So even though I've only directly worked in school bus transportation for the last couple of years, I feel like it's been at the forefront of my engineering career the whole time.”

At the heart of Eads’ work is making sure new products, like the electrical architecture for Thomas Built Buses, operate exactly as planned and meet all safety standards when they go to production. To accomplish that, Eads spends time supporting her team and helping them grow their technical capabilities.

"A big piece of my job is team development and making sure that our engineers are growing and learning and developing new skills and that they're constantly challenged,” she said. “I love the people I work with. I love coming to work every day to get to interact with people and I feel like I've got a really good relationship with the people on my team. We have a lot of fun working on identifying problems and solving them together.”

Early in Eads’s career, a mentor encouraged her to set career goals beyond what she thought she would be capable of. That advice has helped her get where she is today — and she continues to pay it forward.

“It inspired me to be even better than I thought I could be, and so I’m intentional about trying to inspire other people to be better than they think they can be and giving them that confidence,” she said.

For Eads, her work is about far more than engineering — it’s about the positive impact of safe, reliable student transportation on society.

“It’s not always the kids who have the wealthiest parents or the best home life that are going to be on a school bus. A lot of our kids are the most vulnerable kids, and it's a chance to take care of those kids and make sure that they are safe and make sure that they have a way to get to school,” she said. “Those are kids who might otherwise miss out on that opportunity if they didn't have the transportation we help provide. So, for me, it's a really important mission. There's a piece of social justice to it, in that we can help promote equality and access to education in a very practical way.”