Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories written about entrepreneurs by students writing for the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of UNC-CH.

CHAPEL HILL — Nehemiah Stewart faced a problem during his first semester, freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: How would he get back home during fall break to eat his grandma’s cooking?

Stewart, currently a senior Chemistry and Mathematics double major, hails from the Washington, D.C. area, and he struggled to feel at home when he arrived on campus as an out-of-state student.

“I came to Chapel Hill freshman year, and it was a really isolating experience,” Stewart said, “Everyone around me had their own friend groups – a campus of 19,000 people, but I felt so alone.”

Come fall break, Stewart looked forward to the time off with family and some quality food at home, some “real food, not like that dining hall cooking, some real back-home type food,” he said.

Stewart quickly learned there weren’t many viable options to make the trip home. A bus ride would take nearly 15 hours, and a plane ticket was too expensive.

Unable to find a means to get back home, Stewart was forced to stay on campus over the break. Thanksgiving Break was no better; he stayed on campus then too.

Fast forward to his sophomore year, and after another fall break stuck in Chapel Hill, Stewart looked to improve his position.

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One option stood out in particular — ridesharing — leading to the creation of Vector Rideshare app, which focuses on community and safety.

“I realized, ‘maybe my own pain points of traveling back home might be a universal problem,’” Stewart said.

Stewart has always been a problem solver, and he credits much of his ability to find solutions to the time he has spent in research labs. So, Stewart began working to fix this problem. He taught himself how to code – C++, JavaScript, and others – and after a “30-hour bender” working on a rough beta app, he presented it to his roommate.

The next step: surveying fellow UNC students in public spaces on campus, like “The Pit,” and asking them, “Do you like this app? Would you use it?” After receiving feedback from over 600 people at the university, Stewart had a product that he believed people would want.

The Vector Rideshare app launched near the end of 2019. By March 2020, the app had around 1,300 downloads and has since expanded to other campuses.

“Vector Rideshare is a carpooling platform for students and faculty at universities across the country connected through our tri-vet security system,” he said.

Users of the app must have a .edu email address, present a university ID card, and link their social media accounts. Driving records are vetted through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“There’s a difference between traveling with some random person in the street, who you don’t have any connection with, and traveling with someone on our app, because long before you travel with the individual, you have the chance to get to know the individual – see their social media, see what they’re like, message them and understand that they’re all part of the same network and community,” Stewart said.

“We have eliminated the fear of the unknown,” he added.

Drivers post the dates and times of their itineraries to the app to coordinate rides. Other details are also included, such as seating and baggage capacity. Riders search for drivers and book their seats. Like other ridesharing services, Vector Rideshare takes a percentage of the money that drivers earn per trip.

The name “Vector Rideshare” comes from the term used in physics and mathematics, representing a quantity with both direction and magnitude. Stewart says that the company has both: people get where they need to go – the direction – and the interactions that people have because of the rideshare are the magnitude.

“Some people have trouble initiating conversations, but in a four-hour car ride, whether you like it or not, we’re gonna have a conversation,” Stewart said.

Bringing people together has always been one of the main goals of the company. One example of this is when a UVA student from Raleigh and a Duke professor used the app to rideshare back to the Triangle. Because of their conversations during the trip, the Duke professor offered the student a job in a lab the next semester.

Vector Rideshare has earned its share of accolades. Stewart took the company to Silicon Valley to compete in the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards for the U.S., and Vector Rideshare finished ninth place out of more than one hundred entrants.

Everything changed with the coronavirus pandemic, presenting new challenges for Stewart and his company.

“In March, when COVID hit, and we had been alive for all of four sweet, sweet months, I was thinking, ‘Wow, death by a virus already. We just got going, and now we’ll get snuffed out,’” Stewart said.

“But I sat back, and I began to really wonder and think, ‘No, I didn’t make VectorRideshare just to become an entity for profit organization.’ We were made for a larger purpose,” he said.

So Stewart and his team brainstormed other ways to earn revenue and continued to market the company on social media. Instead of being snuffed out, as Stewart had feared, the company continued to see downloads and userbase growth.

Stewart thinks of his team as a family trying to fill a need and get people connected. The company has eight principles that Stewart insists are imperative that all employees know.

The most important? “Make your mom proud.”

This story is from the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism.