Armir Harris came to the U.S. as a political refugee, but under the wing of his uncle, who immigrated two years later, he acquired the tools to shape his own American dream. Harris is the founder of Shofur, an Atlanta-based platform that books buses for events and tracks their location in real time.
–As told to Sheila Marikar

My earliest memories are of Albania. It is a beautiful country, but in the 1990s, civil war broke out. In the turmoil before the war, I couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on, but I felt my family’s fear, and I saw violence everywhere. For eight or nine months, we didn’t leave the house. We didn’t go to school. In 1996, my mother fled to the U.S. with me and my sister, seeking political asylum.

We arrived in St. Louis with $2,000 in our pockets. We went from one homeless shelter to another, sometimes sleeping in a park or an Amtrak station. My mom got under-the-table jobs cleaning restaurants, and my sister and I would sleep on the seats while she worked. Although we were homeless and times were tough, we had each other. We were happy. My uncle joined us two years later, and we all moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. He drove a taxi, and by the time I was 15, he had started a limousine and party-bus service. He couldn’t get a loan or afford employees, so my mom and I pitched in. We’d clean the vehicles, and I’d help him with accounting, dispatching, and taking reservations. Once I got my driver’s license, I would fuel up the vehicles and get them ready for the drivers. I taught myself HTML and built him a website.

Back in St. Louis, we had lived near a public park with tennis courts, and in my spare time, I’d hit against the backboard with a racket and balls I borrowed from a local coach.

I taught myself how to serve. After playing for my high school team as a freshman, I decided to pursue tennis full time. I got coached by whoever would take me in for free, enrolled in tennis academies when we could afford it, and traveled around the country participating in tournaments. I attended public high school for a year and a half, though I got my diploma from an online homeschool organization called Keystone.

In 2006, I was a highly ranked men’s singles player in the U.S. Tennis Association’s southern region. Boston University recruited me as a tennis player, and I started college with some scholarships and financial aid. But soon after I got there, it became clear that I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. Going pro had always been my goal, and when it became clear that that was unattainable, I lost interest. At the end of my sophomore year, I quit the team and found a new passion, real estate. I got my real estate license and sold property between economics classes. With that and by renting out apartments, I was making as much as $5,000 a month. But what I was learning drove home the unsustainable nature of my own economics–without my tennis scholarship, even with financial aid, BU was incredibly expensive, and the loans were adding up. It didn’t make sense to me. I took a leave of absence and figured I’d focus on real estate in a hotter market, Los Angeles.

I moved to L.A. in 2009, and once I got a handle on the real estate scene, I went to UCLA and talked with their counselors about whether I might be able to transfer in and apply my credits from BU. They accepted me, so I dove back into my econ books while selling property on the side. Three credits shy of graduating, I dropped out. I had gotten my education, I didn’t want to borrow any more money, and during a trip home, I saw that the family business, my uncle’s limo and party-bus business, could use my help. I also saw an opportunity to grow his business a lot. I put my real estate ventures on hold and moved back to Charlotte.

In 2012, the Democratic National Convention came to town. A representative called my uncle’s company and said he needed 60 buses for two weeks. Every local provider was sold out, but I was able to source vehicles from surrounding states. It took a while for me to piece them together. I would call a company. They’d ask me to email them. Then they’d ask me more questions via email. It was like a seven-step process that took two to three days with each company. But I realized I could start a marketplace that would aggregate buses from all over the country on one platform.

I started Shofur in 2013 with $800 of my own money. We haven’t taken any funding since then. While thousands of buses are wrapped in our logo, we don’t own any vehicles ourselves. Instead, we do all the legwork of making sure the bus operators who use our platform–from whom we take a cut of the total fee that they charge the customer–are up to date and safety compliant. Our partners have driven more than five million miles and they’ve had zero accidents during our trips.

What really sets us apart is our technology. Every bus in our network has a tracking device with proprietary software that tells us exactly where it is and gathers data from more than 1,000 bus companies in real time. Our clients are mostly people and businesses that are organizing parties and events, but we also serve government institutions dealing with potential catastrophes. Last year, FEMA contracted us to evacuate 10,000 Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina residents in advance of Hurricane Matthew.

Shofur is separate from my uncle’s company. Before starting Shofur, I proposed the idea of liquidating his assets and doing a tech-based business together. But he was, at that time, a 55-year-old Albanian, and he didn’t get the tech part of it. Still, working with him when I was a teenager taught me the ins and outs of the transportation business, the pain points, and the inefficiencies. I don’t know that I’d be here without that experience.

My sister is a doctor, and my mom is finally retired. I became a U.S. citizen in 2015. My mom lives overseas somewhere very nice, and I bought her a house. She made a sacrifice for us. It’s only fair that I repay her.