Sharon Paulsell had lost something.
And it wasn't something easily lost.
But amid the dozens of others just like it in the same location, it was nearly impossible to spot.
Sharon Paulsell had lost a wheelchair. As she gazed across the white granite landscape of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., suddenly all she saw was wheelchairs. In them sat aging military veterans from three different states who had come to the Memorial as part of the national Honor Flight program, which transports WWII veterans to the nation's capital for a special day of recognition.
As logistics chief of Central Missouri Honor Flight (CMHF), Sharon had to help ensure that all of the 35 wheelchairs the central Missouri group traveled with made it back to the tour buses at each stop. Now she was one short. The longer she looked, the more frustrated she became. Knowing the importance of keeping the central Missouri group on a tight schedule, Sharon re-boarded the bus. But before the day was done, she had an idea (and she had reclaimed the errant wheelchair, which had inadvertently been loaded by another Honor Flight group stopping at the same locations throughout the day).
Back in Columbia, Sharon began to design an easily applied and removed wheelchair back cover and soon had enough covers constructed to clearly mark all of the wheelchairs on the next CMHF mission. Bright blue, with the CMHF logo and the words WWII Veteran across the top, the well-traveled wheelchairs were easy to spot in the crowd. The look not only unified the group, it did something else no one had anticipated.
Even before Sharon adopted the slogan, "Start a conversation with the world," that is exactly what was happening to the elderly veterans seated in the chairs throughout the trip. Suddenly, other travelers and tourists were approaching the veterans enthusiastically, thanking them for their service, asking where they were from and what they thought of the Honor Flight experience. The Honor Flight volunteers traveling with the veterans noticed they sat a bit taller in the wheelchairs. Tourists started asking about the Honor Flight program and how they could get involved in their local communities. And other Honor Flight groups were noticing the covers and realizing what a wonderful logistical and marketing advantage they presented.
The immediate problem was solved — with unexpected rewards as well. So, as entrepreneurs tend to do, Sharon extended her thinking beyond Honor Flight and started exploring the possibility of turning the covers into a business. Wheelchair Personalities was born.
In meetings with Virginia Wilson and Jim Gann, co-directors of the MU Extension SBTDC in Columbia, Sharon expanded her concept to businesses, health care facilities and other non-profit organizations. She refined the design of the covers, making them more durable and even easier to apply. Working with Missouri manufacturers, she identified better fabrics and construction methods. And she started building her all-important network.
Now she and her husband, Steve, who is the CMHF flight director, work full-time on the company. The Paulsells are committed to manufacturing in Missouri, creating jobs for sewers, graphic designers and fabric printers. Wheelchair Personality covers are now found in restaurants, hospitals, retirement communities and, as one might expect, on the back of wheelchairs used by other Honor Flight groups nationwide. They are also available in retail locations.
"Our covers remove the barriers that sometimes exist between wheelchair users and other people," Sharon says. "They are conversation starters, and they are excellent marketing vehicles for businesses and organizations.
"How many times have you gone into a hospital and seen a row of institutional-looking wheelchairs at the entrance?" she continues. "Why not cover them with something attractive that can communicate a message about your facility? And for restaurants, hotels or other entertainment and hospitality venues, these covers add a touch of class that tells customers you are glad they are there."
The Paulsells are now working with children's hospitals, organizations that support disabled veterans and wheelchair athletic groups to develop other designs and applications. They see the market for the product expanding well into the future.
"There are more than three million wheelchair users in the U.S.," she says, "and that is only going to increase as baby boomers reach the age at which mobility becomes an issue. There will be more health care and assisted living facilities, and there will be more individuals who use personal wheelchairs that can now be customized to display the user's interest in a sports team, grandchildren or hobbies."
She adds that the ability to individually adapt the wheelchair cover to the user is one of the company's major selling points. Covers are offered in a variety of colors and are made with fabric that is easily laundered and spot-cleaned. Graphics are heat-pressed giving the appearance that appliques are embedded in the fabric. Blank covers are also available for users who wish to apply their own artwork.
"We saw what happened on the Honor Flight — the covers suddenly seemed to transform our veterans in the public eye from elderly people in wheelchairs to the truly heroic Americans they are. We were moved and amazed how something so simple could have such an impact," Steve adds. "These covers take the focus from the wheelchair and put it on the person in the wheelchair."
Entrepreneurs solve problems. Many of the innovations we enjoy today came about from the inventor's need to make something easier, faster or stronger. Wheelchair Personalities' covers are no different.
"We were just trying to find a way to ensure we didn't lose wheelchairs on our flights," Steve says, "and we ended up creating something that not only has financial potential, but also offers intangible benefits to these special members of our community."
"We could never have predicted that," Sharon says, "But it's very rewarding to work on a small business that makes such a big difference."
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