How the Missouri SBTDC and Mid-Missouri SCORE Helped Wheelchair Personalities Get Rolling to Give Vets and Others a Boost
If you have ever been confined to a wheelchair, even for a short time, you know it can be depersonalizing. It may be that you are below eye level, but no matter the cause, those in wheelchairs are often ignored. Sharon Paulsell and her husband Steve found when running Honor Flights out of Columbia, Missouri that strangers readily approached and thanked ambulatory Veterans for their services while those in wheelchairs were often overlooked.
Sharon and Steve also found during trips that the hundreds of wheelchairs at the national World War II Memorial all looked the same. Once, a wheelchair from their group was accidentally loaded onto a bus for another Honor Flight leading to an extensive search to track it down. Luggage tags or newspaper bags tied to the wheelchairs just weren’t cutting it to identify their wheelchairs at a glance.
The issues became the impetus for the creation of a new business called Wheelchair Personalities. At first, Sharon didn’t plan to start a business. She just wanted to find a way to better recognize both the chairs and the veterans who occupied them.
Wheelchair Personalities now designs covers for the back of wheelchairs.
The first models announced the occupant’s status of being a World War II Vet for those veterans taking the Honor Flight. Sharon noticed they were getting more attention than the walking veterans with the covers being a conversation starter.
With these positive results, Sharon and Steve decided to start a business with Sharon at the helm. They expanded their idea to include others in wheelchairs, who they thought might like to express themselves via their wheelchairs as well.
Since Steve’s sister, Mary Paulsell, works for Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers (SBTDCs,) the couple knew there was free help available to their small business and others like them. They started planning the business with SBTDC counseling in 2010 and continue to seek advice. The couple also worked with Elinor Arendt from the Mid-Missouri SCORE association. (SBTDC and SCORE are both SBA resource partners which offer free counseling and low cost training.)
Each Columbia SBTDC employee has an area where they have assisted the growing business. Virginia Wilson started them with the business plan template, told them how much work it takes to run a small business, and assisted them with gathering all the forms and documents needed to start and register a small business. Jim Gann connected them with other small businesses—notably suppliers, manufacturers, and salespeople. He introduced the concept of “pay for performance” for sales people. Collin Bunch is a social media “guru” and has assisted them with all things social media—especially Facebook and LinkedIn. Mary Paulsell has been there with sage advice and cheerleading along the way.
Even with expert advice, Sharon and Steve made some mistakes. They rented space early on, and then found it was a needless expense. Fortunately, they lost their lease when another business took over the whole building. They are again working out of their home and are quite happy there for now.
The couple used their savings to finance Honor Flights and Wheelchair Personalities. They are now concentrating more intensely on Wheelchair Personalities because there is no similar product on the market today and they feel strongly that the wheelchair-bound should be able to express their personalities via the covers.
The covers have been adopted by Children’s Hospital in Columbia, whose “wheelchair corrals” are no longer filled with plain black, brown, or navy wheelchairs, they now have brightly colored pictures of TJ and a morale boosting inscription reading, ‘We care about your comfort and you are important to us as an individual.’ One young patient said he wouldn’t get in another wheelchair unless TJ, the Children’s Hospital’s tiger mascot, was on the back.
Sharon’s current goal is to expand to other hospitals, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes and then tackle major retail chains.
“Most retail chains and hospitals just have stenciled wheelchairs. Not only are our covers another form of advertising, but they express more care for the needs of those patrons in wheelchairs. It gives a more cheerful appearance,” Sharon says, noting they have has enlisted Ms. Wheelchair USA 2010-2011, Phaedra Olsen, to promote the covers.
The back covers can be individually ordered from the website and are now available at Carrie’s Hallmark Shop in Jefferson City. While the Paulsells are the sole employees, it is important to them that products remains American-made. They employ an intern from the University of Missouri who is now unpaid and learning about small business, but who would like to be hired when the company grows.
Knowing the ups and downs of starting a business, Sharon and Steve also mentor new entrepreneurs in the 1 Million Cups program initiated by the Kaufman Foundation. What advice do they pass on to these new small business owners?
“Seek out all available resources and use them—friends, family, other small business owners, SBTDC, SCORE, SBA. Don’t try to go it alone…ask for assistance and advice,” says Sharon.
Missouri SBTDC in Columbia can be reached by calling 573-884-8087, by emailing email@example.com or by visiting http://www.missouribusiness.net/ucie/index.asp. They are located at Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), 500 E. Walnut, Suite 103, Columbia, MO, 65201. Mid-Missouri SCORE can be reached at 573-874-1132, by visiting 300 S. Providence Rd, Columbia, MO, 65203, or online at http://midmissouriscore.org.
For more information on how SBA St. Louis can assist your small business, contact 314-539-6600 or visit www.sba.gov/mo/stlouis. The St. Louis District also maintains an office in the REDI in Columbia and one on the SEMO campus in Cape Girardeau. The contact information can be found on the SBA St. Louis District Office website.
A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Civil Engineering: How SBA Guaranteed Loans and Advice from SCORE Helped Make the Road Smoother for Vicki LaRose’s Civil Design, Inc. (CDI)
If you’re one of the thousands of St. Louis-area drivers every day making your way easier through the new I-64/Highway 40 interchange, you can offer a little thanks for the work done there from a small, but fast-growing mom-owned business.
Vicki LaRose’s firm, Civil Design, Inc. (CDI), is on track to break $3 million in sales this year, and has a portfolio of civil engineering projects including work on the Boone Bridge, University of Missouri system, Metropolitan Sewer District and Metrolink. She began her company as a stay-at-home mom, and over the years thanks in part to SBA small business financing, has expanded to offices in southern Illinois and Kentucky, specializing in construction management, environmental, site development, surveying, water resources, and transportation engineering.
Pretty good for somebody who didn’t know what kind of engineer she wanted to be when she grew up. Back in high school, LaRose chalked up good grades in math and science, and followed a friend to college. When asked by a professor what engineering field she wanted to study, she exclaimed: “There’s more than one kind? I thought I had this figured out!”
Civil engineering was her choice, “because it sounded interesting and it would help the community at large.” After graduation, she worked for 10 years at a large firm before she decided to blaze her own path by creating a responsive, quality-driven, woman-owned civil engineering firm. With excellent advice from a local area SCORE chapter, LaRose put together a solid strategic business plan, hired a lawyer and an accountant, took business classes to get smart on running her own company and incorporated Civil Design in 1996.
She grew the business slowly, while still working part time for her old firm, and part time at home chasing after her two young boys and later her daughter. By 2004, she took out an SBA Express loan to purchase computers and other equipment; three years later, she used the 504 program to finance the company’s current headquarters in the Soulard area of St. Louis.
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire fixed assets for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies (CDC), SBA's community-based partners for providing 504 loans. This program calls for the participating lender to provide half the financing, with the SBA offering up to 40 percent of the costs financed through the CDC.
LaRose made sure her growing business had a family friendly work environment; experts now call her firm a lifestyle company, one which offers a better balance between work responsibilities and home life. Employees, the dads as much as the moms, can adjust their schedules to catch a recital or a game, or take care of a sick child. It’s also the kind of firm that handles projects like site development for a middle school and surveying work for a future elementary school.
Over the past few years, LaRose has grown from 18 employees to 28 (she started with just herself in 1996); among that number is her husband, who brought his 20 years of civil engineering work aboard to serve as the company’s Chief Financial Officer and Quality Manager.
While sales remained fairly flat during the recent economic downturn, LaRose leveraged new business in surveying work and other strategic moves to stay profitable, and a reputation for delivering on-time, within-budget designs to stay that way. She’s constantly on the lookout for trends in area construction and engineering, and quickly acts to hire the best to permit the firm to pursue new projects; she’s also fast to refer a job to another firm if she doesn’t think it’s something Civil Design can do well, and has benefitted from other cooperative firms doing the same for her company.
Her email signature block reads: “Civil Design, Inc. Expertise of a Large Firm–Responsiveness of a Small Firm.”
“I take a commonsense approach and try to simplify everything for my clients,” she said. “I treat people like they are my friend, with respect and honesty.”
Civil Design’s employment turnover rates are low, as her staff appreciates the flexible, family-friendly atmosphere. LaRose offers health insurance, matching contributions for individual retirement accounts, tuition reimbursement, and short-term and long-term disability insurance. She even has her employee needs in mind when making business decisions: the company is opening an office in Effingham, Ill., in part to keep in the fold one engineer who wanted to move back home.
She’s committed to a better community by participating with teams in athletic events to raise funds for area charities, and Habitat for Humanity is not only is a client, but another of the company’s charitable efforts.
LaRose knows she, and her company, don’t fit the typical civil engineer image. Instead, she’s a vanguard of a new generation of engineers, helping to pave the way for women—and men—who not only want to build the bridges, infrastructure and schools of today, but a better community for tomorrow.
To contact Civil Design, Inc., visit http://civildesigninc.com/ or call 314-863-5570. They are located at 1552 S. 7th Street, St. Louis, MO, 63104.
Shave and a Haircut and Some Community Involvement for You, Mister? How Grace Hill Women’s Business Center and an SBA Microloan Made a (Revised) Dream Come True
When Carla Reid signed up for Grace Hill Women’s Business Centers’ Business Development Class she really had no intention of opening a business—ever. With her background and passion in social services, her goal was to open a non-profit entity to offer men in the community employment training and computer skills classes to help them find work. Maybe in the distant future she could build a reputation and get client referrals from area agencies. But after a friend mentioned the business development class, she was curious and signed up.
Thanks to the class, and help from the SBA Microloan program, she’s turned her dream to help her clients into a for-profit business.
Carla’s space in south St. Louis features hardwood floors and trendy exposed brick walls, soft jazz music and sports on the TV. Make no mistake, it’s a place where a guy can be a guy, while getting sweetly pampered. Elevated Men’s Salon’s offers haircuts, shaves, manicures, pedicures, facials and more. Conversation flows freely, not just about the Rams or the Cardinals; they come for a chance to learn about local organizations that need their help. They leave their chair not just looking sharp, but with a pamphlet in their palm and a promise to do their part in the community.
The idea to tie together social entrepreneurship and for-profit business was planted by Arthur Porter, a former Facilitator with Grace Hill, who taught Carla’s class. With funds tight for area non-profits, he suggested she try to find a way to work with the same clientele in a for-profit business.
“A light bulb lit up,” Carla said. She got excellent advice from her classmates, who served as both support group and sounding board as she moved forward.
Carla also got help from Eddie Davis, her Business Development Counselor at Grace Hill. Eddie assisted Carla in writing her business plan and helped Carla get a $9,000 SBA microloan, thanks to Justine Peterson, an organization which gives people opportunities to create new futures for themselves and their families by helping them become and stay homeowners, start and run successful businesses, access education, begin and manage personal savings programs. She’s also poured money into her business from her regular job as a Disaster Case Manager with a local charitable organization.
She opened the doors to Elevated Men’s Salon May 12, 2012, and hopes to turn her first profit in March 2013.
She’s not a barber and sometimes doesn’t speak the same language as her four independent contractors, but she’s got three barbers for that. She’s also picked up a stylist/manager who styles hair for women in an area of the shop with a separate entrance for them as the women don’t want the men to see them when they’re not at their best.
Carla takes care of shop business in the evenings and on Saturday—doing the books, keeping up the website, working with social media, chatting with clients, sweeping, holding a set of clippers, whatever needs doing.
“Despite all the challenges, I feel the business is already a success,” Carla said. “I’m impacting the community in a positive way by getting men more engaged.”
Having grown up with a loving father in her life, and now a single mother whose child has an uninvolved male parent, Carla understands how crucial male role models are. She requires her employees to participate in at least two charity events per year. They’ve participated in Community Cuts for Kids with other stylists and barbers and continue to work with Big Brother/Big Sisters and stay involved with the Vashon-Jeff-Vander-Lou Initiative which facilitates development and improvement in the quality of life for neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis, MO. Carla works with her alderwoman on local projects to improve their neighborhood.
She’s also inspiring her employees to look beyond her salon; one barber is in business school, two of them aspire to have salons of their own, and another wants to open a tattoo parlor. Carla has pushed herself, too--she is working to overcome her fear of public speaking and has spoken on a panel on women’s business ownership and plans to take the Public Speaking Workshop at Grace Hill.
Carla hopes eventually to move to a larger space that would allow for a masseuse and to open other locations. She wants the experience to be something men look forward to and enjoy (and feel they deserve) just as women enjoy a “spa day”. But if none of that happens and even if she closed the shop tomorrow, “I would consider my business a success because I have found a way to inspire and empower men,” she said. Some clients make a point of coming into the shop just to talk to her and thank her for the experience.
She’s getting referrals, too. Women are referring their significant others and family members and sending their men in for a little pampering. As a result, she’s made her community a better place than she found it.
“I would never be here without Grace Hill, SBA, and Justine Petersen,” she said. “Live your dream.”
Elevated Men’s Salon, LLC, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. They are located at 2758 Lafayette Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri, 63104. They can be reached at 314-664-6746, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on their website at http://www.elevatedman.net/contact.html.
Grace Hill Women’s Business Center is located at 2125 Bissell, St. Louis, Missouri, 63107. They can be reached at 314-584-6840. If you’re interested in the next Business Development Class, contact Falencia Moore at email@example.com. Their website address is http://www.gracehill.org/content/GraceHillWomensBusinessCenter.php. If you’re interested in an SBA microloan through Justine Petersen or any of their other services, their website is http://www.justinepetersen.org/ or you may call 314-533-2411.
SBA’s St. Louis District Office can be reached at 314-539-6600 or at http://www.sba.gov/mo/stlouis.