April 19, 2023
Source: Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business
Note: This article was originally published by the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.
Student startup WheelChariot is set on a course towards success! On March 31, 2023, the team took first prize in the Sustainable-X Showcase. With the help of prize money and investment, WheelChariot aims to set a new gold standard for accessibility. Team members include Gabriel Jones (fourth-year business administration major) and Tori Stopford (fourth-year business administration major and industrial design minor). The team believes, “Together, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people with disabilities and their caretakers. We can move towards a future of equity for all.” The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, which leads Sustainable-X (a Sustainability Next Georgia Tech Strategic Plan initiative) in partnership with CREATE-X, asked the WheelChariot founders to share their startup journey. In the interview that follows, Jones and Stopford describe what sparked their original idea, how they took advantage of Georgia Tech courses and programming to develop their startup, and what’s on the horizon for the company following their big win.
[Interview with Gabriel Jones and Tory Stepford]
What is the personal story behind the need for a resource like WheelChariot?
Gabriel Jones [GJ]: For a large part of my life, my mother has taken care of my grandparents, eventually becoming their full-time caretaker. It quickly became apparent that so many places are created with able-bodied people in mind. Those places just don’t work for everyone. We found my grandmother unable to reach her doctor’s office because the wheelchair ramp was too steep. My grandfather struggled to get into his favorite restaurant in town because the handicapped parking was nearly 60 feet further from the front door than the closest spots for able-bodied people. The problems we encountered in my town made me wonder, Just how widespread is the issue of inaccessibility for people with a variety of disabilities across the country?
How did the two of you meet, and how did you decide to develop this business?
Gabriel Jones and Tori Stopford [GJ & TS]: We first met in the fall of 2021 in a marketing consulting course. We worked together seamlessly on group projects and decided to work together again on a group project the next semester in the core operations management course taught by Andre Calmon. Gabriel pitched the idea for WheelChariot, and our group developed a business plan. Out of the over 200 ideas pitched and developed, WheelChariot won as the best idea across three sections of the course. We thought, If our class thinks this idea has so much potential, shouldn’t we at least look into seeing how it could grow?
What did you learn in Calmon’s class?
GJ & TS: Professor Calmon’s class taught us to frame business as a solution to a problem. Without an emphasis on idea generation and a problem solving approach, we never would have found the solution to such a massive problem. Learning how to build a business model was also extremely helpful. Thanks to Calmon’s class, we considered all aspects of a business (e.g., sales channels, partnerships, specialties, and revenue) early in WheelChariot’s development.
Where did you take your idea next?
GJ & TS: We saw merit in finding someone within the disability community who could validate our idea beyond our personal touchpoints. We got the chance to be a part of the Together Conference in the summer of 2022, hosted by Together We Care. This conference made us realize that the need for our proposed service was even greater than we originally thought. We also came to a better understanding of the breadth of disabilities we’d need to consider. With these discoveries in mind, in Fall 2022, we participated in the Idea to Prototype (I2P) experience offered by CREATE-X. In this program, we started building our minimum viable product (MVP) and performed grassroots customer discovery. Our potential clients expressed so much excitement for a product like ours. Our partners, advisors, and community – from individuals with disabilities to full-time caretakers to centers for independent living and the Southeast ADA Center – assured us that we were on the right track. We were so pleased to get third place in the I2P semester showcase.
What are some of the most important points along your journey of developing your startup?
GJ & TS: Going from an idea on a piece of paper to a validated idea from our classmates got the ball rolling. Our first conference confirmed that we were on the right track. We have created meaningful partnerships with experts in the field. We were ecstatic when the Southeast ADA Center said they were interested and wanted to help us make sure our website itself was accessible. And of course, it was exciting when our website reached functionality!
What are some of the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome?
GJ & TS: We needed to integrate our idea and mission with our business model. Early on, we decided to provide WheelChariot at no cost and ad-free to the end user. We spent a good amount of time brainstorming how to create revenue to keep the platform running. We decided to charge businesses. We would also offer promotions for locations that performed well and provide training or certification for businesses lacking in accessibility.
What does winning first place in the Sustainable-X Showcase mean to you?
GJ & TS: Winning first place means we can take WheelChariot to the next level. At our core is accessibility, especially for our platform. With our winnings and investment, we want to work with an expert in designing accessible platforms to make sure that our website and forthcoming app are easy for our community to use. We’re so grateful that the judges believe in the future success of WheelChariot and are as committed to making our world a more accessible place.
What are the next steps for WheelChariot?
GJ & TS: With our website now able to take in data, our next big push is to start gathering reviews and ratings so that WheelChariot can start helping individuals as soon as possible. We will be working on our app and making organizational decisions. As participants in this summer’s CREATE-X Startup Launch, we look forward to building out our credibility and platform.
ACSB: Any final words for our readers?
GJ & TS: We’d like to thank Professor Calmon for his encouragement and faith in our mission. Our first conference with Together We Care was also incredibly important. It introduced us to important issues and helped us make connections with individuals who have supported us. And we would never be where we are today without CTO and Lead Developer Ben Jones [Gabriel’s father], our web developer who has worked tirelessly to develop our platform. In addition to working at his full-time job, he is also pursuing WheelChariot with as much gusto as the two of us. We cannot thank him enough for everything that he does.
As told to Jennifer Holley Lux.
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