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WOMEN IN BUSINESS

Entrepreneur of the Year: What Alison Schuback Wants

Her life was changed forever by a speeding car. From now on -- with her independence growing, her family close, and her business moving forward -- the changes will be of her own choosing.


Erin Patrice O'Brien

IN HER CORNER: Alison Schuback at home with, from left, her sister, Michelle; mother, Donna; and father, Michael


Erin Patrice O'Brien

SISTERS: Traumatic brain injuries seperate people from their old lives––including, often, their old friends. Michelle Schuback returned to Dallas to offer help and companionship.

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You are you. Take a breath, and you are someone else.

Growing up in Dallas, Alison Schuback was the kind of young woman yearbooks were created to enshrine. At 23, she was beautiful, popular, working on her master's degree in family therapy, and envisioning a life spent helping others. Then, on October 17, 1997, a Chevy Suburban ran a red light and plowed into the side of her gray Mitsubishi Eclipse, which was waiting to make a left-hand turn at an intersection. As Schuback's car whipsawed into other vehicles, the fibers of her brain twisted and tore, wreaking havoc on the delicate network that keeps humans sentient and mobile.

"I remember at the hospital when I was coming out of the coma," says Schuback, leaning forward slightly as though concerned my recorder may not pick up her soft, halting words. "There was a pool on my floor, and I could smell the chlorine. I thought everything was underwater. And I worried, because I knew mammals couldn't breathe underwater. So what was I doing there?"

We are having coffee in the cheerful living room of a pale brick house just a hop-skip from the Galleria Dallas. The former dancer sits poker-straight in an electric wheelchair, occasionally raising an unsteady hand to emphasize a point or attract attention. But while her body moves little, her face is always on the go: brows arching, eyes widening, lips curling in a lopsided grin. When Schuback is still, the only evidence of injury is the outline of a battery pack implanted below her left shoulder. Wires thread through her neck to her brain to calm her tremors. At one point, she gingerly hikes up the legs of her pants to display the sores on her knees from crawling back and forth on her bedroom floor each day -- an exercise meant to help her relearn the use of her limbs.

Traumatic brain injury specialists and survivors often emphasize the suddenness with which lives can change. The impact of a car. A tumble from a bike. A dive gone wrong. Fate rolls the dice, and someone loses. Only for Schuback, victimhood was not a viable career option. "In life, there are probabilities and possibilities," she says. "Before my accident, it was probable that I would make a difference. Now it's only possible that I will make a difference. So I have to take every opportunity."

The child of entrepreneurial parents, Schuback equates opportunity with self-employment. As medical bills mounted, she wanted to make money, not raise it or have others raise it for her. So in 2002 she invented a transparent, washable bib for adults with disabilities and launched a company to sell it. The venture was inspirational as hell, for all the good it did her. Like many small companies, this one ran out of cash before it ran out of business cards. Schuback was forced to part with her single employee and consign remaining inventory to the basement.

Then, one morning last spring, Schuback's mother noticed an announcement in the paper. Everyday Edisons, a (oxymoron alert) PBS reality series that celebrates amateur inventors, was holding casting calls in town the next day. "She wanted to know if I thought that was interesting," says Schuback. "Well, yeah, I thought it was interesting."

So Schuback dragged her father -- just back from a business trip and exhausted -- to the casting call. Edisons's producers were gratifyingly wowed; they will feature the Invisibib next June. But that was just the start of this happy ending, because Schuback's audition brought her to the attention of a Fortune 500 executive uniquely positioned by his own family tragedy to appreciate both the invention's utility and its inventor's fortitude. And once more, in an instant, Schuback's life changed.

Soon, Schuback will be helping to lead a company of almost a hundred employees that will produce the tentatively named Invisibib. She hopes sales will pay for the years of surgeries and treatments still on her horizon. But the greater thrill, Schuback says, is the prospect of creating meaningful jobs for people who have injuries like her own. She will also consult on process innovations, applying her hard-won expertise to design a workplace that doesn't merely accommodate disabilities but is shaped around them.

"People think someone like me is doing well if they are only stuffing envelopes," says Schuback, her voice a low warble even when her words are defiant. "Well, I am not a person who is satisfied with that."

Like many people blindsided by fate, the Schubacks have mentally divided their lives into two eras: pre- and postcatastrophe. Joining Alison and me today -- trying not to fuss over her and succeeding somewhat -- are her mother, Donna Schuback, with whom she lives; her father, Michael Schuback, from whom Donna is divorced; and her sister, Michelle Schuback. As they eagerly describe a young Alison staging plays in the family living room and leading neighborhood children on make-believe safaris, the subject of their recollections sits quietly, as though detached from a past that has little to do with who she is today.

After the accident, Schuback remained in a coma for 29 days. Doctors urged the family to consider removing life support. "We weren't having any of it," says Michael, who praises and defends Alison with the fervor of a vice presidential candidate on the campaign trail. "We said we don't care what we get back. You just do your job and bring us back whatever you can."

Schuback woke gradually. ("It's not sudden, like on TV, where they just pop up and say, 'Where am I?' " says Donna.) She then spent three months recovering at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation. Her memory and ability to think were largely unimpaired, which is atypical of brain injury patients. But her ataxia -- a disorder of the part of the nervous system that coordinates movement -- was among the worst such cases her doctors had seen.

Schuback stood out in another way, her doctors say. "She was hopeful and sweet every minute that she was here," says Mary Carlile, director of Baylor's Traumatic Brain Injury program. "I think what carried Alison through is that she remained so positive."

Schuback also benefited from the kind of family everyone should have in his or her corner. Michelle transferred to a college near home so she could hang out with her sister, many of whose friendships did not survive the accident. Donna returned to her job as an IT recruiter to maintain an income and wrestled with a redwood's worth of paperwork. And Michael shut down the three small businesses he owned and devoted his life to his daughter. A 15-year volunteer for the Special Olympics, he spent hours with her in the pool teaching her to stand and balance. He oversaw her exercises, drove her to appointments, and puréed her food and helped her relearn how to swallow so she could lose the feeding tube. Unable at first to utter more than two words without drawing a breath, Alison trained with her father until she could speak in full sentences. When not playing coach, Michael scoured the Internet for every jot of information about potential treatments.

While her parents debated treatments and surgeries, Schuback itched to get on with her life. But she flinched from the menial jobs she saw many brain injury patients engaged in. "What I could do had changed," she says. "But what I wanted to do hadn't."

Restaurant meals play a significant role in the Schubacks' lives. On New Year's Eve, about six weeks after Alison woke up, her parents sneaked her out of the hospital for an Italian dinner. It was their first mutiny against limitations on her prospects. "In the restaurant, they stared at us like we were crazy," Michael says. "But my daughter was not going to spend New Year's Eve in a hospital."

Several years and many, many restaurant meals later, the staring hadn't stopped. At first, Alison had to be fed by someone else. Even after she gained sufficient motor control to raise a utensil to her mouth, her hands shook and food spilled. To protect her clothes, she wore an apron tied around her neck. But the kitchen accessory gods demand bright colors: All the aprons Alison and Michelle found were garish affairs, printed with jalapeños or in strident plaids. The effect was at once infantilizing and tacky. "I wanted something to cover me that wasn't noticeable," says Alison. "People already had so many other reasons to look at me. Why give them another?

"All I wanted was my dignity," she says matter-of-factly. She is speaking of more than gravy stains.

Schuback can't identify the point at which her desire to find a discreet adult bib became the intention to create and sell one. Money was certainly an issue. Much of the $1 million settlement Schuback had received from the accident was consumed by legal and medical bills. A surgeon in Beverly Hills studying stem-cell therapy had achieved promising results with Parkinson's sufferers, and the family had persuaded him to make Schuback his first traumatic brain injury patient. But the treatment was experimental, not covered by insurance, and would potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Schuback was determined to shoulder as much of that burden as possible. (Her treatment isn't yet under way.)

So, toward the end of 2002, Schuback began scanning her environment for design inspiration. "I asked my hairdresser, and she suggested vinyl was a good material, because it was easy to clean," says Schuback. "And of course, it had to be transparent. Then one day I was visiting our little cousin, and he was wearing a bib with a pouch on the front. And I thought, A crumb catcher! What a good idea!"

But how to get the business off the ground? Schuback's business experience consisted of an undergraduate advertising class and a dry-cleaning delivery service that she and a friend had operated as college juniors. Her parents were too busy winning bread to be much help. Financial pressure had forced Michael to accept the CEO position at a mining equipment company based in China. The job required long hours and international travel.

With Michael working again, Donna hired Karen Weatherford, a senior-living and disability consultant, to recruit a full-time caregiver. While getting to know Alison, Weatherford became entranced by this surprising entrepreneur and her increasingly ambitious plans. She suspended her own business and signed on to help manufacture and market the Invisibib. In 2003, with $80,000 of her settlement as seed money, Schuback launched the company Independent Empowerment to sell the bib and other products customized for the disabled.

Michael schuback is behind the wheel of the family's van, with Alison beside him. He is skipping important meetings to be with his daughter today, and his cell phone won't let him forget it. Between calls, Michael plays tour guide -- we are rolling through the neighborhood where George Bush may settle post -- White House -- and quizzes Alison about sales techniques: What is the alternative-choice close? What is the Ben Franklin close? Alison responds with good humor. She has heard this drill her whole life.

"What is the one way to be 100 percent sure of failure?" Michael asks.

"Never make the call," says Alison. "You will have 100 percent failure if you don't try." Across the armrest, she and her father link fingers.

With motivational-speaker punch, Michael asserts repeatedly that his daughter will let nothing stop her. He has witnessed her tenacity, seen her do things like spend an hour a day on the treadmill at a setting of .1, in order to lose weight. She even joined Toastmasters. "For eight months, she got up in front of these people who couldn't even hear her and gave speeches," says Michael, managing to sound both awed and amused. "Everybody would be leaning forward. And I would sit there and think, What are we doing here?"

But inevitably, Schuback's disability made starting a business difficult. Her voice was still too weak for much telephone work. She wasn't steady enough with a pencil to write or draw. Five hours of each day were eaten up by therapies. Then there was the occasional brain surgery.

Still, Schuback knew one thing guarantees failure. So she set up a website to tell her story and talk about the product she was working on. With Weatherford, she contacted manufacturers; eventually, through a Schuback family connection, they found one in Philadelphia willing to make the bibs at an acceptable cost. (They were looking for a retail price of $12.) Then they experimented with different iterations. Schuback auditioned the prototypes herself. "I would put them on to wash my hair, put on my makeup, and eat," she says. One prototype was too thick, another too thin. "We tried one that fastened at the sides with Velcro, but that was hard in a wheelchair," says Schuback. "We tried one with three pockets to hold utensils, but that did not do a good job catching crumbs."

When they finally had a satisfactory product in hand, Schuback and Weatherford began striking deals with wholesalers to distribute items Schuback found useful, such as a beverage container that mounts to a wheelchair, a lamp switch enlarged for unsteady hands, and a device that holds playing cards. They also bought boxes of foam cylinders and affixed them to the handles of toothbrushes and utensils for easy gripping. A pocket on the back of Schuback's wheelchair still holds Independent Empowerment's dining travel kit, which includes an Invisibib, foam-handled utensils, and a nonskid placemat.

They promoted the site through Google ads. "But on the Web they were just going to sell one-sies, two-sies, and three-sies," says Donna, who helped with the bookkeeping. "Alison wanted to do more than that."

She wanted to do sales calls. She wanted to do trade fairs. "She was bashful at first," says Weatherford, now director of marketing and leasing at a retirement community in Irving, Texas. "But she was good. She could talk, and she could sell her product. Before a sales call, she would practice on a karaoke machine. Singing helped her vocals."

Over two years, Schuback and Weatherford made the rounds of more than 100 senior homes, rehab centers, and similar facilities. Sometimes they sold to individual residents, sometimes to the centers' procurement directors. But the orders were always small -- no more than 10 bibs at a time. Donna Schuback estimates Independent Empowerment did at most $20,000 in sales before it ran out of money. Much of that revenue came from a single order: 500 bibs purchased by The Vermont Country Store for catalog sales.

Rooting around in a desk drawer, Donna produces Alison's to-do list from that period. Some tasks are mundane: Develop a website; register with PayPal; identify relevant books to offer through Amazon. Others are ambitious. Had the Invisibib taken off, Alison had hoped to exploit its success with her own e-book, seminars, possibly a line of shoes and clothing. Donna reminds Alison of her plan to resell used medical equipment such as scooters and wheelchairs. "So many ideas," says Alison nostalgically.

As Alison and her mother reminisce about the business, Michael looks dejected. "This was something I should have paid attention to," he says, almost to himself. "I thought the product had way too limited a line. Before making the investment, they should have done more research into market identification. But I had to disassociate myself, because I was trying to make some money."

Alison glances fondly at her father. "It just wasn't meant to be that time," she says. "But now it is meant to be. Now everything is falling into place."

Everyday Edisons is a quirky entrepreneurial success story in its own right. The program demystifies product development by tracking inventors as their brainchildren mature to adulthood. It was conceived in 2005 by Louis Foreman, founder of a large product-development firm, and Michael Cable, a former Fox News journalist. "Our idea was to show that ordinary people do have extraordinary ideas," says Cable. "They just don't know what to do with them. They don't want to assume the risk for the ultimate reward."

Edisons, in other words, helps inventors enjoy some benefits of entrepreneurship without becoming entrepreneurs. Participants sign over their intellectual property to the show's producers, who lead them through ideation, sourcing, and manufacturing. If the final product makes it to market -- a culmination devoutly to be wished -- the inventor gets annual payments based on sales.

As many as 3,000 hopefuls turn up at a single Edisons casting call, clutching diagrams scrawled on cocktail napkins or prototypes cobbled together from duct tape and tongue depressors. On that April day, Alison and Michael shuffled from line to line in the Dallas Convention Center for more than 12 hours, waiting for their moment. "It was 11 p.m., and everyone was exhausted," recalls Cable. "Alison was fresh. Her makeup was done. Her hair looked good. She gave her presentation. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Edisons staff members weren't the only ones moved. In the audience that evening was Bari Fagin, director of public relations at Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY). Bed Bath had sold two Edisons products from previous seasons, and Fagin was scouting promising ideas for the company. She was intrigued by the Invisibib and thought she knew someone else who would be as well.

Len Feinstein, the co-chairman and co-founder of Bed Bath, is also one of the founders of the Head Injury Association, a not-for-profit with facilities in Commack, New York, on Long Island. About 300 survivors live at the HIA or attend its day programs, among them Feinstein's son, Barry, who was injured in a car crash more than 20 years ago. The organization is an alternative for families that don't want to park loved ones -- many in their teens and 20s -- in nursing homes or Alzheimer's units.

Fagin brought Schuback's story back to Bed Bath headquarters, and by late spring, she and Feinstein were meeting with Liz Giordano, the HIA's CEO. An audacious scheme took shape. Giordano would oversee creation of a for-profit company to produce and sell the Invisibib, with proceeds going to the HIA. Bed Bath would offer the product in its stores. The new business, as yet unnamed, would be staffed almost entirely by traumatic brain injury survivors. Schuback would be mentored by members of Bed Bath's executive team and would ultimately be involved in all aspects, including marketing decisions, workflow modification, and new-product generation. "It will be great for her and great for everybody else to see she can do this," says Feinstein.

Foreman and Cable donated to the HIA the rights to the Invisibib and offered to handle industrial design and manufacturing, as they do for all Edisons products. They will sell the bibs to the new venture at cost, which includes Schuback's payments. "Alison is gutsy. She did her homework, she networked, she spent her own money," says Cable. "We were just thrilled we were able to connect the dots."

In October, the principals were a few weeks away from their first advisory board meeting, at which much would be decided. But Fagin and Giordano speculated on the new venture's mechanics. Probably the Invisibib will be sold over the Web, through Bed Bath and other retailers, and to nursing homes and assisted-living chains. The Invisibib will be customized for other markets, including versions for children's art classes, commuters who slurp coffee behind the wheel, and -- Schuback's favorite application -- brides anxious to protect their dresses during makeup refreshes. The company will seek bank loans and lease offices and warehouse space near the HIA. And it will enlist the United (NYSE:UPS) Parcel Service to create workflow processes friendly to people with cognitive and physical limitations.

The timeline will be dictated by Everyday Edisons's design and manufacturing schedule, but Fagin hopes to see Invisibibs in stores by fall. Feinstein, meanwhile, is big-picturing the start-up. "If the Invisibib becomes a success, similar things can be repeated in different areas," he says. "I hope other businesses will come along that can be handled by head-injured men and women."

To get an idea what such businesses might look like, I arrange to visit the Head Injury Association. At lunchtime, the main activity area is nearly deserted. A woman sits at a desk outside the computer room, munching Cheerios and studying a workbook on how to tell time. Beside her, a blind man picks out a number on a phone. The cafeteria, by contrast, is swarming with activity. Rolling in wheelchairs and clacking past with walkers, the residents line up for their plates of chicken parmesan. Some are chipper, others somnolent. The damage is evident in their twisted limbs or in their features, or sometimes lurking just behind their eyes. Traumatic brain injury is not a disease, and because of that it is not predictable. What these people have in common -- and what they share with Alison -- is a diminution of horizons, a piece of themselves gone missing.

Some of these people hold part-time jobs outside the HIA, which they perform with accommodations from their employers and, usually, the aid of a job coach. The Invisibib venture will be different. In some sense, it will be theirs; brain trauma survivors will fill roles from labeling and packing to customer service to sales and marketing. "I have more people who are capable of employment than employment opportunities initially, but we will probably put around 75 to work at first," Giordano says. "All of them have said they're interested. Everybody wants to be involved."

One especially eager candidate is Linda Archipolo. In 1982, Archipolo was a high school senior working at a Burger King in the food court of a mall. A workman in the restaurant next door fired a nail gun; the nail passed through the wall and into Archipolo's forehead.

You are you. Take a breath, and you are someone else.

"I think I could do sales," says Archipolo, a dark-haired extrovert. "I could go out and demonstrate what the bib is for. You can tell by my shirt. I just had tomato sauce for lunch, and I had the bib on. Can you tell? I don't have any sauce on me."

"Alison is fantastic," says Adriana Deliguori, who was a pedestrian injured in a car accident in Buenos Aires. She met the Schubacks when Alison gave a speech here in September. "Always I was thinking I could do something, but it never came on my mind I could do something like this. I would love to work for her."

Schuback, for her part, would love to be worked for. "I think I can be a very good, strong leader," she says. "I think I have the capabilities, and I'll only get better with time." Meanwhile, she waits in Dallas while the Long Island component incorporates and finalizes arrangements with Everyday Edisons.

Soon, she will be under the wing of Fagin and Bed Bath's vice president of marketing, who will mentor her long distance, with periodic visits to company headquarters. She is sorting through her old ideas from Independent Empowerment, evaluating which might take off in the new business. And she continues to rack up personal milestones. In August, she made it around the block for the first time using her walker. It took her more than an hour. But Alison Schuback is patience personified.

"Just showing up for the audition was so far-fetched -- whoever could imagine this?" she says. "All people like me get are the jobs no one else wants. That my product could employ all these people in jobs that really use them…" She pauses and folds her hands in her lap. The smile is swift and beatific. "Well, that would be immeasurable if I could do that."

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for the magazine.

IMAGE: Erin Patrice O'Brien
Last updated: Dec 1, 2008

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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