Written by Jesse Chambers
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Drew Ann Long—an Alabaster mother, homemaker, and entrepreneur—has received national acclaim for inventing Caroline’s Cart, the first shopping cart built to accommodate special-needs children, including Long’s daughter, Caroline, 15.
Caroline’s Cart, which is now used in every state and four foreign countries and by such chains as Publix, Kroger, and Wegmans, has been featured widely in the media since 2011, including on CNN, ABC-TV, and NBC-TV, for the way it has helped special-needs families go shopping more easily and enjoyably—something that most people take for granted. The story got another bump in February when Target announced the cart would be used in all the retail giant’s U.S. stores.
Did Long ever dare dream that Caroline’s Cart would draw this spotlight? “Anytime you try something that has never been done and face the enormous challenges, no, you don’t dream it,” she says. “On the flip side, because I live it every day, and because there are millions of families like mine, I felt if I could get it off the ground, it would gain a ton of media because it has served a need that has existed forever.”
Like any true entrepreneur, Long sought to fill this “forever” need, one that directly impacted her daughter. Beginning with her first sketches of the cart at her dining room table in 2008, she persisted in her quest to make the cart a reality and give special-needs parents the chance to shop with their loved ones and enjoy the shopping experience like anyone else. In the process, Long garnered a hard-won wisdom about developing new products that she shares with anyone seeking to invent, innovate, or find a way to make people’s lives better. The Target announcement had a positive impact on Caroline’s Cart, according to Long. “That really launched us into outer space,” she says. When I talked to Long in March, she had just finished taping a CNN segment for the second time in four years. “Target—that’s why CNN came back, and The Today Show and Fortune.com,” she says.
It was in 2007 that Long realized that Caroline—then age 7, born with Rett Syndrome, and unable to walk or talk—would soon outgrow normal shopping carts, and it was difficult for Long to maneuver Caroline’s wheelchair and a shopping cart at the same time. She felt compelled to find a solution for her and other special-needs caregivers.
“I just knew this was my calling, [but] I didn’t know where to start,” she says. “You might as well have told me to design a space shuttle.”
Long had earned a business degree from Louisiana State University in 1991 and worked full-time prior to Caroline’s diagnosis but, she says, “The majority of Caroline’s Cart was trial and error, walking in the dark.” To develop the cart, she started a company, Parent Solution Group, with her husband, David Long, who is South Region vice-president of SLM Corporation (Sallie Mae). The Longs also have a son, Matthew, 11, and another daughter, Mary Grace, 18.
In 2011, Long obtained a prototype of her cart from an Indianapolis design firm. Instead of the traditional child seat, Caroline’s Cart has a molded seat facing the driver, a footrest, and handles that swing out, allowing easy access. The cart has a 250-pound capacity and can be used by special-needs adults and older people with dementia or mobility issues. The cart is easy to steer, and an adjustable harness secures the rider so caregivers can keep hands free to shop. To prove to retailers that she had the perfect solution to an unmet need, Long launched a public-relations push. “I had to convince the retailer that they needed [the cart], which came off their bottom line,” she says. “Everyone I went to agreed that [the cart] was a good idea, but getting it done was hard.”
Sexism may have played a role in her early struggles to get interest from retailers and manufacturers, according to Long. “I think being a female and a stay-at-home mom was not in my favor early on,” she explains. “I got a lot of rolled eyes. ‘Oh, this is a mom with too much time on her hands.’” To “create the demand” for the cart, Long took a bold step and “seeded the market” with 100 carts—all with small grocers and retailers. “The big boys would not even talk to me,” she says. She then made adroit use of her “lifeline”—social media, including Facebook—in gaining visibility for her product. “I would post, ‘The cart is now in this store in Kentucky. Go use it and give us feedback,’” Long says. “People would post pictures. It spread like fire in the special-needs community. It didn’t take long to prove the need to retailers.”
She was able to show retailers that “special needs families have been forever underserved,” she says, especially since most stores offer electric scooters and car carts for toddlers. “Why would you have an electric scooter and not Caroline’s Cart?” she says. “They couldn’t answer that.” In 2013, she signed a deal with Technibilt, a well-regarded North Carolina shopping-cart manufacturer, giving the cart additional industry credibility and freeing her to focus her efforts on interviews, marketing, and social media. “Anything to raise awareness,” she says.
She gets gratifying feedback from users. “I get emails from families from all over the world with pictures saying, ‘This has changed my life,’ [and] thanking me,” Long says. “I get email from families asking how to get it in their stores.”
Long offers advice for entrepreneurs. First, know your market. “Who are you selling to?” she says. “Learn the industry that you are trying to break into, and you better know it like the back of your hand.” Second, don’t let ego get in the way. “I wasn’t afraid to ask for help,” she says. She approached Innovation Depot CEO Devon Laney early on, and he guided her to other experts, including the UAB School of Engineering. Perseverance is another key. “If I had quit at my first roadblock, we would not be having this conversation,” she says. “You have to be in it for the long haul.”
And fear is not an option for inventors. “You can’t be afraid to fail,” she says. “You will fail. And you have to say, ‘I won’t go down that road again. I will now go down this road.’” Being driven to make Caroline’s Cart work was not difficult for Long. “Early on, someone said, ‘If you’re going to succeed, you can’t lose your motivation,’” she says. “I told them, ‘I live with my motivation: Caroline.’” As the cart’s sales continue to climb—“Our growth has exploded since Target,” Long says—the mom-turned-inventor keeps her eyes on the prize. “My goal is that any retailer that has a shopping cart needs to have Caroline’s Cart,” she says. “If you provide for the able-bodied, you should provide for the disabled.”•
Tags: Jesse Chambers