The Unusual Item That Inspired This Science Entrepreneur’s Career Path

Like many young women, Tish Scolnik initially rejected engineering as “nerdy.” Now she’s running a social enterprise that designs wheelchairs for rough terrains.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

If it weren’t for the quirky appeal of NASA pajamas, Tish Scolnik might not be doing the important work she’s doing today — which is designing the mountain bike of wheelchairs.

Scolnik, 27, is the CEO of GRIT, a Boston startup that began life 10 years ago as a Massachusetts Institute of research project. Scolnik and her former MIT classmates, Mario Bollini and Ben Judge, make the Freedom Chair, an all-terrain originally designed to navigate the rough ground in East African villages. They now sell the Freedom Chair in the U.S., where it’s marketed as a $2,995 sports device that allows people with disabilities to access a hiking trail or sandy beach. Just this past September, they won a contract with the Veterans Administration to supply the chair to vets.

Reinventing the Wheelchair

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Tish Scolnik.

But back in 2006, when Scolnik was thinking about college, engineering school wasn’t her first choice. In high school, “I’d always been good at math and science,” she says. “Those were the subjects that I excelled in and the subjects that I enjoyed the most.” Yet she recalls vividly the day her well-meaning father, impressed that MIT had just hired its first female president (for trivia fans, that’s Susan Hockfield), drove her there for a campus visit. “I sort of remember, actually, that I didn’t want to get out of the car,” she says.

No Girls Allowed

It’s no secret that the so-called STEM fields — the acronym stands for science, engineering, mathematics and technology — are dominated by men. A 2015 report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that 81 percent of engineering degrees go to men, a number that hasn’t changed in a decade. Research suggests that society places a subtle but strong pressure on young girls to choose more “feminine” areas like the humanities, instead of the more “masculine” fields like STEM. (Many blame the personal computer industry, which focused its early 1980s advertising efforts on boys.)

Despite supportive parents, Scolnik wasn’t immune to the pressure. While she says she was a “tom boy” in high school — she played tennis, soccer, softball and basketball — she was an extrovert who served as class president and even helped plan Senior Prom. She tried to keep it under wraps that she was also a member of the Science Olympiad. The day her team’s gold medal — and all team members’ names — were announced on the loudspeaker, “I remember being, like, slightly mortified,” she recalls.

But driven by an interest in science, she signed up for “Intro to Engineering,” a new course her senior year. “I was the only girl in the class,” she says. “I convinced my best friend Krista to join with me so that I would have some company.”

Fast forward to the campus visit at MIT. “You know, I think I just had that terrible stereotype” — think nerdy guys in broken glasses — “and that I wouldn’t fit in,” she says. But then she attended an info session, “and I was totally mesmerized by the young woman who was giving it.” The student talked about everything, Scolnik says, from extracurricular activities to “her NASA pajamas that she was so excited to proudly put on at night with her sorority sisters.” Scolnik was hooked.

Social encouragement is a key part of motivating girls to pursue STEM fields, research has found. Two years ago, Google poured $50 million into “Made With Code,” a website that seeks to right the gender imbalance by providing resources for parents, coding projects for girls and stories from female tech role models. The tech giant, through its own extensive research, has found that girls are more influenced than boys by social pressure, and pervasive stereotyping has steered many young women away from tech careers.

Beating Boys With Glitter

At MIT, Scolnik says she largely found a supportive environment but did need to band together with other women at times. In one mechanical engineering class, she struggled with a soldering iron, which the male students were using to build robots. “I said that I had never done this before, and all I got was chuckles,” she says. “Nobody offered to help, nobody offered to show me how it worked, and I was too embarrassed that I basically just stormed out.”

Fortunately for Scolnik, a few of her sorority sisters were in the class. “In a somewhat act of defiance,” she says, they joined forces for a class competition and built a robot covered “in glitter, so that when we beat the boys they would be beat by glitter bots.” They lost. It turned out, “if we’d known how to solder we would’ve done a little better,” she says.

By spring semester Scolnik had stumbled upon an ad for a class called “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries.” While she had originally planned to be pre-med, she found herself racing to get to the class. “My group was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania,” she says. “We would Skype with them and email with them to learn about the problems they were facing, and try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our basic engineering skills.”

Scolnik visited Tanzania with her MIT classmates the following year, learning more about the difficulties faced by wheelchair users there. “People needed to go really long distances, to get to work or to school,” she says, often on rough terrain. “And they needed something that they could repair and maintain in the long term.”

Her team came up with a solution: A wheelchair that uses standard bicycle parts, so it could be repaired easily and locally. The team also re-thought how a person could push the chair. “A regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward,” she says. “The Freedom Chair uses a lever system. It’s easier to push.”

She spent the rest of her time at MIT developing the chair, and in 2012, two years after graduation, incorporated GRIT with classmates Bollini and Judge and instructor Amos Winter.

To date, the startup has worked with agencies and NGOs to distribute about 2,000 chairs to 20 developing countries. “While that was happening, we started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States, who said…we want something that’s rugged and easy to repair, too,” Scolnik says. The team designed a recreational version of the chair for the U.S. market, and has shipped more than 200 to U.S. customers. GRIT has also secured two $100,000 grants — including one from MIT’s D-Lab Scale-Ups Program — and in 2015 raised a seed round from angel investors.

Scolnik says she’s glad she attended MIT and pursued a career in engineering. “There are so many big problems that the world is facing,” she says. “Many of them can’t be solved by engineering — but many of them can.”

She no longer has inhibitions about science, and is working with her mother on a book aimed at getting middle school-aged girls excited about STEM fields, she says. “Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely.”

Read Full Transcript

Tish Skolnik – CEO – GRIT – Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

TISH: Here at GRIT we’re making the mountain bike of wheelchairs.

SOT: Yeah!

TISH: Our Freedom Chair is specially designed to help users travel on really rough terrain, whether that’s a hiking trail, or through thick grass, or on the beach.

TEXT: Tish Skolnik – CEO + Co-Founder – GRIT – Cambridge, Mass., USA

TISH: There are so many big problems that the world’s facing and many of them can’t be solved by engineering, but many of them can. There are millions of people that could benefit from a product like ours.

SOT: It’s nice to be able to just change direction and go where you want.

TEXT: Tish grew up in Westchester, New York. Her parents ran their own graphic design company.

TISH: It was actually, uh, pretty fortuitous for me growing up having both a working mom and a working dad, uh, and seeing them running their own business. I guess it always kind of seemed like I could do this. I could run my own company.

TISH: I’d always been good at math and science. My dad was the one who wanted me to look at MIT. We came and toured MIT and I remember that I didn’t wanna get out of the car. I think I just had that terrible stereotype that it would be full of...nerds and that I wouldn’t fit in. I don't know what I was thinking. Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely.

TEXT: Tish planned to study pre-med at MIT.

TEXT: But during her first year, she also signed up for a class called “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries.”

TISH: That same semester I was also taking, uh, organic chemistry and I found myself totally disinterested and really racing to be on time to the wheelchair class every time, every day.

TISH: My group was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania in East Africa and we would Skype and email with them and try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our, our basic engineering skills.

TEXT: Tish spent the next summer working in Tanzania at the workshop.

TISH: People needed to go really long distances to get to work or to school, oftentimes in rural areas. When they got to work, or school, or the office they needed to be able to go indoors and still be maneuverable. And they needed something that, that they could actually repair and maintain in the long term. And so all of the moving parts are standard bicycle parts. The need to be able to repair it locally was really clear to us.

TEXT: All through college, Tish worked on the design with fellow students Mario Bellini, Ben Judge and their teacher Amos Winter.

TISH: The key innovation behind the Chair is the way you push it. So a regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward. The Freedom Chair uses a lever system.

SOT: Actuating correctly.

TISH: The levers give you a lot more leverage so it’s easier to push.

TEXT: In 2011, a year after graduating from MIT, Tish decided to make the chair as her full-time career. In 2012 she set up GRIT with Amos, Mario and Ben.

TISH: When we started GRIT, all of us mechanical engineers, there were a lot of things we had to learn. There are a lot of skills we had to pick up on the fly from accounting, to finance, to patent law, to sales and marketing.

TEXT: The biggest challenge was money. Tish and Mario pursued grants, prizes, Kickstarter campaigns and investment funding.

TISH: We started working with a manufacturer in India and distributing the product through agencies and NGOs around the world, to date, about 2,000 chairs in almost 20 countries. While that was happening we started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States who said, “We want something that’s rugged and easy to repair, too.”

TEXT: The team redesigned the chair for the American market. They made it easy to fold and put in a car.

TEXT: It is sold direct to consumers for $2995, which is less than half the price of their closest competitors.

TISH: As a small team with limited resources being pulled in so many different directions it’s really hard. We’re talking to folks that we might be able to, to partner with overseas to help grow that work. And also we really wanna put the time and effort into growing what we’re doing here in the US.

TEXT: GRIT has sold more than 200 chairs to US customers and landed a contract with the Veterans Administration for more.

SOT: Then we have that trail ride with the VA. See how, how this trail, what this trail is like and maybe it’s time we add it to our accessible trail series.

TEXT: Tish and her colleagues now take small salaries.

TISH: Our riders, they’re all over. They’re leaving their own footprints in the sand when the tire tracks are, are left behind. That’s what makes us wanna keep doing this is, is hearing those stories and seeing that, that impact firsthand.

Posted: February 14, 2017

Colleen DeBaiseThe Unusual Item That Inspired This Science Entrepreneur’s Career Path