An idea struck Vancouver resident Kevin Chong about five years ago when he was shuttling his nephew to rainy soccer games.
“I had to carry a cane, a chair and an umbrella,” said Chong, 49, who has cerebral palsy. “Everyone jockeys to stay out of each other’s way. I wondered, ‘What if we could join umbrellas together?’ ”
That brainstorm became Slikr-Brella, a poncho that hooks over umbrellas to create an impromptu tent that can keep several people dry at once.
But the overarching goal isn’t just a big umbrella. It’s helping disabled people help themselves.
Because Chong and his business partner, Chris Gibbons, share a passion for empowering disabled people, their enterprise goes beyond the patent-pending rain gear. The business is a case study for what they hope will become a nonprofit program to help disabled people become more financially independent.
Chong and Gibbons plan to use any Slikr-Brella profits as seed money for ABLEchange, the mentorship program they envision.
“It’s a vehicle to show that because a person is diagnosed with a disability doesn’t preclude the person from participating in society,” Gibbons said. “We want to provide a model business opportunity that others can learn from.”
The two met in 2012 at a mutual friend’s musical performance at a local bar. They chatted about Chong’s umbrella-tent idea and ways to encourage entrepreneurship among disabled people.
Chong grew up in Vancouver. He was born with cerebral palsy, a movement disorder, and he overcame setbacks later in life, too. He left for Seattle, but suffered a knee injury in 1989 that brought him back home, where he worked on the family farm. Then in 2007, he was involved in a head-on car crash on Interstate 205. He spent a year learning to walk again, a rehabilitation process complicated by his cerebral palsy.
“We fall and we get up. That’s a metaphor for life,” Chong said.
During his down time, he studied finances. He tapped the expertise of an investment adviser and fellow board member of Happy Trails Riding Center in West Linn, Ore., which offers classes to those with special needs.
Chong has a knack for serendipity, perhaps because he’s not afraid to reach out to others. He’ll make phone calls and ask to sit down with people he thinks can teach him.
“With my slurred speech, I don’t sound as credible,” Chong said of his phone calls. “It’s easier for me to meet someone.”
Two years ago, he recruited Nicole Budden to join his equestrian team. When she founded Happy Trails, she tapped Chong for the nonprofit riding center’s board of directors. Now he and Budden lead a social support group there called Real Life for people with disabilities.
“That’s a gift of his — to use his real life experiences to help other people,” Budden said. “He doesn’t let anything stop him.”
Chong said his family never told him he couldn’t do something. He grew up baling hay. When the engine of his car blew when he was a teenager, his folks encouraged him to rebuild it.
“They always said, ‘You can do it if you figure out a way,’ ” Chong recalled. “A lot of disabled people don’t have that support. If they didn’t grow up with that confidence, it has lifelong consequences.”
‘Reach out and grab life’
That’s what drives Chong and Gibbons in their efforts. Gibbons, 46, is a speech-language pathologist with a doctorate in developmental psychology. His day job is director of speech-generating devices for AbleNet Inc., a Minnesota-based company he works for from Vancouver.
“We don’t do a good job of teaching people with disabilities to reach out and grab life,” Gibbons said.
They see Slikr-Brella as a product that can help with that. Two models are available: a lightweight one for $20 and a heavier-duty one for $30. Either model can be worn as a poncho, or stretched over two umbrellas to keep several people dry at once. Slikr-Brellas can be used to protect people who are unable to hold an umbrella, or just reduce the risk of clashing umbrella tines on the sidelines of sporting events.
“I’ve used them several times myself,” Chong said. “We live in the Northwest, so rain is no big deal — except when it’s a downpour.”
The two estimate that they have spent less than $10,000 combined on their startup, including prototypes and applying for a patent, which they did with donated help from another contact of Chong’s.
After some sleuthing, Chong and Gibbons found Westside Cut & Sew Manufacturing Inc. in Beaverton, Ore. to produce the Slikr-Brella.
They began their marketing and sales push at the recent Walk, Roll ‘n Run fundraising event for United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon & SW Washington. They didn’t expect to sell many — although they did sell a couple — but they wanted to get the word out.
“We are encouraged,” Chong said.
Next, they plan to hit the soccer fields. They hope to sell versions with team logos. Already, they offer a $40 United Cerebral Palsy version.
The end game is to take any profits and put them toward ABLEchange, the nonprofit organization they’re forming to teach financial management and investment skills to people with disabilities through mentorships. The organization aims to reduce disabled people’s vulnerability through financial literacy.
“Financial literacy is one slice,” Gibbons said. “People gain a lot of self-awareness and confidence by doing something like balance their checkbook.”
“The majority of disabled people don’t understand financial education,” Chong added. “Funding is hard for any nonprofit. If we do Slikr-Brella — if we can sell it and make it successful — it shows that it’s possible to be disabled and learn how to run a business. We’re putting a stake in the game, too.”