Like so many first-year college students, mechanical engineer Tish Scolnik entered MIT with no major declared. She had already developed an interest in the healthcare industry, even serving as a volunteer EMT while in high school, so the study of medicine was one possible career path. However, her ambitions became clearer when she enrolled in a course that taught students how to design wheelchairs.
“I sort of fell into this class on wheelchair design. I found this really incredible opportunity to use my budding skills as an engineer to have some sort of real impact in a related medical healthcare field,” Scolnik said.
Now, ten years after graduating, Scolnik serves as co-founder and CEO of GRIT, a mechanical engineering company established in 2012. The company’s main product, the result of “several years of prototyping and testing, getting feedback and improvising,” is the Freedom Chair, a wheelchair capable of traversing over a variety of terrains. “The core concept behind it is that there had to be a better way to propel a wheelchair, especially if you need to or want to get over rougher terrain,” said Scolnik. The Freedom Chair, she said, helps users travel “beyond the pavement.”
Before starting GRIT, Scolnik spent a year working in the Office of Rural Health Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. “It was a terrific learning experience. It definitely reinforced my preference for working within a small organization where change can happen really quickly,” Scolnik said.
This desire led to GRIT and to the Freedom Chair. Unlike typical wheelchairs, the Freedom Chair is meant to be used outdoors. It can help riders conquer sand, mud, or grass. Riders can use the wheelchair’s levers to push themselves forward in a fluid motion that also offers them an upper-body workout.
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As the pandemic continues, Scolnik noted, more people are socializing outdoors. “One of the safe, socially distanced activities that you can do in many places is go hiking outdoors on a trail,” she said. “So we’re trying to provide as many opportunities and as many resources for people to do that as we can.”
In addition to the Freedom Chair, GRIT also promotes online resources to help create its own digital community. The company website features a blog, a newsletter, a Facebook group, and a guide to America’s “wheelchair-friendly trails.”
An uphill battle
Scolnik described her journey at GRIT as a “constant roller coaster” filled with both triumphs and challenges. “The highs are incredibly high and the lows are incredibly challenging. As the entrepreneur, you get to wear those wins, but you also have to wear those losses,” she said.
She acknowledged the specific challenges women entrepreneurs face, especially when it comes to fundraising. However, she also recognized that there are also many people eager to help women succeed in business. “In some ways, being a female founder opened up some additional doors for us. There are more and more resources and organizations that are trying to support women entrepreneurs,” she said. “But I think one of the challenges is how much of it is talk and how much of it is actually action.”
As a young entrepreneur, Scolnik found it “invaluable” to connect with other budding entrepreneurs. “For me, the best support was from other women entrepreneurs who were going through similar things at the same time,” she said.
With eight years of experience as CEO under her belt, she has advice for other women starting their own ventures. “If you’ve got an idea that you can’t imagine the world not knowing about, then you’ve got to go for it,” she said. “But if your heart’s not fully in it, it’s going to be hard to make it across that finish line.”