With her infectious positive energy, unstoppable drive and passion for helping the disabled-bodied, Drew Ann Long invented and brought the first shopping cart for people with special needs to the market. Caroline’s Cart has not only changed the lives of millions of families in all 50 states and four countries, but it has strengthened and emboldened Drew Ann. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Drew Ann Long!
Are you an Alabama native, and if not, what brought you to Alabama?
I am actually from Ohio, and I moved to Louisiana in the eighth grade. I graduated from LSU with a B.S. in Business, and I applied to some engineering firms in Birmingham and got the job. So I came here in 1991.
When did you first conceive of Caroline’s Cart?
About eight years ago, Caroline outgrew what retailers provided. And I thought, Well, now what do I do? I don’t have any place to put her. She doesn’t walk. So I started doing research to see if there were any special needs shopping carts, and I realized there was no such thing. So it was born out of the need for my own daughter, Caroline.
Tell us how you set the idea for your invention in motion.
Oh, my gracious. I absolutely had no idea how to do it. I was out to dinner with my husband, and I remember taking a pen and sketching it out on a napkin. I said, “David, this is what it needs to look like.” And he said, “Great! I agree! So now what do we do?” And I said, “I don’t know!” Imagine somebody said to you, “Go build a space shuttle.” You wouldn’t even have a clue where to start! I was like, “Well, I guess I need a better drawing than a napkin.” So my very first step was to find a firm — a design firm, an engineering firm, a prototype firm, I didn’t even know what I was looking for! But, I needed some professional drawings. And after six months, I finally got my first professional 3D drawings and my first prototype.
Did your business degree help you in this process?
Absolutely not. No. I don’t think there is a degree that totally prepares you for what I did. College degrees are great and you have to have one, but you have to learn how the world works. You have to learn how the industry works that you are trying to dive into.
What has been most challenging about building the business since its inception?
Caroline’s Cart is such a different animal. It’s easier to sell to the consumer. Caroline’s Cart was infinitely harder because I had to convince the retailer to buy my product. It comes off their bottom line. It was something they needed, but they would not make money on it. I was just in a different realm than what an entrepreneur/inventor would do. It’s a hard industry to break into, because they don’t deal with people like me, a stay-at-home mom from Alabaster. They deal with their vendors in Corporate America. So that put a whole different twist on what I was trying to do.
How has Caroline’s Cart impacted your life and the lives of others?
Of the thousands and thousands of emails I’ve received, “life-changing” is the underlying theme from everyone. Caroline’s Cart has, for the first time, allowed families like mine to have an accessible option at a retailer. “Life-changing” probably sounds silly to most people, but imagine if you were driving down Highway 31 and you are like, “Oh, I need to stop at the store!” And you look in the back seat and you’ve got a big child that can’t walk, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to stop and pull out her wheelchair. It’s just too hard. Forget it.” Caroline’s Cart has provided families a sense of normalcy, to be able to stop at the store on the fly, anytime they want.
And taking this on has definitely changed who I’ve become in the past eight years, that’s for sure. When I went to social media with the drawings of the cart and word started to get out, I felt almost burdened by what I had actually taken on. People were so hungry for it. Families said, “Please don’t stop.” I have become more determined than I have ever been. I have learned to not accept “no.” Caroline’s Cart failed a million times before it became successful. I don’t fear failure. I don’t fear those who have told me no. So it’s changed my whole outlook.
What is the greatest obstacle to advancing accessibility for the disabled-bodied?
Educating the public. I’ve always said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And that applies to me, as well. Until I had Caroline, I did not know what it was like to have a special needs child. My word, how could I know? You don’t know it until you have to know it. So education is very important in advancing anything for those with disabilities.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
When I wake up and I get pictures of families, of disabled adults, of people with Alzheimer’s who are out using Caroline’s Cart. That is my greatest accomplishment, because I feel like it has succeeded in so many ways for so many people in so many communities.
How do you like to spend your free time?
We love to go to Auburn to football games and tailgate and hang out there any chance we get.
What would be people be surprised to know about you?
When I asked my 18-year-old daughter, Mary Grace, that, the first thing she said was, “Mom, please don’t tell anybody about your obsession with Boston Terriers.” I follow all of these Instagram Boston Terrier pages. I grew up with them. I have them. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I love them!
Any guilty pleasures?
“The Bachelor.” I try not to watch it every season, and then I see a commercial, and I get sucked in. I can’t stand it! That’s embarrassing, too!
What is your best piece of parenting advice?
I have three children — one is disabled and the other two are typical children. Being a mom of three is challenging for anybody, but you throw a special needs child in there, and it becomes extra challenging. There will be dark, dark days. There are days that I didn’t even want to get out of bed. But you have to focus on the good days. There will be many good days, as well. So my advice is, as a mom of a child with a disability, don’t dwell on the bad. Life’s not easy for anybody. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get a support system. There are lots of special needs support groups in the Birmingham area. Join one of those and have people to talk to when things get hard.
What is your best piece of business advice?
Don’t take “no” from someone who can’t say “yes.” And when you are trying to get something done and you believe in it and you know it needs to be done, you have to make it happen! If I had waited for Corporate America to make Caroline’s Cart, it would have never existed. You’ve got to be fearless and you alone have to make it happen. No one is going to do it for you. It’s in your hands.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things that you cannot live without?
Milo’s sweet tea, plain M&Ms and LSU football.
Thank you, Drew Ann! To learn more about Caroline’s Cart, visit carolinescart.com.
Thank you to Brendon Pinola for the fantastic pictures of Drew Ann at the Homewood Target.