Charlotte de Vilmorin: there’s no holding her back
Charlotte de Vilmorin, who has been in a wheelchair all her life, founded Wheeliz, the first online adaptive vehicle hire platform for mobility-impaired people.
All roads lead to Rome, the saying goes. But try telling that to all the mobility-impaired people for whom leaving their homes is a daunting task in itself. They can feel trapped – and that’s exactly what Wheeliz is helping to change. Created in 2015, the start-up provides a peer-to-peer rental service for cars adapted to the needs of disabled people (equipped with either a lift ramp for wheelchair access or hand controls for the brake and accelerator next to the steering wheel). Based on the same model as car-sharing platforms such as Drivy and OuiCar, Wheeliz offers a way for owners of adaptive cars to rent them out when they’re not using them.
The platform is the brainchild of Charlotte de Vilmorin, an energetic, 28-year-old Parisian woman who has never walked, due to a genetic disorder that she’d rather not talk about. “It has a weird name that doesn’t mean anything to anyone,” she says offhandedly, with a smile that brings to mind her favourite saying: “You can’t change your face, but you can change your expression.” Charlotte owes much of this attitude to her parents, who have always refused to treat her differently from her non-disabled brother and sister, and who fought for her to go to mainstream schools. “Being treated the same as everyone else has really helped make me who I am,” she says, in a voice that’s as slight as her frame.
Charlotte had a brilliant academic career, taking an advanced literature course before embarking on a degree in communications from the CELSA school in Paris, then landing a job in an advertising agency. However, she found herself increasingly frustrated with the obstacles wheelchair users face every day.
A unique idea
One such setback was what gave her the idea for Wheeliz. In the summer of 2014, Charlotte de Vilmorin was planning to visit the Bouches-du-Rhône region of France for a friend’s wedding. It was a busy bank holiday weekend, so driving the long distance there and back was out of the question. The most practical solution seemed to be to take the train to Marseille and do the last part of the journey by car. But try as she might, she could not find an adapted car for hire in the area. So she couldn’t go to the wedding. “I thought it was just so stupid – somebody around must have an adapted car. And then it clicked,” says the young woman, her unrelenting optimism evident.
An instant success
Four months later, she launched a crowdfunding campaign for Wheeliz. After a week, she had already exceeded her target of €15,000 and raised a total of €22,000. The success was mostly down to her blog, Wheelcome.net, which she began writing in November 2012 to talk about her daily struggles as a wheelchair user with a healthy dose of self‑deprecating, dry humour. “The blog played a very important role in my adventure launching the business, because people sent me so many stories about how they’ve faced the same situations as me.” A lot of the donors were readers of the blog: “One lady, for example, wrote to me to say thank you because she lived in the countryside and hadn’t left her house in three years.” These people, future users or owners of adapted cars, meant that Wheeliz already had a significant customer base from the outset.
8,500 people have now signed up to Charlotte de Vilmorin’s platform, and that number continues to rise. “We had no idea that more than half of our rentals would be for elderly people in wheelchairs who find themselves stuck at home or in retirement homes. Their families now hire cars to take them to a birthday celebration or away for the weekend.” Originally intended as a peer-to-peer platform, Wheeliz now also works with a number of associations, businesses and local authorities which own adapted cars that they don’t use at weekends. There are now 850 vehicles available for hire through Wheeliz all over France – unlike professional car hire agencies, which are only located in major cities. “The collaborative economy really comes into its own in cases like this, because it makes it possible to find adapted cars everywhere, at a third of the price you might pay elsewhere.” The average cost of hiring a car through Wheeliz is €65 per day, including comprehensive insurance coverage.
As the founder of Wheeliz, Charlotte de Vilmorin is a pioneer. In early 2016, she won the European Commission’s award for the best social innovation project in Europe. Naturally, there’s been talk of international expansion. “A lot of people have approached us about expanding, but we want to make sure that we’re well established in France before we take the leap,” says the founder, who dreams of autonomous cars becoming a reality “to give so many people their freedom back.”
November 2012: Launch of her blog, Wheelcome.net
March 2015: Publication of her book, Ne dites pas à ma mère que je suis handicapée, elle me croit trapéziste dans un cirque (“Don’t tell my mother I’m disabled, she thinks I’m a trapeze artist in the circus”), published by Grasset in France
May 2015: Launch of Wheeliz