by youngro lee
Rushelle Wetzel, the Founder and President of Smiley Transportation, is a woman who makes things happen. She’s always been that way, and she’s done it no matter the circumstances or challenges.
Rushelle started her school shuttle business nearly 10 years ago because of a simple need – getting her special needs daughter to and from school safely. Starting with a single Kia Rio and a handful of other families who had similar needs, she launched Smiley Transportation.
Since then, she has grown the business into a 9-vehicle fleet, helping hundreds of students travel safely to and from school. Along with a rapidly growing list of customers and a booming business, Rushelle’s inspirational journey has won her widespread recognition in Texas and beyond, including being named Entrepreneur of the Year by Idea Café in 2014 and 2015 and voted among the “Top 100 Leading Moms in Business” by Startup Nation.
This is her story.
Where did you grow up?
Both of my parents were from Fort Worth, Texas but my father served in the United States Army, so I was born on an Army base in Germany. My family moved quite a bit, so that taught me great people skills. I am the oldest child of four and have three younger brothers. We lived all over Texas and Oklahoma and finally settled in the Fort Worth area.
What career did you picture yourself having when you were a kid? How did you get into the business that you’re in now?
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a pilot or a firefighter. But I am only 4’10” tall, so my dreams were a little out of my reach (no pun intended)!
Early on in my career, I always wanted the “office,” the “title,” and the “pay” that everyone would be envious of, so I worked hard to climb my way to the top.
But after having a special needs child, all of that no longer mattered to me. My first priority became finding a career where I could have the flexibility I needed to be home with my child, and that really didn’t exist. So, I decided – very nervously, I might add – to become an entrepreneur. It has been more stressful, but more fulfilling.
I started out as a Mary Kay Sales Director, where I received valuable sales and marketing training. I then opened my own cleaning services company, Happy Kamper Kleaners. I still needed additional income as a single mother (at the time), and I identified a real need and business opportunity in student shuttle services, so Smiley Transportation was born.
What’s your secret weapon / secret sauce? What makes you unique?
Our secret recipe has two main ingredients.
First, having a special needs child gives a parent a whole new understanding of life’s priorities. It also gives you special insight into how to deal with the safety and protection of children. A driver will not work for Smiley unless I can personally trust them to drive my own daughter alone. That is a very strict litmus test, and it establishes the trust that we’ve earned with our parents and families.
Second, my husband Chris is a paramedic. After years in the field, he has seen a lot and is great at thinking ahead when it comes to the risks involved in our business. He works hard to minimize risks in every area of our operation.
And the thing that pulls the recipe together is that we work incredibly hard to be the best, especially when there aren’t guidelines or regulations that require it. We go above and beyond with background checks and drug screening. We require perfect driving records for our staff, we use security cameras on all of our vans, our drivers conduct pre- and post-trip inspections, and we have implemented hands-free electronic notifications to let parents know their children have arrived safely. We also have a great app in the works that will allow parents more information as to where their children are at all times when they are in our care.
We’ve created a thick volume of policies and procedures to ensure that we are the best because we are driving the most valuable commodity anyone ever has – their children!
What’s the thing you love most about owning your business?
What we love most is bringing safety to the children in our community. We are very involved with our community and local social media. We notify the parents of our communities of road closures, bad weather, as well as reports of child predators. We make sure the community knows we have security cameras on each van, and we record everywhere we go! Keeping kids safe is our number one mission.
What’s the hardest thing about owning your business?
Not being able to step away. When we worked out of our home for the first 7 years, we worked this business 24/7. Now that we managed to locate our office in a separate building things are better, but we are looking forward to someday taking a weekend here and there to mentally step away.
If you could give one piece of advice to your 20-year old self, what would it be?
Not to care as much about what other people think. Having a special needs child has taught me that the world is not fair, but life is really what you make of it.
Just be honest, be fair, and have integrity in your actions. Everything else will fall into place.
What has been your biggest failure? What did you learn from it?
I would say one of my biggest failures was not continuing with my college career. However, my life challenges and experiences have provided me with a unique set of skills and perspective that helps me run a well-balanced business. Don’t get me wrong. I encourage my children, my employees, and friends to finish college and I hope that someday I will get the opportunity to return to college as well. But my life experience has been priceless and has led me to start and grow this amazing business.
What has been your greatest achievement? What did you take away from it?
Besides my marriage and my children, my greatest achievement was the leap of faith to step away from the comfort zone of being a full time employee. Leaving the corporate world with a steady paycheck, benefits and job security was the scariest thing I ever did, but it has paid off. Nineteen years later, I am still an entrepreneur and wouldn’t change it for the world.
I have a motto that I live by.
“Most people take life’s obstacles as a sign that they should not do something, and I look at life’s obstacles as a test to see how hard am I willing to try to achieve my goals.”
Who has really helped you along the way?
My husband, who pushed me more out of my comfort zone. He is a visionary with gutsy ideas. We trust one another, set lofty goals together and work hard to make them happen.
Also, we have several very loyal employees that have been with us for years. They understand our mission and have worked hard to be the best and move us towards our goals for the future. We have a great team in place and look forward to growing it!
What’s next for you?
We would love to expand our service to every school district in the nation because getting children safely to and from home, school, and before and after school activities is so important. In this day and age, the dangers to children on the road are ever increasing, and the peace of mind we bring to parents is priceless.
NextSeed tradition: what’s your favorite Disney movie?
The Little Mermaid. Because she was very curious about others, their customs, and their ways of life. And she went after her dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem.
#NextSeedStories offer a glimpse into the pursuit of happiness by small business owners everywhere. Share your story with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thenextseed.