Rise Above: Prologue

Rise Above Prologue

On a hot summer day in 1947, I was told I would not live to see my 13th birthday.

I was six years old at the time and playing toy trucks and cars with my cousins Ed, Frank, Henry, Charles, and Harry outside my Aunt Elizabeth’s farmhouse in Logansport, Indiana. My parents were inside, and we were in the dirt driveway. We stopped there after a visit to Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, where my parents had taken me for some medical tests.

They had noticed I couldn’t do some of the things other kids my age could do. When other kids ran up stairs, I walked a step at a time and held the railing. When other kids sprang to their feet from sitting positions, I pushed myself up slowly with my hands on my knees. In a footrace of any distance, I always fell behind. At Riley Hospital, they hoped to find an answer.

“What’s wrong with you?” my cousin Henry asked. “Why were you at the hospital?”

I didn’t know what to say. The doctor, a big burly guy, said I had some kind of disease that caused me not to walk and move around as well as others, but I didn’t really know what it meant. At the age of six, all I knew was he gave my parents some pills and told them to make sure I took them every day. The medicine was still in the car, and I went to get it so I could show my cousins. On my way back up the driveway, the container opened, and I dropped the entire contents in the dirt.

“Help me pick these up,” I said, scrambling to gather the pills and clean them off. “I don’t want my parents to know I got them dirty.” “It doesn’t matter,” said my cousin Harry, who had just come out of the house, the screen door slamming shut behind him.“I heard our parents talking, and they said you’re going to die anyway, probably before you grow up.”

A thousand thoughts filled my head, and just as many feelings flooded my body. I was confused and disoriented. All at once, I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, make a fist and punch my cousin in the mouth, and run away as far as my unsteady legs could take me. But another instinct took over: the instinct to rise above what he said to me and not let it—whatever it was—beat me. In that moment, I vowed that no matter what it took, my cousin would see me grow up.

You see, at Riley Hospital, the doctor never told me the outcome. Unbeknownst to me, he did tell my parents the following: I had muscular dystrophy, I wouldn’t live past my teens, and nothing more could be done for me. He also asked my parents whether they would consider leaving me behind so the doctors could study me.

My parents were outraged. No way would they leave their child behind and have me studied like some guinea pig. They were determined to take me home and help me live in the mainstream of society.

I was ambulatory for a while, but for many years when I could no longer walk, my father carried me on his back, “piggyback” style. He was a big man, standing at 5 feet 11 inches and weighing 210 pounds. I weighed about 140 pounds, and while many fathers carry their kids around in this playful manner, it was my mode of transportation. What I didn’t find out until many years later was my father had broken his back in a car accident a few years earlier. I’ll never know how painful carrying me must have been because he never said a word about it.

With muscular dystrophy, muscle size and strength gradually decrease over time. Because so little was known about the disease in the 1940s, my prospects for survival seemed scant—to put it mildly.

Some in my situation would have chosen to let the government or some religious or charitable organization support them with disability payments. Others would have stayed home, with their family members acting as caretakers. Depending on the severity of their illnesses, others would have lived in institutions. Sometimes, it would have been a combination of all those methods. Any of those options would have been fine for other people, and I wouldn’t begrudge them their choices, even for a moment. But theirs was not my way, and it certainly wasn’t my family’s way. It could have been if not for my parents’ determination, for which I am eternally grateful. 

I am now 69 years old. I am a father, a son, a husband, and a grandfather. I am an inventor and entrepreneur. I am the founder and CEO of The Braun Corporation, an international company that is 48 years old and every day changes the lives of disabled customers and their families all over the world. Having survived my doctor’s prognosis and outlived my cousin’s prediction,I can safely join Mark Twain in saying, “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

I still get choked up at the memory of hearing I was going to die. At six years of age, my interest was in survival. The notion I would one day start and run a global company was beyond my wildest dreams. However, I did feel that although I had been dealt a serious challenge, I would rise above it. I also felt if I ever had the opportunity to help others rise up after being knocked down, I would do it with every last weakening muscle in my body.

However, when I started my business in 1962, it was more out of necessity than as part of a grand plan.

I could no longer walk, and although I used a wheelchair, getting around was becoming very hard. Society did not at that time know how, or care, to accommodate physically disabled people. Curbs did not have cuts in them as they do today. Ramps were not available. Cars and doorways were not built to make room for wheelchairs. Physically disabled people were treated as second-class citizens, a fact I was unwilling to accept.

That’s the main reason I created the Tri-Wheeler, the world's first motorized scooter: to give me access to the life everyone else took for granted. Shortly thereafter, I also realized if I built Tri-Wheelers for others, I could give them the same gift of mobility I had and make some extra money in the process.

The odds were against me: I was a 22-year-old inventor and entrepreneur with no money and no employees and just my parents’ garage as a workshop. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, over the next 48 years, Braun grew into a global enterprise with more than 400 dealers and 700 employees. To disabled people and their families, as well as to businesses, Braun is a well-known brand that is trusted on four continents. Thanks to the efforts of many intelligent and indispensable people, we have achieved steady and substantial growth. To this day, we are an honest-to-goodness, made-in-America, privately held company that has never moved its headquarters from the small town of Winamac, Indiana, where I was born and raised.1

Our tale is far more than a recitation of our growth and global reach; it’s also about how a company can be constructed around values such as compassion, competence, integrity, incessant curiosity, initiative, honesty, and good old-fashioned hard work. In many ways, Braun combines the best traits of both of my parents. The fact that a company can succeed through both empathy and empowerment is a testament to their Midwestern work ethic.

Braun has become a beloved brand to everyone who comes in contact with it. I cannot count the number of heartfelt letters we get from people who have been able to do everything from the mundane to the miraculous because of our products. Things such as attending school or going to the store, which for most people are the humdrum experiences of everyday life, become magnificent adventures for people using our vans and lifts. For someone who lived through the “dark ages” of society’s attitudes toward the disabled, I cannot possibly be more satisfied over what we have wrought.

People are devoted to our brand because they experience firsthand what we are all about. Braun is more than vans with lifts: it’s freedom of movement and the feeling of being empowered to go places and do things—which is why our tagline reads “Because life is a moving experience.”1

Because of their humility and modesty, my dad, who has passed away, and my mom, who is now 98 years old, would never accept what I am about to say: in many ways, Braun is a testament to them. For all they did for me, I am trying to do for others through the example of my life.

Writing a book was never something I thought I’d do. I thought looking back at my life and Braun’s history was like trying to drive a car by staring in the rearview mirror. Now I see it differently: our best days are still ahead of us. We may be 48 years old, but like my mother, we still have a long way to go.1

So why write a book now? The easy answer is the time is right. I realize this is not an adequate answer, but I believe in timing—and I’ll talk about that throughout the book. Let me try to explain my reasoning for writing this book now.

First, I hope my story can encourage individuals to reach for and achieve whatever their hearts desire. My philosophy is pretty straightforward: no matter the obstacle, no matter the challenge, no matter what other people may think about you, you can rise above anything you face. Look at me. I was a poor kid from farm country. I had little formal education, I had no connections, and I was in a wheelchair when society did not accept people with disabilities. However, I was determined to be mainstream, and no one was going to stop me.

Second, I’d like to encourage struggling businesses and the country at large. The way I see it, everyone gets knocked down from time to time. In recent years, our country has been knocked flat on its back. I don’t mean to minimize bad times, but tough things can and do happen. The key is what you do after you've been knocked down. You can complain and have self-pity, you can blame your circumstances on fate or some other person or entity, or you can wait for someone or something to rescue you. In my view, a business or country that takes any of those routes weakens its character. Sure, you can get help, as I did, but it’s up to you to initiate your own comeback.

Third, I dream I can be an encouragement to our wounded veterans, for they are heroes to me. I have been to dozens of Veterans Affairs hospitals over the years and have countless friends and customers who are wounded veterans. They touch my heart and inspire me in my own life. Because of my muscular dystrophy, I was never able to serve alongside them, but I’d like to think that in my own way, I’ve been serving alongside them all these years with my products and services. Long after I’m gone, I know my company will still be serving them.

I don’t expect to get rich writing this book, but I do hope to enrich others. With that in mind, a portion of every dollar from the sale of this book will go to the Ralph Braun Foundation, which is just being formed as this book goes to print. The Ralph Braun Foundation will serve as a living legacy of my work and of the efforts of our employees—past, present, and future.1

Because they are inseparable, this is both my life’s story and my company’s story. These stories shed some light on the world of the disabled from what I think is a unique perspective, but they are not typical fodder for business schools or boardrooms, not a prescription for what people or companies should do to succeed, not how-to instructions or top-10 lists or must-dos. I present no grand management theories or magic potions that promise everlasting riches.

I offer the story of how my parents inspired me to rise above whatever life put in my way and how their example helped my colleagues and I build a company that helps others rise, too. We won some, and we lost some. We made mistakes, and we learned lessons—about ourselves and about business. Now I hope to pass all of that on through this book. If you take one thing away from this book, I hope it’s this: you can do whatever you want in life. Don’t let anybody say you can’t. When faced with an obstacle, never forget there’s always another way. If thinking of my story helps, great—but you should always remember you can create your own story. You can rise above. See you at the top.