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Veteran Sandra Edwards is Empowering Women and Reinventing Rent-to-Own

After starting with a personal loan and television ads, Edwards got plugged into Bunker Labs, for which Comcast provides entrepreneurial support and technology services.

Don’t go cheap, the saying goes, on anything that separates you from the ground. The advice typically applies to shoes, beds and tires. It’s the tire part that stands out to Sandra Edwards, president of Wheelz On Time.

"I’m all about safety," says the Chicago-based entrepreneur. "I’ve seen lots of accidents because of blowouts."

Edwards would know. She’s a former truck driver, as well a US Army veteran and former apartment leasing consultant. And with the help of the Bunker Labs, the Comcast NBCUniversal-sponsored innovation accelerator for veteran-led businesses in Chicago, Edwards is combining her background in the automotive and leasing industries to help customers, empower women, and redefine rent-to-own business.

"My mission is to help people get safe tires quickly and affordably," Edwards says. "Tires are expensive, and most people aren’t saving in advance for when they need them. If people don’t have disposable income, they find themselves in a bind. That’s where Wheelz On Time comes in."

The idea is simple: up to 45 percent of customers applying for credit cards at major tire retailers don’t qualify for financing plans. That leaves many people falling back on suboptimal, less-safe alternatives. Instead, they can work with Edwards to get new tires on a plan they can afford.

Edwards first got the idea for rent-to-own tires while living in South Florida. Attempts to purchase a franchise and open her own Florida-based business fell through. Upon moving back to Chicago, Edwards realized her home city offered a prime market for tire financing -- and there was no competition.

After starting with a personal loan and television ads, Edwards got plugged into Bunker Labs, for which Comcast provides entrepreneurial support and technology services. While Edwards’s other classes merely focused on business plans, The Bunker’s EPIC course provided practical entrepreneurial knowledge, plus valuable exposure to banks, marketers, investment companies and other entrepreneurs.

"The Bunker is great place to network, not only because you’re around people who are going through the same struggles you’re going through, but because you get feedback from people who have an outside perspective," Edwards says. "And The Bunker is so well-connected that people want to help us. They provide so much to us, free of charge, that we couldn't have gotten on our own."

In turn, Edwards uses Wheelz On Time to give back to the community. In the summer, she teaches free monthly car care clinics for women. The two-hour, hands-on session shows participants how to change tires, wipers and fluids on their own vehicles. Edwards says she was tired of hearing men selling women unnecessary products and services.

"One of the things I teach is that auto repair is not rocket science," she says. "As much as men will have you believe that it’s only something that only men can do, it’s not true -- don’t believe it. It’s very easy."

Edwards is also looking to change the negative associations typically associated with rent-to-own businesses. She keeps costs down in two ways. First, she can worry less about losing product, since tires are a necessity, not a luxury. Second, she works with retail partners, rather than paying to store and install the tires herself.

"At most rent-to-own places, the financing is three to four times what the item originally cost," Edwards explains. "In the industry, we call them turns. My turn is 1.45. So most of my customers pay between 25 and 39 dollars every two weeks. That’s affordable."

Wheelz On Time currently has 10 retail partners across 20 stores in the Chicago area. Edwards is in discussions to expand business into Detroit. Her dream is to partner with a major manufacturer or distributor. And she’s excited to use her wide array of skills every step of the way.

"I’m totally comfortable in this skin, in this space," Edwards says. "I’m not trying to do this. This is what I was born to do."

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