Going from an able-bodied Marine to physically disabled and wheelchair-bound, Kenneth Keitt gained a new perspective on the 61 million Americans living with a disability. Seeking resources, community, and a way to maintain the active lifestyle he was used to, Keitt continued his workout routine only to realize that his personal trainers generally weren’t equipped to address his specific needs.
Enrolling at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Keitt found the faculty expertise, network, and entrepreneurial resources through Lehigh Valley LaunchBox needed to start ParaPer4mance, a digital platform that connects individuals in wheelchairs and with limited mobility to fitness resources and each other.
Kenneth Keitt, CEO, ParaPer4mance, Class of 2019
“I built this platform and community because I had the drive and vision to do it, but also because of the free resources that came from Penn State. This definitely accelerated my success and everything that I’ve been able to do.”
Through Tragedy, New Perspective
Denise Ogden, a marketing professor at Penn State Lehigh Valley, recalls the time she went to see Kenneth Keitt, her former student turned CEO, deliver a keynote address at a local event. Ogden had guided many students and aspiring entrepreneurs through the early phases of their business ideas. Seeing Keitt a year after graduation as a confident business professional was a memorable, full-circle moment.
“It was amazing because, at that moment, I was seeing him as a true professional,” said Ogden. “Here is this business owner who used to be that student I knew at Penn State. It’s quite the journey, and I’m proud of that, even if I was just a small part of it.”
Ogden, and many others in the Penn State Lehigh Valley community, know Keitt as a physically fit and kinetic individual. Someone who is always in motion and always connecting with others and opportunities.
Keitt is also paralyzed from the waist down. In 2012, after returning home from the Marine Corps and deployment in Iraq, he was in a serious car accident that ejected him from the vehicle. He spent two months in critical care before being transferred to a rehabilitation unit in Philadelphia where he learned to adapt to his new reality in a wheelchair.
“For the first couple of weeks following the accident I didn’t know what to think,” said Keitt. “I was kind of numb.”
Going from an able-bodied Marine to not being able to perform simple tasks such as brushing his teeth, sitting up on his own, or showering was mentally and physically draining. All of this, as he and his wife were expecting their first child.
While in rehabilitation, Keitt’s eyes were opened to the world of living with a disability. Navigating insurance, ensuring access to the appropriate medications and doses, to simply figuring out ways to get to and from appointments, were all hurdles to clear. There was also a sense of loneliness.
“At first, I didn’t want to accept my disability,” said Keitt, “but when I did, I looked around and didn’t see anyone like me. I didn’t have anyone to talk to who could understand what I was going through.”
Keitt began to wonder if he felt this way, then surely there were others living with disabilities who felt that way too.
“I got to see both sides of life,” said Keitt. “From being a fit, active Marine to being disabled and not being able to do much of anything for myself. But I realized what I do have is a strong mindset, and there are many others out there in a similar situation who don’t have that mindset. And the resources available to us, I felt they just weren’t enough.”
The Power of Penn State
Not wanting to let anything hold him back, Keitt jumped on an opportunity to pursue a degree in business at Penn State Lehigh Valley after connecting with an admissions representative at a college fair.
While pursuing his degree and a concentration in marketing, Keitt continued to stay active both physically and on campus. By that point, he had learned how to drive again. He got involved in Lehigh Valley’s Business Club, Veterans Club, and the Campus Cycling Club, where he used a specialized handcycle to compete in races.
In addition to his active involvement on campus, Keitt also stayed active at the gym, working with personal trainers to maintain his physical fitness. Keitt found that the trainers weren’t necessarily equipped to answer specific questions or develop exercise routines that were wheelchair friendly.
“After rehabilitation, I wanted to continue my journey to independence and building strength,” said Keitt. “I had a personal trainer who tried to work with me, but he was uncomfortable not having the proper knowledge to assist me.”
Using his physical training background from the military, Keitt decided to begin developing his own workout routines, sharing them over social media. Upon receiving several messages from those in the disabled community asking him to develop programs for them, Keitt realized he could use his personal experience being wheelchair-bound to address what was becoming a very noticeable gap.
“After rehabilitation, I wanted to continue my journey to independence and building strength. I had a personal trainer who tried to work with me, but he was uncomfortable not having the proper knowledge to assist me.”
Building a Community
Keitt pitched the idea for ParaPer4mance, a web-based platform offering wheelchair-friendly workout routines to another professor of his at Lehigh Valley, Michael Krajsa. Krajsa, affectionately known to Keitt and many as “Big Mike,” taught marketing at Lehigh Valley and served as the faculty liaison to the Lehigh Valley LaunchBox up until his retirement in 2019.
Keitt had made an impression on Krajsa as a student early on. Krajsa recalls reading Keitt’s thoughts on leadership in papers he turned in for class, and his willingness to seize every opportunity presented to him as a student.
“He had this magnetic personality that just lit up the campus,” said Krajsa. “He was always going around getting to know the faculty, the community, and getting involved in student activities.”
“He had this magnetic personality that just lit up the campus. He was always going around getting to know the faculty, the community, and getting involved in student activities.”
True to his magnetism, Keitt had pulled in several of his fellow students to help in developing a business plan for ParaPer4mance. The plan laid out the problem and the solution: to address gaps in available resources for able-bodied individuals versus those with limited mobility via a digital platform. The goal would be to provide accessible, affordable fitness and wellness resources and a community where these individuals could connect to those resources and to one another.
Krajsa encouraged Keitt to take his plan and enter it in the Lehigh Valley Collegiate Business Pitch Summit. The competition, hosted by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA, allowed students from colleges and universities in the greater Lehigh Valley area to present their ideas and strategic business plans to local entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders.
Out of six competitors, Keitt took first place.
“Winning that competition gave me the confidence to begin pursuing other avenues and resources for starting my business,” said Keitt.
With the grant money from the pitch competition and with continued guidance from Ogden and Krajsa, Keitt applied and was accepted into the Lehigh Valley LaunchBox. This created a pipeline to additional resources like mentorship, incubator space, legal assistance through the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic, and access to a board of directors—many of whom are entrepreneurs themselves.
“Through the LaunchBox, I was able to build the business structure that I had envisioned,” said Keitt. “The motivation and creativity were there, but now I had the structure.”
“Through the LaunchBox, I was able to build the business structure that I had envisioned. The motivation and creativity were there, but now I had the structure.”
ParaPer4mance officially launched in 2019. The first video posted to the site went global with users accessing it from four different countries. For Keitt, it validated the need for this type of resource.
“I started ParaPer4mance based on that—my ability to bring resources and the knowledge and skills I learned from the military to be able to help people better their lives,” said Keitt.
Today, Keitt’s focus is on continuing to build ParaPer4mance’s community as well as resources in areas such as mental health and nutrition. The company is currently developing a mobile app to give users greater access to those resources.
“Before you can pick up a weight, or before you can go to work, you need to mentally feel good about yourself and you need to be the best version of yourself,” said Keitt. “So, our focus continues to be helping others to get in the right mindset and a critical part of that is having that community and support.”
For Keitt and for those who helped encourage him along the way, his current success is a testament to the network of resources available through Penn State.
“I have a saying that I share with all my students and it’s that, it’s not who you know, but who you let know you,” said Krajsa. “Once I understand your passions and goals, I’m the old guy who has years of experience and a network that I can connect you with. And even if we don’t have the resources on this campus, we have a network linking resources at all our campuses. That’s what Penn State is really good at, and Kenny is a perfect example of the impact that the Penn State community can have on a young man’s life and project trajectory.”
Invent Penn State is a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university-community collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.
Penn State Lehigh Valley provides a globally recognized degree in a small campus setting that integrates individualized teaching, research, and dynamic community outreach. With its convenient location in Center Valley, traditional students and adult learners can choose from many options including bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs, and access to 275 majors offered by Penn State.