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Diego Mariscal is the Founder, CEO, and Chief Disabled Officer behind the nonprofit startup 2Gether-International— directly supports entrepreneurs with disabilities. At the age of 26 he has already created Limitless Prepa Tec (a disability education program that benefits students in Monterrey Mexico), is a Paralympian, and has been recognized worldwide for his outstanding disability advocacy and entrepreneurship. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to speak to Diego on the phone and learn more about his career journey.
Often times we will have an idea of what we want our career to be one day. Did you always envision for yourself to be in a role that would create such positive impact and change?
No! I started this work because I was frustrated and pissed off and wanted to do something about it. Often times people ask me “what motivated you, and why are you so inspired”—when we look at the greatest moments in history, they happened because people were pissed off about something. The Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and almost all social change has come from people being really upset about the status quote and doing something about it— More than anything else, that’s what drives me. I want things to be better for the next generation of people. if I see a problem and I know I can solve the problem, solving it is my motivation.
People can dream about a vision, the reality is that social justice and advocacy work is hard. A vision, just a vision, isn’t going to be enough. This works is about being upset about a problem, about wanting to change the status quo, and doing something about it. It’s not just enough to be upset and have a vision, you have to actually do something.
What was it like to be the first individual with a disability to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit?
It was fine. I think a lot of those events tend to be overrated. I think it was impactful for the Summit participants and for citizens in India to see someone in a wheelchair, moving around by himself and having strong opinions. It's critical for more people with disabilities to participate to in events like this as a way to reduce stigma around disability. At the same time, I recognize that some of those events are political statements that serve international relations purposes rather than actually having “meat to the bone” for the participants.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
That was a tough question when I read it. People say I’ve accomplished so much, but I think I’ve just kind of lived my life. I think my biggest accomplishment is never giving up. I never, ever, ever give up, so I think that’s my biggest accomplishment.
Are there any moments of struggle you can recall during your career journey? How did you overcome them?
Lots, lots of struggles. I’ll tell you about one of the most significant ones. I came to the US for college, I went to American University. I was at American for two years, and then after two years I was dismissed from the University for poor academic performance because I was working the whole time on building this organization. People told me I wasn’t smart, that I wasn’t paying attention to school. Being dismissed from a university was a pretty painful experience, letting my parents down, it was pretty bad. Like I said, I never give up, so I thought to myself it doesn’t matter, I’m gonna work, I’m gonna still build this organization and this is gonna be successful. Those were some pretty hard times. I had to tutor for awhile, and I was living with a bunch of people in a one bedroom apartment so that I could make rent. Then I decided that I wanted to go back to school and so I applied to another school, George Washington University as a non-degree student. After a couple semesters I decided that I wanted to go back as an undergraduate to finish my degree. That was very difficult because Vocational Rehabilitation Services was paying for my school. When I was dismissed from American University, they didn’t pay for the last year and because of them not paying, I had $40,000 in debt. GW wouldn’t accept me because they wouldn’t accept the transcript because it wasn’t official. It was a very difficult process, I had to go to the Vice Provost Office and make a case. I spent hours and hours and hours talking to a lawyer. To your point, how did I overcome it? I think it was surrounding myself with people that cared about me a lot. I had one friend who would speak with me every single day and try to figure out how to solve this problem. I think it took us a year to actually get me back in school. That’s probably been the hardest challenge in my life.
Is there any wisdom or words of advice you’d like to impart on our members as they are setting out to find their career?
My one piece of advice is do things and then ask questions. I think a lot of people with disabilities, are afraid to do things. I think it’s better to do, and then figure it out later, or figure it out as you go. There’s a very famous quote by an entrepreneur, the founder of LinkedIn, that goes: “Entrepreneurship is like skydiving and trying to figure out the parachute as you fall.” That’s how I am. I do things, and then I figure out the systems later. One of my favorite quotes is: “Work the hustle, don’t let the hustle work you.” As people with disabilities, we hustle all the time. We hustle for Medicaid, we hustle for benefits, we hustle for so many other things. The reality is, our lives are ours and ours only, and if something isn’t working for us, the problem is in the system, it’s not on us. It’s about figuring out ways to work the system, as opposed to letting the system work you, is really important.
Thanks again to Diego for sharing his time and expertise with us! Click here if you’d like to learn more about his nonprofit.