Entrepreneurship’s Untapped Resource

Headshot of Diego Mariscal, smiling (State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

Diego Mariscal has been honing his entrepreneurial skills his entire life. He began developing resilience and innovative problem-solving from his earliest days. He’d be the first to tell you that doesn’t make him special, though. He just happens to be part of the world’s largest minority: people with disabilities.

“You can talk to any entrepreneur and I think the key quality that they’ll speak about — whatever endeavor it is — is resilience and being able to face challenges,” said Mariscal. “That resilience is innate to people with disabilities, because we live with that every single day, that constant battle of figuring out how you fit into a society that is not built to fit your needs.”

Mariscal is the founder of 2Gether International, a worldwide network of leaders with disabilities that seeks to reframe the way disabilities are thought of by those both with and without disabilities. In 2016, Forbes magazine named Mariscal one of the “30 under 30” leaders in social entrepreneurship.

“I always say entrepreneurship saved my life,” said Mariscal, who was born with cerebral palsy, “and I think it has the capacity to redefine the lives of many other people with disabilities.” But if society is to take advantage of the untapped potential of those with disabilities, he says, the obstacles to full participation by the disabled community must be overcome.

  • Access. “A lot of entrepreneurship ecosystems are not accessible to people with disabilities,” said Mariscal. Even entrepreneurship incubators in the U.S. that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said, are not fully equipped to welcome people with disabilities. Most do not have sign-language interpreters or captioned video resources.
  • A different kind of access. Mariscal says that in addition to basic accessibility, the entrepreneurship space lacks access to opportunities and capital for people with disabilities. “When you start talking about mentors and venture capital, many of them have never touched disability or invested in disability.” Mariscal this the “attitudinal obstacle.”
  • Confidence level. “People with disabilities tend to have low self-esteem because of the social stigma and the social pressures around disability,” said Mariscal. Disability Startup, a new program of 2Gether International, aims to address this through peer-to-peer mentoring and outreach, such as giving opportunities to entrepreneurs with disabilities to have contact with other entrepreneurs with disabilities who have been successful in their same field.

Mariscal believes the way people with disabilities are covered in the media makes a huge difference in both how they’re perceived and how they perceive themselves. “Instead of focusing on how inspirational someone with a disability is,” the media should focus on the political, social and economic contributions of the person with the disability. “Because that raises the bar, that says you’re not just an object of inspiration, you’re actually contributing.”

 “This notion of living with a disability can mean living with pride and using your disability as an asset rather than as an accommodation or something you have to be shameful about,” said Mariscal. “That is the guiding principle that has shaped my work.”